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May 18, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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An Interview with Dr Eleanor Catton

Salient editor Cam and feature writer Alexandra sat down for a chat with Eleanor Catton, the youngest-ever winner of fiction’s prestigious Man Booker Prize. She was in town to receive an honorary doctorate from Victoria, the university she credits with her success.

How does it feel to have been awarded an honorary doctorate from Victoria University?
It’s amazing. It feels slightly overwhelming actually, I feel like a little bit of a meanie because my partner’s doing a doctorate, a real doctorate, at Victoria and he’s not going to graduate until next year. He’s been slaving away doing it the proper way.

How much of your success would you put down to your years at Vic?
Well in a way, you could say all of it. I think that especially at the beginning of somebody’s creative career, everything counts. Every little bit of encouragement will put you on the right path, will put you on a different path to the one you were on before. The Honours year that I did at Victoria, which is when I wrote my first book, was as important as my Master’s year, because that’s when I began to think about what it would be like to write a novel. It’s something I never had the confidence to talk about, or even just say the words out loud. I did… a course on Milton, so Victoria will always be the place where I read Paradise Lost for the first time.

What were the differences between writing your first novel in a Master’s Creative Writing Workshop and your second out of it?
The processes were totally different. When you write your first book, you’re never sure that anybody’s ever going to read it. I mean, you just don’t know. So in a way you’re writing it for yourself and for a small, supportive echo chamber of the people around you. It’s very supportive, which is obviously not true as soon as publication happens. All of a sudden you get all sorts of different readers, for better and for worse. For example when I wrote my first book, I never showed it to anyone in my family. The first time they read it was after it was published. They bought a copy at the launch and then went home and read it.

That was completely different to my second book, which I knew was going to get read. You almost have a very different voice in your mind, a different imaginary reader on your shoulder, because there’s that awareness of it going to have a life in the world.

Did that impact the subject matter of The Luminaries? The two novels share a lot of similarities – a complex form and a focus on performativity- – but obviously The Luminaries has a very different context and genre.
Yeah, for sure. After I’d published my first book I went off to the University of Iowa and one of the first things that I encountered there was counterarguments from people in workshop who were all American saying you have to explain everything. If you put the word Wellington in you have to explain what kind of city it is and what the weather is like and all that kind of stuff because we don’t know. I really objected to that because when they were talking about Brooklyn or Manhattan they weren’t explaining those places. So I started to think much more seriously about the role that the things that I knew intimately would play in my fiction. Things like landscapes and identities. I think that’s a very difficult thing for a writer in New Zealand because there are so few people, relatively speaking, who have personal connections. If you’re going to use Aro St, for example, there are relatively few people who are going to know what you are talking about. So you have to both write to those people who know it intimately, and also write to those who have no idea what you’re talking about in a way that doesn’t patronise either camp.

One thing we noticed in The Luminaries was the use of Māori words and phrases without translation, and place names without context. They were often things even many New Zealanders wouldn’t recognise. How did you do research for the book?
I think there’s really two types of research, or ways of researching. One is a very general kind of feeling your way into an era so you feel like you’re an expert or an author of some kind. For me, that usually has to come first. My sense of history is really quite muddled. Everything seems Medieval. Before the 19th century, it all feels like a BBC Medieval drama. If you were to ask me what people would have eaten in 1812 for dinner everyday, I would have just made something up. I think that first of all it’s important to get a sense of the tangible facts in the world, what people would have eaten, what their clothes would have looked like, how they would have spent their spare time, what they would have believed in or not believed in.

But then there’s another type of research which I think is much more fun. It’s the research that solves plot problems. It’s very directed. For example, in The Luminaries, I was thinking I really want a plot that revolves around blackmail. In order to have blackmail you nearly always need a contract of some kind. So I’m going to have to learn about how ships are bought and sold, and how people become indentured on a gold field, the conditions of employment and that kind of thing. A lot of it is invention, but it’s quite a different avenue. It feels different when you go to the library or go to Google when you’ve got an answer in mind. You have the solution, but you don’t know exactly what it looks like.

The best example in the book is where I knew I wanted to have a courtroom scene but I knew nothing about 19th-century law (and actually I still don’t know very much about 19th-century law). There’s a lot of mistakes in the book which are very grievous to readers who know a lot about it. But I thought I needed some sort of a loophole; I didn’t know what it was, but if there were some kind of loophole to do with shipping, that would be awesome. You go in search of loopholes.

What was your routine when you were writing The Luminaries? Do you treat it like a 9-to-5 job?
I was really lucky in writing The Luminaries because I had two residencies back-to-back. I did the Ursula Bethell one in Christchurch for a couple of months and then came up to Wellington. I lived off my credit card perilously for six months in a flat up in Brooklyn that was the cheapest flat we could afford. We shared it with a great many mice, one of which ran across me while I was writing the book. I ended up losing about two months of work because I became jittery after it; I couldn’t get back into writing. After that, I went up to Auckland and did the Michael King Writer’s Residency for the first half of 2012. Those two concentrated bursts were just vital. Everyday, I could wake up, sit down and achieve whatever I needed to achieve that day. In the middle of writing the book, putting most of the bones of the plot down, I was trying to hit 1500 or 2000 words a day.

Do you experience writer’s block?
I don’t really. I think there are times when I’m not writing – you could say I’m having writer’s block right now – but I just always read. When people describe writer’s block to me it feels like they’re in a state of panic where it feels like they should be writing but they don’t know what they should be writing. I don’t quite identify with that because that kind of condition suggests to me that you should just go off and read for a while and think about what you do want to write about.

So what are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading Shakespeare, actually. My goal for this year is to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I didn’t start at the beginning so now I’ve got a new goal which is to go back and read them all chronologically. It’s so interesting to see how he grows over his career and how much the plays become rewrites of his earlier ones. I’ve just read Richard II. So I’ve got Henry IV.

How do you find yourself now as a reader of books? Do you critique them more now that you’ve written something so critically acclaimed?
I don’t think so. In a way, the Shakespeare project began as a kind of corrective to any possible kind of ego inflation that might have happened recently. There’s nothing more that restores you to yourself than reading Shakespeare, because it is so astronomically better than anything anyone has ever produced ever since. You have to go back to the works that you feel are so out of your ability-range that they raise you, and also put you back in your place.

What are the books that are formative in your writing career?
For novelists, the 19th century was amazing. There was so much elasticity in the types of novels. It’s the century that produced Moby Dick, which is the craziest novel in the world in terms of how it’s structured. I think for my personal evolution as a, well, a person, I hadn’t read many 19th-century novels when I wrote my first book. I feel like it’s such an education in what the novel is capable of. The 20th-century novel makes so much more sense when you read from the very beginning of the form. The exciting thing is that it’s such a recent development. It’s so much younger than any other form that we have. Operas and poems and all those things.

A lot of the praise for The Luminaries was for the way you experimented with the form of the novel.
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been experimenting with time travel at the moment. I’m pretty sure that whatever track I’m on is a bad track because I explained an idea that I had to my British editor. He didn’t even respond; he just turned round and walked out of the room. Sometimes you need that rap on the knuckles.

Is it hard for people to stand up to a Man Booker winner and tell them they have a silly idea?
No, I think he would do that very cheerfully.

I think that the novel is so exciting because it doesn’t have rules. It’s not like a sonnet, it doesn’t have an prescriptions of form. There are so many ways to tell the story. There are not only as many ways to tell the story as there are people, there are as many ways as there are times. Because you can tell a story from the perspective of a person reminiscing about 50 years in the past, or a projection of 100 years in the future. Time and space are eternally fluid in a novel’s form.

What was it like to win the Man Booker Prize?
It was like a slap in the face and then a cold bath, or maybe the other way round. I don’t remember that much of the night, actually. I wasn’t released to celebrate until one o’clock in the morning. The awards finish at ten, and once you get off stage you’re whisked away with the chair of the foundation and the chair of the judges to another room where you deliver a press conference. I was slightly sozzled by this point because I had been drinking wine all through the ceremony, you know. You do the BBC at ten o’clock, and there’s all this British radio and TV news that you have to do. And then of course New Zealand was just waking up at that time, so I did the NZ media. And then I had to do Canadian press because I’m Canadian-born. I didn’t stop doing interviews till 12.30, and I can’t quite remember what I said.

