Ritual, 1969 | An interview with Jo Mazelis

Our Marketing Officer Rosie Johns talks to Jo Mazelis about her new short story collection, Ritual, 1969, which is newly available.

Have you got a burning question of your own you would like to ask Jo? Or would you like your copy of Ritual, 1969 signed? If so, come to John Smith’s bookshop, Swansea, this Thursday for the book launch. This event is free to attend, all are welcome, and refreshments will be provided. Find more details here.

Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis

What are little girls made of? What will they become? Will they run away to the circus or become dressmakers, teachers or servants? From the playground to adulthood the path is beset with misunderstandings, missed dates and hidden traps for the unwary.
This darkly gothic collection of stories explores the unsettling borderland between reality and the supernatural. Ranging from early twentieth-century France to 1960s South Wales and contemporary Europe, Jo Mazelis’ singular vision and poetic language creates characters caught up in events and feelings they do not fully understand or control, giving the book its uncanny focus. Not all is as it seems in a world where first impressions may only conceal disguises and false trails – and there’s no going back.
A thrilling third collection from the author of Jerwood Award winning novel Significance.

Your novel Significance was set in France while many of the stories in Ritual, 1969 are located in Wales. As a Welsh writer, do you see any importance in the issues of place and identity?

I think with Significance it had to be set abroad because I wanted to explore ideas about escape and rebirth as a starting point. The same novel could, I suppose, have been set in a small coastal town in Wales, but it just wouldn’t have been the same – I mean in the sense of my imaginative process. It had to be in an unfamiliar territory, yet one that is perceived as innocent and safe.

The stories in Ritual, 1969 weren’t planned or written as a collection – therefore the fact that so many are set in Wales is probably due to my thinking and experiences over the last twelve years or so. This also raises the question of whether Welsh writers should only write about Wales and the Welsh. The MA I did many years ago was ‘Writing the Celtic Archipelago’ and involved a sort of comparative study of the 20th century literature of small nations; from Wales to Éire, Northern Ireland and Scotland. In one tutorial I raised the issue of Muriel Spark as she wasn’t included in the course and was firmly told that she was not a Scottish writer. The argument was that she didn’t write about Scotland or live there, which I have always found rather puzzling. Then very recently I read Ian Rankin’s introduction to Spark’s novel Symposium and his first words were, ‘Muriel Spark was the greatest Scottish novelist of modern times’.  He goes on to say that although she lived abroad, ‘her roots are evident in everything she wrote.’ Aside from feeling vindicated after almost twenty years, I think his words make clear something I have always believed, namely that my roots inform everything I write.

The period when these stories were written also coincides with my travelling all over Wales for a variety of reasons, so the landscape figures directly as a place of reality and imagination. I also made a sort of conscious effort to travel imaginatively through time, so that the stories are set in different periods as well as different locations.

Ritual, 1969 contains stories that are often given hauntingly uncertain endings. What made you choose to give the reader so much room for interpretation?
The writer Paul Auster said, ‘The one thing I do in all my books is to leave enough room in the prose for the reader to inhabit it’. I suppose I must do the same but unconsciously. Saying that it seems almost deliberately vague or evasive to attribute any aspect of writing to the unconscious because it suggests that what the writer is producing is a stream of consciousness or work that is unmediated or without art or craft, but this is my experience.

When I write I don’t think about any potential or ideal reader and very often I have no idea where a story is going. It is a process of discovery for me as much as for the reader. When I first began seriously writing stories in 1987 I had not studied literature or creative writing beyond GCSE as I had gone to Art College not university. I had however read a great deal, but I think because I was essentially self-taught, I tended to doubt myself and worried that ‘real’ writers would not work in the same way as me. ‘Real’ writers would have the whole thing mapped out and they wouldn’t rely on intuition or the unconscious. I later read something John Fowles said about his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman; how he had a recurring image during the autumn of 1966 of ‘A woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea’ and he explained that he wrote the book to discover her story. It was this and other things a broad range of writers said which made me realise I was not unique in my approach and that was reassuring.

