Significance is a novel that seems to raise many questions for readers – the first is, ‘What category of book is this? Is it a literary novel or a thriller?’ Perhaps it’s easiest to say that it gives the impression of belonging to the thriller genre but then quickly deviates away into something very different. It might be called a novel of ideas, a meditation on fate. It is also a book that breaks the rules – I hope without disappointing the reader. The best approach to reading it would be to set aside any expectations, to go forward with an open mind. It could be a book that’s a bit like Marmite – either loved or hated with not much of a middle ground.
What inspired you to write Significance?
I realise now that the book had been waiting to be written – in as much as it dealt with issues I’d been troubled by and had been unknowingly researching for many years. I suppose a key event that has shadowed my thinking for most of my adult life happened in the small town where I lived when I was 17; two teenage girls on their way home from the Top Rank’s Saturday night disco accepted a lift from a man in a white car and were both found dead the next morning. Another 16 year old had been murdered in similar circumstances three months before.
My friend and I had been at the same nightclub that Saturday night – as we walked home we were kerb crawled by a man in a white car. We didn’t have far to walk and had been warned over and over not to get in a stranger’s car, so we ignored him. I don’t know if that man was the killer and in some ways it’s irrelevant, but the event highlighted for me several points – that those young girls who died in such an awful way were just like me – with full lives ahead of them and families and friends who never stopped remembering them and grieving.
As part of the police investigation my friend and I were interviewed, of particular interest was the man in the white car; what time had it been? What make of car was it? Could we remember the license plate number? Could we describe the man? The colour of his hair? The clothes he wore?
My friend had assiduously kept her eyes from the man in the car – eye contact only encouraged them. But I had taken one quick glance and seen a man with the then fashionable drooping moustache of the sort worn by TV star Jason King. Although I tried to answer the policeman’s questions two weeks later my memory was vague. I said he looked like another man I knew, that for a moment that night I had thought it was him, but it wasn’t him.
The years passed and no more girls were murdered. The killer was never caught. Eventually after his death his identity was revealed through DNA. I saw his picture in the newspaper, the long drooping moustache he had worn in the seventies.
I suppose this experience filters into the book and is the basis for the multiple points of view; victim, witness, bystander, friend, suspects and police.
I think if I had set out to write a book where the message was political I would have struggled – that these things, racism, sexism, homophobia are important to me is obvious I think. But in the novel I was looking at them from the perspective of identity and belief systems and also with some thoughts about how to be true to oneself and live a good life. Many of the characters are seeking significance in different ways; through religious belief, through politics, through an understanding of history, through poetry, through love and parenthood. As individuals their lives have been shaped by experience and the direction their lives will take in the future is mutable. Only two characters openly discuss the idea of being good in the novel – and they are not philosophers just a small time bad boy and a girl who works in a bar – their thoughts on the topic may not seem particularly deep but it is of importance to them at that moment.
Having said all that, my aim was also to create a story that drew the reader in and kept them turning the pages. As I wrote it I had the sense that the book was a sort of journey through a labyrinth, a season in the underworld from which no one returns unchanged.
Significance is a fascinating insight into the lives of other people, and the way they are profoundly affected by a single event. How did you go about capturing such a variety of viewpoints without the characters losing depth?
I had written two collections of short stories before I wrote this novel so perhaps this had something to do with it – indeed I worried that each chapter was in fact a short story. I also worried that I would never finish this or any novel – just as one of the characters worries she will never finish the poem she has been writing and rewriting.
It’s hard to explain how I create any character – but somehow they start to be real – I inhabit them for a time, then I see them – sometimes it is as if I am watching the action on a screen in my mind and only have the work of setting it down on paper. I didn’t plot this book but allowed it to develop as it went along. This meant that there were events in it which I didn’t realise were going to happen until I got to them – therefore the weight and investment I gave to certain characters was not shadowed by foreknowledge.
