Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Anna Smaill?
I’m the author of The Chimes, a dystopian novel about a world dominated by music. The Chimes is my first novel, though I’ve also published a collection of poetry – The Violinist in Spring. I spent many of my formative years studying the violin, and music has been a big influence on both my poetry and fiction. I also currently teach New Zealand literature in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. My husband Carl Shuker is also a novelist.
Your World Fantasy Award-winning novel, The Chimes, published by Quercus in North America, is out now in paperback. It looks rather fascinating: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
The Chimes takes place in a world where music has replaced the written word, has become a force of communication, and is the highest form of intellectual and spiritual pursuit. The book explores music as a totalitarian force, and asks how something so beautiful might also be a source of violence and control. It is a standalone novel. I haven’t entirely ruled out returning to the world of the book, largely because I would love to check in on the two key characters Simon and Lucien and see how they’re getting on. This is largely nostalgia, though. I felt a real sense of loss when I finished the novel, and I still miss the sense of immersion in that world.
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I started writing the novel when I was at a dead-end after finishing my PhD. I’d emerged out of an academic cocoon and was adjunct lecturing at a university near London, but had no permanent job. Determined to make some concerted foray into the adult world, I took an awful full-time job as a legal researcher. I hated it. I suppose I caught a glimpse of a possible future in which that was my ongoing life: full-time work, no space for any other endeavour, years bleeding into each other, etc. I was so terrified by the narrowing that I began taking a notebook with me everywhere. I wrote down anything – descriptions of my bus journeys, London streets, people. I’d previously been working on poetry, but this was different, almost an act of desperation. Because of my fervid notebook keeping, I think the tools for fiction were at hand. When I quit the job, the relief propelled a voice into my head, and it turned out to be the voice of the protagonist, Simon. It really unfolded from there.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I write because I am a reader. I think that’s really the reason – the desire to get back to that first intoxication with story. I was first introduced to genre fiction as a child when my parents read to us each night. A mix of stuff: Roald Dahl, Rosemary Sutcliffe, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Paul Gallico. At that point I would never have distinguished between genre and literary fiction; to a certain degree I still don’t. It was just story. I’m basically trying to write my way back toward that intensity of experience.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Well, I’m not sure that being a writer is really working within the publishing industry. I feel more like an occasional guest of the publishing industry. I can’t pretend to understand at all how things really work from the inside, when it comes to sales and trends and the overall state of play. But I am not at all drawn to penetrate that mystery – I think it would be to my detriment. My only real access point into the monolith of publishing has been via individuals, and individual relationships. That in fact has been one of the biggest rewards of the whole difficult process of writing a novel. When you emerge from that isolated state, it’s kind of a miracle to connect with people. As far as I can tell, the great thing about the publishing industry is that it’s made up of people who care passionately about books.
Being a writer is a mixed experience. In spite of the fact that writing is clearly what I do for a living, as an academic as well a novelist, I am still in the early stages of giving myself permission to call myself a writer. I never feel entirely comfortable with that status – I’m working towards it. Writing is never easy for me. While I type fast, and produce words fast, I’m constantly revising, and I often hate what I produce. While it has afforded me some of the best and most transcendent moments of my life, I’ve also never felt as full of despair or despondence as when I’m writing. I know I’ll always do it; it is how I try to understand the world, and where I fit. But, it will probably never be a simple straightforward thing.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I don’t research or plan much at the start of a novel. I write what comes to me, I go on my nerve, and then I fill in the detail afterwards. I find working frustratingly slow at the beginning, but when a book starts to take off, it’s all I want to do and can work for up to 10 hours a day. At the height of that phase, even when not writing, I’ll be editing, breathing, re-reading a manuscript. The most useful practical technique that I’ve developed is to constantly transfer my manuscript from Word doc to PDF format for editing. I also frequently upload a working document and read it on my Kindle. There is something in this that helps me to see different things, to weigh different rhythms. It’s as close to getting a new pair of eyes as I can achieve.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I don’t remember the first time I knew I wanted to be an author, but I think I always assumed it would be an important part of my life. I wrote a great deal from quite a young age. I remember working earnestly away on epic dramas for a favourite set of finger puppets. Lots of stories about horses. And poetry – interminable, poorly rhymed poems. The first ‘serious’ story I wrote was for a competition when I was about ten. I actually lugged my mother’s old typewriter out onto the deck and sat outside and typed it; I suppose this seemed like what a proper writer should do. I actually still quite like that story. I could probably stand to learn something from my ten-year-old self.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I’m actually not that well equipped to give a good answer, largely as I read slowly and fairly broadly across different genres. I don’t feel I necessarily have a good handle on contemporary fantasy as a whole. But I do think that dystopian fiction has invigorated the literary novel in some interesting ways. Writers like Emily St. John Mandel, Laura Van den Berg, Sandra Newman, Cormac McCarthy have created striking and profound possible futures that seem to demolish genre categories. When I was writing The Chimes, I was incredibly excited to read Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series, and in many ways the novel was a sustained, excited response to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. These were touchstones for me, in terms of the way genre fiction might open up immense imaginative freedom, but still make rigorous demands on the writer and reader. John Crowley is a writer who has carved out a territory I would aspire to enter.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a novel that is set in contemporary Tokyo. It’s about female friendship, magic, and betrayal.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m reading a lot of work by the American poet Joe Brainard (probably best known for his I Remember series) for an article I’m working on. Also The Sellout by Paul Beatty.
If you could recommend only one novel to someone, what would it be?
Probably Janet Frame’s Owls Do Cry.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I play the trombone. Not very well, and not for a while, but I love it and want to take it up again.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Spending time on Waiheke Island (a small island in the Hauraki Gulf, near Auckland) with my family over the New Zealand summer holidays.
Anna Smaill‘s The Chimes is published by Quercus Books in North America, and Sceptre in the UK. For more on the author’s writing and novels, be sure to check out her website, and follow her on Goodreads and Twitter.