It has often been my experience that I don’t notice the underlying themes of my stories until after publication. It is only then that my later university education in literature seems to kick in and I can begin to analyse my work more like an academic. I realise that very often my fiction can be read on two levels, one which is simply the plot and characters, and the other which is connected to philosophy, politics, myth and culture. So the story ‘A Bird Becomes a Stone’ could be read as a crime mystery. Actually it’s a story whose title I changed several times and the other titles were far more prosaic. At the point I changed the title for the third or fourth time I thought I was being almost flippantly artful, but later I realised that the new title with a living thing, a bird, changing into a dead thing, a stone actually was the key to the story’s meaning. This was not just in the sense that something dies, but it also speaks to the whole process of art – a bird carved out of a stone, or a film of a bird or a poem will outlive the bird itself. Does this mean that a carved representation is somehow more important than the living creature?

A similar question is evident below the surface in ‘The Flower Maker’ a story set during a period of war and turmoil concerning a displaced woman who makes and sells artificial flowers from scraps of silk and satin in order to survive. Art and what should be sacrificed for it emerges in story after story, whether it is poetry or circus performance or film or photography or novels. If the endings to my stories are enigmatic then perhaps it’s because I can’t and won’t answer that question.

There are many female characters who seem to be struggling for survival and against alienation throughout the collection. Did the diversity of female characters and experiences in these stories appear with a conscious plan in mind?
As with my other collections of short fiction, these stories were written over a fairly long period of time – some were created as far back as 2003, others as late as December 2015, so there was no guiding principle as such, no sense of any relationship between them in terms of a book. Penny Thomas, my editor at Seren was really helpful in selecting these from the rather larger group of stories I presented her with, thus helping the book to become a cohesive whole. I think the effect of this is that the stories speak to one another; though clearly I was also at different times experimenting with the idea of linked stories.

If these stories have a common theme then I think it might be that they expose gender as an artificial construct, so much so that it almost seems as if all of the female characters are ‘performing femininity’ rather that behaving naturally or instinctively. In this sense there is once again a dichotomy between the false and the real, the surface and what lies beneath; between art and nature, dreams and reality.

In my earlier short story collections Diving Girls and Circle Games there were far more stories about men and their particular perspectives  –  I was interested in ideas about patriarchy and men’s internalised view of their ‘natural’ superiority, so these characters were often white, middle-class Englishmen. Of course you can’t generalise about anyone on account of their gender, race, class or religion, and it was fairly hard to get inside the head of some of these male characters, especially at moments when they were acting badly, then performing mental tricks of self-justification, but these stories were an important aspect of my feminism because they interrogated power itself at a micro-level. Having said that I also wanted to interrogate or dispel some myths, for example those to do with a relationship between a lecturer and a student (who is over the age of eighteen) as I felt that such a relationship would not be simply about a predator and his victim. It seemed important that the female character has to have some degree of free will, that she is responsible for her own choices.  Just as he is.

I suppose in some ways I am exploring the limits of knowledge and how none of us can really understand how it feels to be someone else, or why people do the things they do whether for good or ill. In the story ‘Word Made Flesh’ which was commissioned by Wales Arts Review, a young Irish woman is never listened to. Because no one knows her tragic story she grows increasingly lonely and alienated and cannot sleep at night – so in this story it’s a case of important knowledge not withheld but ignored.

These themes about knowledge also appear in the stories about teenage girls and children, recurring again and again in different guises, whether it is a poem that never gets discussed, or the secrets and/or fantasies of many of the characters. It could be argued that a lot of these characters are trying to live their lives according to the wrong script – which is the case in ‘Whose Story Is This Anyway’ and ‘The Murder Stone’. One of the questions I am asking is, why are people so deceived and so enduringly self-deceiving? Why do so many women feel so self-conscious about their imperfections, so eager to construct their image based on artificial and/or idealised figures whether these are dolls or glamorous female celebrities?

The two epigraphs at the start of the book by William Blake and Mary Wollstonecraft are there as lodestones to the stories’ meaning, but were added long after most of the stories were written.  One addresses the issue of corrupted beauty and nature, the other the issue of truth with particular regard to education and these themes are revisited in many of the stories.

Which character was the hardest to bring to life, and why?
Characters either come to life or they don’t. I tend not to think of them as separate entities from the story itself – they are woven in, creating a tapestry, rather than appliquéd on. Or perhaps instead of using a metaphor which employs a traditionally female art form I might say that the idea for a story appears in my mind like a block of marble. I chip away at it to reveal the figures and the narrative that is locked in the stone.

