Win a copy of Significance, Jo Mazelis’ Jerwood Prize-winning novel

Win a copy of Significance Jo Mazelis Jerwood Prize-winning novel

Enter our giveaway to win a copy of Jo Mazelis’ award-winning novel, Significance.

To enter, simply sign up to the Seren newsletter before 1st March:
https://www.serenbooks.com/newsletter/signup

Significance giveaway Jo Mazelis

Significance was a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winner, 2015. Up for grabs in this giveaway is a copy of the new edition of the book, printed to commemorate the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered announcement.

About Significance:
Lucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but she’s only got as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his handsome assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation, the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance.
Lucy’s death, like a stone thrown into a pool, sends out far-reaching ripples, altering the lives of people who never knew her as well as those of her loved ones back home.

Quite unlike any literary crime novel you will have read before, Significance takes the chance encounters of Lucy Swann’s last days and examines the characters she meets so fleetingly in unnerving detail. This is a murder mystery where the murder remains backstage, overshadowed by the many intermingling lives Lucy has brushed so briefly against.

 

The winner of this giveaway will be chosen at random from all our email subscribers on 1st March 2017, so make sure you sign up to Seren News before this deadline to be in with a chance of winning.

Feeling generous? Why not invite your friends to enter, by signing up using the link below:
http://serenbooks.com/newsletter/signup

 

Win a signed and numbered copy of Ritual, 1969

win a copy of ritual, 1969 by jo mazelis

Enter our giveaway to win a signed and numbered copy of Ritual, 1969, the haunting new collection of short stories by Jo Mazelis!

To enter, simply sign up to the Seren newsletter before 1st June:
https://www.serenbooks.com/newsletter/signup

win a copy of ritual, 1969

Ritual, 1969 is a darkly gothic collection of stories by Jerwood Prize-winner Jo Mazelis that 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.

The winner will be chosen at random from all our email newsletter subscribers on 1st June 2016, so if you haven’t already, hurry and sign up for our newsletter before the end of the month if you want it to be you!

 

Ritual, 1969 | An interview with Jo Mazelis

Ritual, 1969 Jo Mazelis interview

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.

 

 

Short Story of the Month | ‘A Bird Becomes A Stone’ by Jo Mazelis

Our January Short Story of the Month, still available to read, is ‘A Bird Becomes A Stone’ by Jo Mazelis, which features in her beautiful new collection Ritual, 1969, due to be published April 2016.

A Bird Becomes A Stone from Ritual, 1969 by Jo Mazelis

This, her third collection, welcomes you to a darkly disquieting world of make-believe and performance, where nothing is quite as it seems and first impressions may only lead to further disguises and false trails. Twins, circus acts, playground games and play-acting, the path from the schoolyard to adulthood is beset with misunderstandings, missed dates and traps for the unwary.

Awarded a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize for her debut novel Significance, Jo has also had numerous short stories in anthologies and listed for awards, including five short-listings for the Rhys Davies short-story prize. Several of her stories have been broadcast on Radio 4.


A Bird Becomes A Stone

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on our website.

The film Sarah had volunteered to act in was written and directed by a Welsh girl called Catrin, who was at college in Bristol. She’d brought a crew of other students to Wales, one to do sound, another was a cameraman. There was also a sulky girl with bad skin called Morgana whose role was not explained. They drove in a grubby white VW van up to the Brecon Beacons, careering and bumping along narrow tracks in search of good locations. The cameraman drove and the girl with bad skin sat up front because she claimed she’d get carsick otherwise. So the other three had to suffer in the back, wedged in among the film equipment and two plastic sacks of what seemed to be dirty laundry but turned out to be props and costume.

Sarah played the main role. According to the storyboard a lot of footage would consist of her running through woods, along a shoreline (brooding clouds and crashing waves in the background) and along treacherous mountain paths. The schedule demanded that they shoot with her for three days, then on the fourth and fifth days another actor would join them. He was to play a man who had molested her as a child. The chief premise of the film was that every impression in the early sequences led the audience to believe she was being chased, but actually it emerged that her character was the pursuer. The hunted becomes the hunter.

They parked at a lay-by above a stream. The day was still and unusually warm, white puffs of cumulus clouds moved lazily across a yawning blue sky.

