Anna Smaill on The Chimes

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On the eve of this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist announcement, nominee Anna Smaill talks in-depth about her captivating debut novel, The Chimes.

Once an aspiring classical violinist, Auckland-born writer Anna Smaill later shifted her focus to the literary world. Emerging with her debut novel set in a dystopian London, The Chimes captures a world where memory and writing have both been abolished. In its place stands music: the melodious tunes of the mysterious Order wiping everyday into a clean slate. Featuring as Australasia’s sole nominee for this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, Smaill discusses the finer details around her fascination with memory and language, the experience of keeping journals, shifting from poetry to prose, and what she has lined up for her next literary venture.

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img_thechimesJIHEE JUNN: First of all, congratulations on the tremendous success you’ve had with your debut novel. The Chimes fits into a lot of genres and categories. I’ve seen it being described as fantasy, dystopian, and young adult fiction. The Man Booker Prize isn’t exactly known for nominating books that fit any of those genres. Did that make the longlisting even more of a surprise?

ANNA SMAILL: Thanks very much, that’s really kind of you to say. And yes, it did actually. I think you probably internalise a certain amount of expectation based on past Man Booker nominations. But I suppose the thing to say is that it’s always a different judging panel. So the sum total of different tastes must evolve every year—or must change every year, not necessarily evolve. I do think I sort of assumed that the Man Booker Prize typically rewards more realist fiction. So it was a surprise. I was hugely surprised. Although when I think back to things like David Mitchell’s work that’s been both short and longlisted for the prize, that’s also worked, which is quite genre-crossing and not easy to pin hole or categorise.

JJ: Do you like the fact that the book is quite ambiguous? That it’s hard to pin down for critics and readers?

AS: Yeah… it’s all, to me, sort of after the fact. Because when I was writing it, I didn’t think a lot about genre. The key experience of writing it was an awareness that it was fitting into the mould of a young adult model. But that it was also bending and kind of breaking that mould. The things that I wanted to write about were the linguistic interest and some of the structural things… So that was the key element in terms of genre. It was only after the fact that I realised the potential crossover with literary and genre fiction.

The interesting thing about dystopia is that typically it is a genre mode that taps into sci-fi, speculative fiction, and fantasy. But at the same time, there’s quite a strong tradition of dystopia being very literary as well. For me, one of the signal models was Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which is a very literary novel for all its sci-fi and speculative cred. And then you’ve got people like Emily St. John Mandel. So dystopia’s an interesting crossover genre which is quite multiple anyway. I think I was probably aware of fitting into that.

JJ: You mentioned your interest in linguistics. You substitute a lot of the language in The Chimes with musical vernacular which makes the prose feels very sensory and synesthetic. What was your reasoning behind that? How did the idea come about?

AS: In a strange way the musical terminology was quite simplistic. It was simply slotting words in and replacing elements of vocabulary. In a world dominated by music, it seemed instinctive or natural that certain musical terms would have flowed into the way in which people speak. In terms of the other language, I did have a strong sense that I wanted the language to reflect the way memory was affecting consciousness. But it does move towards the sensory and synesthetic. I’m really pleased that you felt that.

If you don’t have long term memory and you don’t have the ability to structure your experience over time, then presumably the things that affect you more deeply are in the immediate, real, present, concrete world. There’s also this idea of a combinatory effect with language—you might have two concrete physical planes that you combine to get the nuance that you lose in other faculties. So the use of colour terms and textural things being mixed together, like ‘riverscum’ or ‘greengrey’. Those words are a way of replacing more abstract terminology we use. But the language evolved a lot over the process of writing. There was a combination of things which represented the consciousness of the book and some which were simply replacements for existing words that seemed appropriate.

JJ: It’s interesting because the written word has been abolished in the world of The Chimes. How important do you think the written word is as a vehicle for memory and history?

AS: Well, it’s the million dollar question. Because it’s this old argument, and by no means am I a scholar of theory around memory. There’s—and don’t quote me on this—the idea that writing was going to eradicate memory because it’s a prosthetic. It’s a tool we use that makes us not rely on our natural abilities for memory. So writing is actually seen as this sort of weakness that would degrade the human brain. Of course, every generation or era of thought has these technologies that shift the way we see memory. Now we’ve got digital recollection and digital archives. We don’t need to remember things. We can Google them. But against the idea that writing was somehow a weakness, now we’re so reliant on it that it makes you realise how anachronistic that kind of thinking can be. To me, it’s utterly crucial. I feel like I structure my memory and the way I understand my experiences through writing. I’d be lost without the written word. I’m scared of being without the ability to read or write. That’s probably where a lot of the fear in the book comes from.

JJ: Obviously you’re quite obsessed with the concept of memory. And I agree that memory is such a fascinating and strange thing. Why do you think you’ve been so fascinated by it for such a long time?

AS: I think that it is something that’s evolved. I’ve kept journals from quite a young age. There’s a certain element of just observing the past which I’ve always done and judging the present vis-à-vis the past. And in some ways, being prescriptive on my own ability to remember, and being quite idealistic about the past and judging myself as to whether or not I’m retaining those memories. But I’m not really sure where it came from. I don’t think it’s something I can particularly trace.

