Eleanor Catton on winning the Man Booker prize

Eleanor Catton struck literary gold with the Booker, and the consequences for her fiction fascinate her

Writer Eleanor Catton, the youngest Man Booker prize winner at just 28. Picture: Robert Catto

WHEN Eleanor Catton became the youngest author ever to win the Man Booker prize last October with The Luminaries, fellow winner Yann Martel advised her to take up every invitation that came her way.

“I haven’t done that. I’ve been saying no to various things and I’m starting to say no to even more as time goes on. I haven’t given up my part-time teaching job in Auckland, and that and travelling around promoting the book is taking up all my time,” says the 28-year-old.

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Catton is in Scotland this week, with events in Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh, all part of the whirlwind of promotion that winning one of literature’s most prestigious prizes entails. Not that she’s complaining, she stresses, in her New Zealand tones, where guess is “giss”, best is “bist” and when is “whin”.

“It’s so extraordinary. I’m so lucky to get all these opportunities to go to parts of the world I have never seen before,” she says. “I’m going to Brazil later this year, I’m really excited about that. I have never been to South America before. I’ve been to Australia and now I’m in the UK and looking forward to seeing more of Scotland. I’ll be adding to my Scotch collection. Every time I come overseas I get another one. My boyfriend is a super peaty guy, and the people at Granta gave me a bottle of Isle of Jura Superstition when I won the Booker.”

Winning the Booker is a big deal anyway, but Catton has created even more of a buzz by doing it with only her second novel, the longest winner in the prize’s 45-year history at 832 pages. With its multiple storylines, intricate plot and structure, and set in the New Zealand gold rush of 1866, it isn’t a quick read, but follow it through to the end and it’s like striking gold. The chair of the Booker judges, Robert Macfarlane, said of The Luminaries: “It’s a dazzling work. It’s a luminous work. It is vast without being sprawling.”

But now the champagne corks have stopped popping, Catton is determined to take things in her stride, and still lives in her rented Auckland flat with US-born author and poet Steven Toussaint, and continues to teach creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology.

“In all of the essential respects life hasn’t changed at all,” she says. “We are taking everything quite slowly, not wanting everything to change too dramatically.”

Evenings are spent discussing writing with her boyfriend, who is doing a PhD in US avant garde poetry and who was with Catton all the way through the writing of The Luminaries.

“I read all of it aloud to him. He knows it better than me. It was when we were making dinner, not making him sit in an empty room on a hard chair!” she says. “We don’t make suggestions or changes to each other’s work, maybe the occasional line of dialogue, he would say, ‘Isn’t that a half remembered line from a film or something?’ You need people around, other writers, to test ideas. I’m a member of a book group too, and nearly everyone is a writer so we have a rule, like Fight Club, that we don’t talk about or read each other’s books in the group.”

But life has inevitably changed for Catton, with her appearances now drawing a big crowd.

“It’s strange, but wonderful and quite humbling and makes me really want to do a good job whenever I appear. I don’t feel I have earned the clout, I guess, to be an authority on any aspect of writing. I feel very much at the beginning of my career.

“I’m only in my twenties, I don’t need people to open the door for me or listen when I’m telling a long boring story about my life. It’s interesting for everything to shift in the way that people treat me. Hopefully I haven’t treated anyone differently. That would be alarming. Someone said you can take a measure of a person by how they treat waiters and assistants.”

Waiters and assistants of Scotland, it looks like you’re in for an easy ride. Catton is charming and modest, yet endlessly eloquent and engaging. Everything is “interesting”, and even the most inane inquiry about the complex structure of the book evinces an encouraging “that’s an interesting question” and a thoughtful answer.

The Luminaries is written in 12 parts, each decreasing in size to match the moon’s lunar cycle, with 12 main characters corresponding to their astrological archetype, in the style of a Victorian murder mystery. Writing in the New York Times, novelist Bill Roorbach said it was like doing a Charlotte Brontë-themed crossword puzzle while playing chess and Dance Dance Revolution on a Bongo Board.

Does she ever wish she’d kept the form simpler and not given herself such a logistical nightmare?

