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Interview: Jo Mazelis talks murder, mystery, and feminism

11th Nov 2014

Jo Mazelis
Jo Mazelis certainly has more than one string to her bow; short story writer, poet, illustrator, photographer and now, with the release of her book Significance, novelist.

But why now? “I think time has a lot to do with it,” she says. “For years I was a single parent working or studying full time and what spare moments I had were so few and far between that it would have been really difficult to concentrate on a novel.” When the time came to write Significance, Mazelis made sure it had her full attention, and wrote no short stories during the process, although she did find writing poetry useful, “especially as a means of recording and exploring events and memories and feelings as they happened.”

Significance was a long time coming, taking around four years to write and a further three years to make it to print. The novel was rejected by publishers and Mazelis even considered self-publishing before it was picked up by Seren. And it’s a good thing it was, because Significance is a breath of fresh air in the thriller genre.

Set in a small town in Northern France, it centres on the murder of a young woman, Lucy Swann, on the brink of a new life. As Inspector Vivier investigates, the days leading up to Lucy’s death grow in significance and the far-reaching implications of her murder come to light. This approach is something of a departure from the thriller genre, often driven purely by plot and with far greater emphasis on profiling the murderer than the victim.

“It has been said that as a society we remember the names of notorious killers far longer than those of their victims,” says Mazelis. “For this reason I wanted to redress this balance and create a fully-formed person as a victim while the perpetrator is indistinct.”“It has been said that as a society we remember the names of notorious killers far longer than those of their victims,” says Mazelis. “For this reason I wanted to redress this balance and create a fully-formed person as a victim while the perpetrator is indistinct.”

Mazelis’ feminism undoubtedly played a part in the writing of this novel, and her unwillingness to use the death of a woman as a mere plot device is part of what makes this novel such an exciting prospect. “I think I was driven to create a novel that explored sex crime – in particular the murder of women by men, because it happens over and over and over again in this country, in the US, in India – everywhere. But I felt deeply uneasy about the idea of murder as entertainment.”

Mazelis is the first to acknowledge that her choice to subvert the genre is a bold move. “I feel that in some ways I’ve taken a precarious path, writing a book about murder but without the usual key events, or with them, but not quite in the usual way. I’ve been afraid that I’ve failed on both levels, neither creating a literary novel that makes the reader think, nor a satisfying thriller.

“However, the other day I was reading a book about Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now and the director was described as ‘sending up the conventions of ghost stories while investing them with new meaning; having it both ways’ and I thought well, maybe, just maybe, this is what I’ve done.”

As for what’s next for this multi-talented writer? She’s been working on short stories since Significance, and there’s interest in publishing an anthology. But we shouldn’t rule out another novel, as she’s keen to rework some earlier projects she’s begun. “One in particular has been haunting me for years and is an epistolary novel of gothic deceptions.” Whatever comes next, we look forward to it.