Music to the ears

Wellington author Anna Smaill at Dunedin Railway Station this month. Photo by Gregor Richardson
Wellington author Anna Smaill at Dunedin Railway Station this month. Photo by Gregor Richardson
Anna Smaill reads an extract from The Chimes at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. Photo...
Anna Smaill reads an extract from The Chimes at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival. Photo by Linda Robertson

Wellington author Anna Smaill's debut novel The Chimes is set in a dystopian London, where the written word is outlawed and memory has been sacrificed to music, the ruling principle, a form of mind control. ODT books editor Helen Speirs sat down with the writer, who is being touted as our next Booker Prize contender, when she came south to appear in the recent Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival.

Music and poetry flow through the veins of Anna Smaill in the same way as they do in her lyrical debut novel, The Chimes.

The youthful-looking 36-year-old has arrived to our interview sans publicist or agent. She is open and engaging and more than willing to talk honestly about herself, her writing and her ''obsessions''.

The Auckland-born Wellington author grew up playing the violin, and tells me it became tied to her identity especially in the ''instrumental'' years of her mid-teens. Naturally shy, music was the way she expressed herself and, although she wanted to be a vet when she was younger, she felt her career path was as a musician. To this end she began studying towards a performance music degree at the University of Canterbury.

It is therefore something of a shock to learn she never completed that particular degree (although she has a raft of other academic qualifications to her name) and has also stopped playing the violin.

''It's quite eerie in a way. The book is full of music, and yet my life at the time was not. It was very far from my life.''

She admits the performance music degree was ''challenging emotionally'' and it became clear it wasn't what she wanted to do with her life, and although playing the violin was a way ''to express myself, an idealistic goal'' she says it ''had always been really fraught, as well''.

''It never felt like a very natural means of expression to me.

''Human beings have this tendency towards dualism, where you've got this idea that you've got the mind and the spirit, which is pure and perfect, and the body, which is messy and constraining.

''My experience of playing was similar. I had this idea in my mind that I wanted to execute and my body was hampering that.''

There was an ''aggression'' in the need for perfection versus the requirement to play music in the moment, and she felt ''the tyranny in that''.

It's an insight into the world of The Chimes.

The sense of conflict is something she explores in the dystopian novel, where the populace is controlled by music, and memories of the world ''before'' or dreams of the ''hereafter'' are considered ''blasphony''.

In music and art she says, ''you get the puritanical drive to perfect and cleanse away the body in that sort of spiritual, religious process''.

''I was interested in that impulse and the way in which societies do that as well.

''When does it become despotic, when does it tip into control?''

Control in her dystopian vision is exerted by a group called the Order, through a giant Carillon, an actual musical instrument comprised of bells (there is one in Wellington) and the original title of the book, changed by her agent because the pronunciation was problematic. (We laughingly agree The Chimes has a better ''ring'' to it.)

The Carillon is made of the rare silver metal palladium. Its associations with music (used in concert flutes), radiance, purity (among its uses are in catalytic converters in cars) as well as being a byproduct of nuclear fission (giving it ''a sense of apocalypse'') made it the perfect symbolic choice, Smaill says. The idea of waste and value were important and ''the idea of mining and seeking and treasure hunting is a compelling one; proving one's mettle''.

The Carillon sounds the ''Onestory'' (the Order's explanation of the world after the chaos of the ''allbreaking'') and the more powerful ''Chimes''. This great leveller fills the sky and the minds of the populace outside the protected Citadel, eradicating their ''bodymemory'' and rendering them subservient. Some die from ''chimesickness''.

Early in the novel, the young narrator, Simon, attempts to explain the Chimes thus: ''Chimes is like a fist. It unclutches, opens. Starts like a fist, but then it bursts like a flowering . . .

''The chords wash over. They clean and centre me. The weight of the tonic goes down my spine and into the ground . . .

''It is not painful, not exactly, but nor is it without pain. I've seen men crying, certainly. But who's to say what it is they're crying for? It is so strong that one by one we crouch. Our foreheads in our knees, our skulls open to the sky.''

As well as the violence of submission, however, there is beauty in the musical world, which the reader experiences through the ears of Simon, who has journeyed from Essex to London, with only a bag of ''objectmemories'' and the thread of a melody relating to his dead parents and the sense he may find answers about them.

