Why I Write
It’s something I’m often asked at interviews and events – that and a number of other probing questions. Here, to start, are the ones that crop up most often, and my answers. And then, to follow, you’ll find a few online interviews that tell you a little bit more about me, my life and my love of the written word.
Q: When did you start writing?
I can’t remember NOT writing. First it was angst-filled haiku scribbled at my school desk. In time I progressed to writing advertising copy for agencies in London and then New York. Next it was short stories and serials that have appeared in magazines around the world, plus more articles than I can count. And two novels of course.
Q: Vegetarian cookbooks too I believe?
Right. And vegan. No point in writing any more though, not with so many brilliant recipes available at the click of a button. Nowadays even I tend to go online for ideas when I’m running out of time.
Q: You must have some favourite recipes though?
Not so much recipes as ingredients. I can’t live without salad. How boring is that? But I also love tofu, avocados, smoked almonds, onion bhajis, chips as long as they’re thin and crisp, carrot cake, anything with ginger.
You write fiction under the name Jan Mazzoni. What’s the Italian connection?
A: My father was from Avellino in the south. My mother was a blonde freckled English girl. Strangely, he was the quiet introverted one who liked taking solitary walks in wild places, whilst she loved partying.
Q: And who do you take after?
Both in some ways. But like him I’m increasingly drawn to the natural world. I’ve long been campaigning for animal rights. I can’t believe how brutal we humans are to other living creatures, and this beautiful fragile planet that we seem to forget is our home. We’re part of it, we need it to survive. Exploring the connection between all living things is a theme I come back to time and again.
Q: Have you lived in Italy?
No, but I spend as much time there as I can. Home is a little house on the edge of windy Exmoor. I share it with husband George and assorted animals – at the moment this includes four Romanian rescue dogs. We’re surrounded by trees, and if you stand on a chair in the bedroom you can see the sea. Perfect for when I want to shut myself off from the world and write.
Q: And so… why DO you write?
As an only child I grew up living in my imagination, and it’s still a favourite place to be. Guess I’m really just inviting my readers to join me there. If my books give them pleasure – or challenge them, maybe even make them think – that’s all I ask. But I also just love words, playing around with them. Even punctuation excites me. Does that sound strange?
🍴Sunday Brunch with Jaffareadstoo ~ Jan Mazzoni
On this quiet Sunday morning why don’t you put the kettle on, make your favourite breakfast and settle down for Sunday Brunch with Jaffareadstoo
🍴I am so pleased to welcome Jan Mazzoni to Sunday Brunch🍴
🍴Welcome to Sunday Brunch, Jan. What favourite food are you bringing to Sunday brunch?
I’m vegan, and a few years ago this would have meant toast, margarine, black coffee. But the range of foods available these days is amazing. I don’t usually eat much in the morning, so OK if we keep it simple? Like, a fresh fruit salad – something exotic such as mango with raspberries and blueberries served with cinnamon crème fraiche (vegan). Or for something savoury, a chickpea pancake topped with avocado slices and tomatoes. We must have croissants of course, warm from the oven and spread with creamy butter (vegan). Or would you prefer Banana Muesli Muffins? Let’s have both. Plus plenty of strong coffee made with barista oat milk.
Jan has very kindly given us a delicious recipe
**BANANA MUESLI MUFFINS (recipe)**
Set your oven too 200C/400F/Gas Mark 6.. Either line 12 muffin tins with paper cases, or oil them well.
Mix together 100g muesli and 50g light brown sugar. Add 160g plain flour mixed with 1 teaspoon baking powder.
In a separate bowl combine 1 mashed ripe banana with 2 tablespoons light vegetable oil. Then stir in 3 tablespoons of nut butter – your choice, whatever you have in the cupboard.
Combine the dry ingredients and wet and stir briefly – don’t overmix them.
