Meeting Anna Smaill is almost like a scene from a modern James Bond movie. Hurrying up the stairs of Aotea Centre, she is not aware that I am following right behind her. Once inside the lobby, she reaches for her phone. Before I can say hello, the phone in my pocket starts to ring. Anna slowly turns around, puzzled, still holding her phone close to her ear. We find ourselves in an awkward moment. We don’t know what to do with our hands – greet each other or turn off the phones. Looking at each other, we burst out laughing, leaving the phones to echo around the lobby.
Even though Anna published her debut novel The Chimes at the beginning of this year, she is definitely not a new name in New Zealand literary landscape. Her poetry featured in Best New Zealand Poems in 2002 and 2005, as well as numerous journals and magazines, before it found a permanent home in her first collection of poetry Violinist in spring (2006). Despite her dedicated academic pursuits – Masters in English Literature (Auckland University), Masters in Creative Writing (IIML, Victoria University of Wellington) and a PhD (University College London) – she never felt entirely suited for academic world. Most of all, she enjoys writing fiction. “It’s because it draws on all parts of me and it’s fun.” She quickly adds how “really really hard” it sometimes is.
Her musical background has evidently marked not only her poetry but also her prose. Themes and style of The Chimes, dystopian novel set in alternative England, stem from the idea of music as an overpowering and navigating force of reality. An immense musical instrument, the Carillon, controls lives of remaining population. Brainwashing happens regularly with Matins, which tells “Onestory” – the only acceptable truth about the “Allbreaking”, the fatal discord, that broke with the past (now refered to as a “blasphony”) and established the present order. This is followed by violent erasing of – not only personal but collective memory as well – at Vespers with the Chimes. Among “memoryloss”, people who have suffered incurable damage, and “prentisses”, workforce which helps maintain the functioning of this complex musical tyranny, run by the Order, are outcasts. They forge for the “Lady”, a metal substance out of which the Carillon is made, and hold on to their “objectmemories”, the only remnants of their previous lives and selves. These enable them to trigger and nurture their personal memories.
The main character of the story, Simon, is a young orphan, who joins the pact of outcasts and soon realizes he possesses a special talent, that might change everything. With its unique style, which draws from the music, myriads of themes, relevant to a present day, and a clever narrative this work holds a reader in a grasp of perplexity and amazement until the very end.
I met up with Anna at Auckland Writers Festival to talk about her work, her life and The Chimes – of course.
Lives of people in The Chimes basically depend on their memories. What are your first memories of books, reading or libraries?
We used to go religiously to the library on Friday nights with my family. But I used to go to the library every day on my own after school as well, so it was almost like a second home for me. On Friday night we actually got the books out and we had a big red sack that we filled with books. I remember coming home and feeling reassured and excited. It was a bit like coming home from a supermarket after you just bought enough food for the week – only that I had enough reading material for a week. I was a total bookworm. Also, my family didn’t have a television.
We, children, were really lucky as our parents read to us a lot. I do remember the frustration before learning to read. I was trying to get my sister to read out Tintin comics for me. I also remember wishing to escape to my room to be able to read in peace during children’s parties. I found reading much more exciting.
Libraries are – just like museums and galleries – treasurers of collective memory. What is your opinion on cutting down library fundings, which is becoming a real fashion all around the world?
It’s a worrying development. People have a right to access literature. I do see it as a worrying sign. Although here in New Zealand libraries are so much part of the community, they are used by a broad section of the community and they feel very vital. In the UK, it didn’t feel like they were being that well used. There is more time to go to the library, here in New Zealand. In UK people are time-poor.
What has brought you to writing? Where does the need to write stem from? Is it just the fear of letting memories slip away, as you mentioned in a post on your web page, or are there any other inner motives and impulses?
The first impulse is the sense of time going past. It’s almost having the experience of pathos in the moment, having feeling of something happening that is already gone. I’ve always had very acutely this feeling of things being transient and ephemeral and I wanted to capture them.
I definitely think the impulse to write first came from that. Of course it is also a way of working things out for me. Just to process my experiences, work out what I think about things. It always seemed a necessary thing to me. And also it’s a great entertainment.
When did you realize that writing is what you want to do in your life?
It’s constantly evolving. I still find it difficult to say, that I’m a writer. I find it quite hard to declare that. I only found it more free to say it after my novel was published. Writing a novel seems to be more of a legitimate job than being a poet. It is probably because of the difference how we perceive those different forms.