He is immediately struck by the noise of the city: traders sing their wares, instruments ''trompet'' official notices, a mother croons a ''simple lilted lullaby''. He says in awe: ''The whole city is talking in music.''

Music has eradicated the written word in The Chimes. This would seem to leave an inherent contradiction in telling her tale, but Smaill's written word is the language of music: presto, lento, subito, tacet, piano, adagio and cantabile fill the pages, the ''call sign'' used by the ragamuffin group of scavengers Simon joins, with its charismatic blind leader Lucien, is the ''comeallye'' (''faithful'' is the natural progression and implication).

Some of the terms such as ''downsounding'' (a translation from the Catholic catechism), add another quasi-religious layer to the novel. This is further echoed in the ''incantatory'' and meditative nature of the nursery rhymes Smaill uses throughout the novel.

Nursery rhymes are an ''elemental thing'' she says caused ''apprehension as a child'' and have ''always been strongly tied to imagination''.

Some worked fortuitously, notably ''London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady''.

''When I discovered the rhyme between lady and palladium [referred to colloquially in the novel as ''the fair lady''] ...

''You get a chime like that; you're making it but it's almost as if it precedes you.''

''You feel very lucky when it clicks in. It gives you confidence.''

She doesn't think readers require a musical knowledge to appreciate the book.

''Hopefully, if I've done my job OK, then it shouldn't require more than what most people will have.''

She says readers can easily look up any words which are unfamiliar, but says they ''possibly need a bit of tolerance for not being able to solve everything''.

''But I think the reason I employed that is in lots of ways that's the experience of the narrator as well; he can't solve things, and he can't understand, he can't piece it together.''

As well as the musical terms, Smaill blends words to construct new ones in the same way Keri Hulme did in The Bone People, so the ''thameswater'' is described as at once ''stonegrey, greybrown, mudbrown, stonegreen'', we hear the ''soundfabric'' of the city, and objects include ''cookstoves'' or might be ''woolsmelling''.

Recognisable London places are slightly altered to Batter Sea, Paul's and Fleet, the population includes pactrunners, prentisses and moonies, and much of the action takes place in the ''Under''.

In this hotchpotch of language, she has created a vernacular at once familiar, yet evocative of a different time and place.

I find several literary echoes, the most obvious among them in terms of their dystopian visions by British writers: Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker, both of which also use a created vernacular.

She acknowledges both, and says Riddley Walker, which she read just after finishing her PhD, was ''formative'', ''revolutionised my idea of fiction'' and was the single literary influence on her novel.

The New Zealand echoes are impossible to ignore, though. While not consciously using language the same way, she is ''quite happy'' with the comparison to Keri Hulme, who won the Booker Prize with The Bone People.

Smaill has been touted by some as our next Booker contender in the wake of Eleanor Catton's recent success. She finds the comparison to The Luminaries author ''deeply flattering'' but tries to distance herself by saying she is a very different writer and doesn't see her book as a ''literary novel'', the usual stuff of prizes.

She says she initially felt she had written a young adult novel, although she has come to see ''this has all been shaken up, and they are not mutually exclusive'' and hopes there is ''space for many different talented writers'' in our literary landscape as it ''sells New Zealand short to suggest there is only one model'' we can produce.

She is ''grateful'' though that Catton's win has shown how ''expansive and ambitious intellectual activity is here''.

The ''whole landscape has opened up'' and she has shown ''anything is possible''.

Despite her reluctance, I find it impossible not to note the similarities between the two authors in terms of youth, talent, intellect, character and looks.

The mellifluous language of The Chimes showcases Smaill's poetic voice.

She has written in one form or another for as long as she can remember.

''I remember writing poems when I was quite little and plays for finger puppets and things like that. And from quite early on keeping diaries quite earnestly.''

Poetry filled the gap left by music when she stopped playing violin.

''When I stopped it was very much a feeling of this massive gap, a sudden need, a vacuum.

''I really quite consciously felt I needed to transfer the brain processes I was using for violin into something otherwise those would disappear or I'd go a bit mad.

''I really felt that poetry was on that spectrum. The focus and micro-focus of practising the violin transferred to poetry.''

Her poetry collection, The Violinist in Spring, was published in 2005 and she had just completed a PhD on aspects of writing by contemporary American poets before she started writing The Chimes, from 2010 to 2013, although she had been mulling the ideas for the book since about 2008.

Her experience as a poet clearly informs her work as a novelist.