Drop spoonsful of the mixture into the tins. Top the muffins with a sprinkling of brown sugar and of your favourite nuts, coarsely chopped (I like walnuts best).
Bake 20 minutes or until golden. Test with a sharp knife to make sure the inside is cooked. Delicious eaten warm.
Note: you could use apple puree or even freshly grated raw apple instead of the banana.
🍴Where shall we eat brunch – around the kitchen table, in the formal dining room, or outside on the patio?
I always prefer to be outdoors. So can we sit out on the patio, with a wisteria draped trellis overhead so we’re in dappled shade? (Love the word dappled, don’t you?) No music, just the natural twitters and rustles you get when surrounded by an untamed garden. Oh and every now and again, could we have a fly past of screaming wheeling swifts? Nothing says hot summer days like swifts.
🍴Which of your literary heroes (dead or alive) are joining us for Sunday brunch?
Dylan Thomas. Lionel Shriver. Ray Bradbury. Paula McLain. Ragnar Jonasson (Icelandic writer of the most chilling scandi-noir). Jodi Picoult. All very different, but I admire the way every one of them writes and would give anything to be able to pick their brains! Gently, of course.
🍴Which favourite book will you bring to Sunday brunch?
With you and the cats, and all these writers to chat to, how could I even think about bringing a book with me?
🍴When you are writing do you still find time to read for pleasure?
Absolutely. Don’t usually indulge during the day (except for research), but I’ve started taking a quick dip into a book at lunchtime, usually non fiction. Right now I’m reading Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin which is very beautiful and thought-provoking, but wouldn’t be right at night. I read escapist novels in bed. If they’re really gripping I’ll carry on reading way into the early hours. I’m going to have to ban Louise Candlish books from the house – her plots are so convoluted with twists and shocks on every few pages they’re impossible to put down. The bags under my eyes are entirely her fault!
🍴What’s the oldest book on your bookshelf?
Many years back I had an obsession with Colette. I have a number of her books still, yellowed and dusty. Haven’t read one for ages. Would I still enjoy them as much as I did, I wonder?
🍴Where do you find the inspiration for your novels?
Everywhere. I make notes: overheard conversations, stories in the news, radio programmes on obscure topics, photos and videos I come across online. Being half Italian (my dad came from Avellino) it’s probably not surprising that I’ve used Italy as a backdrop for two of my books (and am working on another which takes place there for at least part of the action.) And what better excuse to keep popping over there than looking for ideas or checking details? Sadly, of course, going anywhere at all seems to be off the menu for a while.
🍴Have you a favourite place to settle down to write and do you find it easier to write in winter or in summer?
Recently we’ve had a tiny summerhouse erected up in the woods at the top of our garden. It’s very basic, but easy to keep warm in winter, and the doors concertina back so it’s nice and airy in summer. I also do a bit of wildlife rescue so sometimes have to share it with some orphaned hedgehogs, or maybe an injured bird. And our Romanian rescue dogs like to pop up and check what I’m doing, though they rarely stay long. They prefer to be close to the kitchen, for some reason. Or the fire.
🍴When writing to a deadline are you easily distracted and if so how do you bring back focus to your writing?
I like writing to a deadline. I like the discipline. I create my own if there isn’t one. Probably goes back to when I was an advertising copywriter and we always had to get our campaigns done by yesterday.
🍴Give us four essential items that a writer absolutely needs?
A willing Other Half (to walk the dogs, cook dinner, make phone calls on your behalf).
A big desk – the more space the better.
A yoga routine (to unkink the kinks after a day at the desk).
🍴What can you tell us about your latest novel or your current work in progress?
I’ve just revised and relaunched my novel, The Snow Fox Diaries, which – I now discover – fits perfectly into the recently created genre of ecofiction. It tells the story of Katie who has reluctantly moved into a dilapidated house on Exmoor to – as husband Ben puts it – find herself. So far she’s only learnt things she’d sooner not know. But then one misty morning she comes across a rare, precious and very vulnerable albino fox. From that moment her life changes completely, the fate of her faltering marriage becoming entwined with that of the fox as both struggle to survive. It’s a must-read for anyone who loves wildlife.