I am often surprised when I hear that other writers base their characters on real people they have encountered in their lives. Aside from the fear of either upsetting people or being sued, I would hate to be tied down by that – besides which human beings are eminently complex – even those we are closest to show us only a fraction of themselves.
What does it mean to you to be a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize winning author?
The most important part of winning this prize was the sense that I was understood and that my book succeeded on its own terms. I took risks with this novel; perhaps because at the point I wrote it I was at a very low point in my career as a writer – out in the cold, you might say, with no publisher waiting for the finished manuscript and no agent either. I therefore had little to lose and only myself to answer to. All the same there was the worry that the book would not work.
Winning the Jerwood Prize is both a confirmation of my work and a great boost, both practically and emotionally. The promotional aspect of the prize will, I hope, bring a wider audience to my work, but more than that this recognition brings with it a surge in confidence, a sense that this solitary work is worth pursuing.
Do you think there are any characteristics that define British fiction writing?
British writing has changed so much in the last twenty or more years, broadened in scope to allow voices from beyond what might be called ‘the centre’. This is part of post-colonialism, of post-modernism, the result of the identity politics of the sixties and seventies, but imagination has always been a fundamental aspect of literature and flies away where it will.
I think at one point I might have said that there was an abiding romantic strain in British writing and art, one that is tinged with a darker gothic undertow – revealing a line running from William Blake to ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Wuthering Heights’ through works like John Fowles’ ‘The Magus’ and Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ to recent novels by Alison Moore and Deborah Levy. But having said that, I think this list reflects my particular interests and is therefore essentially biased. Is art a mirror of reality or is its essential spirit the unseen, the uncanny, the unconscious? Or does the best art straddle both aspects?
What books have you read lately?
I began a sort of project a couple of years ago to read authors I had been aware of for a long time but hadn’t read. So I recently read one of Barbara Pym’s novels, ‘Excellent Women’. It was one of those new editions that included an introductory essay which served to whet my appetite, but the book didn’t do much for me I’m afraid. I’m currently reading Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and I’m undecided on whether I like it or not. I adored On Chesil Beach and Saturday and his first short story collection, First Love, Last Rites. Aside from these I haven’t been reading much fiction really. My non-fiction reading pile is varied, ranging from An Emergency in Slow Motion; the Inner Life of Diane Arbus by William Todd Schultz and Bedouin of the London Evening by Rosemary Tonks to Harvest of the Cold Months by Elizabeth David and Seasons in the Sun by Dominic Sandbrook and Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. It’s a slightly schizophrenic mix that serves to keep me relatively sane.
Before you became a writer you worked as a photographer has that had any influence on your literary work?
Although I had written when I was younger I was not a great reader and I was in no way academic, much later I read a great deal – notably and by chance, Flannery O’Connor, D H Lawrence, Orwell and Hardy. Writers existed, or so it seemed to me, in a stratosphere far above mine, they had gone to university, they were clever, they were English… they weren’t like me. Then through my work as a photographer I met successful writers; P D James, Kathy Acker, Patricia Highsmith, Elizabeth Hardwick, Marilyn French and Fay Weldon amongst others and I sensed that they were after all just people. I don’t mean that I discovered that they had feet of clay; rather I thought that perhaps my own feet weren’t so mud bound.
Apart from that I think that working with photography makes you look very hard at things, to study how the light works, how a face changes. Sometimes I take photographs as aides-memoire so that I can refer to the image in a written description, other times I have written fiction and poetry based on my own and other people’s photographs.
And finally, do you have any works in progress that we should watch out for?
I am working on another novel, Cease Upon Midnight. It is very different from Significance which was a more or less contemporary story and had aspects of the thriller genre. The new novel is a Gothic story partly set in the early 19th century in Wales which will be shown as a place of many deceptions and dark secrets.
My next book, Ritual is a collection of short stories to be published by Seren in the spring of 2016.
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.
Born and educated in Swansea Jo returned to her home town 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.