‘This weather is crap,’ Catrin said.

The girl with the bad skin sat on a rock and stared hatefully at the rest of them as they unloaded the van.

From eleven o’clock until almost two, Sarah helped Catrin and the sound man scatter torn white sheets along the side of the stream while the cameraman shouted directions at them. At two they stopped for a lunch made by Catrin’s mother. Sandwiches with cheap white bread, some sort of meat that might have been pork or possibly turkey, hard-boiled eggs, crisps and an assortment of chocolate-covered biscuits which were warm and sticky and reminded her too much of long journeys in the back of her parents’ car; of her loneliness as an only child.

After lunch Sarah climbed into the back of the van and struggled into the costume they had brought for her; a grubby, ivory-coloured floor length dress. It had a plunging front and tied behind her neck leaving her back bare. It was made of artificial satin and the rough skin on her hands caught on it like tiny barbs.

In this scene she was meant to wander along by the stream charting a course between one discarded rag and another. Catrin showed Sarah some photographs taken after a battle; women searching for their menfolk in a field littered with the corpses of soldiers, explaining that this was the atmosphere she wanted to convey.

Sarah set off barefoot; in places mud oozed between her toes. The dress was thin, she shivered as the sun began to drop behind the mountains, but she persevered.

That night Sarah dreamt that she was filming the scene over and over, but her dream was invaded by the war photograph and as she stared at each flung-down rag, the torn scraps came to life turning into dreadful ghosts with scarred and half-flayed skin who moaned and tried to touch her.

The next day Catrin was overjoyed as weighty blue-grey cumulonimbus began to gather behind the mountains threatening an approaching storm.

‘We’re going further north today, then as far as Dolgellau on Thursday.’

There was little time wasted on the second day; they parked on a bleak mountain with a ribbon-like road running through it. Plynlimon hunkered under dark skies to the north.

‘Now just run towards the camera but look beyond it, not directly at it.’

She ran. Barefoot in wet grass peppered with shiny black sheep droppings, her long dress saturated up to her thighs. A few times she fell but pulled herself up and stumbled on.

‘That was brilliant! It looks so real when you fall,’ Catrin said.

‘Hey,’ the sound guy said, touching her arm gently. ‘Is that blood? Did you hurt yourself?’

She looked down; the dress was torn over her right knee, bright crimson blood mixed with muddy grey stains. She lifted her dress, her knee was grazed and in one place a small cut sent a trickle of red coursing down her leg and over the arch of her foot.

Continue reading ‘A Bird Becomes A Stone’ here.

 

Jo Mazelis’ new collection, Ritual, 1969, will be published by Seren in April 2016. More information coming soon to the Seren website.

Santa Baby, Slip a Story Under the Tree

Christmas is on its way, and we have some recommendations for you whether you’re looking for a present for someone else, or you’re looking for something to ask Santa for this Christmas!

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For Thriller Lovers:

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If you or someone you know loves a good crime story, why not try Jo Mazelis’ Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning Significance, or Anne Lauppe-Dunbar’s debut Dark Mermaids?

For Historical Fiction Lovers:

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Francesca Rhydderch’s debut, The Rice Paper Diaries, which won the 2014 Wales Book of the Year Award and Tiffany Murray’s chilling Sugar Hall are perfect for readers who like their stories old school. So old school they’re practically history.

For Sci-Fi/Fantasy Lovers:

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If you’re after something weird and wonderful for you or a friend this festive season, then you can’t go wrong with one of our New Stories from The Mabinogion; The Meat Tree is a brilliantly bizarre sci-fi retelling of the Blodeuwedd myth, perfect for readers who love stories that are literally out of this world. But if you’re after something a little closer to home, why not pick up a copy of Mary-Ann Constantine’s fable-esque debut, Star-Shot? This novel is a real treat for readers who are familiar with Cardiff.

For Short Story Lovers:

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For lovers of the oft forgotten art form that is the short story, why not pick up New Welsh Short Stories, an anthology featuring a wide range of Welsh authors from Carys Davies to Jo Mazelis, or Graham Mort’s latest collection, Terroir. These two look quite charming together, so if I were you I’d get both.