Other projects I’m working on are a podcast of a radio drama, a book of short stories, and another novel which follows three young friends whose lives take them far away from each other, but can never break the bonds.
The Snow Fox Diaries: gripping eco-fiction from Jan Mazzoni
Climate fiction (cli-fi) and eco-fiction are having a moment. Quite a long moment. Our concerns about the natural world, our impact on it and its impact on us, are thrown into stark relief by extreme weather, immense wild fires, and the global pandemic.
Only recently Jan Mazzoni discovered that – surprise, surprise – there IS a genre where her writing fits perfectly. It’s eco-fiction. Writing fiction that combines her passion for the natural world with a gripping tale for many years, Jan’s delighted to find a place where the stories she so loves to tell are completely at home.
Not that eco-fiction is new. In many ways, eco-fiction is much like any other genre – historical, thrillers, even romances – because every story needs the protagonist to go through some kind of hellish situation before reaching the (hopefully) happy ending.
As Jan says, eco-fiction just tends to have all this happen in prettier locations.
A yearning for wilderness encouraged Jan to move to a little house hidden in a large, rambling garden on the edge of Exmoor, a windy, bleak but beautiful part of the UK. Here, with husband George and four Romanian rescue dogs, she leads the simple life she’s always craved. She calls herself a recluse-in-training. As an only child she long ago grew up living inside the stories in her own head, and is quite happy there. She can control that world. And when the ideas that come seem like they’re worth putting down on paper, she retreats to the shed at the top of the garden and taps away at the PC. Sadly the dogs don’t usually go with her. It’s too cold up there.
Welcome, Jan, I’m so pleased to speak with you about The Snow Fox Diaries, and about your writing in general. Can you tell me when you decided that you ARE a writer?
JAN: I can’t remember when I haven’t wanted to write. As a toddler I cuddled books instead of toys. I made up stories – usually about animals, I started my animal rights campaigning early! – and made everyone borrow them. Then I became a real librarian. But that didn’t involve writing of course so I went on to become an advertising copywriter which I loved. It was a real learning experience. But I’m easily bored. So next I tried my hand at cookbooks (vegetarian), dabbled in journalism, wrote magazine fiction, a book of short stories. And finally two novels – one of which was The Snow Fox Diaries, which I’ve revised and am relaunching right now.
The Snow Fox Diaries by Jan Mazzoni
Is writers’ block a thing for you?
JAN: No. I’m lucky, that’s something I’ve never experienced. I love sitting down at my desk – feel a buzz of excitement as I switch on my laptop, I mean a real buzz, like I’ve just flicked a swich inside my head too. Probably goes back to the days when I was a copywriter. If you got writers’ block you got fired.
That’s a bit extreme! You and I first met through a discussion about covers. Could you tell me your thoughts about book covers.
JAN: Again, this may go back to my advertising days. For me the cover is like the box that a product goes into. Would you want to buy it if the box was plain brown cardboard? Or if it didn’t at least hint at what’s inside? Same with a book – I can’t imagine having to choose books if they had blank covers. I couldn’t do it. It’s my one problem with using a kindle.
It follows I’ve been very much involved with the covers of all my books. The Snow Fox Diaries originally had a stunning cover that was, in fact, a blue fox as we couldn’t get a picture of an albino (yes, they really are that rare). I wanted to change the balance with this revision, emphasising the moors on which the story is set as a character, while the fox becomes more mysterious, elusive. We found a moody, misty shot that captures this unique environment perfectly. And then – a miracle – I found a photo of a real albino fox. Tucked on one side, she’s tiny, so you can’t see that she has pink eyes. But I assure she has.
I actually love both covers. I completely agree that the cover is the first thing that grabs me when choosing a book to read. What’s your favourite genre to read in?
