Wellington writer Anna Smaill has two MAs, a PhD and a published book of poetry. But her heart still thudded with nervousness when her writer husband read the first draft of her novel. "Poetry was useful in writing it but I had to learn so many different things," says the 34-year-old. "It was liberating entering into prose, that sense of bringing everything into it."
That's no understatement. Her debut novel, The Chimes, is high-concept, straddling the literary and sci-fi thriller genres, a serious book with serious talent behind it. It's set in a reimagined London, a world where memory and words have been virtually erased. People keep objects on them to remind themselves of who they are; "bodymemory" stores the rest. In the absence of memory and the written word is music; a vast musical instrument chimes daily, wiping thoughts of the past.
Struggling through this dystopia is Simon, who arrives in London seeking the truth about what really happened to his parents. As he begins to piece together his fragmented memories, he must negotiate a challenging world in which music permeates everything. Then there are those mysterious references to ravens.
"A lot of the time my experience was like Simon's, moving in the dark," says Smaill of the writing process. "It was embarrassingly tricky. You've somehow got to reveal time passing without a chronology and then reveal things that have happened in the past. There was a lot of figuring out how flashbacks would work within an onward narrative, a lot of moving events from real time into backstory. There were times I thought I'd stop, that it wouldn't work it out."
It's apt that memory is one of the core themes in the novel. Before our interview I realised I'd read Smaill's work about 25 years ago. I was 10, and had entered a writing competition. Despite it being eons ago I distinctly remember the name of the writer who won. I can even recall Smaill's winning tale, The Birds, which included the very grown-up word "elusive". It was enough to convince me she'd go on to great things.
"That [competition] was actually a very defining thing for me," she laughs. "The themes in that story are very close to The Chimes - the obsession with birds and memory."
Her interest in the subject was piqued again when her primary school teacher read the sci-fi short story Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes, in which the narrator gradually loses his acuity. "That really grabbed me, the pathos of losing that and almost being aware you're losing it and not being able to do anything about it. I became obsessed by memory at that age."
She also became deeply involved in music, studying the violin "intensely" until the age of 19. She thought she'd become a professional musician, and spent her first year at Canterbury doing a performance degree. "It very much shaped who I am. I was quite an interior, private person and that was my means of expression. When I stopped playing it was quite a break."
She went on to an MA in English Literature at the University of Auckland, then a Masters of Creative Writing at Victoria University in Wellington, where she met her now husband Carl Shuker (who wrote the Modern Letters-winning The Method Actors). Smaill released the poetry collection, The Violinist in Spring, before she and Shuker went to Japan. After two years teaching English, the couple lived in London for six years, Smaill working part-time as a creative writing lecturer while studying for her PhD at University College London. Her thesis was on how American poets express or subdue personality in their work. Smaill's grasp of poetic language is evident in The Chimes.
"In poetry there's this ideal of concision, of making words work to their maximum energy. I've always been interested in the way words interact, juxtapositions of images, how things look on the page."
The Chimes is also, not surprisingly, a world rich in musical terminology. Characters move lento (slowly) or subito (suddenly) but it's never explained - it's simply up to the reader to decipher the context, a bit like reading dialect. Meanwhile, melodies and dissonance peal from all corners - the marketplace, tunnels, even the light. It's often said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture but for Smaill, it seems preternatural.
"I miss [playing] intensely," she says. "Something happens to your brain when practising. That's where the ideas around bodymemory in the book come from. I'm always trying to recreate that sense of the concentration levels you have as a musician, the way your hands will remember how to play a piece of music even if you haven't played it for years."
Smaill started writing the novel in London, pushing on through her tricky space-time continuum until she discovered Simon's voice - only then could she see the story was heading in the right direction. She spent countless hours arranging it, rearranging it and editing as she wrote. During that time she also had her daughter, Lotte, now 3.
Now the story is out, having lived in her imagination for so long, it's challenging letting it go, she says. But she's just as relieved she made it to this point, having struggled with the central conceit throughout the entire process.
"It definitely kept me interested. Sometimes it's good to tackle something you don't think you can do."
The Chimes (Hachette $34.99) is out now. Anna Smaill will appear at The Women's Bookshop, Auckland, February 25, at 6pm, and Unity Books, Wellington, February 26 at noon.