About The Author
Eleanor Catton was born in Canada and moved to Christchurch, New Zealand at a young age. She now ilves in Auckland and lectures in Creative Writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology.
Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, was first published in New Zealand in 2008; it went on to be shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and longlisted for the Orange Prize. It tells the story of a scandalous affair between a teacher and a pupil, but does so in two ways: as events supposedly unfolded, in quite plain, prosaic language, but intertwined, the same events as they are framed by a local drama group a year later, this time in far more expansive and theatrical terms. Moulded into a more conventional narrative the second version is the more satisfying for the reader, posing the question of whether a more aesthetically satisfying interpretation of events may seem more truthful to the reader.
Her second novel is The Luminaries, an epic story set during the New Zealand goldrush of the late 19th century; it won the 2013 Man Booker Prize.
The book opens with Walter Moody, newly arrived in the port of Hokitika to seek his fortunes on the goldfields, stumbling across a clandestine meeting of 12 of the town's most prominent citizens.
They are trying to unravel the death of prospector Crosbie Wells, a prospector known best by his Maori friend Te Rau Tauwhare. The solitary hut in which he lived revealed a remarkable cache of gold worth over NZ$4000, but this is just one strand in a complex web of intrigue that involves a sinisterly scarred sea captain, a goldsmith in the local Chinatown, the town's newly elected MP and the local whore.
The novel features two remarkable stylistic elements. First, the number of words in each of its twelve parts is governed by the golden ratio (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, etc) in reverse, resulting in a first section of 357 pages and a final part of just one. Eleanor also calculated the positions of the stars and planets in 1866 and derived the astrological interactions of each of her 19 major characters to determine their fates.
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Eleanor talks about the astrological forces that shaped The Luminaries, the influence of Twin Peaks on her writing and how not to cook fishcakes.
Below that, we reproduce our interview with Eleanor from 2009, when The Rehearsal had just been published in the UK.
Author photo © Robert Catto
Questions & Answers
You calculated the stellar and planetary positions in the sky over New Zealand in 1866, in order to know the astrological fates of each of your significant characters. What advantages did you find in leaving aspects of the plot to the zodiac?
I love the Jungian idea that the zodiac is essentially a primitive psychological system, an external projection that enacts, and reflects, the basic architecture of stories. As a system, it provided me both with twelve psychological archetypes to work with, but also - and maybe more importantly - a sequence, a twelve-part story that charts the evolution of a single idea from its objective first conception (Aries) through to total self-reflexive self-consciousness (Pisces). The seven astrological 'planets', the moving bodies, each exert a certain force on this twelve-part story, depending on their placement and interrelation. Only one of the planets -- Mercury -- works alone: the other six work in pairs: Venus/Mars, Saturn/Jupiter, and of course the Sun and the Moon, known by astrologers as 'the luminaries' or 'the lights'. When I first started sketching out the general shape of the plot, I looked to these archetypes and asked myself how they might behave in the context of a story. The house associated with Cancer, for example, governs the home; therefore I made my Cancerian character a hotelkeeper. Cancer is also ruled by the Moon; therefore it seemed natural that Anna Wetherell, the lunar character, should rent a room at his hotel, and that he should enjoy a special relationship with her. Each part of the story developed in that way.
As part of the process for appearing to write the book, you read only books written before 1866 for a year. How did this help you in the writing process?
It was really important to me to immerse myself in Victorian register, diction, and rhythms of speech, in order to feel my way into the flavour and atmosphere of the era, and to try to understand the ways in which people tended to express their beliefs, their intentions, their desires. It also really helped me write dialogue -- a vital component of any piece of fiction, and deadly if it strikes a wrong note, because it's entirely unmediated: the characters are speaking for themselves.
You spoken about New Zealand lacking a literary identity of the sort enjoyed by locations like Paris or New York. Do you feel that you've managed to say what you wanted about New Zealand in The Luminaries or is it a theme you feel you'll need to return to?
I'm not sure that a setting can be thematic in itself; in my experience theme is always emotional - concerned with value, importance, perception - and therefore human. I feel pretty sure that I'll never return to the 1860s West Coast, but beyond that, I couldn't say. It took me a long time to realise that New Zealand is as worthy a fictional setting as any other place in the world, but now that I'm at peace with that idea, it seems likely that I'll write another New Zealand book. I live in New Zealand, and identify as a New Zealander in the way that I think and feel.
There definitely an element of the traditional mystery story at the heart of The Luminaries; were any of the great writers of detective fiction an influence?
Absolutely: James M Cain, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Wilkie Collins were all huge influences on the writing of the book. I was also very influenced by the TV show Twin Peaks, which is a mystery of a slightly different kind.