JAN: I don’t have a favourite. I like to try new things – something that’s had a good review or has an intriguing title. I’ll read a book just because I love the cover! I do have phases though. Right now I’m into translations. What better way to travel without leaving home? Just visited Poland (Olga Tokarczuk) . Next I’m off to Japan (Takashi Hiraide).
Reading is one way to travel these days! Now, you say that The Snow Fox Diaries is eco-fiction. What is your definition of eco-fiction?
JAN: Eco-fiction (also called eco-lit) has been around forever but it’s only just becoming popular. Put simply, it’s fiction that has a strong environmental theme woven through it. It can be any kind of story – horror, love, family saga, YA. My niche is examining the link between humans and animals, the effect one can have on the other, both good and bad. But – as you’ll know from your own growing following – dystopian fiction is all the rage right now, which isn’t surprising with the way the world is being trashed. I love reading it but couldn’t write it. I’d find it too frightening.
I think dystopia and eco-lit both have a lot to say in the twenty-first century, and both link strongly to fact. How much research is involved in your writing?
JAN: I was probably researching for The Snow Fox Diaries before I even thought of the book! I helped at a small wildlife hospital, which meant taking in casualties and then nursing them in my own home. It’s one of those experiences that sounds more fun than it is. Baby birds have a terrible tendency to be doing OK, and then to just out of the blue drop down dead. Squirrels bite. They’re through to the bone instantly – and it hurts! Hedgehogs were a favourite, such weird little snuffly creatures. Even so, I recall one summer evening out on the patio with a sickly hedgehog on my lap, picking off maggots one by one, and wondering what on earth I was doing.
I’ve never actually worked with foxes though I’ve spent a lot of time around them. But when I heard the true story that inspired me to write this novel, I already had a lot of background info about caring for wildlife. And I live on Exmoor, so where else would I set it?
I think you’re a perfect match for the story! If I wanted to interview one of your characters, who would you suggest?
JAN: It would have to be Kevin. In the book he hangs around the edge of the story, keeps himself to himself, at least until he’s reluctantly drawn into the action. Even then he doesn’t say much, and never lets on what he’s thinking or feeling. Could be very little of course. Or he could one of those complex characters who are full of surprises. I’d love you to interview him because then you could tell me what makes him tick.
Ah! A character keeping secrets from his creator. I love it. What’s your writing goal over the next twelve months?
JAN: I like to keep a number of projects going at once. I’m working on three right now. A book of short stories (yes, that link between people and animals again). A novel combining fact with fiction, based on the life of (English etcher) Eileen Soper who was a brilliant wildlife writer and illustrator, a recluse, eccentric of course. She deserves some recognition. And I’ve been approached about making The Snow Fox Diaries into a radio play/podcast, which could work brilliantly. Capturing the moors in sound would be a wonderful challenge. I’ve already found the perfect music for the opening scene. It’s by Sting, called Cold Song, (from Purcell’s opera King Arthur) and it really makes you tingle. Now all I have to do is get Sting’s permission.
Maybe another version! Sounds a perfect choice, though – very English and snowy. Thanks for chatting today, Jan, and good luck with all those projects.
You can read my review of The Snow Fox Diaries here.
THE SNOW FOX DIARIES: A novel by Jan Mazzoni
Available from Amazon
Revised and with Author Notes August 2020
When passion becomes obsession, anything can happen…
Chic, intelligent, highly motivated and unexpectedly unemployed. AND soon to be forty. Not a situation Katie Tremain finds easy to cope with, especially as it gives her time to notice that she and husband Ben seem to get on better together when they’re apart. So when the opportunity to escape the city and work on a dilapidated house on Exmoor comes her way, how can she refuse?
Then, one misty morning, she comes across something so bizarre that she can’t believe her eyes. A fox with fur so white it sparkles, like snow. A very rare albino vixen.