I always knew I wanted to write and I knew it will always be a part of my life. I don’t think I really framed it in terms of career for a long time. I tender to think when I was young I was quite earnest, I always thought about things in terms of vocation. You had to have this strong vocational drive, that was your calling. For me it was always a bit of a battle between music and writing. I gave a lot of my energy in that way to music. I made a specific decision when I stopped playing violin that the energy I put into playing really did need to be channelled into writing.
Writing fiction for me is all encompassing. I feel like I can stretch out in all different ways.
The narrative in The Chimes is very intriguing. It is narrated by Simon, who’s capability to remember is – like so many other’s – in danger of ceasing. How did you manage to overcome this “narrative stumbling block” that you set upon yourself? I personally think it works ingeniously as it keeps reader constantly intrigued.
The first third of the book, where I set up the narrative constraint and the plot structure, took forever. It took me three times longer compared to the rest of the book. It took a long time and it was really, really hard. Some of the things I solved out only before I’ve sent the book out to the agents.
I felt the rhythm. The rhythm of how I wanted the revelation to feel– the moment when you realize what’s been going on.
I felt that in some part of me, but actually making it happen and achieving it was difficult. I definitely learned a lesson about pacing in the story while writing Chimes.
Your writing style is really remarkable. It keeps reader on the edge, lingering between unfamiliarity and fascination. It seems like it communicates on another level – through feelings, atmosphere, intuition, musical jargon. It almost feels like it communicates with a reader in another language.
The main thing for me was to try and communicate that emotion and the feeling. That was really the most important part. As a writer you always try to measure what your reader’s reaction, the experience will be. The first part is probably the hardest for the reader. That’s when Simon is still trying to work out what is going on. Once he hits his drive, than the narrative is more straight forward. I think a lot of readers have felt it is difficult at first, it’s almost like an immersion.
Simon, the main character, is a role model of a memory keeper. Do you think he would be a good librarian?
I think he would be a very good librarian actually. He is a writer in a way, because he retains memory. He has a sense of loss of the moment and wanting to hold on to it. But what he does, he’s got an archive of his own memories and he’s carrying it and looking after it. He’s trying to excavate that knowledge and put it together as a story, as a narrative. He would be a person who values artefacts of our culture. He is a bit more instinctive than rational, so he might need some help with categorization and Dewey. He’s also somebody who wants to retain public knowledge.
A lot of words in the book are made up words, but resonate the meaning. What about the names of main characters? Where did they come from?
Simon and Lucien didn’t come out of research. They really struck me. I think the words often embed the meaning in themselves and I feel like I am quite pulled to that. Lucien – lucent, luminous – there is obviously some light in that name. It must be a subconscious thing. For me Simon came from Rosemary Sutcliff novel Simon, one of the first novels I remember was read to me by my dad. I don’t remember much of a plot but it really stuck with me. Simon is also related to Simonides, the Greek poet who invented the idea of spatial memory and memory colours.
Where do you get the ideas from?
I had an idea of world dominated by music, or at least part of the world that was governed by music. Sort of a school to improve the awareness and training of music. I had this idea of a huge, enormous musical instrument. I traced factors, influences. I read Herman Hesse’s The glass bead game, which shows a point in human history when people got tired of multiplicity of voices, information and conflicting versions of the truth and returned to an ideal of a pure reason, which they accessed through scholarly endeavour. I read that as a teenager and been really affected by it, it’s been lingering in the back of my mind.
The idea of navigating by music was possibly from having read Bruce Chatwin The Songlines about Aboriginal myth and the creation myth of singing into being, where journeys of mythic ancestors were recorded through a song. That really imbedded in my head. And personal experience as well. I was convinced I will express myself by playing violin, but then the disenchantment came and I reached a point beyond which I did not want to continue. That definitely informed the story as well.
Themes in The Chimes stretch from very personal, intimate to communal and social. Themes of manipulation, repression, structuring reality through media, the importance of personal and collective memory and identity, thin line between harmony and tyranny, order vs. chaos, natural talent vs. obtained skill, perfection vs. humanity, exploration of your own skills and your own identity, freedom and love … I like to see parallels between Chimes and the power of media as a structuring devices of our reality.
That’s why we have to continually keep those channels of expression sharp, we can become brainwashed in a sense that we forget there’s always an agenda behind communication. For me it was very personal story – the battle between allowing multiple versions of reality … or drive towards the purity of expression. I think that’s often a battle in art. I have a feeling we all personally go through historical process, we all go through our own era of romanticism, modernism, postmodernism, we experience that. I got stuck in a romanticism and in the sense of purity. That was really powerful for me. The pain, the sense of not meeting it was very strong. But you can’t continue to create art work in that vein, it’s not historically relevant in the same way.
