At MultiMediaMouth we like to be one step ahead of the game and this month we are happy to bring you an exclusive interview with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes; a stunning novel which sits somewhere in between dystopian and literary fiction. The book won’t hit the shelves until February 12th (I told you, we like to be one step ahead!), but we confidently predict already that this novel will be a huge success Paola Rizzato was able to ask Anna a few questions…
Paola Rizzato: It will come as no surprise to readers of The Chimes to learn that you have a background in music, specifically as a violinist. When did you realise that the avenue you wanted to pursue was writing? Do you still play?
Anna Smaill: Growing up I always wrote as well as playing the violin. Music and writing felt quite interdependent for me, and they tended to feed into each other. There’s a kind of brilliant meditative pay-off to practicing a musical instrument – you’re concentrating very hard on something abstract (the musical idea, or phrase, or the piece as a whole) at the same time as focusing on the physical (ie the way you’re holding a bow, or standing, or what the note actually sounds like). The effects of this sort of concentration would spill into my writing – you start hearing the words in a different way, thinking about the way they combine. You have a broader sense of the tonal effects and rhythms. Or, that’s how it seems to me on reflection. It’s also a great model for writing – the idea that you need to actively practise your craft, hone the physical and mental connections you’re making. I think it’s quite easy to assume that writing comes from on high in one awesome swoop of inspiration.
Things started coming unstuck with the music-writing balance when I started a degree in performance music. I was incredibly idealistic about music as a form of expression and hadn’t faced the practical realities of music as a career. The degree was intense and demanding and I had some fundamental technical problems as a violinist. The upshot was that I quickly lost confidence in my musical ability. At that time I was writing more and more, and it was really my way of understanding what I was going through. Music felt unstable, but language mostly held steady. When I stopped playing the violin, it felt like a complete break, a divorce almost. I don’t think I picked up the instrument at all for at least a year. Since then, I’ve returned to it, but usually in fits and starts. So, it does feel like an absence in my life at the moment, something to be remedied. I really want to return to that balance between the two. I’ve been thinking about learning a completely different instrument, actually. Maybe the trombone.
PR: The Chimes is an incredibly imaginative novel, but which can seem a little challenging at times because of the use of music terminology and metaphors. Were you aware of this when you were writing the book and did you ever make a decision to sacrifice accessibility in the name of style?
AS: To tell the truth, I was blissfully unaware of this while writing. Probably due to my own early immersion in music, I tend to assume that certain musical terms and concepts are more universal than they really are. I am also a fan of challenging books, books that make the reader work a bit, so that probably shaped what I was doing. But, I do think of the novel as a consummately social form – its history and its mechanics and conventions, they don’t exist in a vacuum, they’re shaped by audience. So, I think when it came to the plot and the rhythms of the book, I was always aware of an audience over my shoulder – it has to be plausible and parsable for a reader. It has to stand up by itself. I hope that this will encourage the reader to trust the book, and give them the confidence to push past any of the immediate resistance in the language.
PR: Here’s the inevitable ‘who are your literary influences’ question!
A.S: And the customary response: ‘too many to count’! I think the reading I did as a kid, and the books my parents read me, are a massive ongoing influence. I loved Rosemary Sutcliff in particular – the rhythms in her work are so weighty and simple and beautiful, and she has this amazing sense of the loneliness and intensity of being young. We got Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Katherine Paterson, Tolkien, all out loud – very lucky, as I think the stories enter your head in a different way when you listen like that. I stumbled on Tolstoy, Woolf, and George Eliot at a fairly early age, via my parents’ bookshelf, and that was world-changing. The New Zealand novelist Janet Frame made a massive impact on me, and in general I’m awed and swayed by Michael Ondaatje, Marilynne Robinson, Russell Hoban, Patrick Ness, Haruki Murakami, John Crowley, David Foster Wallace…the list goes on.
PR: Dystopian settings are en vogue at the moment, especially among YA novels, but although The Chimes is set in a dystopian London it doesn’t quite feel as though it belongs to the same genre. Why do you think dystopian settings are so popular is so popular with both readers and writers?
A.S: That’s a good question, and I think there are a lot of different answers. I think it probably appeals to the curiosity we have about being pushed to the limits. I think we are hungry to be tested. Particularly those of us who are living in ostensibly comfortable first-world environments, where we’re often cut off from neighbours and families, and from the natural world. There’s that old chestnut that suicide rates in London dropped during the second world war, and it makes a specific kind of sense. Human disasters push us to big decisions – what is most important to me? what will I protect? – and they push us into communities. I think there’s a nostalgia there – we probably miss that kind of immediacy, that sense of competence and human connection. There’s also the sense that every dystopia is simply a utopia waiting to happen – raze the world and you can start again from scratch, do it right. For YA readers, dystopias present a world in which teenagers can fight, overcome, wrest power, create a place for their own ideals, and that’s immensely seductive and powerful. But, I’m also really interested in what I think of as metaphysical dystopias. José Saramago’s Blindness, for example, or much of Kafka, Ballard, Janet Frame – they stage apocalypses which seem to be reflections of internal, personal or social breakdowns, ruptures that are somehow built into human existence, or can be stumbled across at any time. I think they’re all the more disturbing for that.
PR: And now, the inevitable ‘what will you be writing next’ question!
AS: I’m in the first stages of writing a book that is set in Tokyo, where I lived for two years before heading to London. It’s hard to tell at this point, but it seems likely to be rather sprawly and rather supernatural. However, it’s still very early in the game, so all bets are off.
Thank you, Anna, for talking to us!
Check out Paola’s review of The Chimes – out on 12 February 2015.