In Conversation with Jo Mazelis

In Conversation with Jo Mazelis

Jo Mazelis is the author of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. Her collection of stories, Diving Girls (Parthian, 2002), was short-listed for the Commonwealth ‘Best First Book’ and Wales Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian, 2005), was long-listed for Wales Book of the Year. Her stories and poetry have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in various anthologies and magazines, and translated into Danish. Her latest book is Significance (Seren, 2014).

Born and educated in Swansea, Jo returned to her hometown in 1991 after working in London for many years. During the 1980s she worked as a graphic designer, photographer and illustrator for the magazines City Limits, Women’s Review, Spare Rib, Undercurrents, Everywoman and New Dance.

Hello, Jo. What drew you to choose Arthur Machen’s ‘The Gift of Tongues’ as the piece that you would reinterpret for our new short story series? Was Machen a writer that you already knew well? Did you feel that you already had a relationship with his work?

I had a copy of Story I so when I heard about the commission I settled down, thinking I would read several stories in the book. However Machen’s story which was the first just sprang out at me and my version of it was forming in my mind within seconds.  Machen’s story is quite short and in some ways raises many more questions than it answers –mainly, why did the Reverend Thomas Beynon begin chanting the Christmas Preface in Latin?

The early part of Machen’s story is a sort of preamble about cases of various people speaking in languages they do not know – notably the servant girl who begins speaking Hebrew as she has heard it recited by the old scholar she works for. So that was my answer – Beynon heard it from his serving girl. Therefore she had to be Roman Catholic and very quickly after checking that the dates matched I came upon the idea that she was a young Irish girl who had fled Ireland following the devastation of the Potato Famine.  After doing some research it made sense that a displaced person like that would be terribly lonely and would suffer from sleepless nights and feelings of alienation.  As the character’s voice began to take shape it seemed obvious that she was far more intelligent than anyone assumed but she had to go along with the idea that she was a just an ignorant girl – eventually this begins to anger her especially as the Reverend doesn’t seem to hear a word she says.

I’d just written a couple of gothic/ghost stories for books by Honno and Parthian so the Machen seemed a perfect fit for me. ‘Word Made Flesh’ was one of those stories that just seemed to flow out of me and was a pleasure to write – which is quite rare. I actually thought about continuing with the story and making it a short novel – who knows I may yet.

Reinterpreting someone else’s story feels like quite a personal thing to do. Do you feel that by engaging with a writer in this way, that you maybe grow to understand their creative impulses more, and perhaps their artistic intentions too?

That’s an interesting question and not something I’d considered, really. Maybe because he was so far removed from me – he was man born in 1863, I was a woman born about a hundred years later. I think I would have to read a great deal more of Machen’s work in order to understand him better. Certainly the tone of his story is reminiscent of a great many 19th century stories and novels where a narrator retells a mystery or horror at one remove – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and also Wuthering Heights both tell stories in this way. That technique of storytelling reminds me of the urban myths I used to hear when I was around 13 or 14 which always happened ‘to a neighbour of their brother’s friend in Neath or on the way home from Llanelli’. The stories of the vanishing hitchhiker or ‘The Hook’ were terrifying because of the nearness of the events or so it seemed. Machen’s story seems to echo an oral storytelling tradition while mine is character led.

Did the challenge of reinterpreting a story by one of Wales’ most lauded authors seem daunting in any way? And how did you find the challenge of rewriting a story that was written almost a hundred years ago? Had you written much historical-set fiction before?

I hate to say this but I’m pretty sure this was the first story anyone had ever commissioned me to write so my mood of elation effectively swept away any feelings of trepidation I might have had. Besides which the business of rewriting the works of dead authors is becoming increasingly common so if adding sequels or prequels was once daunting it no longer seems that way. I think that because the brief was for a reinterpretation rather than a continuation of Machen’s work it allowed me to make my own mark on it. I think it would be daunting to write a sequel to an author with a distinct style – Jane Austen for example – without appearing to caricature the original. With Machen’s ‘Gift of Tongues’ there were so many ways to go with a reinterpretation, but unusually, unlike in his other work he does not make the supernatural a particular part of the story – rather he hints at psychology with the final words of the story when he describes the Reverend overhearing the Mass with ‘exterior horror and interior love’. I think a contemporary audience expects sex rather than religion to create such a schizophrenic reaction in someone who is meant to be a man of the cloth.