“No, form is fascinating to me. I think novels are infinite ways of experimenting, and should always be an experiment for the writer, but the reader doesn’t need to perceive it that way. The writer should always be pushing themselves into new territory and asking questions, using the theatre of the novel as a space to ask what if, wherever that might take them. It succeeded for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has succeeded for a reader.

“I wanted to see whether it would be possible for a novel to be intricately plotted and at the same time structurally ornate.

“It bothers me that plot is held in such low esteem these days. It’s a snobbery of literary fiction and a way it tries to distinguish itself from non-literary fiction by pointing at time travel and explosions and saying they’re of poorer quality. I think that’s silly and that’s not the way that fiction in general is moving. I think we are going to see a great return to plot. And I hope to be a part of it.”

Catton gives the impression that the recognition from the literary world and the prize it brought her are delightful, but The Luminaries was more of a test she had set for herself.

“In some ways it’s a very private kind of success, a fulfilment of what I needed it to fulfil in me and everything that happened after that has been amazing, but beside the point. Anybody that sets out to write a book to win a prize will write something that’s frightful because at the heart it won’t be enthusiastic, affirming, but cynical and mean-spirited,” she says.

“I didn’t give the prize to myself. It was bestowed by others and I’m just lucky because there are a million ways in which the decision could have gone another way. Books published a year before could have been published later on and the judging panel could have been different or there could have been another book similar to mine. It’s an accident of circumstances. I don’t think my book was the best book published last year. There was just something exciting to the judges and I’m grateful for that, but it hasn’t meant that the book has changed in any way.”

Not only is Catton waving the flag for youth and volume, she’s also heralded on the world stage as a “New Zealand writer”. How does she feel about being the standard bearer for Kiwi fiction and general all-round excellence?

“When you write or make art of any kind, you are drawing on love of some kind. When you’re not doing that your art is impoverished. I have a lot of love for New Zealand and there’s a lot of The Luminaries that responds to that, but I’m not a cultural ambassador.

“To be an artist you need a severe dose of rebellion and resistance. There’s a huge number of things in New Zealand culture that I’m critical of. It just takes some delicacy to be true to my sensibility as an artist. Or aspiring artist,” she corrects herself. “Always aspiring.”

But what are the aspects of New Zealand culture of which she is critical?

“Well, New Zealand has an underdog status, being small and on the edge of the world, and the sense of being an underdog can develop into an arrogance about that status and a blindness to everything that is not underdog about the culture. Aspects of that bother me. New Zealand has this clean, green status overseas, and in terms of its landscape, it’s very beautiful, but in terms of recycling and pollution we are one of the world’s worst.”

On the other hand, Catton takes pride in her country’s multi-culturalism and the inextricable links between the landscape, in which she spent much of her youth hiking, and the country’s history.

“One of the things that makes me feel incredibly proud is the relationship between Maori and pakeha or European communities. It’s a nice thing that the word we use to describe non-Maori people is a Maori word. It’s very important. I feel very proud of that and very connected to the landscape too,” she says.

“After the Booker Prize ceremony I went to North America and toured around, and when I finally came home three months later, when the plane banked over the Hauraki Gulf and I saw the islands in the Gulf, I just burst into tears. Everybody is like that about some place. It’s the place that has shaped the inside of you.”

Born in Canada, to a philosopher father and children’s librarian mother when they were on sabbatical, Catton arrived in New Zealand with her parents and two siblings when she was six, and it was New Zealand that made her the writer she has become. The Luminaries, with its story of the goldfields and how they shaped people, simply couldn’t have been written anywhere else. “It’s home,” she says.

A year in Leeds as a teenager when her father’s job took them there may not have shaped her in the same way, but she did find it a memorable experience, especially attending Lawnswood School, her local state comprehensive.

“I had a really wonderful time in Leeds, such a good year. Dad was on sabbatical at the university and we came over because my mum’s sister was there too, and there was a family connection. It’s interesting. If I have children I would really want them to have the experience of living in more than one country. You learn so much about yourself in a different culture,” she says.