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For Non-Fiction Lovers:

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Jasmine Donahaye’s memoir, Losing Israel, has been stunning readers since its publication earlier this year; part memoir, part travel writing, part nature writing, it’s the perfect gift for any non-fiction connoisseur. Mike Rees’ Men Who Played the Game is the ideal book for any sports fan, and as we commemorate one hundred years since the First World War there’s no better time to read it than right now.

For Poetry Lovers:

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Here at Seren we’d be nothing without our poetry, so why not pick up a copy of Kim Moore’s hugely popular debut collection, The Art of Falling, or Jonathan Edwards’ Costa Award-winning debut collection, My Family and Other Superheroes – we promise they won’t disappoint you! Or if someone you know likes to keep on top of the latest poetry, a subscription to Poetry Wales magazine would make for a fine Christmas present, if you ask me. And I suppose you must be asking me if you’re reading this…

You can find all these books and more on our website, so treat the readers you know to some well-chosen words this Christmas!

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Criminally Good Reads

I don’t know about you, but when the colder months roll around I always find myself more inclined to pick up a thriller or a good ol’ fashioned whodunnit. There’s a strange kind of comfort in cracking open a book featuring thieves, drug dealers and serial killers whilst snuggled up under a warm blanket with a lovely mug of hot chocolate, knowing that no matter how bad life might seem at times you’re at least better off than whoever you’re reading about.

If you’re anything like me, dear reader, and you do enjoy a bit of detective work at this time of year then you’re in luck! Here at Seren we have a few books that might just peak your interest.

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Dark Mermaids

by Anne Lauppe-Dunbar

Unhappy West Berlin police officer Sophia is called on to investigate the murder of her childhood friend Käthe, after her beaten body is discovered in Sophia’s local park. Sophia is forced to return to the hometown she fled as a teenager with her enigmatic father Petrus, and Mia – a frightened child who turned up on her doorstep. She must investigate Käthe’s murder and care for a mother she believed abandoned her. As she reluctantly delves into the sordid Stasi secrets of those she grew up with, Sophia uncovers a web of horrors about her own abusive past as a child-swimming star in the former GDR. But her hunt for the truth has not gone unnoticed by those close to her, people who still have too much to hide.

Read our interview with Anne!

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The Pembrokeshire Murders: Catching the Bullseye Killer

by Steve Wilkins with Jonathan Hill

The story of Operation Ottawa, the cold case detection of John Cooper for two Pembrokeshire double killings: the Scoveston Manor murder of Richard and Helen Thomas in 1985 and the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path murder of Peter and Gwenda Dixon in 1989. Detective Chief Superintendent Steve Wilkins tells how he gathered a specialist team to review the murders, used cutting edge forensic techniques to prove Cooper’s involvement in the crimes, and how the tv programme Bullseye led to a crucial identification. The dramatic timeline involves psychological profiling, intimidation by Cooper, the relationship between police and media in the arrest and the predicament of the victims’ families during the long years when the cases remained unsolved.

The combination of painstaking evidence gathering, new forensics, psychological profiling, and careful detection made Operation Ottawa the template for subsequent murder enquiries. Now, for the first time, the lead detective tells the story of how a vicious killer was brought to justice.

Disturbance – Ivy Alvarez


Disturbance

by Ivy Alvarez

Disturbance is a novel in verse by Ivy Alvarez that chronicles a multiple homicide, a tragic case of domestic violence, where a family was gunned down by the husband and father. 

The book features poems in a kaleidoscope of voices from all the characters involved. We first meet the family itself and witness how the father’s controlling attitude gradually escalates into violence. Then we get the aftermath: the authorities, police and neighbours, who all might have helped to prevent this tragedy. This is a very dark book, but a courageous one, ultimately about evil and its presence in our everyday lives. The fact that this family was relatively well-to-do, seemingly prosperous and well-connected, adds another layer of intrigue and mystery. There is some graphic violence, but the emphasis is on the characters and their motivations.

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Significance

by Jo Mazelis

Lucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but she’s only got as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his handsome assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance.

Lucy’s death, like a stone thrown into a pool, sends out far-reaching ripples, altering the lives of people who never knew her as well as those of her loved ones back home.

