Interview: Anna Smaill, Author of The Chimes

The Chimes is a debut novel like no other. Readers land in a dystopian London that is familiar yet enthrallingly different, in a London where music has replaced the written word and into a story of memory, love and freedom. NZ Booklovers recently caught up with New Zealand’s Anna Smaill, author of this captivating debut.

The Chimes, as I’m sure you’ve heard many times already, is not like any novel I’ve read before. What was your inspiration for writing it?

The earliest inspiration was probably lying in bed next to my sister and hearing my parents read books out loud. There is something utterly wonderful about how deeply you give yourself over to imaginative worlds when you’re a kid. I think the rhythms and colours of one of my favourite childhood authors, Rosemary Sutcliff, have stayed with me since, and doubtless seeped into the world of The Chimes.

The language and rhythm of the book feels completely otherworldly. What was it like writing in an alternate English? Did it take a while to get into it as the author, or was it something that just flowed?

I could hear Simon’s voice very clearly from the start of writing The Chimes, and the rhythms of his voice in turn shaped a lot of the language and vocabulary he used. Some of the alternative vocabulary came to me immediately – the use of musical terms to denote speed and volume, for example – others took longer to settle. But, by about a few chapters in, it felt like something that was integral to the world and to the writing process – it really did just flow.

Were you ever worried that people wouldn’t “get” your book? How did it feel when they did?

I think you have to be very much in love with your idea and its world in order to write a novel. And, like most love, that feeling is a bit delusional, a bit irrational, and rather private. While I was in that state, I avoided thinking about how the outside world would judge the book. Of course, as soon as you finish writing and begin to ponder sharing the manuscript, that’s when all the doubt begins. Yes, I was very worried that people wouldn’t “get” the ideas, particularly the genre-clash and the fact that the protagonists were young adults. (Oddly enough I was less worried about the challenge of the language.) It was an amazing relief and affirmation when people began responding positively.

The ChimesThe cover of your book is beautiful, and captures the story perfectly. Who designed it? How involved were you in the process?

Thank you, I love it too. I feel so lucky that it captures the mood of the book so intuitively and well. The illustration was commissioned by the design team at Sceptre from an illustrator called Rich Gemmel (@richdraws). I was lucky enough to be quite involved from the beginning: my editor emailed me a first b&w sketch, then we discussed colour and some details. However, as I loved it from the outset I never really tested the full extent of my authorial control!

Did you have a particular writing routine or ritual while writing The Chimes?

Writing the first third of the novel was largely done under cover of secrecy – I didn’t tell anyone apart from my husband Carl what I was doing. I think that secrecy was a useful spur in some ways, it forced me into a sort of self-reliance, and made the world of the book more intimate. The final 2/3 of the book were written when my daughter was a year old, and I had two days a week of childcare. My routine was simple: say goodbye to husband and daughter, make a pot of tea, and write until they came home. I had a plan for what I wanted to achieve, a head of steam, and a limited amount of time – these seem like a good combination.

This is your first novel. What was your biggest challenge?

Everything. Everything apart from the first blissful couple of days when I first had the idea for The Chimes. I hit numerous dead ends in plot, structure, characterisation. As a reader of novels, I thought I had a reasonable sense of the internal rhythms and drives of fiction, but I hadn’t guessed how thoroughly you have to invent everything – pacing, chronology, setting. It’s an incredibly organic and humbling process. The biggest challenge is, no doubt, forcing yourself to keep going.

Before The Chimes you wrote a book of poetry and have had poems published in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Can you tell us a bit about your style of poetry? Is your voice similar in your poetry to that in your novel?

I find it quite hard to describe my own poetry, but in basic terms it is quite lyrical, and fairly personal (or autobiographical) – probably you could call it post-Confessional. However, I think it’s also quite dry, occasionally wry, and interested in quirks of language and speech. There are definite similarities between the language of my poetry and that of my novel – I tend to lean towards alliteration, assonance and rhyme in both, and I think the rhythms of both are a bit crooked and a bit incantatory at the same time.

Who are your literary influences?

Russell Hoban, Frank Bidart, Charles Dickens, Rosemary Sutcliff, Janet Frame, Patrick Ness, Margaret Mahy, and many others, probably some I’m not aware of.

What are you reading right now?

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway, and My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante.

What can we expect to see next from Anna Smaill? Is there be another novel in the pipeline?

Yes, I hope so. I’m at work on my second novel now, set in a contemporary but supernatural Japan.

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Emma is an ardent writer, reviewer and editor. She currently lives in Orange, NSW, where she shares her time between writing, undergraduate studies in Linguistics and French (oui, c’est vrai!), and her “day job” as a yoga teacher. Emma especially enjoys reading women’s fiction, contemporary fiction and the classics.

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