These Jewels on the Page: Anna Smaill

We chat to Man Booker Prize long listee Anna Smaill about literary culture in New Zealand and beyond.

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Although I was captivated by Anna Smaill’s debut novel, The Chimes, I confess that it wasn’t on my Man Booker Prize radar. When the long list was released last week, I refreshed the page several times in shock and delight, making sure my eyes were telling me the truth.

Smaill's fantastical, dystopian work of art gently toes the line between young adult and literary fiction, an exciting crossover that recalls few authors – chief among them, the wonderful Patrick Ness. That The Chimes is being acknowledged on such a public, international stage is absolutely thrilling.

Anna Smaill appears to feel the same way: shocked, but overjoyed. Whip-smart and unassuming, she notes that the acknowledgement pleases her as much for her editor and publisher’s sake as her own. This speaks to the generosity she holds apparently for all things, but particularly for books and language.

For an absolutely delightful hour, we spoke about words, literary culture, and the highs and lows of the writing life.      

Kirsti Whalen: It’s so exciting to talk books with someone who loves them so much. I want to ask you, in particular, about prizes. With the absence of the NZ book awards this year, it must be an interesting time to be long listed for a major international award when there’s no such award available at home.

Anna Smaill: I must say I was so sad when it seemed that there was going to be this major shortfall in out literary culture – suddenly we didn’t have a national literary prize. I’ve been hugely heartened by the fact that it has been reinstated and it looks like that is going to be a really hearty and healthy prize, now that they’ve increased the physical prize. I think that is such a brilliant thing for New Zealand literary culture. From a public perspective, something happens when a prize goes from $10,000 to $50,000. It amplifies the glamour, I suppose, of the prize, and I think it says that this is a really important part of our culture.

From my perspective, I wasn’t disappointed for myself, but about the doubt that it might not continue. I have to say I’m not even sure I’m eligible for it because the book is published overseas. So it’s not something that has been on my radar a huge amount, aside from my concern, as a writer, that we do need to safeguard our literary prizes.

KW: The other thing about prizes – and I’m not sure if this is merely my impression or if it’s true – is that they’re gaining significance, particularly in the age of social media. There’s this sense that without being recognized by a major prize, a book will struggle to succeed.

AS: It’s a bit of a Catch 22. And I think there are always questions around prize juries and whether or not they’ve reflected public belief and public reading…

KW: Well inevitably being long listed for the Booker will increase sales, but does it hold wider significance?

AS: I think it has had a big impact and I think you’re right. From everything that I’ve learned from my publisher (being recognized by a prize) definitely helps to get a book out there and to advance its life.

You have a temporary window of opportunity when a book comes out and there will be interest and reviews if you’re lucky. There’s the chance that it will really take off and the public will embrace it, and it’ll become a word-of-mouth bestseller – something like The Girl on the Train (by Paula Hawkins), which has its own momentum and, in a way, doesn’t necessary need a prize to flourish.

Then there are books that have a quieter life and a prize is really going to mean that they get introduced to a broader readership than they would otherwise. My book would fall into the latter category so I think for the publisher it really does make a difference that they can ensure that more people get it, that it possibly will gain interest in terms of the paperback coming out. I mean, it’s a hard one – I don’t know whether or not the good things about prizes outweigh the bad in terms of the long term view of literary culture, but I think they’re very much part of our literary landscape now.

I think the social media responses have been really fascinating because there’s a democratizing effect, where people put up their own lists and really weigh in on it. And there’s a huge amount of commentary, which is really cool. Books that people feel have been overlooked then have the chance to be discussed in that context. So I think anything that increases the discussion around books is good. But I certainly think the industry has become more reliant on it.

KW: There have been a few reviews that have called you the next Eleanor Catton – and are now probably affirming that belief. But there’s perhaps a sense of pressure now that she has been incredibly brave and said what I consider very important things in the public sphere. 

AS: I don’t feel any pressure. In a way I feel the opposite – I think what she’s done is really open up the ability for people to speak out if that is what they feel but to be true to themselves, which is really what she has done. I think that is very much her drive and her sense of responsibility. I totally admire that. I really would hope to aspire to saying and speaking rather than just reserving judgment. But I also think everyone has a totally different method of processing the public and the private, so I don’t know quite how that will evolve for me.

And I don’t necessarily think I’m going to reach the heights that she has reached. I’m so content with the long listing, which was so far away from my expectations.