Find all these titles and more on our website where, if you order two books, you’ll receive a free copy of Christmas in Wales!

 

What is Literary Fiction?

Our Marketing Assistant, Jess, has a little chat about the difference between literary and genre fiction.

Here at Seren we primarily publish literary fiction as opposed to genre fiction, and many a time I’ve been asked what the difference is. This is a fair question – I didn’t know the answer myself until I went to university!

The simple answer is that literary fiction is much more focused on the quality of the writing style – on the way the book is written – rather than on the plot and the way the plot satisfies a certain genre. Genre fiction is full of fast page-turners and plots that try to blow your socks off, whereas literary fiction tends to be a little slower, a little quieter, but no less enjoyable.

In the realms of literary fiction we’re more likely to regularly encounter characters who feel like people we might pass in the street, rather than characters who fit a mould; crime fiction is brimming with grumpy detectives, each with their own dark and dangerous past – even Sherlock Holmes isn’t squeaky clean! In literary fiction, on the other hand, we’re just as likely to encounter the next Patrick Bateman as we are the next Atticus Finch. 

Literary fiction isn’t ‘better’ than genre fiction in much the same way that genre fiction isn’t ‘better’ than literary fiction. There’s no need for competition here, because if you’re a reader – whether you read regularly or sit back with a handful of books each year – you’ll have already read both types of fiction, and chances are you’ll have liked and disliked books in both categories in equal measure.

So if literary fiction and genre fiction are equally valid, why is our focus on literary fiction?

First and foremost, it’s writing we want to promote and celebrate. We want a good story – of course we do! – but if we had to choose between an action-packed story written in a mediocre fashion or a subtle, stunningly written story, I’m sure you can guess which story we’d pick every time.

Not only that, but literary fiction gives us a lot of freedom. Something I’ve yet to mention is that literary fiction and genre fiction are not entirely separate from one another; it’s common for a book to be considered literary fiction while also fitting into a particular genre. That’s one of the reasons we love literary fiction so much!

Francesca Rhydderch’s award-winning debut The Rice Paper Diaries is literary fiction, but it’s historical fiction, too; Jo Mazelis’ prize-winning debut Significance is literary fiction, but it’s also a thriller; Tiffany Murray’s haunting Sugar Hall is literary fiction, but it’s also a ghost story. We are able to publish a wide variety of fiction by a plethora of authors, all because we love stories that are beautifully told.

That’s why we love literary fiction, and that’s why we publish it.

Celebrating Significance!

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Jo Mazelis’ fantastic debut novel Significance, described by Cathy Galvin as “A must read for anyone who loves literary fiction and believes they would never read a crime novel”, was one of the eight winners of the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize earlier this year.

Throughout the summer, Jerwood Fiction Uncovered have been celebrating one of its winners, and this week it’s Significance‘s turn!

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Lucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but she’s only got as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his handsome assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance.

Lucy’s death, like a stone thrown into a pool, sends out far-reaching ripples, altering the lives of people who never knew her as well as those of her loved ones back home.

Head on over to the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered website this week and you’ll be able to read the first chapter of Significance and take a peek at some reviews that will make you want to read the rest of it, if you haven’t already! 

Don’t forget to head on over to Twitter where you can follow us @SerenBooks, Jo Mazelis @JoMazelis, and Jerwood Fiction Uncovered @FictUncovered and keep up to date with all of the celebrations.

Order Significance from our website.

Prepare Yourself for Indie Book Day!

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This Saturday is Indie Book Day – hooray!

What is Indie Book Day?

Indie Book Day is an entire day dedicated to supporting and celebrating our independent publishers and bookstores.

Great! How can I get involved?

Simple! To take part in Indie Book Day all you have to do is visit your local independent bookstore on March 21st and buy yourself a book that has been published by an independent publisher – the genre doesn’t matter! Then post a picture of your new book, its cover, or, even better, you with the book and post it on any social media site of your choice using the hashtag #indiebookday.

So, will you take up the challenge?