One of the things that I admire most about ‘Word Made Flesh’ is the way that you have decided to show the story from a different angle, rather than say retelling it in a contemporary setting. It serves to open up a real dialogue with the original work – serving as it does, to introduce the perspective of a twenty-first century female writer into what is originally a rather masculine feeling work of the early twentieth century. It almost feels as though you are taking the opportunity to have a word in Machen’s ear and say… hang on a minute, I think the story would have been much more like this! Would I be right in thinking that this was part of your intent?

I think it was not so much me whispering in Machen’s ear as the character herself – for some reason she came through loud and clear. She was impatient too; she’d been waiting to say her piece for a long time.

I met a psychic when I was quite young who told me I had ‘the power’ too – that I was a seer. I alternate these days between thinking ‘yes, that’s right, I know things…’ then seeing it as a load of stupid and distracting rubbish. Maybe it’s easier to perceive the work of the subconscious as from another dimension or spiritual plane than to see it as inherent.

Besides, it would have been hard to tell Machen’s story in a contemporary setting because such an event would not be viewed with the same gravitas. When contemporary audiences read Machen they bring a 21st century sensibility, along with over a hundred years of culture – when I created my story I was borne along by the protofeminist fury of Jane Eyre, the creepiness of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, the terror of Psycho, the awkward weirdness of Les Diaboliques, Sam Peckinpah’s blood, the intimacy of Don’t Look Now and The Piano, Angela Carter and Ian McEwan and WG Sebald to name but a few. What I mean is that it’s impossible to unknow things. I wanted to introduce the problems of sex into this story – or at least erotic possibility.  On a freezing cold night it seems a remarkably strange taboo that stops two animals from huddling together for warmth. Society sets them apart, he is the master, she is the servant, he has power and prestige, she is no one. He has nightmares about a cold and barren afterlife that are soothed by her secret presence in his bed. Does she mean to do him harm? Has she bewitched him? I heard a play on the radio years ago called Typhoid Mary – Mary was a real woman who was a typhoid carrier – she worked as a cook and the family who employed her got sick with typhoid. It struck me that there was a peculiar cruelty to being a woman like that who causes harm but completely accidentally. I think it’s an interesting notion that Molly should be this force who changes things and who is yet powerless – I think it was that idea that made me think I should continue with the story.

One of your stories is featured in Volume II of Dai Smith’s Story collection and indeed, until recently you have been mostly known as a short story writer. How did you find the transition to novel writing for your third book, Significance?

One of the huge factors that stopped me from writing a novel was time. For the first eighteen years of my writing life I was a single parent either working or studying full time or more often doing both. Like Raymond Carver I wrote stories because I could fit them into little chunks of time, so I might write a bit on the bus, or during the coffee break at work, or at the launderette. I tried to write longer things that way but it was hard to keep focus – if you only have fifteen minutes you can’t review the last hundred pages you wrote.

That changed about eight years ago, so I began Significance and for the first time I could write for long periods without interruption. Significance is about the fourth or fifth novel I’ve started. It took about three or four years to write and then about the same period to get published – so nearly eight years between starting the book to seeing it in print – that’s a huge chunk of anyone’s life.

One of the things that I admire about Significance is the way that it takes the thriller genre and uses it to explore its own literary/ philosophical investigations. Could you maybe tell us a little about the intention behind subverting genre fiction in this way?

I always intended the book to be a literary novel about the process of deciphering information – hence the title Significance. Any work of fiction demands a degree of detection on the part of the reader and the setting up of clues on the part of the writer regardless of whether a crime is part of the plot. However, pure ‘genre’ writing; the sort that sees serial killers killing until they are caught, that is written to entertain I always find deeply troubling and so I wanted to refuse to tie up everything neatly at the end. I wanted to bring what I knew of real murders of this sort to the literary novel and one of the biggest differences I could contribute to this was to invest the murder victim with far more life (and words) than she normally receives. Genre writing tends to use particular codes and conventions that lead the reader in conventional ways so that when that woman goes out to investigate the noise outside her house they know that this is going to be victim number four. But prior to her death the woman is given only a cameo – we saw her come home from her job at a school, saw her drop her kids at their dad’s, saw her be kind to the beggar on the street corner – so we figure she is blameless, she is nice, we don’t want her to be become victim four but someone has to…

Three girls were murdered on their way home from the Top Rank in Swansea in the 70s – I had gone to the same disco on the same nights. The girls were the same age as I was. Those girls weren’t ciphers or plot devices, they had fully rounded lives – fate put them in the path of a killer. The night two of the girls died my friend and I were kerb crawled by a very persistent man in a white car – some reports said the girls were last seen getting into a white car.

