I’m delighted to welcome you to the first stop on the Blog Tour for Anna Smaill’s The Chimes, published in paperback by Sceptre on the 14th of January 2016. It’s a terrific book (of which you can read my review here) which raised many questions in me, and I’m very glad to say that I was able to pose some of those questions to Anna.
While reading The Chimes I was strongly reminded of Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, not only in the reverence you give to music in the story but also in the simple language Simon uses to tell his story. Who are your touchstones in writing – those you admire, those who inspire you, those whose books you go back to?
I think you may be the first reviewer to spot that connection. The Glass Bead Game made a big impression on me when I first read it as a teenager (probably the perfect time to read Hesse), and it was continually in the back of my mind while I was writing The Chimes. The concept of an intellectual elite whose philosophy and ethics are structured by music was essentially lifted from Hesse’s novel, though of course The Chimes is also very different. The writers I most admire are those for whom writing is some kind of essential mediating device, a way of decoding or just surviving existence. I love Janet Frame, Russell Hoban, Kafka, Borges, Marilynne Robinson, the NZ novelist Pip Adam. I also often re-read read George Eliot, Ondaatje. I find myself continually shaped and inspired by my favourite books from childhood, too. Particular favourites are Rosemary Sutcliffe, K. M. Peyton and the Uncle books.
Have you always written?
Yes, since I can remember. I’ve kept journals since I was about 9 or ten. It’s really very much how I work out what I think about things.
The scene between Simon and Steppan brings home the chilling reality of a world without memory. Simon feels balanced between feral and humane. Why did you focus on memory?
I think I’m so focused on memory because it seems so close to the core of what makes us human. For some reason the idea of losing memory has terrified and fascinated me from quite a young age. Trying to make sense of your memories, putting them together in a way that seems meaningful – I don’t take this for granted in any way.
You take the idea of music as a means of communication to an extraordinary level in The Chimes. What was the seed of this idea and how did it develop into the world you created?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the idea came from. When I was playing the violin, I got a bit obsessed with thinking about the differences between music and language as two different forms of communication, and was always seeking direct equivalencies between the two. Of course, they can’t be reconciled in this way. There were other elements there too. I had an utterly eccentric music theory teacher when I was at university, who liked to expound on a methodology of his called ‘Body Tonics’. His basic argument was that chord progressions in a piece of music could be matched with physical movements, and that if we enacted these movements while listening to the music, we’d gain some deeper musical insight. I may be bastardising his theory. It was basically a sol-fa technique (the thing the Von Trapp children do while running around in the mountains) that engaged one’s whole body. So, there was that, and also Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which is about how aboriginal Australians ‘sung’ their sense of landscape into being, so that all physical markers – rock formations, valleys, lakes, etc – can in turn act as a kind mnemonic device for their creation myth. All of these things coalesced somehow.
I’d like to ask about Jemima. Though she only appears for a short while you portray her in quite a touching way and she presents an interesting counter to Lucien. The question of course is that posed by Simon. Is she immune to the effect of Chimes?
I enjoyed writing Jemima because she’s nicely practical and pragmatic – which offered a bit of a relief from the intensity and idealism of Simon and Lucien. She seems older than them, in a way; more worldly. In some ways I didn’t want to examine Simon’s question too far. In a practical sense, she’s still affected by Chimes because they involve infrasound – vibrations that are inaudible but affect you physically at the level of your nervous system. However, I liked to think that because her awareness and communication isn’t directly reliant on music, her mind and consciousness is different – she’s developed different ways of thinking and remembering.
I found the Order intriguing. With their presenting and reinforcing of ‘OneStory’ they seemed to me somewhere between a religious parallel and a political one. Were you conscious of creating them in either a religious or political mould, or did you strive to avoid those direct associations?
I wasn’t striving either to cultivate or avoid those specific associations. I guess, it’s more that political or religious extremism was simply another arm of the sort of extremism I hoped to represent with the Order. I was interested in what happens when we take idealism to an outer limit. How does that pursuit allow for the ordinary mess of human lives, and the human impulses that can’t be tidied or understood? The Order obsessively believe that human expression, and human thought, is our highest function – which means that all that isn’t perfect, or orderly, has to be expunged. I think this impulse is fairly similar in much religious thought, that sense that the body is a threat to the spirit. They’re very basic and central human impulses, but they become destructive when they’re taken to an extreme.