Look out for some Seren titles in your local independent bookstore this Saturday. Until then, here are some recommendations to whet your appetite!

my_family_and_other_superheroes_covercosta_quicksand coverMy Family and Other Superheroes introduces a vibrant and unique new voice from Wales. The superheroes in question are a motley crew. Evel Knievel, Sophia Loren, Ian Rush, Marty McFly, a bicycling nun and a recalcitrant hippo – all leap from these pages and jostle for position, alongside valleys mams, dads and bamps, described with great warmth. Other poems focus on the crammed terraces and abandoned high streets where a working-class and Welsh nationalist politics is hammered out. This is a post-industrial valleys upbringing re-imagined through the prism of pop culture and surrealism.

Easter 1955. Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray. £8.99As Lilia Sugar scrapes the ice from the inside of the windows and the rust from the locks in Sugar Hall, she knows there are pasts she cannot erase. On the very edge of the English/Welsh border, the red gardens of Sugar Hall hold a secret, and as Britain prepares for its last hanging, Lilia and her children must confront a history that has been buried but not forgotten.

Love & Fallout

When Tessa’s best friend organises a surprise TV makeover, Tessa is horrified. It’s the last thing she needs – her business is on the brink of collapse, her marriage is under strain and her daughter is more interested in beauty pageants than student politics. What’s more, the ‘Greenham Common angle’ the TV producers have devised reopens some personal history Tessa has tried to hide away. Then Angela gets in touch, Tessa’s least favourite member of the Greenham gang, and she’s drawn back into her muddy past.

Pascale Petit, FauverieThe Fauverie of this book is the big-cat house in the Jardin des Plantes zoo. But the word also evokes the Fauves, ‘primitive’ painters who used raw colour straight from the tube. Like The Zoo Father, Petit’s acclaimed second collection, this volume has childhood trauma and a dying father at its heart, while Paris takes centre stage – a city savage as the Amazon, haunted by Aramis the black jaguar and a menagerie of wild animals. Transforming childhood horrors to ultimately mourn a lost parent, Fauverie redeems the darker forces of human nature while celebrating the ferocity and grace of endangered species. Five poems fromFauverie won the 2013 Manchester Poetry Prize and the manuscript in progress was awarded an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts.

seren_-_the_advantages_of_an_older_manA light-hearted novella exploring the strange case of a Swansea woman who is apparently possessed by the spirit of Dylan Thomas. Naturally all is not as it seems. The woman, who works in the Dylan Thomas Centre, meets a rather different Dylan from the one she knows by repute, one who doesn’t really fit in with the ghosts of other poets in heaven and is desperate to train himself to join the fitter shades of the long distance runners instead. Her own life, which has been lonely and sad, is completely transformed by the encounter.

Jo Mazelis, SignificanceLucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but she’s only got as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his handsome assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance.

Lucy’s death, like a stone thrown into a pool, sends out far-reaching ripples, altering the lives of people who never knew her as well as those of her loved ones back home.

Seren Talks to … Jo Mazelis

Jo Mazelis, Significance

We’ve been talking to Jo Mazelis about life as a writer, feminism, meeting PD James and her new book, Significance.

During the 1980s, Jo worked as a graphic designer, photographer and illustrator for the magazines City Limits, Women’s Review, Spare Rib, Undercurrents, Everywoman and New Dance.  Jo is author of short stories, non-fiction and poetry. Her stories and poetry have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and published in various anthologies and magazines. Her collection of stories, Diving Girls, was short-listed for the Commonwealth ‘Best First Book’ and Wales Book of the Year.

How did you come up with the title ‘Significance’?

The title came to me quite early in the writing process and in a sense it guided the whole book and became its philosophical fulcrum. Because the story was about crime – in particular violent crime – the reader begins to search for significance (or clues) in each event as the narrative develops. This parallels how direct and indirect witnesses to crime see greater significance in banal events and perceive them as vital parts of a larger picture. Beyond that I wanted to explore how people’s view of the world is altered by certain events, and how they may change their entire course of action due to a chance encounter. It’s a fairly well known phenomena now, that despite the digital age with its instant news from across the globe people still feel more affected by a tragedy or disaster the closer they are to it. I don’t think it is because as a species the human race can be unfeeling, rather it’s information overload. But it feels wrong somehow when a newscaster reports that ‘floods in country x killed three thousand people – one man, Professor Smith a geologist from the UK is believed to be among the dead’ His death is no more or less tragic than the other 2,999 yet he is given greater attention.

