Q & A with Anna Smaill, author of The Chimes

Anna Smaill is the author of The Chimes, a post-apocalyptic novel I reviewed here recently. Smaill has previously published a book of poetry, The Violinist in Spring (VUP, 2005). The Chimes is a wonderful journey through music and emotion, I highly recommend it. We have two copies to give away this week, click through to enter.

My initial feeling when opening this book was ‘wow, a world full of song and music cv_the_chimes– how amazing’. This turns out to be such a bitter double-edged sword. What made you consider using music as saviour and disabler?
I think the seed of the idea probably came from my own relationship with music, which was also double-edged in this way. I love music, but I’ve also had periods of my life when I’ve felt cut off from it, where it has been difficult to play or even listen to it. I’m constantly intrigued by the way music operates on this higher, emotional realm, but also requires the utmost physical dedication, commitment and stamina. Keeping the two in balance seems to me quite an amazing feat for any player. I think when you separate the mind and body there’s a tendency to treat the body as a sort of machine. And in that is the potential for obsessive behaviour, even violence (as anyone who has seen the movie Whiplash can attest). The novel was really a way of pushing this idea further, as a sort of thought experiment.

Can you elaborate on the role of pactrunners, which Simon and Lucien are, in the society of the time?
Pactrunners are groups of young people who scavenge for palladium ore in the underground tunnels in London. They are parentless, highly competitive, and almost tribal – their territory is determined by the old tributaries of the lost London rivers. In the world of the novel, palladium emits a kind of silence – which is what makes it both valuable and risky.

pp_anna_smaillMemory objects strike me as something we all keep, though of course we have our minds intact. It is the type of thing we put into time capsules – a concept I have always enjoyed. Tell me about one of your own memory objects.
Yes, this is exactly what strikes me as well – we all keep a sort of structure to support our memories and identities in the physical possessions we stow around us. I think this is why I find moving house so traumatic! I’m rather drawn to small metal tins, and I do have one battered flaky one (Meggeson’s Universal Antiseptic Pastilles) that has moved with me wherever I’ve relocated. When I was growing up I used to keep it on my desk to store various treasures, and thus it always reminds me of that room, along with attendant teenage intensities, traumas, etc.

In doing a bit of research, I realised that the ravens you use as symbolic to the freedom of England actually exist, and have been kept for centuries. How fascinating! What aspects of the mythology around these ravens have you used in writing the novel?
There’s something so wonderful about the fact that the ravens are still kept at the Tower of London, and I loved reading about the practical details of their existence: one of the beefeaters is a raven master dedicated to their care; they get 6oz of raw meat a day; once one of the ravens was dismissed for poor conduct (apparently he had a taste for television aerials). The ravensguild song I wrote for The Chimes is based on the names of some of the past tower ravens, and in this there was a wonderful intersect with Norse mythology. Huginn (“thought”) and Muninn (“mind”, or “memory”) were the names of Odin’s ravens. In the Poetic Edda, Odin talks about how they fly all over the world, and how he fears for their safe return. That myth is central to the world of the novel.

Tell us more about The Chimes and how they are heard by individuals all over the country. Was there a Carillion in particular that you based the Oxford Carillion on?
The idea for Chimes was influenced by the very real phenomenon of infrasound, and the way certain vibrations can act on the nervous system. It borrowed from the hinterlands of internet discussion about sonic weaponry, and (I suspect) was shaped by my own personal experience of living next to a park in Tokyo from which was broadcast each morning a loud call for group calisthenics. I love that a very telling ‘i’ has sneaked into your spelling of “carillon” there. New Zealanders tend to pronounce it with four syllables, rather than the three it gets in other countries. I think it makes for a more fluid sound to the ear!
My idea for the carillon was not entirely linked to the real-life instrument. It began more as an abstract concept, a hybrid of an organ and a carillon, a sort of platonic ideal of an instrument – too big to imagine or describe. In hindsight, though, my imagining was probably shaped by the Auckland Town Hall organ. I’ve spent quite a few hours in that hall over the years for orchestra rehearsals and concerts, and quite a lot of that time eyeballing the imposing structure of those pipes. There’s something so magnificent about such a massive instrument, the way it utterly dwarfs the player.

What books did you read that influenced your writing of The Chimes?
Probably the biggest influence was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, a superb novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic England. Hoban constructed his own degraded version of English, and part of the immersive nature of the book is coming to terms with this language. Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game was another influence, more obviously in terms of the subject matter – it’s about a group of elite scholars who see music as the peak of intellectual endeavour. Reading Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series was also important to me, and I think allowed or encouraged the imaginative leap and the audacity of building a completely new fictional world. A crucial mention is also due to Bill Manhire for his poem ‘After the Movie’, which is haunting, strange and wonderful and set up an odd ringing in my inner ear. For a long time I didn’t realise that the poem was intended to rhyme, which seems very slow of me in retrospect. It was only coming back to Wellington, and hearing the NZ pronounciation of carillon, (see above) that I heard the poem as it was intended. The first stanza goes like this:

A cry comes again from the pavilion.
I was that nurse and that civilian,
I was the song in the carillon.

Thank you Anna, for answering my questions so thoroughly – and thank you to Ruby from Hachette for recommending the book to me for further concentration.