From that moment Katie’s days – and her life – change completely. And as the fate of her faltering marriage becomes entwined with that of the fox, Katie must decide just what she’s prepared to risk to save this beautiful but vulnerable creature.
Her sanity? Her marriage? Even her life?
Talking Location With author Jan Mazzoni – The Amalfi Coast
© Positano Daily Photo
#TalkingLocationWith… JAN MAZZONI, author of Dreamland – ITALY’S AMALFI COAST
The Amalfi coast needs no introduction. Everyone has seen pictures of the vistas that take your breath away: of craggy mountains tumbling down to a shimmering blue sea, of houses perched like coloured bricks on ledges, of jasmine-draped walls and bougainvillea-draped balconies, all of it so perfect that it can’t be real, it has to be a film set. You’ve all doubtless heard too the list of superlatives used by the media and guide books, and by the many celebrities who go there – they claim – to get away from the crowds. Stunning, picture perfect, glamorous, stylish, breath-taking, dizzy-making. A playground for the rich, and for romantics.
© Positano Daily Photo
Of course you still have to see it yourself before you can really believe that, amazingly, it’s all they say, and more. Today’s Amalfi coast is a shining example of how a resort can offer everything a globe-trotting visitor with the highest standards can need, and yet still retain its Italian-ness.
When I first came to Positano in the late 1980s I thought I knew what to expect. Yet I was as stunned as my fellow travellers who – thanks to this new trend for package holidays – had accompanied me from UK airport on a shaky charter flight, then on a sweltering coach to step, exhausted, dazzled by the panoramic vista spread before us.
But as a writer, I was stumped.
I went back again and again, falling under its spell, wanting to capture this unique place in words. But to be honest, it’s not the kind of setting writers usually choose for their fiction. It’s almost too perfect. How can you write a story of hatred, passion, of intrigue and terror in a place that feels so welcoming, so safe? On top of that was the unwritten but clearly understood expectation that everyone was going to have A Good Time. Happiness was obligatory.
A true piccolo paradiso then, as the locals insisted on describing it.
In those days most of the visitors were there for a week or two, just long enough to see the recommended sights, get addicted to limoncello, and get sunburnt. Not long enough to see the underbelly that exists everywhere if you dare to look, the darker side of life. Barefooted youngsters lurking in doorways haggling over drugs. People from the city dumping unwanted dogs and then driving off, leaving the commune to deal with an ever-growing population of scraggy strays. Whispers that the Comorra mafia was spreading from Naples, getting ever closer to this affluent stretch of coast, and who knows with what intentions? And even here, there were a few lost souls tucked away behind closed shutters living lives of loneliness.
I began to see the possibilities. There was plenty of material all around me, I just had to figure out what to do with it.
And then I turned my attention to my fellow travellers, making a point of observing them more closely, even (I’m ashamed to admit) listening in to snatches of conversation. I made copious notes. I soon noticed that something happens to people when they step out of their everyday lives into a world that’s a dreamland. They change. They grow braver, more reckless, often more stupid. They fall in love way too easily. Or out of love with someone they’ve known for years but can now see in a different light.
© Positano Amalfi Coast
My decision was made. Rather than a novel I’d write a book of short stories, all set at the same time in the same place, but each one complete on its own. My characters would wearily climb the same dusty steps, sit at a table outside the same trattoria. It’s possible they’ve been served by the same flirtatious young waiter in the pizzeriain the mainpiazza. Like one of the mosaics that decorate the entrances to the posher hotels, snippets of this and that combined to make a complete picture of a time and a place.
Dreamland and other stories is the result. The one problem is that – unlike a novel – this project has no end. Today’s Amalfi coast may be more upmarket, more swish, certainly busier. But the stories are there all around, just waiting to be told. Next time maybe?