My point was I suppose to draw attention to significance and question how meaning and value are not fixed but entirely malleable or transient, depending on the viewpoint of the spectator.

On another level the character Lucy quite dramatically changes her appearance just before setting off on her trip, these changes alter how she is perceived – she looks younger, more girlish, less serious and more vulnerable. Is she the same person?

Because I was thinking about how meaning is bestowed to a greater or lesser extent on objects or emotions or experiences I explored how different characters create or define significance in their lives; whether through revolutionary politics, religion, astrology, love, medicine or history.

The chapters are very short and focus on different people, the minor characters all have fleshed out back stories and motivations – what was your aim in doing that?

Literature in all its forms has by its very nature created ‘the minor character’ whose role is perceived as of less interest than the major characters but whose presence creates plot points and realism. A novel in which many characters have equal weight would be impossible to write, read or even consider – though some novelists have attempted versions of it in different forms for example David Mitchell in Ghostwritten and also The Bone Clocks.

In a sense all individuals think of themselves as the heroes (or main characters) in the drama of their lives – they may recognize that as a waitress or factory worker or medical student their individual actions cannot shape world history but no one really considers him or herself a minor character and they are not minor characters to those closest to them.

In particular I did not want to create a narrative in which the victims of crime become mere ciphers, there only to create a mystery for the detectives to unravel or for the psychology of the murderer to be displayed. I particularly didn’t want to say very much about the killer at all – despite his actions I wanted him to be the most insignificant character. Many people have commented on how after a notorious murder or series of murders the name or tagline of the killer is remembered while the victims’ names are forgotten. In some ways this stems from how these stories are told in the media so we have Jack the Ripper or The Boston Strangler or The Yorkshire Ripper – maybe this is due in part to the circumstances of those crimes – in that the actions of one killer were known but his identity was not. I think the case of Fred and Rosemary West proves this point, as while the disappearance of many young women was known about, none of these cases were linked and thus there was no perpetrator to be sought and given a nickname prior to the discovery of the bodies. Instead, when the crimes were discovered, it almost seemed as if the house itself stood in for the monster, with 25 Cromwell Street becoming a byword of horror.

Racism, feminism, sexism – these are all themes that are touched upon in Significance. Are these themes important to you?

These are absolutely key to my perspective and clearly inform what I write about and how these topics are covered – at the same time I would hate to be led by the sort of dogma that sees all men as bad and all women as essentially good. In fiction one is usually looking at the world at a micro rather than macro level – so that it is the individual’s actions and belief systems that I tend to explore when I write especially by finding a psychological basis for their actions.

While I was working in publishing in London in the 1980s I read a few books about violent crime towards women including The Lust To Kill: A Feminist Perspective on Sexual Murder and The Streetcleaner: Yorkshire Ripper Case on Trial by Nicole Ward Jouve. These were upsetting books to read but both in a sense interrogated society as a whole, seeing sexual killers as symptoms of a greater ill. A case in point was when a few newspapers spoke of The Yorkshire Ripper’s ‘First INNOCENT victims’ implying that the other murdered women were GUILTY. Clearly a society that views any of its members as implicitly deserving of violent death is not a healthy one.

At the same time in the 70s and 80s racism was still a major issue – a friend of my mine at college – a young Asian man – showed me a large scar on his neck where years before he’d stabbed by skinheads in an unprovoked attack that mirrored the later fatal attack on Stephen Lawrence in South London.

One of the characters in Significance is an idealistic young African who becomes a suspect mainly because the colour of his skin causes his actions to be misinterpreted – even when he is simply running or attempting to do a good deed.

In many instances I am interested in the distorting lens of other people’s perception and the construction of personality and identity.

You photographed and interviewed some literary giants, including Margaret Atwood, PD James and Fay Weldon, during your career as a journalist and photographer. Did meeting these women inspire you to write or have you always been a writer?

I had a very vivid and conscious sense of seeing these writers as real people – I think before that I’d had very lofty ideas of what a writer might be like. It sounds terribly naïve but it was this recognition – for example hearing PD James say that it was a need for money due to her husband’s ill health that galvanized her to begin writing novels was a surprise. Not that it was the idea of money which motivated me rather it was that it gave me glimpse of the possible.