I wish I could give a simple answer to this question but after writing fiction for so long I have acquired something I learned about via Flannery O’Connor, namely ‘the habit of art’. I began to read the stories of Flannery O’Connor in 1975, then in 1988, when I began to steadfastly write, I bought ‘Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose’ which is a collection of her non-fiction work. O’Connor has been a huge and enduring influence on my short stories making me wonder some time ago if the notion of Southern Gothic couldn’t be extended to absorb Southern Welsh Gothic. Strangely, many years ago I bought a rare hardcover 1st edition of a Flannery O’Connor novel for 50p. I was exceedingly poor for many years, in debt and fear and worry constantly which is a miserable way to live. Then in an idle moment I looked up the value of this particular O’Connor novel and found it was worth a lot of money – I had a brief and dizzy moment of thinking that Flannery had saved me, that this was fate that it was her book not any other. There was only one problem, the copy I possessed had no dust jacket and this meant it was virtually worthless. So if there is a lesson to be learned from that it is that an author’s worth is in their words, not in any abstract artefact. Though the story might have had a more rewarding and uncanny ending had I sold the book for thousands.

To return to the question, I think if a character fails to come to life then the story is a failure and I abandon it. I’ve got a lot of abandoned stories; some might be worthy of resuscitation, others are beyond hope. I think the cause of the half-written stories is usually lack of time – I find I can’t begin a story then pick up the thread weeks later, the original impulse or train of thought has gone. Sometimes a story will just emerge fully formed and my pen can barely keep pace with my mind – but that is a fairly rare occurrence and it hasn’t happened for a couple of years.

One of the recurring themes in this collection seems to be the idea that the journey towards womanhood is fractured and complicated. Where did your focus on this theme stem from?
This is complicated – in part it was due to the fact I was researching the late sixties and early seventies for another novel. This research was focused on the general history of the period but also specifically Swansea where I grew up. I have also been working on several autobiographical pieces for years now, though nothing so organised as a full length book, though I did at one point think about putting all of these together and calling it ‘Experiments in Autobiography: a Sampler’. One of these memoir pieces was published in New Welsh Review in 2015 as ‘The Girl in Red Boots’ – other pieces have appeared in non-fiction anthologies published by Honno, Parthian and Pandora, and in the online journal, Wales Arts Review.

One of these pieces was about an unforgettable and terrible event that occurred in the early seventies. This was brought vividly back to life in 2003 when the identity of a serial killer who murdered three girls in the Swansea area was discovered using DNA. I had been at the same nightclub on the same Saturday as the murdered girls. My friend and I were a similar age; we were probably dressed in similar clothes, may have danced next to those girls. I always think it could have been me and my friend – we were just lucky, unlike them.

Because of this autobiographical writing I was thinking very deeply about the 60s and 70s time the news broke about Jimmy Savile and his crimes. I think it is almost impossible to make people understand how very different things were up until the 1990s. Indeed it was hard for me to remember or perhaps trust my memory about the period: during my research I found that news stories in the local and national papers that were quite mind-boggling; there was a man who had battered his wife to death who was given a suspended sentence from a sympathetic judge because it was said the woman nagged him, while a young man was sent to prison for two years for possession of a very trifling amount of cannabis, and in a report about a school teacher having a relationship with one of his pupils the girl was referred to as a ‘Lolita’, the implication being that this teenager had tempted a ‘good and respectable family man’.

The other source for a lot of the 1969 stories were several books by Peter and Iona Opie which confirmed everything I remembered about The Levitation Game but also rhymes and games I had forgotten. From them I found the quite remarkable fact that The Levitation Game was first recorded in the seventeenth century. These games, and the lore of the playground, were passed on through generations of children, were not part of the taught curriculum and are for the most part left behind in childhood. I think, though it’s hard to be certain, that finally, under pressure from health and safety, television, smart phones and the greatly curtailed freedom of children to ‘go out and play’ they are now disappearing.

I think as a woman it is easier for me to understand how female lives can be fragmented, but that doesn’t mean that men’s aren’t also – or at least some men’s. I certainly found my early life to be difficult, both at home, at school and at Art College aged eighteen – the last of these was probably the worst but perhaps only because everything that happened before came to a head at that point. So at nineteen, after one year of college, my education stopped and I worked for years and years in a variety of low paid jobs as a waitress, chambermaid, shop assistant, barmaid and library assistant. I had no sense of any future, hardly any useful qualifications, no A levels, no confidence, seemingly no hope. I had also lived through a variety of personal tragedies, terrible experiences and other disturbing and often inexplicable events. So the idea of a fragmented life is very familiar to me.

You can purchase your copy of Ritual, 1969 direct from our website, or get your copy at the John Smith’s launch event, 21 April, 12:00-2:00pm.



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