A Ten Question Interview With The Artist… Jo Mazelis

Why do you write?

When I started I think it was a way of pinning down my imagination and making it permanent. Then I suppose I continued because I had a little success, then I had a book published and so it seemed there had to be another and another. So now it’s become part of my identity as well as a habit. I feel depressed on days when I don’t write, but whether that is because of the act of writing itself or some other superstitious or psychological factor I don’t know.

What books do you read?

At present I’m reading a novel by Elena Ferrante ‘Days of Abandonment’ as I had heard so much about her – actually if I’d come across this novel knowing nothing about it, the cover would have put me off, but the book is dark and serious and full of brave, if not brazen honesty. I’m also reading ‘Madness Explained’ by Richard P. Bentall, Ted Hughes’ ‘Selected Poems’ and ‘Tollund Man: Gift to the Gods’. I think this is a representative sampling of my reading over the years in that it’s 50% non-fiction, 25 % poetry and 25% fiction. I love good non-fiction; everything from Sebastian Junger’s ‘The Perfect Storm’ to Janet Todd’s ‘Gender, Art and Death’ to Geoff Dyer’s ‘The Ongoing Moment’ and ‘Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare’ by John Toohey. A book I go back to again and again is Ruth Padel’s ’52 Ways of looking at a poem’ which is just an inspiration and a pleasure.

What inspires you?

I get inspired by books, by films, by art, by nature, by events in the world, by memories and dreams and nightmares. I have always liked photographs, when I look at a documentary photograph for example I find I can spend quite a long time studying every element. I started doing this when I was fairly young without really knowing why. Later I began to take photographs, so I looked at even more pictures as a way of learning what worked and why, how light, particularly with black and white images, made a huge difference. I was commissioned once by the ecological magazine ‘Undercurrents’ to photograph the first ‘Stop the City’ demonstration in the City of London and was warned there might be trouble. I decided to dress like a secretary that day to avoid the chances of getting arrested but it backfired as a lot of the protestors thought I was with the police. Stupid really, as if I’d been with the police I would have dressed like the demonstrators. So I guess all sorts of experiences inspire me and the pictures I have taken refuel memory.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?

From the age of 15 I wanted to be a poet. This seemed to me a state of being that might be reached by osmosis. Then I understood that poets had gone to University, that poets were for the most part not people like me who’d dropped out of Art College. Actually I wrote quite a bit of poetry anyway, especially in the late 70s when I lived in mid-Wales but I never sent it anywhere or shared it with anyone apart from very close and tolerant friends. The poems I wrote in mid-Wales used a lot of nature in their imagery, weather and landscape, sheep and herons, rivers and stones. Then I moved to London and the poetry stopped immediately. My mother died very soon after I moved to Stoke Newington and I tried to write poems about her but nothing would come, so perhaps it was more the loss of my mother than London that was stopping me. I began to write fiction as a compromise really.

How do you deal with rejection?

This is something you have to learn to deal with. You cannot let it define you or destroy you. I prefer rejection letters that say almost nothing or indicate they might be interested in seeing other different work. As a rule rejection is best dealt with by moving onto the next submission or project. But I do still get upset and feel like a failure and I ask myself why I keep trying. It is really hard. I think people imagine that having published one poem, or one book, or four books, a writer has arrived at a place where it is no longer a struggle to get published or garner some interest or sales, but that hasn’t been my experience.

Who are some writers you admire?

That list is pretty endless: I like Sharon Olds and Ian McEwan, Joan Didion and Donna Tartt and Edna O’Brien. Rick Moody and Deborah Levy and Paul Auster. There are many more…

Is writing the only artistic medium you do?

I went to Art College but I’ve lapsed in terms of drawing and painting though I still pursue photography. I was thinking only this morning that I should try to do more painting, but it’s one of those things that you get quite rusty at if you don’t do it every day, so I know it will be dispiriting to begin again. About eight years ago I was writing in the early mornings, then doing a very small painting every evening. When I say small, I mean 3 inches square. I had a set of rules that the little paintings were just produced out of my head, I mean not drawn from life or any source like a photograph. Then I began to break my own rules and the pictures got bigger and I copied elements from photographs and I began to ask myself what on earth these were for? What was the point? But I kept at it for nearly two years. I think a couple of these were shown at the Glynn Vivian Summer Open Exhibition in different years, and sometimes I think, what can I do with these? I never come up with any answers to that.

What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?

Get on with it. Give yourself permission to fail.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Get on with it. Give yourself permission to fail. Like the line from Tennyson, ‘Tis Better To Have Loved And Lost’ I believe it’s better to have tried and failed than silenced yourself because of fear. And read… then read some more. Be fully alive. Notice things. Carry a notebook and pen or other means of recording ideas, descriptions, overheard conversations anything that strikes a chord.

What is your writing process?

I write everything longhand. I write in the morning and into the afternoon. Never at night, never with a drink in my hand. I try to avoid anything that will distract me before and once I’ve begun. So Facebook, emails, the phone, the post and other people have to be put off and of course this isn’t always possible. I try to take my notebook with me wherever I am so that if I have an idea about something I can write it down. I tend to write poetry to express the things which can’t be expressed by any other means. Today I wrote a poem about a funnel web spider, which I saw and photographed yesterday. It’s not a great poem, more of an exercise in note taking and extemporising; I may work on it as a poem, or it may scuttle sideways into a story.

jo mazelis pic

Jo Mazelis is an award winning novelist, short story writer, poet and photographer who was born in Swansea, where she currently lives. Her first book Diving Girls was shortlisted for Commonwealth Best First Book. Her stories have appeared in many publications and several have been broadcast on Radio Four. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry Wales, Screech Owl and I am not a Silent Poet amongst other places. Her debut novel Significance won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015. Her latest book is a collection of short stories, Ritual, 1969.

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