JJ: You mention that you kept journals and diaries. Do you ever go back and read what you wrote? What kind of reactions have you had? Is it embarrassment? A profound sense of nostalgia?

AS: Probably both. Especially that phase when you’re going through adolescence and you’re really self-conscious in the way you write. So yeah, reading diaries from that period… it’s cringe worthy! I also feel sad for my past self in certain situations when I was very stringent in terms of the ideals I had. Really, I was very young and I didn’t know much. I didn’t have much experience of the world and it wouldn’t have taken much to open that up. And because I was quite shy as a teenager and as a young adult, I often I look back and think, “You’re just overthinking everything!” But I respect it as well because there’s a kind of intensity that it brings. It’s a mix. You always recognise yourself but you’re totally different as well. “The past is a foreign country.” It’s true of your own self as much as memory as well.

JJ: There are a lot of works out there that deal with the subject of memory. Films like Christopher Nolan’s Memento and books like Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon which you read when you were younger. Did any other existing works inspire you in tackling the subject in the novel?

AS: In terms of cultural memory, and the way you can have these sort of lingering artefacts of a pre-existing cultural memory, that was certainly something I was thinking about in relation to Riddley Walker, where they’ve got these remnants of stories and language that tie back to a modern contemporary past that we’d recognise, with space travel and nuclear weapons. But because it’s a past that’s now returned to an iron age, pre-modernity, it’s refracted and broken and they can’t understand it. They’ve become kind of riddles or fables or just runes that you repeat but you don’t know the meaning of. So that really influenced me.

The structure of Memento was always so intriguing to me. I never fully grasped how it worked. It was so well mapped out, and I don’t think my book ever quite attained that kind of water-tight structure, largely because the plot was so much more capacious, while the film is over a really brief period of time. At the moment [memory] seems to be a topic that’s present in people’s minds. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel came out just like a few weeks after mine. The main theme in The Buried Giant is memory and a kind of cultural forgetting. It’s a really contemporary preoccupation. There’s a certain level of anxiety around it at the moment.

JJ: The book actually got me thinking whether the absence of memory could allow you to live more fully in the present because there’s no past and there’s also no point in thinking of the future.

AS: Yeah, I think there’s a real argument to be made. For me, there’s an intoxication in entering the world of Simon because he has to live in the present. The strength of the ties between people—like the pact—and the trust you’ve got to have cuts through all the abstraction that we deal with on a day-to-day basis, all the convolution and complication of contemporary social structures. So there’s a sense of nostalgia, a returning to a pre-modern existence where the most important thing is to know your immediate surroundings and your tribe, your family, your community, or your village. I thought the strength of the relationships really came out of the fact that they didn’t have those stories. They had to rely on their sensory impressions and instincts. And that’s where the love between Simon and Lucien develops because it’s a gut thing. It’s not a thought through, emotional connection. As you say, it’s lived in the present. In terms of a contemporary philosophy for living, I don’t think it’s a trade-off I would ever make. [Laughs] But it’s worth thinking about. There’s something quite resonant there.

JJ: I also wanted to talk a bit about the character of Simon who seems to have captured your imagination quite vividly. What was it about Simon that pushed you to write this novel?

AS: I don’t know. I really feel like he came out of an experience of reading, or being as a young adult. I felt his voice came from an earlier age for me. It’s hard to explain that.

JJ: Kind of like a bit of nostalgia back to an earlier time?

AS: Yeah, but it wasn’t really conscious. With nostalgia you’re often conscious of that sweetness. Whereas it felt more like I was just being transported back into that. There’s an age when you read almost without gender. Particularly as a girl, for me, I would just read and become the character, the protagonist, and fully identify with them whether it’s a male or a female. I don’t know if men or young men read in the same way, but I did. Simon was a figure of vulnerability but also bravery and questing, and the author who I most connect his character with is a writer—my Dad and Mum used to read us lots of her books—called Rosemary Sutcliff. She rewrote a lot of early English myth, like Knights of the Round Table legends, and also historical fiction for young adults, and there was something about her protagonists. Very matter-of-fact, beautiful rhythmic language, and really strong true stories for young adults. There’s something about those stories that stuck with me and there’s an element of them in Simon.

He also came out of my experience of London. I was living next to Hampstead Heath when I started writing the book. Like literally next door: you could enter the Heath from the street that we lived on. London is a very modern city, but then you go into a park like Hampstead Heath—which is more than a park, it’s this sort of sprawling wilderness—and you’re back however many centuries. You feel like you’ve entered a different era, and that connection spurred Simon as well. Walking through that, I could imagine being in post-apocalyptic world because in parts of it, you can’t see any houses or roads. So I think he came from a lot of different places.

I felt so lucky that he emerged as a character because in some ways, he’s quite similar to me, and in other ways, he’s not. He’s a male voice, he’s young, and he has a completely different worldview and experience. It was refreshing to think and challenging to write from that perspective. And that actually made it easier in a way because instead of trying to think of how to write well—eloquently or beautifully in a way that reflected my thoughts—the disjunction was what fired him as a character. It was the hardness and the trickiness of writing in a different voice that made him come alive for me.

