Justine Mazin can confidently call herself a writer after being named a top five finalist from among 1,800 entries in the prestigious 2016 CBC Short Story Prize contest.
Mazin, who has been pouring herself into writing for a decade, said when she learned her short story, Packing Snow, had been short-listed, it was the shot in the arm she needed to push her writing career forward.
Although she said she never really considered giving up on her literary dream, “there was a tough period before the CBC contest and when I got that… it was just the right time for it to happen.”
Earlier this year, Mazin, 35, reworked a short story she had written two years ago and submitted it to the CBC contest, which was in part responsible for launching the writing careers of George Bowering, Leon Rooke, Camilla Gibb and Carol Shields.
“The CBC contest was the biggest long shot because it’s a very prestigious award and I didn’t think I had a shot,” she said.
She explained that the stories, which are submitted anonymously, are vetted by judges, some of whom are Canada’s best and brightest writers and editors.
The jury that selected the finalists was comprised of writers Greg Hollingshead, Padma Viswanathan and Richard Van Camp.
“Just the fact that those people had read my work is crazy to me,” she said.
Packing Snow, which Mazin is considering turning into a novella, is a first-person account of a woman overcome by “introspection and despair.”
“Sometimes I close my eyes when I’m driving. Only for a few seconds. They’re good seconds though, ones where the world is dark and exciting and anything could happen,” the story begins.
“I could kill someone. I could kill myself. I could wake up in a hospital, disoriented and afraid, bandaged and beautiful, grateful and newly religious. It wouldn’t matter where I was going or where I was coming from. There’d be an investigation but nobody would ever know that my eyes were closed.”
Mazin, who has an English degree from the University of Western Ontario, studied creative writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College, and thinks there is “nothing sexier than a perfect sentence.” She wrote a novel titled The Nature of Them, which is a “big story,” inspired by her favourite movie, The Ten Commandments.
“I watched it over and over again as a kid. So, my book is a big story, too. It’s a modern-day allegory for the Twelve Labours of Hercules,” she said.
“I wanted to write a big story that has everything in it – mystery, adventure, love, family dysfunction – I wanted to cram everything I love into one story, which is ambitious, but I have been working on it, editing it, re-writing it for three years.”
In addition to reworking her novel, Mazin has also begun adapting one of her short stories into a screenplay, and is collaborating with Mike Gallay, a Toronto-based writer and producer, on a script for a television series set in Toronto. Recently, a producer asked her to adapt a book into a film script.
Mazin, who supplements her writing career working for her father who runs a furniture business, knows all about struggling in an unforgiving industry.
Although there have been a number of writers and producers who have shown interest in her work over the years, promising to help her turn her manuscript into a film or TV series, they often disappear from her life as quickly as they appeared.
“When you get rejected, it’s personal and emotional… It’s my dream to publish this book. It’s so difficult to pick myself up after a rejection, to keep going, to keep editing, to keep sending it out. It hasn’t gotten easier. I don’t think my skin has thickened. I usually cry for a day, then take a few days break, then wake up and get back to it. Stories like J.K Rowling’s keep me motivated. It only takes one.”
Despite the struggle, Mazin said she’ll never give up on her writing career.
“I love it. I can’t not do it. Every writer says if you can do anything else, do anything else, but I think if you’re in the room to hear that comment, you don’t really have a choice… If you could escape it, you would escape it, because it is hell to have doors slammed in your face all the time,” she said.
“Writing nourishes me in a way that I can’t really explain. It’s therapeutic. I can’t help but write. The choice isn’t in whether I write, the choice is in putting it out there and trying to become something from it and I want that. I really want that. I think everyone is like that.