May’s book for the GWL Digital Book Group was The Chimes by Anna Smaill, a debut novel that was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. Anna very kindly agreed to answer some of our questions and our Digital Book Group readers put their heads together and came up with 5 questions to ask the debut novelist.
GWL: Music is central to the plot of The Chimes… Did you set out wanting to write a book that had music at its heart?
Anna: Yes, I definitely wrote The Chimes as a book that had music at its heart. The very first visual image I had (in the early days, long before I started working on plot or voice) was of a huge instrument, like a church, that you could enter. I thought how interesting it would be if you had to be inducted into both hearing and playing this instrument, much as you would be trained to enter a religious order. Then I began to wonder if the instrument might have a physiological effect on its hearers also. What if the sound itself was dangerous? I knew that I wanted to capture a world where music shaped everything, where it changed how people thought, and even changed their bodies. Trying to understand the intricacies and rules of this world, and how these might fit together, was one of the most satisfying things about writing the novel.
The answer to this question is a bit more complicated, though. Because, in writing about music – or choosing to write a book with music at its heart – I also found that I was inadvertantly exploring my own relationship with classical music, which was rather fraught. I went to university to do performance violin, then quit after my second year. I loved music, but I couldn’t cope with the psychological pressures of performance. I didn’t set out to explore my own relationship with music; in many ways I’d sort of turned away from this or blanked it out. But it somehow emerged anyway. In the novel, there’s an ongoing conflict between the beauty and rapture of music and its totalizing force, its violence – this probably derives from my own love-hate experience with the violin. So, it’s a novel with music at its heart in a few different ways, some conscious and intentional, others less so.
GWL: You very clearly capture the feeling of memory loss in this novel – how difficult was this to write?
Anna: In a logistical sense it was really difficult! In writing a first-person narrator with limited short-term memory you come against some crucial narrative obstacles. It’s difficult to reveal backstory, for one thing, and backstory is one of the key ways you go about building a character. It’s also easy to fall into some cliches of literary memory loss – like that half-remembered lingering suspicion, the uneasy déjà vu, etc. There are only so many times you can beguile the reader with the narrator’s mysterious sense of ‘missing something’ or ‘vaguely remembering something’! It was also really difficult to avoid the first sections (before Simon’s memory starts kicking in) feeling repetitive and episodic. Simon had to wake up each day and do the same things. It was very difficult to pace these sections, and there was a lot of shuffling things around. I’m not sure I solved all of these issues.
On the other hand, I also loved, and love, reading books that privilege the reader with insight, and that freight the narrative with pathos and irony. So it was amazing to derive this energy, to work with it, to feel like I was inhabiting some of its sadness. In general I didn’t really develop any rigorous craft rules around these problems, but just went on instinct. One thing that really helped me was to consider how memory loss might change one’s vocabulary. Simon uses words that are very sensory and physical, rather than abstract. This was an instinctive reaction to the fact that memory is more sensory and physical than it necessarily is linguistic or intellectual. We remember smells, colours, spaces, sounds. This gave me a place to return to in the writing.
GWL: Do you consider who your audience might be when you’re writing something?
Anna: The Chimes is my first novel, so I was in the privileged position of being almost entirely innocent about audience or readership or reception. I was certainly conscious of book marketing and the publishing world (ie I wasn’t naïve or reclusive), and I definitely did want to be published, but in some basic way I also wanted to ignore these things. I essentially wrote the novel for myself, for my own entertainment, as well as for myself as a teenaged reader.
That sounds like a weird contradiction, but it was just how I managed to keep the writing process continually interesting. I was both very pragmatic and overtly conscious of an ideal external reader (I endlessly redrafted and thought constantly about pace and plotting), but also idealistic. I guess it boils down to the fact that I tried not to worry about whether it would sell. I wanted to believe if I made something that pleased and delighted me, then it might please other people too.
The outcome of this disconnect is that I pitched the novel to my agent as a Young Adult genre novel. He immediately said that they’d send it out to publishers as adult literary fiction. This was a shock, and something I suppose I might be more conscious of in future.
Now, working on my second novel, I’m far more aware of audience. It’s a bit inhibiting, and I wish I could return to that more private space.
GWL: Do you feel you have more stories you could tell in this world?
Anna: I’m not sure. I wouldn’t rule it out. I lived there for such a long time, and I really fell in love with much of its detail. I think about Simon and Lucien and wonder how they are. I think, though, that any follow up would have to happen after the overthrow of the novel’s ending. So you’d be sketching a world post-Carillon, post-music. A rebuilding. That’s a very different, perhaps harder space to imagine and live in and write.
GWL: Can you tell us 5 pieces of music that we should listen to to accompany The Chimes?
Anna: Haha! Funnily enough, I never listen to music as I write, so I always feel I should have a better answer to this question than I do. One pop song that really somehow cemented the world of the novel for me, though, was ‘The Dead Girls’ by Orchestral Maneouvres in the Dark. I’d also recommend listening to Glenn Gould play Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier (Books 1 and 2), Kate Bush’s ‘Experiment IV’, Lorde’s ‘Bravado’, and Suede’s ‘New Generation’ from Dog Man Star. I actually did a more extensive playlist for the great blog Largehearted Boy, and you can find the tracks here, with Spotify links: