Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival: Chime In! with Anna Smaill

cv_the_chimesWhen I was asked which sessions I wanted to cover for Booksellers NZ, the session that immediately popped out at me was “Chime In!”, a session with Anna Smaill, poet, PhD, trained musician and author of debut novel The Chimes. Part of the reason I was immediately intrigued was because I, too, am a trained musician, and The Chimes was described in the DWRF pamphlet as “set in dystopian future England where reading and writing have been banned and music, rather than words, is the organizing principle of life”.

pp_anna_smaillSo I was excited to see Anna Smaill sit down with Emma Neale to discuss writing, music and everything in between – and I wasn’t disappointed. After briefly introducing Smaill, Neale kicked off by asking Smaill about the risks and rewards of writing a book set in the future, saying “speculative fiction takes all sorts of risks that realist fiction can’t”. According to Smaill, the whole experience was “scary but hugely liberating and enabling” as it turned novel-writing into a constant process of problem-solving – an interesting way to think about writing a novel. She noted that her background in poetry meant that she tended to solve such novelistic problems poetically, or in a symbolic or metaphorical way. This intersection between poetry and novel writing came up later in the session as well; despite feeling liberated by going into prose, Smaill’s poetry impulses still came along for the ride, to the point that she had to curb some of them. It was funny to hear her talk about looking at a paragraph, thinking, ‘Oh, I can say all that in a sentence or two’, then realizing that she was writing a novel and cutting huge chunks out would probably be counterproductive!

The Chimes also interacts with music in an interesting way – the text is interwoven with musical terminology as a kind of urban slang, and one of the features of Smaill’s dystopian world is that the characters experience memory loss when they hear the sound of the carillon, a type of giant chime made up of bells (above). Smaill herself studied performance violin at the University of Canterbury before eventually changing course towards writing; for her there was always “an argument between music and language” and in her case language won out. However it’s clear that music has informed her aesthetics and thought. She drew a comparison between the very human impulse, often seen in classical music, to strive for perfection and thus excise what is messy and flawed, and the ideals of fascism. She further said that there seemed to be a conceit that art can be refined to a point where you don’t have to be involved in humanity. She also noted that in music, it’s very easy to separate body from mind, and to even see the body as getting in the way of expressing oneself creatively to the fullest extent – and that separation was essentially a violent one. This, along with the other musical aspects of The Chimes, intrigued the audience. One audience member asked about the use of musical terminology in the prose (Smaill’s reading of an excerpt from the book included the sentence “He sat back lento [slowly]”). Smaill acknowledged that some readers had found it demanding but that other writers (I could think of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, though she referred to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker) used much more degraded language or were attempting much more challenging linguistic projects than hers.

This absorbing session ended all too quickly, and Smaill’s thoughtful, articulate and often funny answers to Neale’s questions clearly impressed the audience, given the stream of people who bought her book from the University Bookshop counter straight after the session. And yes, I was one of those people. The book and the session both sounded too good for me to leave empty-handed.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus, from the event on Sunday 10 May

Anna Smaill will be talking about The Chimes at an event called ‘Memory Loss‘ at the Auckland Writer’s Festival this coming weekend.

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