Anna Smaill (2001)

The best foundation I can imagine for a life of writing...

Anna writes: 'I applied for the MA in Creative Writing under cover of secrecy. I'd recently quit a degree in performance violin and subsequently suspended an MA in English after my thesis on Janet Frame had stalled indefinitely. I felt I'd made some bad missteps on what had once seemed a clear vocational path. However, I was writing – sometimes compulsively – and these poems felt like clear spaces in an otherwise general confusion. I gathered 15 or so pages of poem-like objects and sent them off to Victoria University of Wellington in an A4 envelope. I still remember rescuing Bill's letter of acceptance from the mailbox of my flat in Auckland, where it was being devoured by snails. "Apologies:" it began. "This will be a letter in bullet points". Practical details followed: enrolment dates, classroom numbers, the names of nine other students. They were the most beautiful bullet points I have ever read.

'We were, in 2001, the first group to work in the newly named International Institute of Modern Letters. Its genesis already felt like lore: the Institute had been built from the largesse of a Las Vegas magnate. It was his money that had helped to renovate the villa in whose wonderfully panoramic central room we met each week. He had, the rumour went, already rewarded the remarkable talent of two previous students with vast sums of cash. This was the future we were moving towards: writing tinged with the glamour of fine fortune. It was, of course, an illusion. What was really at stake was far more immediate and far more valuable: the opinions of the nine other people in that class. This is the genius of the MA in Creative Writing at the IIML. The best foundation I can imagine for a life of writing is navigating the imaginations and opinions of those classmates. As well as learning to edit and be edited, to read and be read, to critique and to take criticism, you're also learning how to be part of a community of writers who might also be friends. From that moment in class when the antennae first went up and we performed trust exercises and icebreakers and told lies that were meant to sound like the truth, we were looking for the same things in each other that we would seek in the writing: flare, tenacity, charm, conviction.

'Bill was the calm centre of it all. I don’t remember specific craft advice from my MA; what I remember is the wonderful feeling when Bill was engaged with a piece of writing, or even just a line or an image from a piece of writing. At those times, and they were frequent, there was a wonderful uplift in the room – a generous delight, a shared celebration of the strange ways ideas can bump into each other and make new things. The opposite pole of Bill's attention was not boredom but something gentler: a turning away, a demurral. If at one of our supervisory meetings, for example, I hoped to sneak a few unformed or unfit poems into an otherwise healthy clutch, Bill would unerringly flick past them. Rather than focus on inadequacy, he'd simply turn toward the spark of interest. The antithesis to that generous uplift was a genteel mutual acknowledgment, a lesson from which I'm still endeavouring to learn: why waste energy on the things that don't delight?

'I have moved into a different room from the one I entered in 2001. Then, I was trying to think of myself as a poet; now I am doing my best to think of myself as a novelist. But, in spite of this shift, the course has always been behind whatever I write. It’s a backbone of commitment and idealism (give a year of your life solely to writing), and of intimacy (surround yourself, in that year, with nine others who have made the same commitment). We may some of us live in different cities but the friends I made on that course are those I turn to at the important and difficult moments of writing and of life. We are bonded by a year of shared paranoia, passion, caffeine, alcohol, and hope. It’s also true that I married one of my classmates. We are still reading and arguing about and editing each other’s work. And thus, the class of 2001 continues...'

Bio: Anna completed the MA in 2001. Her manuscript formed the foundation of her 2005 collection of poetry, The Violinist in Spring, which was listed as one of the Best Books of 2006 by the NZ Listener. In 2009 she completed her PhD in English Literature at University College London and went on to lecture in Creative Writing at the University of Hertfordshire until 2012.

Anna's debut novel The Chimes was published by Sceptre in the UK in February 2015. It was singled out as a publishing highlight of the year by Amazon UK, the Huffington Post, The Independent on Sunday, Bookseller magazine and Harper's Bazaar. 'To call The Chimesstriking,' one reviewer wrote, is 'to underplay what might be the most distinctive debut of the decade.' The Chimes was long-listed for the 2015 Man Booker prize and the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards.

In 2015 Anna was awarded the Louis Johnson Bursary by Creative New Zealand and was a recipient of an Arts Foundation New Generation Award. In 2016 The Chimes won Best Novel at the prestigious World Fantasy Awards.

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