“It was gloriously rough. Very different to what I had been used to in New Zealand where the schools I attended had fantastic facilities and everybody was polite, but the teachers were a mixed bag. In Leeds, the facilities were hopeless, the radiators broken and dust everywhere. It was a big old draughty building, but the teachers were out of this world, fantastic, and it was really different. The cultural make-up of the place was different. The students had a lot of attitude and were more powerful in the classrooms than I was used to at home. They mouthed off to the teachers and got into physical fights. It was refreshing. They were showing themselves and not cowardly, and there were these brilliant teachers who were so good at doing what they do,” she says.

Catton excelled regardless and went on to study English at the University of Canterbury then a master’s degree in creative writing in Wellington. Her master’s thesis became her 2008 debut novel, The Rehearsal, and was translated into 12 languages. After that she was awarded a fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, during which time she started The Luminaries, which took five years to write.

While the book has been lauded, there have been mutterings about its length in a world where the attention span is being chipped away at by the persistent noise of tweeting and we expect our entertainment in short, sharp fixes.

“Too long?” she laughs. “I’m perfectly happy if people don’t read it,” she says mildly. “I can understand it because there have been many books people have recommended to me and I’ve thought, ‘some time yes, but not now’. I’ve still got Daniel Deronda [George Eliot’s 800-page tome] sitting on a shelf and haven’t had time to read it.

“I was very aware in the late stages of writing that it was going to be long and that meant that my responsibility was much greater to be entertaining because I knew I was going to be taking up a reader’s time and it would have to work triumphantly or fail spectacularly. I took that responsibility seriously,” she says.

As for those who say the book is easier after page 400, Catton mulls this over.

“It does pick up the pace in order to make the structure work, and it’s necessary that the first part takes a while to get going. I see it like a wheel, a huge cartwheel, creaky at the beginning and spinning faster and faster as it goes. You can never expect everybody to be entertained by, or enjoy, what you do. Then there are other people whose enthusiasm and gratitude for the book is so moving. It’s important to have an honest relationship with the book yourself. You have to love it and be fascinated by it and I was, absolutely. I feel I am still, in many ways. I have these pressing questions about the universe and the book becomes one way of answering those questions.”

Catton’s pressing questions about the universe concern the relationship between fate and free will, and in The Luminaries she set out to explore this central paradox. In her goldfield setting the discovery of a nugget could change fortunes overnight.

“We can’t have a relationship with money,” says Catton. “It’s absent, a symbol of what it could be turned into, what it could be. People think, ‘If I had this much money, I could be so much of a better person’. It’s very illusory.”

Catton is well placed to consider the implications of coming into money, with her £50,000 prize, and vast worldwide sales of The Luminaries and whatever she writes in future, plus a TV adaptation by British producer Andrew Woodhead (Spooks, The Fixer) in the pipeline. Has the money changed her?

“It’s not changed who I am, but it does bring real opportunities. Like being able to travel or just not having to think when you go to the supermarket about choosing a more expensive thing. But over time that would change your experience and that’s something to be careful about, because it alienates your experience from the huge majority of the rest of the world. For a writer that’s a problem.”

The next novel may be a while in the making as Catton hasn’t written any fiction in well over a year, and The Luminaries took five years in total. As well as teaching and promoting the book, she’s avidly reading all of Shakespeare’s plays and watching a box set of Twin Peaks, whose long episodic delivery of a complex plot holds obvious appeal. It’s also the source of the name of one of her cats – Laura Palmer. The other is Isis, “from the Bob Dylan song”. Catton is determined not to succumb to any pressure to rush her next book. After all, how do you top the Booker?

“For me, it’s about curiosity and ambition. With the next book, and the one after, it’s about writing a book that’s good, and there’s nothing that can guarantee that that’s going to be true. I have to try and make it better than the last one.”

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton is published by Granta, £9.99. Catton will be at Aye Write, Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Wednesday, 7.30pm-8.30pm (£8 plus booking fee, www.ayewrite.com); Literary Dundee, UTC+01 at Dundee Libraries, Thursday, 6pm-7.30pm (free, www.dundee.ac.uk); Edinburgh University In Conversation With Jenni Fagan, Teviot, Bristo Square, Edinburgh, Friday, 6pm, 0131-650 4673, free