Why do we undercut the fact that New Zealand has this immense richness of literary culture? There are multiple models and there are multiple possibilities

But I also wonder about the desire to identify the next Eleanor Catton – why do we undercut the fact that New Zealand has this immense richness of literary culture, with male and female writers of different cultures, Maori writers, Pacific writers? There is no single model of literary achievement. There are multiple models and there are multiple possibilities.

I can understand why we’ve latched on to Ellie because her achievement is so massive and so international, and our pride in that is good. I also felt hugely proud when she won it. It’s difficult to say it’s not patriotic. I did feel proud of her as a New Zealander. But we don’t need to see that as our only strength.

We can open up our expectations in terms of what we are defined by and the good literature in our culture as well. We don’t necessarily need international recognition to recognize what is of value. Some of the New Zealand writing that has spoken to me most recently has possibly not have received and may not receive that international acclaim – Pip Adam’s recent novel, I'm Working on a Building, is, to me, one of the most exceptional books to have come out in several years. Just because it isn’t seen as having that international response doesn’t mean that it’s not hugely important.

KW: I agree. I think we still have work to do in that regard. Only praising those who have succeeded internationally perhaps diminishes something and plays into that small island syndrome thing…

AS: It’s a tricky one. It’s so crucial to build up a national literary culture. I think it is happening, but it’s happening slightly out of the radar of the mainstream media. So it’s a public awareness that is still quite grassroots, possibly. But I feel pretty hopeful about that.

I did a bit of research up at Victoria, at the school of English last year, and had the chance to teach a single class in an Honours course. Even just the level of critical thinking that’s coming out just post-grad is incredibly encouraging. Really intelligent thinkers, incredibly critical minds. People who aren’t afraid to say what they think and to read in an original and open-minded way, and I think that’s pretty exciting.

It's so crucial to build up a national literary culture

KW: For me, it always comes back to MIT, where I study. There are opportunities for people that perhaps wouldn’t have had a platform before, and some really incredible voices emerging. The fact that there are these opportunities made and that people are exploring their voices in a different way… some may criticize my generation and our self involvement – the fact that we all think we’re incredibly important and are going to write amazing books – but it’s also providing this diversity of voices that I find really exciting.

AS: Totally. And it’s the crucial next stage. When I was at that age the Victoria University course was the only option. And that was so wonderfully fertile because you had this space in which to write. But it’s inevitable that an explosion of possibilities should follow on from that. It’s fantastic. And why shouldn’t everyone seek to be creative and to write a book if that’s where they’re being pulled?

KW: The IIML must be quite happy. Two Booker names in three years!

AS: I got a really lovely email. They’ve been really supportive.

KW: Ellie has also spoken about character versus plot in literary fiction. I think something she has managed to do very interestingly is almost make plot cool again.

AS: Absolutely. I loved her Book Council lecture, which was very much breaking down that line between genre and literary fiction and saying that was an artificial and quite an anachronistic distinction that’s been made. I think a lot of contemporary writers who we’ve seen work in quite experimental forms, like David Foster Wallace – towards the end of his life he really returned to plot and to fiction. If you look at his reading lists for his teaching he’s got lots of Thomas Harris, Stephen King – real plot-boiler fiction. He’s saying there’s something utterly crucial about the rhythms of plot and story. In a really late interview he’s asked what his top ten books are, and it might be a slight poke-in-the-eye to the establishment but he picked mostly genre fiction. There’s no Ulysses. It was a slightly wry approach but definitely something he had been thinking about a lot.

KW: And I think that does speak to the idea of “sticking it to the man” in some ways. Because a lot of people who are driven to write and whose stories are important and need to be told are not necessarily engaging with that slightly elitist notion of literature – that you must have read Ulysses and all of the classics to be able to write. In reality their reading experience – particularly writers emerging now – might be The Hunger Games and Twilight. I’m not sure that invalidates their voice.

AS: And canons get redrawn. I would never willingly arbitrate against complexity and depth in literature and I think any fiction that brings someone to the broadest possible knowledge of literature is a good thing. But new style or experimentalism is only valid if it’s something that has been lived through. So you require those mechanisms in some way to express yourself fully and to express your ideas, human ideas, fully. But never as some sort of set dressing, as some sort of artificial coat that’s put on. And I think expecting style to work in that way is death to literature.

KW: I wanted to ask you about language. Your background is in poetry and I’m a poet I suppose, although I always shudder at calling myself that…

AS: It’s hard! Do you call yourself an author, a writer, a poet? I’ve never been able to call myself a poet. I always stammer at it.

KW: Me too. But whenever I write prose people tend to describe it as poetic. How do you find that?