What's the story behind the picture of Hokitika that graces the endpapers (below) of the hardback?
The original is a little etching, perhaps three inches by four; it's hanging in my study at home. My mum found it in a second-hand bookshop in Wellington when I was writing the book, and bought it as a present. The scene is actually dated 1873 - some eight years after the book is set.
You were cooking when you received the call letting you know The Luminaries had made the Man Booker Prize longlist; how did dinner turn out and what's it been like since the news broke?
Dinner was revolting. I was making fishcakes, and I'd just put them into the oil when the phone rang. I watched, beaming, as the oil burned and started to smoke, and didn't flip them until about five minutes after I should have, so they turned out very dark and rubbery. The official announcement was made at 11pm New Zealand time, so I stayed up late to watch the news break on Twitter, and by the time I woke up the next morning it seemed that all of New Zealand had found out. One of the very nice things about coming from a small country is that everyone feels international attention in a very personal way. The outpouring of good wishes and excitement from fellow Kiwis has been just lovely. I feel like an athlete, carrying a flag.
Your first novel, The Rehearsal, formed your Master's Thesis and you're now a lecturer in Creative Writing at Manukau Institute of Technology. Do you think we'll continue to see significant evolution in the novel as an artform?
Absolutely. I believe that the novel is the most supple and adaptable art form that exists. For as long as we have language, interiority, and exteriority, we'll have the novel. A related area in which I think we're about to see real - and significant - evolution is creative education: the ways in which writing is taught as a discipline in both schools and universities. I'm excited for the change.
When we interviewed you on publication of The Rehearsal, you mentioned that one of the projects you were working on, aside from what evidently became The Luminaries, was a 'a quartet of fantasy novels for young adults, set in a parallel version of seventeenth-century Britain'. Might this yet be something we get to read or have other ideas pushed it aside?
I got quite a long way into that project before I realised that I had begun on the wrong foot, and needed to start over. The draft is gone now, but the seed is still there. I hope to return to it at some stage.
Our 2009 interview with Eleanor about her debut novel, The Rehearsal
The structure of your book pits two conflicting accounts of an incident against each other. Did you start out with a definitive account of what happened in mind or is the real truth still of bit of mystery to you as well?
I think that the idea of a 'definitive account' runs contrary to The Rehearsal's conscience. It's true that all the peripheral speculation about the sex scandal is uninformed or distorted somehow, but each imagined version insists upon its own reality because it is performed.
I was always more interested the sex scandal as a catalyst than as an incident in its own right. I wanted Mr Saladin and Victoria to remain largely offstage, and because of that, I only ever looked at their relationship through the eyes of another character as a thing that could be wielded or used. In that sense I suppose I feel a little like the girls do - on the outside. I can speculate and imagine and dream about what might have or should have happened, but I couldn't tell you for sure.
The two accounts are also given in contrasting styles: the supposed real account in quite plain language and the student theatre group's interpretation rather more 'theatrically'. Which of the two did you find easier to write?
I wrote most of the outrageous monologues very early on; the sections of more ordinary prose crept in very late, when the book was almost done. Maybe I became more comfortable writing in a novelistic way as the novel grew. I'm not sure if I found any of it easy to write - I write very slowly and painfully - but I think I had the most fun with the theatrical stuff, dreaming up the more preposterous images or coming up with new ways to use the mutability of space.
As well as its structure, the book has a theme of duality: innocence and worldliness, open-mindedness and cynicism, truth and fiction. Do you feel the latter are corruption of the former or is adulthood about striking a balance between the two?
I feel like all those pairings are problematic in their implicit hierarchy, particularly the hierarchy of 'truth' over 'fiction'. There's something chronological about each pairing, too (after innocence comes worldliness, after truth comes fiction) that makes me suspicious and uneasy. For nearly all the characters in The Rehearsal, life doesn't divide that neatly. Stanley has to seek innocence when his father forces worldliness upon him; the sax teacher returns to her most perfect state of innocence so often that she becomes cynical; and it's only in a highly dramatised 'fiction' that Isolde and Julia find their moment of truth together. Those entanglements are true of my experience of the world.
Julia has a monologue in the final chapter of the book which debunks the whole idea of duality outright. Stanley's father says a similar thing in his final scene. I think that ideas of duality in the book are present because I wanted to grapple with them rather than endorse them. A lot of the book happened that way: I tried to work out ideas that were bothering me by fictionalising them and pushing them around somehow to see how they wiggled or snapped.