We still feel all those things in us and crave for them. I think that’s what the book is about as well, that growing up experience. You might seek something outside yourself, this pure thing, a platonic ideal, but really it’s intangible because it’s quite a violent thing as well. You can’t make expression static, because it shuts down time. Also, you can only sustain purity by repressing the chaos and the mess.
Your daily routine when you write. How does your work space look like? Do you need pure harmony or a bit of creative mess around you?
At the moment, a bit of both. I’m still really working this out. I started The Chimes in a chaotic space – mentally. I was in between jobs and wasn’t sure what I was doing. I finished my PhD but there was no jobs in my area in the UK. I was working in a couple of different jobs. That time offered a space that was opened again, exciting and full of possibilities. But I didn’t know how to support myself imaginatively. My husband is a writer and he will make his office work. He’ll have pictures up on his wall, building his imaginative world.
I didn’t admit myself to what I was doing, I was just writing in between. I didn’t make a sacred space in which to write. But when I came back to New Zealand, our daughter went to childcare for two days a week. A house we were renting had an office and that was my space. It still wasn’t a perfect writer’s den, but it was my space for two days a week. That’s the only time when I started developing the ritual, which is basically: a pot of tea, sit down and write. I always try to write longhand when I’m composing, away from my computer. Only later I type it up. I’m writing new passages by hand, I never tend to write new prose onto computer.
Why is that?
I think it’s a physical memory thing. I feel like I write better when I’m writing longhand. I edit on the screen and I do compose passages on the screen while I’m editing. But I think there’s something the way my brain is connected to the process of writing. It’s something we do from when we are little. I end up trusting those passages more than things I write on the screen. I like having the physicality of the pages to go back to and look at. It’s almost like a ritual, the ritual of doing it. When you write like that, you sort of trick yourself into special mode of being, mode of thinking.
Another thing I did when I was writing Chimes, was that I would put it on my Kindle and formated it so it looked like a printed book. For some reason it made me think about it in a different way – it made me read it as a reader would. I took longhand notes on the notebook and transferred them into the computer document. It was one of the best uses of Kindle. It was a bit like printing it out, you can sort of distance yourself from it.
Books vs. e-readers?
Definitely books. Hopefully we won’t have to choose. There is a place for Kindle, it retains and stores things so easily. You can conserve them. But I do think the ritual around books is important.
Your advice to young writers?
My advice is really predictable. Read. Read as much as you can. Read and write. You learn by doing it. Write what you find exciting and fun. Don’t feel like you’ve got to do some sort of worthy text or you’ve got to do something serious. You can always tell when a writer is enjoying in what he or she writes, or when the writing is coming from a place of strength and conviction.
Don’t be afraid of imitating, because we learn by imitating. If you’re going to copy a book that really excited you, that’s how you develop your own voice. No one knows your life and your story. More time you spend thinking about your own story, the better it is. If you try and set yourself to write something grave, deep and meaningful for a broad audience, you will probably end up running tired clichés, but if you talk about your own life and think about that really hard, that’s how you reach the true universal ideas.
That’s been said lots and lots of times but it is important to trust that. So write about your corner of the world, where you live, your experience.
Who are the most inspiring authors for you?
The key book for The Chimes was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. I read that at the crucial point and it changed everything for me. It was really exciting and revelational. When I think of writers that inspired me I think of the writers I read as a young adult or as a child: Rosemary Sutcliff, Margaret Mahy, K. M. Peyton. I love Marilynne Robinson, Philip Hensher and NZ contemporary authors like Pip Adam, Carl Shuker, Bill Manhire …
I ask Anna a few questions from Proust’s questionnaire. (All these questions took Anna quite long to answer, as they usually do, except the last one, which is my own addition to Proust’s list).
Who would you like to be for a day?
(long pause of brainstorming)
Your favourite hero/heroine in fiction?
Pierre from War and Peace. He’s so socially awkward – I related to that awkwardness.
The natural talent you would like to be gifted with?
To be more physically gifted – run or swim fast. An athlete.
Into which era of history would you like to travel and why?
Not personally but more like a fly on a wall I would love to be in London in Bloomsbury era.
Cake vs. pie?
Just like every James Bond movie has to end, so does our encounter. Cake is a good way to finish off with, so I let Anna go. I wish her endless inspiration and creativity to accompany her on her future writing adventures. She signs and writes a kind dedication into my copy of The Chimes – my personal “objectmemory” to remind me of the laughs we shared during our chat. I did not include them in the blog/interview – there would be no end to it. But if you know how to listen very carefully, like Simon does, you might hear them in the bass line.