AS: I think it’s a sort of a catchall phrase – lyrical is another one – where the aural qualities of the language are being identified. It’s a description of style. I’m pretty sure it’s a compliment.

It was a really interesting process, writing prose. It was difficult because in some way some of those habits – the aural habits of poetry, where you’re listening to the chime of the word – had the potential to distract me from the drive of the sentence or actually moving a character from place to place. It would be easy to get sidetracked and lose the responsibility to realism that even the most speculative or lyrical fiction still requires.

The other impulse I had to counteract was the desire for concision. For me, with poetry, one of the most enjoyable things for me is just bringing things down and honing and reducing, cutting anything that isn’t necessary. In prose I think a lot of that impulse is really good, fewer words are better than more when not required, but cutting out a paragraph that you might need for texture or pace or rhythm for the reader is not always a good idea.

So verbosity and concision were these two things I was aware of. I think, as a poet, one thing I really felt was helping me was the act of editing. You know when you’re reading a poem and the noun words are like these jewels on the page? They thrash out at you. And the way that they sit on the page together and interact together. Something about that, moving that into fiction, was quite helpful. Because I could feel the rhythms of the shifts between words in a slightly different way.

To go back into story felt a little bit clandestine and a little bit transgressive and sort of liberating

The fictional drive is something I really identified with my experience of reading fiction as a young adult. Particularly as before writing the book I was doing my PhD on contemporary American literary and contemporary American poetry, so it was as far away from narrative as you could get, really. In that context narrative is like the enemy, some kind of authority that you want to resist. So to go back into story felt a little bit clandestine and a little bit transgressive and sort of liberating. There was something definitely exciting about that.

KW: The book does ask quite a lot of the reader in the first few chapters as you have to stay with it without knowing all that much really, and I wonder if there’s a link to poetry there as well – that expectation to almost surrender to the language until you’re offered pointers.

AS: I like that reading. That ability to suspend certainty seems to me to definitely be a poetic impulse. Although I’m also a big fan of fiction that doesn’t give much away. But I think the desire to experience language and allow language to define experience, that’s something that came from my background as a poet.

KW: There’s this hideous thing that happens at the end of every writers festival session where someone gets up and asks, “what advice do you have for young writers?” So I’m not going to ask you that. But it’s not the easiest decision to decide to invest in writing as a profession. What kind of support and encouragement have you had that have allowed you to keep going?

AS: The central one was my husband Carl Shuker, who is a novelist as well. But it did feel like a massive gamble. I was caught between things – had finished my PhD and was teaching half time at the university and had other freelance stuff going on, but the main thing was that I was attempting to get more academic publications so I could forge a solid academic career. Which was incredibly hard at that point because the humanities weren’t hiring and it was incredibly competitive. And I remember that every day after teaching, I would come home and think that I should work on the prospectus for my upcoming academic book, get that out there and send out some more job applications, and I physically remember putting it aside and thinking I’m going mad. I need to write. I’m writing a novel.

It was terrifying. I could see my friends moving forward with their academic careers and here I was, sitting writing, working away on something without any idea that it would have any kind of pay off whatsoever. But I think Carl was there from the beginning and just made it possible. He had done similar things. He had always chosen his own work over the practical realities of life and he said to himself "this is what I do well. This is where all the good will come from. Nothing good will come from sacrificing it." And you’ve just got to jump in and believe it that, if that’s what you’re hearing from your heart or from your gut.

But I would also say that every time you act in making that decision, every time the decision is easier. Having been in the MA class, making the decision to write full time and seeing other people who had made that decision, to put that first in their lives… every time you see someone making that hard decision, to write, it galvanises you and it strengthens you. And I would also say that my parents have never doubted my decision. They never said “oh are you sure you shouldn’t just get a sensible job?” They’ve always just supported me. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the people who have been around me. And recently been lucky with a Creative New Zealand grant for writing the next book, which is going to be crucial for that stage.

You can continue to write. You can keep starting again.

Just taking a leap of faith, though, is something that everyone has to do. That would be the only advice I would give. That you’re not alone. But that leap always has to feel like you are.

KW: It helps if you have someone in your court, saying that you can take the leap, but they’ll catch you. Or some other terrible metaphor.

AS: I think allowing your vision of life to be a patchwork – maybe there’s no one defining career path, but you can make it work. You make a leap for a year or two years. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t mean that everything’s over. You can continue to write. You can keep starting again.

There isn’t one, single, defining chance. There’s that wonderful George Eliot quote: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

Slightly hokey, but actually deeply true.