Going West Festival: Anna Smaill and Paula Morris in conversation

cv_the_chimesAnna Smaill’s dystopian adventure story, The Chimes, has perched itself on a shelf inhabited by my favourite books. It sits with Atwood and Byatt and Janet Frame and McEwan and Orwell. And it well and truly holds its own. This young New Zealander has crafted a vision of post-‘Allbreaking’ London, which is poetry and music and quest all in one. Smaill spoke with author and friend Paula Morris about her novel, just a few days before the announcement of the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize.

Smaill is disarmingly articulate. She dances us through the concept of the book, and recreates the setting – an indeterminate future in London where a musical instrument, the carillon, casts a mass amnesia over the bulk population. She describes the city and ‘the under’, the complex of tunnels below ground wherein the protagonist and his pact mudlark for palladium. She tells us about the way music is both breaker and maker of memories, and describes how people can use music to encode a sort of topographical map, by which they might navigate during the course of a day.

It would seem that music, and the order that promotes it, is an oftentimes malevolent force in Smaill’s story. But she tells us it is more Platonic ideal, a striving for order, a weeding out of ‘dischord’, than malevolence per se. That leads Morris to question Smaill’s own relationship with music. Smaill relates her past as a musician and a student of music, her own limitations as a violinist, and her ambivalence about the musical world. She hints, however, that she may make a return to playing, with a different instrument.

pp_anna_smaillSmaill and Morris discuss memory, and the lack of memory, as a very central aspect of the book. Smaill talks about the difficulty of creating first person narrative under such constraints. Simon, her central character, is under the grip of the carillon’s amnesiac chiming, and so has a slippery hold on notions of other characters and events and places. Smaill tells us that, with these conditions in play, she was unable to employ many of the usual tools which help a writer create an idea of character.

Morris asks Smaill about the lexicon of her story – the portmanteaus, neologisms, musical terms and archaic words. Smaill says that many of the words, especially the portmanteaus, came about ‘organically’. There are words, too, where spelling has been chosen to give a word multiple meanings, as with her use of ‘mettle’. She credited Riddley Walker as an inspiration here.

Smaill and Morris also spoke about living in London, and about Smaill’s own process of, once back in New Zealand, trying to remember the city she left so as to finish the novel – a process, Morris notes, that is akin to the straining-to-remember that her characters endure.

Finally, there was talk about Young Adult fiction as a genre, whether The Chimes fits the Young Adult brief, and Smaill’s dismay at the banning of Ted Dawe’s award-winning book for young adults, Into the River. Oh, and she mentioned that she’s creating a new novel, set in Tokyo.

A splendid session. Anna Smaill was all I imagined her to be, and then some. I thoroughly recommend you acquire a copy of her novel.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Sunday, 13 September at Going West

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.

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.

Book Review: The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

cv_the_chimesAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

This book is a beautiful journey that draws you into a world of song and music: post-dischord London.

We begin the book as our narrator, Simon, leaves his home to travel to London. The narrative drives us ever forwards, as initially, explanation of backstory is beside the point when during Chimes each day, our narrator loses his memory of the day that has just been. All he knows, and this because he is special, is that he has lost something, and come from somewhere that has disappeared into the fog of what came before.

The book uses the language of music to tell this tale. The elite of the society our narrator lives in are virtuoso musicians, the guilds that exist in England are all related to the creation of instruments or the supply of basic services to those who do, and the joy of living is found in the creation of beautiful music. Silence is anathema, and mistrusted. But there are no memories beyond the ‘memory objects’ people carry with them, and bodymemory – memory created through repetition of tasks. This means there are no books – language is not written.

Simon finds his place in London amongst a group of five pactrunners, who run through the underground sewer system to find pieces of Pale. Pale, or The Lady, is Palladium – pure silver used to create the instrument that caused the dischord, distinguishable by the silence surrounding it. He and his fellows are led by Lucien, a blind boy who has a strange power over the group. Lucien uses chords, tones, cadences and phrases to teach the runners where to find Pale, which is traded for tokens to buy food at the markets. But what is the Pale used to do? And what are The Chimes, exactly?

I have seen early reviews that say this book takes awhile to get going, but I disagree. Without this knowledge of how the society works and the place of the key characters within it, you would be running without a tune to follow.

Anna Smaill is a poet, and it is with a poet’s touch that she has crafted each sentence. Her use of musical language does require some knowledge of musical terminology, but that should not dissuade anybody from reading this wonderful dedication to the light and the dark side of cultural mores. The Chimes is also, unexpectedly, a love story, and it is this string of the story that takes precedence at the book’s end. This is a beautiful story, and I want more time in this world.

By Sarah Forster

The Chimes
by Anna Smaill
Published by Sceptre
ISBN 9781444794533

I conducted an email Q&A with Anna Smaill, which will be up in a couple of hours, and feature in The Read, our booksellers’ newsletter.