Thursday, 28 January 2016

'The Chimes' Blog Tour - Author Guest Post! (Anna Smaill)

I am incredibly excited to share with you today an amazing author guest post for my stop in this last stretch of the 'The Chimes' Blog Tour.

'The Chimes' is set in a world where music has replaced the written word and memories are carried as physical objects and are people's most prized possessions. The Order enforces a permanent amnesiac state over its population... Until a young boy, Simon, starts to remember.

With a hardback release in 2015, 'The Chimes' was critically acclaimed and Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The paperback is being released on the 14th of February, and to mark the occasion I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to ask the author, Anna Smaill, some questions.

This post is about Anna's journey into fiction, the laborious process of writing 'The Chimes' and finishes off with some very insightful writing advice.

Thank you so much to Anna for the incredibly inspiring words and Ruby at Sceptre Books for this opportunity. Don't forget to check the other stops on the blog tour!


I’ve always written prose in some form or other – I’ve been keeping journals since I was around 10 years old, and writing academic prose for what feels like my whole life. Writing fiction, however, always felt like something other people did. I admit, though, to an unacknowledged prose longing. In honest moments, I imagined that writing fiction would feel like those dreams in which you can fly: evidence of a marvellous, miraculous shift in physiology or physics.

What propelled me out of the state of not writing fiction – a state I’d sustained for about 30 years – was a series of awful jobs. I started writing compulsively on the bus in the morning, on my commute to one in particular. I didn’t have any of the wisdom or distance that I felt was needed to write decent poetry, I just wanted to get outside of myself and away from the grim fact of my dead-end employment. So, I wrote basic observations, descriptions of the people I was seeing and the things they were doing. My goal was to catch as much precision and detail as possible in those twenty minutes of freedom down Prince of Wales Road, and through Kentish Town and Euston. It became a lifeline, the realest part of my day.
I don’t know whether the two things are connected, necessarily, but the day I quit that job, by some alchemy of desire and frustration, I heard a voice speaking in my ear. It was the voice of Simon, my protagonist in The Chimes. I’ve had poems arrive a little like that – a series of rhythms and intonations out of the blue – but this felt different. This voice wanted to live in a very specific London, within the detailed landscape I’d been attempting to capture on my commutes. More importantly, the voice didn’t feel like it would fit into a poem; it wanted to build slowly. It wanted story.

Writing a novel, which is what I started to do that day, was not at all what I had thought it would be. I didn’t begin at one end and end up at the other. The entire process was a great deal more pragmatic, and more plastic, than I had any idea it would be. I wrote huge screeds of material that would never be included in the final book. I wrote huge screeds of material that were awful and shapeless and were only pulled into shape by the final vision of the whole, and the sudden realisation of what the novel itself demanded and needed.

In fact, what enabled me to write the book was thinking of it as a series of problems to be solved. Many of these problems were due to the limited and unfamiliar expressive palette I’d prescribed myself. I was writing from a first-person, present-tense perspective, from the point of view of an unfamiliar gender, and within a world that was drear and stark and ostensibly without joy. Yet these handicaps were liberating. It was through each discrete obstacle that I found the novel’s style. Rather than a streamlined linear act, the book began to feel organic, accretive, a bit like sculpture. As it grew, the novel itself began to act like a sentient creature and make its own demands. It began to exert itself, throw around the weight that it was slowly putting on.

For a while I kept my fiction writing habit on the down low. It was clandestine, and this was strangely exciting. I would go to the British Library, pretending to do some academic research, and then open my notebook and work away on the book. Eventually, I realised that I couldn’t sustain this secrecy, particularly not when I lived with a writer. So I confessed. My husband is himself a novelist, and at that juncture he gave me some excellent advice, advice that kept me writing through four-plus years. I thought I’d use this blog post to pass that on.

Here it goes, the best of all pieces of advice, the most reassuring, and the necessarily expletive-laden: Writing a novel is fucking tough. That’s it. One might extrapolate from that as follows: For the majority of the time, as you write, you will not know what you are doing. However, this is not a bad thing. It is certainly not an excuse to give up, nor even a reason to doubt oneself. Because novel-writing is so tough it’s not just possible, but necessary, to live with doubt as you write. After a while you’ll even begin to crave and thrive on doubt – in the way that runners begin to enjoy the build-up of lactic acid, that direct challenge to the organism. He also told me something someone famous once said, I think it was William Gaddis. Because writing a novel is hard, and because it takes so long, you should call on any and all motivations. There will always be the high motivations – the hunger to write something good and meaningful; that’s a given, you wouldn’t have reached this point without it. But, if the only way you can get to the desk one day is by imagining your vituperative high school English teacher reading a copy of the published book, go ahead. Go ahead and imagine the book advance, the glowing reviews. Acknowledge them as fantasy, then suck from them whatever craven strength and motivation they offer. By any means necessary, until the day you suddenly realise you’ve launched yourself off the footpath and are gliding along above it, by sheer act of will or fantasy, doing that thing all the other mysterious people who call themselves novelists do. 


Anna Smaill lives in Wellington with her husband, novelist Carl Shuker, and her daughter. She studied performance violin at Canterbury University and creative writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters at the University of Victoria, and has a PhD in English Literature from University College London. She is the author of one book of poetry (The Violinist in Spring, VUP 2005) and her poems have been published and anthologised in New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Her first novel The Chimes was published by Sceptre in February 2015.

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