Did any of these women give you writing advice?

No – it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me to ask – I was there in their homes or hotels or publishers’ offices as a photographer. It was quite enough that I was peering at them from behind a camera or ordering them about and moving their furniture. I was usually there at the same time as an interviewer who had enough questions of their own and the time we were allowed was usually limited. My focus was very much on getting a good photograph – which in those pre-digital days required all my attention, especially as often I was only given five or ten minutes at the end of the interview to get my pictures.

I can’t imagine what I might have asked any of them even if I could have. Besides which I wasn’t really actively writing then – the odd review or non-fiction article perhaps – writing was something that I perhaps saw on the distant horizon that I might sail towards one day if the weather looked fair.

Why did you choose to become a writer?

This is a difficult question because it partly feels as if writing chose me rather than vice versa. I have always felt that deep down this was not something I was meant to do. This sounds very contradictory – but I think it has to do with my early perceptions of writers as a group of people who were academic high achievers, who read widely, went to university and were generally the exact opposite of me. At eighteen I wanted to be a painter, but after one year at Art College it spat me out leaving me disillusioned with myself, lost, confused and directionless. I had no idea what to do, hardly any qualifications and haunted shameful feelings of failure. I could no longer draw or paint as the blank paper before me no longer represented hope or the development of skills. I wrote a little poetry but this was really only just a private means of recording my feelings about many aspects of my life and how I perceived the world. I began to read a great deal – everything from Maxim Gorky to Flannery O’Connor to Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to Erica Jong and George Orwell and Hardy and Herman Hesse and Richard Brautigan. I read quite a bit of non-fiction too, Elaine Morgan’s ‘The Descent of Women’ and Phyllis Chesler’s ‘Women and Madness’, ‘The Family’ by Ed Sanders and books about women’s art and poetry, others about politics, witchcraft, prisons, psychology and social issues. All these books were part of the zeitgeist then, although isolated as I was, I’m not sure where or how I was managing to tap into it. I suppose I just wandered into places like The Uplands Bookshop and spied these books there – esoteric works published by Picador and Paladin in particular were always displayed on revolving stands and were a different format from other paperbacks. I was reading into an ideology but I’m not sure I would have put it that way at the time. I was trying to understand the world I suppose and maybe the drive to do that is stronger if you feel you have no place in it.

So I became a writer very slowly by degrees of disaster, despair and determination. I signed up for an evening class in ‘Creative Writing’ in London in 1979 or 1980 and the first thing the tutor said was that it was highly unlikely that any of us would ever become writers – confirming what I had always thought – I went to one, maybe two more classes then dropped out – what was the point? I began to write in earnest in 1987 and my first story was published in 1988 but my first book ‘Diving Girls’ wasn’t published until 2002 so I suppose this proves I have staying power if nothing else.

What’s next? Will you be sticking with novels or returning to short stories?

I have always written short stories – I forced myself to stop entirely for the four years it took to write Significance but I very quickly began again when the novel was finished. I suppose part of this question refers not so much to what I will write but what sort of book might I publish next? I have a large number of short stories already written – some of which have appeared in magazines like The Big Issue or Tears in the Fence, others have been collected in anthologies published by Honno and Seren, others that are yet to see the light of day and others that perhaps deserve to stay in darkness. So as a writer I would very much like to bring out another book (or two) of short stories, but I equally have several novels in various states of progress that I would like to see published. Of course what any writer may like is not what they necessarily get – publishing has changed, the market for books has transformed beyond recognition, people, especially in areas like Wales, the North of England, Scotland are struggling to pay for even the staples of life so are unlikely to buy books in such a quantity as to keep the market buoyant.

Despite this I tend to see each piece of writing as a challenge – can I make this story or poem or novel or paragraph the best I can? Will it ever be finished or published? As Sylvia Plath famously said, ‘Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing’ and I feel that’s true – it shouldn’t be – but it is. All that unpublished writing represents failure and wasted time and all sorts of unpleasant feelings for their creator.

So I will be continuing to write both short stories and novels and other genres of writing too, besides that fact of creation everything else is uncertain.

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