JJ: And you also touched on this before—was there any reason you wanted to include a romance between the two main male characters? Between Lucien and Simon?

AS: The book had a shape in my head, a narrative arc. I felt like I knew the rhythm of the book and the revelations that I wanted to have happen. But I didn’t have the romance plotted into it. I thought something might evolve, but thought that it would occur between Simon and Sonja. I knew there was going to be a girl waiting in the Citadel, in the heart of the Order. She was this pivotal character and I thought, “Maybe that’s where there might be some potential for a relationship.” But then it took me by surprise. As soon as it clicked, I realised that it had been there all along and it was really obvious. So it wasn’t something I planned, but when I did realise that it was there, it was so delightful. You know when you read a book or you watch a movie and there’s the tension between two characters and then it evolves? And you have this vicarious fission of romance that you experience? Writing it was similar to that. It’s a delight watching a relationship unfold.

JJ: What about the centrality of music and having music as the centrepiece of the world of The Chimes? Did that happen naturally or did you plan that from the beginning?

AS: It had always been there, from the very start of conceiving the idea of the novel. It was at the core of a story where the world was dominated by music or an elite group structured around the intellectual idealism of music. The more destructive elements of the weapon and the force of music evolved later as I began to realise that this voice… it was a dystopia. That it wasn’t just a fantasy, and that had these ties to a potential futuristic London. But it very much structured the way I thought about the book.

JJ: Although The Chimes is your first novel, you’ve actually had work published in the form of a collection of poems: The Violinist in Spring which was published in 2005. What was the transition like from writing poetry to writing long form prose? Or were the two always part of your writing repertoire?

AS: No, they were quite distinct. I really hadn’t written any prose since I was a 13 year old in high school. Poetry felt natural as a transition from music. It had the intensity and it had the micro-focus that suited my mindset when I was coming out of playing the violin. Prose really felt like a departure from all of that. Not that I felt like I was circumscribed by poetry. I’d been doing my PhD in contemporary poetry and I’d been very much infinitesimally focused, looking at the major repercussions of the minor decisions about lineation or word choice or punctuation. There was something quite liberating about returning to narrative, especially because when you’re studying contemporary poetry, narrative is almost this forbidden area. It felt naughty or dangerous to return to just storytelling and enjoying stories. But they did feel very distinct and it was a big learning curve writing long form prose in terms of structure. As with anyone who’s writing a first novel, you have to really learn as you go.

JJ: I also feel like writing is a very personal and solitary form, even if you know that it’s going to be read by the public. What was the feeling for you when this story, which was once just a figment of your imagination, came out into the open for people to read?

AS: It’s a strange process. When I wrote it, I really did feel like I was writing it for myself, in secrecy, undercover. But at the same time, I still had a certain confidence. It was always my goal to get it published, so I felt like it was just a process of coming to terms with that and shifting gears to think about it in a slightly different way. But the thing is with a debut novel, it’s a gradual [process]. For me, I had my agent read it first which was a massive novelty, and he shared it with other people in his agency. And then obviously people are reading it when it’s submitted to editors at publishing houses. So it creeps up on you. And then there’s the editorial process: the copyeditor, the proofread, and all these different people who read it. The hardest part of it is when it goes out in proof form for the first time to first readers or reviewers even before it’s published. There’s a lot of waiting for word of what it’s doing out in the world, which is quite an ambiguous time because you don’t really know how to judge any of it. I think the gradualness [of it] is like a learning curve. You learn what to expect. You get a lot of different chances to second guess and doubt yourself and then revive your enthusiasm and confidence. So you’ve got this microcosm of the publishing experience happening. I’m still not used to it. When people come up and say they’ve read the book, it’s still quite a surprise to me.

JJ: It’s must be quite alarming.

AS: [Laughs] Particularly when it’s someone you know. It’s like: “Oh God, really? Did you?” You kind of want to disappear immediately.

JJ: Lastly, what’s in store for you in the future? Any new stories or ideas currently brimming in your mind?

AS: I’m working on a new novel at the moment. It’s the famous difficult second novel scenario where you suddenly start thinking about it in a different way, and you’re far more self-conscious about your decisions. There’s this funny thing about writing which is that when it’s not going well, it’s like the worst. It’s a particular type of difficulty that’s unique to starting a novel or struggling with a novel. But then the rewards are so intense and so intoxicating. So in some ways, I’m more familiar with some of those rhythms. I’m out, and then the breakthrough, the long fallow periods, and then the waiting. While you don’t need to start completely new, every novel is a completely different beast, so I do feel like I’m going to learn it again to a certain extent. I think it’ll be quite different from The Chimes. It’s set in contemporary Tokyo. I think there’ll still be fantasy elements but I’m working out how they’re going to be balanced. There’s definitely going to be far more of a realist strain. I’ll keep you posted.

Anna Smaill recently spoke at the Going West Books & Writers Festival. ‘The Chimes’ was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in July. The shortlist is announced on September 15.