One of the victims of Fred West was briefly at the same school as me – I look at her picture and I can imagine her in the same corridors and classrooms as me, staring out of the same windows, and like me watching the London train escaping and wishing she was on it.

During the period when the Yorkshire Ripper was at large his fifth victim was described in some tabloid newspapers as ‘the first innocent victim’ as she hadn’t been a prostitute – it’s horrific that the other women who died are somehow dismissed – none of them deserved to die in such appalling circumstances.

It struck me a while ago that some of the most successful TV Series are all about murder – True Detective, The Killing, The Bridge, Broadchurch, Hinterland – there’s a heap of killing in Breaking Bad but it’s killing with an aim – to punish, to silence, to control, to revenge, to steal. Sometimes I think that serious drama without a murder or two must be a bit like what a book without pictures was for Alice – pointless. These were some of the things I was trying to explore in Significance – but then it is also a novel about how people find value in their lives – that was a really important part of the book and should act as a counterpoint to the bad things that happen.

You are also a photographer and worked as graphic designer, photographer and illustrator on such magazines as City Limits, Women’s Review and Spare Rib in London during the 1980s. Could you tell us a little about the work you did in those days and how you made the transition from that line of work to your highly praised début collection, Diving Girls?

It’s hard to answer that question without at least attributing some of those states of being, ‘photographer’, ‘illustrator’ as accidents or compromises or temporary measures, just as ‘cleaner’ or ‘library assistant’ or ‘life model’ or ‘barmaid’ were. I mean I suppose that I was never one thing – I didn’t meet with the career advisor at school, pick a career, pass some exams and hey presto I was that thing. I wound up at Art College at 18 because I’d left school without A levels and I could draw a bit. I don’t think I lacked intelligence but after being bullied constantly at the comprehensive I was sent to in Swansea it was unlikely I would have got on academically – it’s hard to concentrate when some of your school chums have a habit of punching you in the head. I was unhappy at home, I was mostly in a state of high alert at school, and the streets and parks and playing fields weren’t terror-free either. Somehow I managed to get into Art College but that went wrong and after a year I was back to having no qualifications, no skills, no direction and not much hope about my future. I’d also managed to absorb the idea that I was stupid, but by chance I got a job that involved sitting on my own in a tiny office with nothing to do so I began to read a great deal. After that in 1976 I went to work in a hotel in Aberystwyth and spent that incredible summer reading Plath’s ‘Letters Home’ and going to house parties in and around Aber. Everything I do has a chequered path – nothing was really planned – I ended up going to London and doing evening classes in order to get the A levels I needed to get into college, then I began a course in Visual Communication and started to volunteer to do graphics on magazines.

All through these years I was writing – mostly it was poetry – and reading voraciously. Usually I was working full time and studying part time, or I was studying full-time and working part time. I never had the luxury of time and with photography in particular my work was severely limited by a lack of money for film and development costs.

So there is no transition; there is only me, I try to do everything to the best of my ability, I try to paper over the cracks in my life and I try not to get punched in the head either figuratively or actually.

Do you find many similarities between photography and fiction? You took the cover photo for Significance, for instance. What was the thinking behind that shot? Presumably you were looking to create a certain effect in the mind of both your readership and your potential readership?

Cover image for her own novel, Significance, by Jo Mazelis
Cover image for her own novel, Significance, by Jo Mazelis

Although I took the photo that is on the cover of Significance using that image wasn’t my decision. People always assume that writers have a lot more control over these things that they actually do. The picture was actually taken for a promotional video for a band called Dead Surf Country and the girl pictured was the lead singer.

I didn’t choose the image on the cover of my first book either – that was my publisher’s decision and in that instance I wrote a story based on the photo because before that there was no relationship between the image and the book. Long before Diving Girls came out Honno wanted to publish a collection of my stories (many of the stories subsequently appeared in Diving Girls) so I took a photograph of a number of objects laid out to suggest the portmanteau nature of a collection of stories. Honno didn’t get the grant to publish my book but as they’d loved the photo they asked permission to use it for their anthology ‘Power’ – this was a small consolation at the time.