The central characters in your book are all outsiders to some extent. Is this something with which you identify?Is it perhaps even a necessary mindset for a writer to adopt?
That's an interesting idea. I think that all the major characters in The Rehearsal do have something in common: a profound longing to escape what they are. In the older characters this manifests itself as a kind of frustrated nostalgia, and in the younger characters, as a fraught and uncertain sense of hope. The experience of feeling trapped in one's own skin was a pretty powerful one for me growing up, and because I was 20 when I started to write The Rehearsal, that anxiety was probably in the very front of my mind.
I'm not sure that I feel like an outsider, though. Writers have to spend so much of their time watching and listening, and that can be isolating - but even at my most isolated, I would say that I feel lonely rather than alone.
Both the drama school tutors and the saxophone teacher imply that certain of amount of natural talent is a prerequisite for success. As an artist of the written word, where the think the division between inspiration and perspiration lies?
I place a lot of value on curiosity. I think that if you're curious enough, you'll be prepared to take the time to really break something apart until you're able to understand each part of it. I believe that a truly curious person never tries to master a craft or reduce it to a formula- they just seek out new ways to wonder at it. Curiosity is a matter of both inspiration and perspiration, I guess: you have to be selective and intelligent in your inquiring, but most of what happens is out of your control.
I'm still learning about my own creative processes, which mostly means trying to find new ways to trick myself into doing good work. I am intrigued by the idea of inspiration and whether it can be sought or trapped. I'm not sure yet. I imagine that methods of inspiring and perspiring differ from person to person and from art to art.
Your previous published works have been short stories. Rose Tremain once said that short stories are harder to write than novels because the author can't afford to digress. Having written your first novel did you feel that it gave you more leeway?
I definitely find short stories very difficult to write. I feel much more comfortable with longer forms. That remark about digression is really interesting to me, but I don't know if it applies to The Rehearsal because of how focussed the novel is - it's a series of meditations around a single idea, really. The artificially sculpted scenes meant that I was working in very small units, which gave me a sense of accretion rather than of momentum as the novel grew.
Some writers stop reading other people's fiction when they're writing their own, in order to avoid being distracted from the world they're creating themselves. Is the case with you?
No, not at all. I continued to read very greedily right up until The Rehearsal was done. Right from the beginning I had a very definite idea about what I wanted stylistically for the novel, and that style was so particular and so vivid in my mind that I never thought to worry about corruption.A lot of preliminary ideas came from dramatic texts - Caryl Churchill's Cloud Nine and Tony Kushner's Angels in America were utterly formative and inspirational. I discovered the graphic novelist Alan Moore soon after beginning The Rehearsal and his work became hugely important to me, particularly From Hell and The Lost Girls, which inspired me to be more daring with structure and form.
I read theatre manifestos - I owe a massive debt to Towards a Poor Theatre and The Theatre and Its Double - and read a lot of popular psychology and feminist theory of drama. I took so many notes from Eroticism by Georges Bataille that I pretty much ended up transcribing the entire book by hand.
Every new writer these days has to make herself available to the media to help promote the book. Are you looking forward to that side of things or would you rather be writing?
I'm rubbish at speaking to the media. I hope I'll get better at it someday. I tend to be quite equivocal and I change my mind about nearly everything, so speaking into a tape recorder or watching somebody take notes as I talk makes me very uncomfortable. (Even now I'm thinking, 'Actually, I'm not that equivocal. I'm pretty steadfast and stubborn about most things.') I am looking forward to meeting new people, though, and seeing The Rehearsal in a new context.
Are there any particular authors or books which first fired your desire to be a writer?
When I was a child, definitely: Avi, Michelle Magorian, Roald Dahl, Robert O'Brien, Melvin Burgess, Gillian Cross, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Susan Cooper, Arthur Ransome, Hugh Lofting, Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop and A Handful of Time by Kit Pearson. Galax-Arena by Gillian Rubenstein, People Might Hear You by Robin Klein. I loved the Adventure series by Willard Price. His Dark Materials, of course. The Borrowers. Calvin and Hobbes.
Lately I've been inspired by Iris Murdoch, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Carson McCullers, Elizabeth Knox, Muriel Spark. The book I read most recently and loved was The Vagrants by Yiyun Li.
Fugitive Pieces, Middlemarch and Faces in the Water are all books that gave me a new belief in the novel's power.
Can you tell us anything about what you're working on now?
I'm working on two projects at the moment. The first is a quartet of fantasy novels for young adults, set in a parallel version of seventeenth-century Britain. It's been on slow boil for a couple of years now. The second project is another literary novel, a sci-fi story set in the New Zealand goldrushes in the nineteenth century.