One of the strange things about a ceremony like that is it’s almost like a wedding day, really. You know, you’ve imagined that moment so many times, but I guess unlike a wedding day you’ve imagined every possible outcome; every other name on the shortlist being read out. You’ve imagined if you magically didn’t have any clothes on; all these things. You’ve prepared yourself for every horrible and joyful outcome. So when it does happen, however it happens, there’s a quite long period of disbelieving afterwards. I remember, as I was reading my speech, I was really unsure whether it was a real experience or whether I was just imagining. It was quite weird ‘cause I was standing next to Camilla Parker-Bowles.

The next day, there is a 12-hour interview schedule that goes from 7 am to 7 pm doing TV interviews. In between, you sit in a room in a PR office and people come in and out and photograph you and that sort of thing. All through that day, I kept thinking: “I wonder what’s going to happen to the Booker Prize.” I got nervous. I was so used to being nervous for two months. Kind of like I wonder who’s going to win. And then I’d get filled with a sense of not quite relief but a sort of, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that anymore.” It’s very strange being in the past and not in the future, quite weird.

It’s quite funny actually, because we could have worked it out beforehand if we had looked hard enough. Lots of people know before it’s announced. There were things like being close to the stage, and cameramen running between us and the stage to make sure it was clear. I was sitting under a spotlight. You just don’t notice it at the time. Fergus Barrowman, one of my publishers, took a photo on his iPhone and said it looked great and that was because it was lit so well.

I don’t think I’d ever want to go to the Booker ceremony again because I felt… Now I feel I was protected by naïveté, in a way. There were even people on my table that new the result, ‘cause a lot of journalists are told early so that they can prepare their stories for the next day. I think it would just be awful if you were filled with a room with people who knew.

Do you feel a lot of pressure that now you’ve done so much so soon in your career?
No, I mean I put pressure on myself anyway. Pressure is good so long as you’re in control of it. Most artists have it. Once all the attention dies down a little bit, I’ll be able to decide what I want to do with the platform. It’s very exciting. Is there, for example, a way in which I can turn this to the advantage of other people in my generation in a very deliberate way? Other writers?

You’ve been teaching at the Manukau Institute of Technology, haven’t you?
Yeah. They’ve given me a lot of latitude to travel this year, which is really nice of them. I don’t quite know what the next step is going to be. I am very excited about the next stage of New Zealand letters. Believing in things is much more interesting than not believing in things. Having optimism is much more interesting than having pessimism. Anybody who says that our generation has nothing to say and we are all going to hell in a handcart is… I’ve got no interest in.

Going back to the process of writing the novel, you’ve said that you mapped out the characters astrologically first. How did you get the plot from that? Did you play around with it?
I definitely fudged some stuff, because otherwise I think the book would have been dreadful. That’s not where the heart is. The story is the most important component. For example, I had this computer programme, and I was tracking the movements of the planets, the seven visible naked-eye planets, over the wheel of the zodiac from the position of Hokitika over the timeline of the gold rush. One of the things I noticed was that in 1866 there’s this phenomenon called a month without a moon. Because February is a short month, the full moon occurs just before and just after. I really wanted to have a disappearance in my book because I think mysteries are fantastic. I had seen the month without a moon and thought: “That’s brilliant, I can use this.” I started just before it. It’s hard when all of the figures are based on planets because they never really disappear.

The other thing I knew was that from the latitudes of New Zealand, Mercury sets in the night sky in the summer. So if I began in the middle of summer, then by the time I got to April/May, my mercurial character would have to set. So I thought cool, I’ll use that too. It was good to have an ending like that; otherwise, you don’t really have an ending. In a way, that is fudging. It was just interpreting patterns as I wanted to interpret them.

What would your advice be to young people who want to write?
So much advice! I think everything is about reading. And figuring out what you love is the first step to figuring out what you want to say. Nobody ever wrote a good book about something they felt ambivalent about; you have to be impassioned. And also, the things that drive you just are really good. Rage and love. Getting into the powerful feelings that hold our beliefs and our values. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing comically or tragically, I think that that’s still true. What’s funniest is the stuff that’s so close to being tragic, and what’s tragic is always the stuff that’s on the verge of being hilarious. I think that reading passionately, or finding what books excite you as a reader, is always a good first step.

Also, finding friends. Creative-writing courses are fantastic for making friends who will become your colleagues for life. Finding people who are willing to talk to you after everybody else has gone home. They won’t be looking at their watch: they’ll want to talk to you about what you’re reading and so on. I couldn’t have written this book without conversation with other writers. Everything came out of that.

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