Jo is the author of non-fiction, poetry and short stories. Her first novel, Significance was released by Seren Books last month. We had a chat with Jo about her book, her ideal dinner guests and her favourite word…
Hi Jo, thank you so much for joining us. Can you tell us about your novel, Significance and how the idea originated?
The idea for the novel came from two sources; first, a sort of unease about reading and watching stories about murder. Like a lot of people I have enjoyed the recent Nordic Noir TV series The Killing and The Bridge, and I’ve also enjoyed novels on the same theme. On the other hand real murder as it hits our headlines is brutal and awful and it has often been said that while we remember the names of the killers the victims’ names are forgotten. I think the book is also informed by a series of murders in the town where I lived of three girls the same age as me at the time. Two of them had been to the same club as my friend and I on the night they died and so obviously this had an impact, and while I never knew them I have never forgotten them. So it was exploring these memories and ideas that provided the backbone of the book.
Out of all the books you’ve read, which three have made the most impact on you?
So many books come to mind, but for different reasons – if I think about impact my first thoughts go to those books that had a real emotional impact – for example, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, one passage of which made me weep loudly and uncontrollably on the London underground. Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy has also remained memorable for its tragicomic scenes and O’Brien’s droll understated humour. Ian McEwan’s collection of short stories, First Love, Last Rites impressed for the strangeness of the situations his characters found themselves in, the borderlands of loneliness and love with dark undertones of decay.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Pen and paper and my preference is to write first thing in the morning. Ideally it would be my ritual to write every single day of the year even if only for half an hour – I don’t like not writing.
What’s your favourite word?
A Case of You by Joni Mitchell
How much planning did you do before writing your novel?
I didn’t so much plan as turn over ideas in my head for quite some time, then the book set off in the same way that one of the characters sets off, running away with no clear view of where she was going.
What were the main advantages/challenges of writing a novel compared to writing short stories?
I think there is a larger and more eager audience for novels than collections of short stories. But in terms of producing either the novel demands a clear and sustained chunk of time while short stories can be completed much more quickly. I wrote short stories for the best part of twenty years while I was single parent in between study and part time work.
Who would you invite to a fantasy dinner party?
Anne Boleyn, Emily Dickinson, Janis Joplin, Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix and Nick Drake – then I’d ask some serious questions and possibly do some matchmaking.
Five tips for new writers?
1. Some of the hardest things for many writers are the dreaded blank screen or sheet of paper combined with a self-sabotaging sense of unworthiness. One of the best aids for either or both of these issues is Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way: A Course in Discovering and Recovering Your Creative Self. This book tells you nothing about how to create characters or write page-turning plots but is wonderful at instilling the habit of writing and illuminating (and exterminating) all those critical little devils that sit inside your head and stop you writing.
2. Write every day if at all possible. Keep a pen and notebook (or tablet or smart phone) within reach so that you can write down ideas, phrases, titles, sensations and descriptions whenever these occur.
3. If you read a particularly affecting passage or chapter in a novel try to analyse just how the writer has achieved it. Look at how the writers you admire vary sentence length; study the nuts and bolts of dialogue, of physical description – everything in short. In other words try to be an active reader.
4. Read your work aloud to yourself. It is by far the surest way to pick up typos (those naughty repeated words and misspellings) and to really listen for the flow and clarity of a sentence. Clunkiness on the page is often invisible but in the ear it’s wincingly obvious.
5. Beware of the oft given advice to ‘write what you know’ – it might make sense to a small extent, but it could be seen as limiting – what does Hilary Mantel personally know of Tudor England, of being a man or of kings? What did Philip K Dick know of other worlds? Research and imagination set the writer free.
Significance (Seren Books, September 2014,) is now available to buy. Click here to buy from Amazon.
Find out more about Jo at Seren – http://www.serenbooks.com/author/jo-mazelis