What was one of your first writing successes?

The first story I had accepted for publication was called ‘Kisses’. It’s original title was ‘Swansea Kisses’ – which was meant to reference a ‘Glasgow Kiss’ – a Glasgow kiss – for those not in the know, is an ironic name as it refers to a head butt.

My story was a factual account describing how I got attacked and badly beaten by two other girls on a school trip to Italy when I was a couple days from my 16th birthday. Happy birthday sweet sixteen indeed! I published it under a pseudonym though I don’t really know why – I was still afraid of something I suppose.

I was actually in bed when the attack happened, one girl just dragged me out of bed by my hair and began kneeing me in the face, punching and kicking me. I didn’t even have a chance to defend myself.

No one took me to the doctor after the attack, I didn’t get trauma counselling or compensation of any sort. It wasn’t reported so no police or any legal bodies were involved, and no one informed my parents.

Some people who’ve read my work seem to imagine that when I write about characters behaving badly I am revealing something about me – it couldn’t be further from the truth – I write to try to discover what sort of self-justifications people create in order to act in a self interested way regardless of the damage done to others.

Are there any authors – or indeed photographers or artists – that have exerted an especially profound influence on you, do you think?

One of the most profound influences on me as a writer is Flannery O’Connor. I read her collection Everything that Rises Must Converge in 1975 while working in a tiny one room office in Sketty. During the same period I read short stories by DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy, and the Country Girls trilogy of novels by Edna O’Brian, then a bit later Ian McEwan’s First Love, Last Rites and everything by Richard Brautigan. What I learned from O’Connor was that identification with any character was unnecessary; no one has to be sympathetic; human beings can all be pretty flawed and self serving. What I completely missed in my reading of O’Connor was her Catholic faith – I took her for an atheist with a profound distaste for the hypocrisy of organised religion.

As I wasn’t at university and didn’t do A levels I read in a completely free way coming across books and authors entirely by chance – or if one book was mentioned or quoted in something I was reading I might seek that out. I would go to bookstores and spend hours browsing, I never read a single review, never went to book signings or readings, I took no one’s advice or recommendation. I came across Maxim Gorky’s My Childhood and My Apprentice this way. Then I read ‘Women and Madness’ by Phylis Chesler. Then I might have read something a bit silly about poltergeists and automatic writing. Then Philip Larkin’s ‘High Windows’ then The Descent Of Woman by Elaine Morgan, then Marge Piercy’s Woman on the edge of time. Then some Saki and Herman Hesse,  then Night by Elie Wiesel which is about Auschwitz, and Hiroshima by John Hersey. Another major influence has been Sylvia Plath – the poetry and also The Bell Jar which has some lovely dry sarcasm in it – a way of looking at the world without flinching – which was unusual for female writers. Her poetry is breathtaking – especially those recordings of her reading Lady Lazurus and Daddy – hearing those was like sending an electric shock through my brain. On the other hand she was so conventional in many ways – ugh, those photos of her in white gloves and horrible hats looking so smug. The Letters Home are almost relentlessly gushing and cheesy. In some ways this extreme duality of Plath’s is the perfect summation of women’s predicament in the 1950s and beyond. No wonder women went mad, no wonder they killed themselves – Plath, then Assia Wevill, then Anne Sexton and also Diane Arbus and Francesca Woodman. It’s hard to unpick the life from the work, from the death, from the poems, the photos. Some people claim that too much interest and emphasis on what is ugly and evil and cruel will destroy the onlooker, but how can one look away and pretend terrible things don’t happen? There is a fine line between ignorance and knowledge; between living in cloudcuckoo land and the real world.

Finally, what next? Is there another book in the works?

Seren plan to bring out a collection of my stories in spring of 2016 and a second novel in 2017. The stories are for the most part written so I’m mainly working on a second novel now. It’s a historical book and it’s set in Wales so it’s very different from Significance. There are other projects I’d like to pursue – for example I started experimenting with film a few years ago – in particular I’d like to explore film and memory, but time and money are both in extremely limited supply so I’m not sure if it’s possible really.


You can read Jo’s story for Wales Arts Review ‘Word Made Flesh’ here.

And our review of Significance can be found here.