Jion Sheibani talks the “indescribability” of music and her poetic YA book, The Silver Chain

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The Silver Chain is an illustrated coming-of-age verse novel about family, mental health and the healing power of music. Azadeh is a budding violinist on a music scholarship at an expensive private school, dealing with all the usual trials of being sixteen: trying her best to fit in, keep up and have fun. Then as her mum’s mental health spirals out of control, Azadeh’s world starts to unravel. Her friendships fall away, and as much as she and her dad try to keep a lid on everything, their problems insist on taking over. Feeling alone, it’s her violin that finally helps Azadeh to find her way back to her friends, herself and even her mum…

We chatted with Jion Sheibani on her heartwarming story.

The Lark Ascending was inspired by a poem with the same title. In turn, The Silver Chain was inspired by the Lark Ascending. Why did you pick The Lark Ascending? Why is it such a perfect fit for a lyrical book such as The Silver Chain?

The Lark Ascending (by Vaughan Williams) has always been one of my favourite violin pieces. I have listened to it countless times and like a great book or poem, I never tire of it. It is made up of multiple voices (the violin solo and the various instruments of the orchestra) and every single one of those voices has its own intention. So it is richly complex but there is a kind of genius simplicity about it at the same time and the overall effect is deeply moving. Whenever I need to remind myself of what I’m trying to achieve when I write, I listen to The Lark Ascending!

Can you describe this piece to those who have never listened to this before?

Ha, I’ll try – without using the usual words, “pastoral” or “romantic”! So to put it most simply, I imagine a bird (the violin) and a forest (the orchestra). The piece sounds like a dialogue between them: sometimes the bird is soaring above the forest, sometimes nesting deep within it. It feels like it could be a metaphor about many things. It is hopeful and bright with what I can only describe as a beautiful sadness underneath.

The spaces and the positioning of the words on the page carry such weight and importance. How did you decide on the spacing and how the verses are presented? And did you decide after the whole book was written or did it come to you while you were writing?

The spaces and positioning usually came while writing. It was very instinctive – like playing music I suppose – especially for the concrete poems. Afterwards, there was some painstaking editing! I was very fortunate to have two brilliant editors, Jenny Jacoby, my main editor and then Talya Baker, who came in at the final stages to study words, line breaks, the relation of image to text etc.

Other than the words, the illustrations in The Silver Chain are also incredibly gorgeous. What was the process of creating such illustrations?

Thank you! It was such a wonderful thing to be able to do, once I had finished the text. Initially, it was supposed to be around 20 illustrations but then I couldn’t stop! Thank goodness I had a deadline, otherwise I probably would’ve carried on. It was like writing another version of the book in a way. It was also surprising to see how quickly I knew what I wanted to illustrate – either a metaphor I wanted to draw out (eg dad’s van) or something unspoken, between the verses, like the one of Azadeh falling underwater. That image felt like a wordless poem to me.

In terms of the process, I have a big collection of collage sheet music which I’ve previously used for illustrations but I decided to do digital collage for this book. It also meant I could scan my old pieces of music without cutting into them! So there is a very emotional attachment in these drawings because I can still see my handwriting or my teacher’s handwriting on these scores that I spent hours practicing. I didn’t use The Lark Ascending score because I didn’t play that piece when I was young – I have a recent score and the print isn’t as nice for illustrations. Also, it might have been a bit much / cliché !

The Silver Chain sheds some light on the role of music in helping those who are battling with mental health, such as Azadeh’s mum. Why do you think music is so powerful? And does it have to be a certain type of music?

I don’t think it has to be a certain type of music. I don’t believe in any hierarchy in art. It can be and must be as diverse as people themselves. As long as it moves someone – first and foremost, the person creating it!

As for why music is so powerful, there’s obviously the fact that it’s a universal language: you don’t need to understand it or play it to appreciate it or feel moved by it, as Azadeh tries to tell her mum when she gives her the playlist. When researching the book, I also came across various studies that showed the positive benefits of music on mental health, namely because it activates all areas of the brain and so strengthens pathways. It can also go one step further than activating, it can also synchronise the parts of the brain involved in emotions. But in spite of these scientific studies, I feel that there is also something else, something more mysterious, linked to the way in which music eludes us. When trying to describe a piece of music in the story, it often felt futile, as if words couldn’t come close to capturing it. I think that “indescribability” of music is also what makes it so powerful.

And what were you listening to when you were writing the book?

Other than The Lark Ascending, I had some of the other pieces that feature in the book on repeat, like Saint-Saëns The Swan (a stunning Yo Yo Ma recording) and Mars from Holst’s Planets Suite. But I also had non-classical pieces that I imagined Azadeh and her friends listening to and which gave me the energy/concentration to get the book finished! Looking at my playlist, there was a lot of Janelle Monae, Kaytranada, Solange, Jazmine Sullivan, Kali Uchis and tracks like Ice Cube by Dounia, Big Girls by Masego, Do It and Baby Girl by Chloe x Halle.

Other than focusing on Azadeh’s mum, the book also does a lovely portrayal of the relationship between Azadeh and her father. This type of relationship is rarely explored in YA titles and it is definitely very appreciated. Why is it important to feature both parental figures so extensively?

I’d read a lot of teen and YA books before writing this, especially verse novels, and I realised the ones I loved were either mainly, or also, about family. There’s an oft-mistaken idea that teenagers are self-centered and their whole world is them and their friends. Of course, friends are hugely important for teens but family is the walls of their inner home. If those crack, then so do they and there’s only so much friends can do in those situations. They are all still only children. So of course, I couldn’t tell a story like this without both parental relationships being explored.

And how does being a mother change the way you depict such relationships?

Being a parent (and teacher) you realise all the multiple ways children have of showing they need you, even/especially when they’re angry and pushing you away. I’ve learnt that whether it be a toddler tantrum or a pre-teen outburst, kids sometimes don’t want or need you to react. They just want to know you can be with them and sit out their big feelings alongside them – without it jeopardising your love or care for them. In my next YA project, I’m thinking a lot about all the different ways we show and ask for love. As a parent, you witness that on a daily basis in a very dramatic way – it’s great material!

And finally, any lessons you personally gained after writing The Silver Chain, in terms of being a violinist, an artist or a mother?

Oh yes, lots of things! Mostly on the writing front. Namely that there are multiple versions of every story – and I don’t just mean depending on who is telling it. I had an idea for a book and there were so many versions I could have told but I had no idea it would turn out the way it did. In some ways, I look at The Silver Chain now and feel as if someone else wrote it. I suppose it’s because, in a sense, I am a different person: the writing of a book does change you. But it’s also because you’re being guided by your subconscious too – and that will always feel foreign.

Get your copy of The Silver Chain here.

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