Through poetry she knew ''I didn't have the tools for plot, I think what I had was some of the tools for rhythm''.

Poetry also ''came in handy when I was editing because you have this drive towards concision'' although getting the ''balance between impulses'' - to pare back language when she had the luxury of length with a novel - was challenging sometimes.

But she relished writing a novel because ''it gave me the chance to be a complete novice again'' and also ''to have fun''.

''I enjoy stories ... I wanted to go back to that enjoyment of plot you have as a young reader and you get completely immersed in the narrative and dive into a world.''

That world is recognisably London. Smaill says it was the natural fit for The Chimes as she had been living there for several years while writing her PhD and it ''seeps into your consciousness''.

''It felt like the setting had declared itself.''

That was due in large part to the city's rich cultural and literary heritage, and she refers to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Charles Dickens' Great Expectations.

''You absorb those evocations''.

The sense of the ''ancient'' river Thames was powerful, more so than the buildings.

''It's like going to a pa site. You get that shiver of history.''

The river evoked the ''timelessness of London''.

''It's always flowing and always there, and was why London was valuable.''

She liked the sense of its layers, too: ''The idea of dredging up the elements of history and the river. It's hugely mysterious and exciting, and has been part of the cultural memory of the city, things like the mudlarks of Victorian times.

''There is that immediacy.''

Indeed, it was while crossing the Thames (on a bus on Waterloo Bridge) that Smaill ''clearly heard'' the voice of the narrator in dialogue with someone else she couldn't hear, who turned out to be the character Lucien.

''I had a sense of intimacy, trust ... and of love basically.''

''I got a really strong sense of the voice and the sort of darkness and deprivation of the world, that it was poor, dirty and hard to live.''

Thus, the idea she had for the novel which she had long had ''of a musical world, a school, a hierarchy, an elite group working with music as the form'' really ''took flight''.

Birds feature symbolically in The Chimes, notably the much-mythologised ravens, which are associated with the Tower of London.

''I always connect birds with language, the whole birds/words play.''

She also connects them with memory which, along with music, is the novel's major thread.

She is fascinated with the idea of memory and memory loss, and recalls writing about them in one of her first stories as a youngster, titled The Birds.

''I've always been very interested in the pathos of memory loss and what makes a person a person''.

She admits it is ''possibly a sense of idealising the past'' and she is aware of her own ''sense of wanting to hold on to things as they slipped past''.

''For me writing is very much about seeking to capture and make real experiences that otherwise are ephemeral.

''I've always been very nostalgic.''

She finds an irony, however.

''When you do capture things, often it alters your memory and almost removes memory.''

And she says in creating all the layers, elements and themes of the book: ''You realise your own obsessions.''

Another layer is religion.

She says while ''the idea of worship is definitely there'' it was more that she ''borrowed from the metaphors of religion''.

''I certainly wasn't intending to write a critique of religion. More the impulses that draw us towards extremism.

''But I think those can be quite personal impulses, too. That drive towards purity can happen in a very microcosmic as well as a macrocosmic way.''

I wonder too, whether she intended any moral to the book.

''That division between good and bad is hard to avoid in a dystopian novel but I tried to temper that by making it clear the Order weren't necessarily this solely malevolent force, there was a positive impulse there.

''The drive towards purity can be noble.

''What I was looking at was a desired balance between the two; to check the impulse - which I think I have myself, because that was my experience with music - towards an exclusive drive towards perfection and to seek a redeeming human multiplicity of meaning rather than this single unified drive towards some kind of ideal of perfected expression.''

If it is a middle ground she strives for, I feel Smaill has ''failed''. For in the creation of The Chimes, a highly imaginative ''brave new world'' with depth and complexity, a surprising love story to boot, and told in a voice and a language all her own, she has truly hit the high notes, reaching somewhere very close to perfection indeed.

I'm left with the sense there is much yet to come from this bright young mind; the pleasure will be in discovering what form it will take next.Anna Smaill

 


Anna Smaill

- Age 36.

- Born Auckland, lives Wellington with husband, novelist Carl Shuker, and their 3-year-old daughter.

- MA in creative writing, International Institute of Modern Letters (Wellington).

- MA in English literature, University of Auckland.

- PhD in contemporary American poetry, University College London.

- 2005 poetry collection, The Violinist in Spring, published by Victoria University Press.

- 2015 novel The Chimes, published by Hachette.

 


 

 

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