Talking Location With… Jan Mazzoni – EXMOOR, UK
TalkingLocationWith… Jan Mazzoni, author of The Snow Fox Diaries set on Exmoor, UK
Confession time. I cheated. The real-life incident that inspired me to write my novel, The Snow Fox Diaries, actually took place much further to the north of the UK. But rather than set it in an area that I’m sure is beautiful, but that I’ve never been to, I transferred it to Exmoor in Devon where I’d recently set up home. I came here in search of solitude, a simpler life, and air so sweet it tastes like lemon sorbet. And wildlife; I’m passionate about the natural world. And I wasn’t disappointed. But I discovered one or two things that I hadn’t expected, and to be honest, don’t much like. Perhaps not surprisingly, my protagonist, Katie, feels much as I do about Exmoor. We love it, and yet sometimes – just now and again – find rural life too down to earth, too violent. Or as Guy puts it in the book: too real.
© The Photo Gallery, Lynton
But to start, the things that I love about Exmoor.
The moors themselves. Over 170,000 acres of uninhabited wilderness. Drive across the top and the sky is immense, an ever-changing rippling of clouds above a landscape that’s a mix of rough grasses, coconut-fragranced gorse, heather. Alongside the road that snakes from one side to the other there are frisky ponies, ginger cattle with horns who watch you with trusting eyes. And sheep, lots of sheep; at dusk they like to hunch down to sleep on the warm tarmac, meaning a drive is like playing dodgems. The only sounds are the wind, the occasional plaintive call of a buzzard. Officially designated Europe’ s First Dark Sky Reserve, Exmoor is one of the best places in the world to stargaze. There’s even an annual festival to celebrate this.
© Graham Carnduff-Young
What more brilliant setting for a novel then? R.D. Blackmore did it first. Poor Lorna Doone had a tough time surviving the elements as well as her dreadful family. I moved my action down to the valleys with their dense dappled woods thick with ferns, trees draped with lichens, tinkling streams. Katie lives in a dilapidated house that’s tucked away but not isolated. Even so, coming from a city she at first finds the solitude unnerving. But gradually she begins to enjoy it. And as she does, she notices the wildlife. It’s all around, but you do have to look hard for it. Unlike in the cities, Exmoor wildlife is timid, reluctant to show its face. So when you do catch a glimpse of a wild creature it feels like a real privilege.
© Jan Mazzoni
Other things I enjoy? To the north the moors reach the dramatic coastline, craggy cliffs dropping down to wide stony beaches from which you can sometimes spot porpoises and dolphins. You can’t miss the surfers of course. Or agile feral goats using ledges as a playground In a nearby valley. I love the mists that spring up out of nowhere and block out sound as well as sight, so you could be underwater. Villages with narrow lanes, sombre churches galore, cosy pubs with dangerously low ceilings. Tea gardens with tables set on overgrown lawns, scones and jam served on chunky plates made by a local potter. There are lots of people doing pottery on Exmoor. Lots of artists too, and photographers, all inspired by this unique environment.
© Heather on the Hill by local artist Hannah Roberts
As for the other side of life on Exmoor…
Once you’re tuned into the natural world you realise that life in the wild is nothing like it’s presented in the beautifully filmed documentaries that flood our TVs nowadays. It’s a jungle out there. Wild animals live short, tough lives and are vulnerable to all sorts of threats: disease, starvation, predators, the changing climate, the growing mounds of litter. In the west country the tradition of hunting wild mammals with dogs – despite being banned in 2004 – still continues to this day, to the distress of many animal lovers. It isn’t easy for farmers either, working to make a living from their humanely reared animals whilst trade deals mean our UK shops are flooded with cheap factory farmed imported meat.
© Valley of Rock Goats by Rupert Kirby
Life and death. Beauty and violence. Sunshine, gales, torrential rain. It makes for an interesting place to live, that’s for sure. But even more important – for me as a writer anyway – it provides a never ending supply of ideas for stories. So no danger of me moving away yet awhile.