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Books: “I’m Feeling Sanguine” – Anna Smaill Awaits Tonight’s Booker Shortlist Announcement

Steve Braunias talks to Wellington writer Anna Smaill on the eve of the announcement of the shortlist for the 2015 Man Booker Award. Her debut novel The Chimes (Sceptre, $30) has been longlisted; will it make the final six?

I remember two literary couples coming to the Listener offices when I worked at the magazine as books editor. There was a young reviewer who brought along an old guy who wore dirty clothes and needed a shave. I thought: “How sweet! She’s brought her grandfather.” But it was her husband, who was about 50 years older than her. The other couple were novelist Carl Shuker and poet Anna Smaill. They were students at Bill Manhire’s creative writing programme at Victoria University and both of them were smart, funny, enthusiastic, and totally, utterly engaged with books and reading and writing.

They’re an old married couple now who live with their pre-school daughter on Wellington’s south coast. Carl has published four novels, and was Victoria’s Writer in Residence in 2013; Anna published one well-received collection of poetry, and then surprised many by writing a novel, The Chimes, which then went and surprised everyone, including herself, by being longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Award. She hears tonight night whether it’s made the shortlist.

The live email interview is a form which no one seems to practise. I don’t know why. I tried it out last year when I interviewed Don Brash, and it worked really well. It has the zip and tenseness of meeting, and writing questions and answers adds a literary dimension, possibly.

Good evening! Right then. The Booker award. So, what time do you hear about the shortlist? Is there like an exact minute sort of thing? Does someone phone? It’d be nice if someone knocked on the door. You could open it and tell by the look on their face.

Yes, it would have been rather nice, though logistically complex, if my editor had made the trip from London. But, no, I heard via email. It was about 10.50pm on Tuesday night, ten minutes prior to the public announcement made by the Man Booker committee on Twitter. The subject line contained the word CONFIDENTIAL. This made me sit up and pay attention immediately – it’s not often I see that word in my inbox.

Naw what I meant was – not the announcement about the longlist, but tonight’s announcement about who has made it on the shortlist. Will you be told by email then, too? Surely a phone call, a text, something immediate?

Aha, got you! I actually have no idea. I suppose it will be something fairly similar. I think the list is announced on Tuesday 12pm UK time, which makes it 11pm Wednesday night our time. I think that’s right [editor’s note: it  is in fact Tuesday night – tonight!]. They’ll no doubt be in touch with my publishers some time prior to the public announcement if I’m shortlisted. And in that case, yes, I assume my editor would probably call me rather than email! 

Good grief – you sound kind of cavalier about it. “Oh I daresay they’ll call.” Anyway – good luck! It’s fantastic to have got this far of course. I watched Eleanor Catton win the thing on TV. I don’t know her but I cried when she won. Do you remember when she won?

Don’t know about cavalier – possibly downplaying my nerves. Yes, I was watching Ellie’s win with a group of writers in Wellington and was very moved. I had a sort of ‘holiday’ feeling for the entire rest of the day. It felt wonderful and personal to everyone I talked to about it.

You have an agent in England, which strikes me as fantastically glamorous. What sort of relationship do you have with Will Francis at Janklow and Nesbit in London?

I get on really well with Will. He’s a lovely person and a brilliant agent – I got lucky. He’s a great reader and editor and he has the wonderful combo of muscle on the business side, but integrity and genuineness as a person and thinker.

“Muscle on the business side” – that sounds cool. Does he strike deals, things like that? Every author should have an Andrew Wylie on their side, roaring at publishers and demaning fantastic advances.

Ha! Yes, I suppose that’s what we all want – along with someone who is never bored talking about how good the writing is, responds to emails almost before we send them, pretends we’re the only client on their list, etc.

If you get shortlisted, he won’t be pretending. I want to ask you about one of the first stories you ever wrote, which you’ve said was “about a mute, hospital-bound child who must remember an elusive crucial detail in order to escape”. Feeling trapped – it’s such a powerful theme. Were you trapped, do you think? Was it personal?

I wasn’t trapped myself, at all. I think my preoccupation as a kid was with the ways your brain can be circumscribed, and the way forgetting works. There’s something about the constant inbuilt loss of memory that really haunted me even then. It was personal in that way, without doubt, and still is.

I suppose in a way you’ve been haunted these past few weeks by thoughts about the Booker shortlist, which segues so wonderfully well into asking one final question about the award. Have you felt kind of haunted? Does it nudge you and whisper in your ear? “You won’t get on the shortlist. Relax. Don’t think about it. Mind you, you never know…” That sort of thing?

If you want to look inside a writer’s brain at any stage of publication, there’s exactly that kind of double and triple-think, I warrant. Whether it’s being longlisted or shortlisted, or reviewed by x newspaper, or how well you’re selling, etc. I’m not saying I’m not affected by any of it – far from the case – but I guess I realised a little while back that there will always be some version of that haunting. And it’s all ephemeral, not quite real. The voices are hard to ignore, but it’s kind of necessary if you want to retain your sanity, and keep writing. Strangely I think the long-listing has released me from some of that internal talk a little. I’m feeling fairly sanguine about the next stages…


The Chimes (Sceptre, $30) is out now – help us out by buying it from our excellent sponsors, Unity Books

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