There’s something very close to fairy tale in what you present in The Chimes: a band of outsiders and a governing organisation, the uncovering of clues and the overcoming of obstacles, and the passing down of a tale in rhymes. There’s even an aged mad woman. Were you aware early in the writing process that you wanted this reflection of the importance of oral history or did this develop as the story came together?
I started writing The Chimes very much under the influence of the young adult literature that moved and interested me. A lot of the radical freedom of excellent fantasy and YA is that, maybe because it isn’t weighed down with the responsibilities of realist representativeness, it can really cut to the fundamentals, the verities – love, loyalty, the struggle for meaning. Those mythic rhythms and emotional chimes are ones I also find in fairy tales, myths, stories which tell us something simple and deep about being human. I suppose I was striving for and craving that sort of deep resonance in what I was writing. I had just finished a PhD on contemporary poetry, and most of my previous days had been filled with dense academic language!
Your choice for The Pale Lady is a very good fit but I wonder whether you began with scientific reasons for the choice, practical reasons around availability or whether the word play led you there?
A little bit of all three, in a somewhat circular way. I knew I wanted a sort of ore, a shining metal that would act as currency yet also present a sort of mystical physical and spiritual pull. I happened on to palladium, as far as I recall, because it had the pleasing attribute of being occasionally used in the production of concert flutes. The slang forms for palladium followed naturally, but it felt as though they’d also preceded me somehow – particularly as the nursery rhyme ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ had already shown up in the writing. The scientific connections – ie the fact that palladium is used in catalytic convertors to filter exhaust, and as a conductor in electronics, added a sort of synchronicity and metaphorical richness to the idea for me. Though I should state that there is absolutely no scientific basis for any of the uses to which I put palladium in the novel…
There’s something a little ‘overnight sensation’ about debut novels and the way they’re marketed (though with a Man Booker longlisting, and having read The Chimes it’s the overnight bit that to my mind is the false note). How long did it take from first putting pen to paper to publication?
What’s the best editorial advice you had for this book?
Yes, I agree – there tends to be a fascination with that breakthrough moment. I think in part, it’s fair. There is something distinct and utterly unusual about first novels: they involve so much of your life, they’re a kind of leap into the unknown, a massive and intriguing gamble, and they can utterly turn your life around. But these are all narratives that don’t ultimately connect with the nitty gritty facts of writing. The first glimmers of The Chimes came way back in 2009, while I was finishing my PhD. I didn’t acknowledge that I was working on a novel, though, until 2010. In 2011 my daughter was born and any semblance of a writing routine flew away and then I only returned to proper routine work on it early in 2013. With two days a week to write, I finished in about 4 months. It had a long long gestation, but a very fast delivery. Then the editorial and pre-production of debut novels is typically quite slow, as they want to spend a decent length of time on publicity and marketing prior to the release. And now it’s 2016, a terrifying number of years later, and the paperback is coming out!
I had so much excellent editorial advice with this novel. My agent Will was one of my first readers, and just prior to submission he dropped a particular gem about how one might go about sustaining uncertainty in the reader. The beginning of my book is essentially a cloud of vagueness, but he made the important point that I had to distinguish between the general mystery of the opening (ie – the facts of the world that were simply yet to be revealed to the reader) and the things that were weird or perplexing to the protagonist. It sounds simple, but it really transformed how I thought about the opening sections.
What does the future hold for your readers, can you tell me anything about what you’re working on next?
I’m working on a new novel, which feels in many ways utterly different from The Chimes. It’s set in a contemporary, far more familiar and realist Tokyo. But, I can’t quit that drive toward the fantastic, so the city is becoming denser and odder as I write. There is also music creeping in as a method of plotting the story (I won’t give away too much), and elements of a thriller also.
If you had to travel with a roughcloth bag what would your objectmemories be? (sorry, I know it’s sacrilege to ask, but…)
It’s not in keeping with the universe of The Chimes (where they’d have been burnt long ago), but I’d probably take my journals. They all have different associations, depending on where I bought them, the paper, the pens I used, so that even if I couldn’t read them, I think there’d be sensory memories there. I think, a bit embarrassingly, I’d probably take my old Burberry trench coat. I lent it to Simon for the novel, but I had it first! Bought off Ebay before my daughter was born, and my single most-worn item of clothing ever. There are plenty of memories in that homely old gabardine.
My thanks to Anna for making my questions look insightful (and for adding a few more names to the TBR pile), and my congratulations for writing such a wonderful book. I feel it will be with me for quite some time! Thanks also to Ruby at Hodder for making this Q & A possible. Don’t forget to check in with the other stops on the blog tour.
And, of course, don’t forget to read the book!