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Eleanor Catton

A rebellious streak: The precocious New Zealand patternista on why size matters

Taken from the October issue of Dazed & Confused:

Eleanor Catton’s award-winning 2008 debut novel The Rehearsal traced twin narratives, contrasting the fallout of a high-school sex scandal – an affair between a student and her teacher – with a local drama school’s use of it as inspiration for a theatrical show. It demonstrated an understanding of human relationships that went far beyond the Canada-born, New Zealand-raised author’s then 23 years. Now she’s back with a book the size of a small house/large child, which has landed her on the Man Booker Prize longlist. Published by Granta, The Luminaries is the sprawling tale of 12 men involved in the 19th-century New Zealand gold rush. Yeah, we know: it’s demanding, daunting and downright brave, but we’re going out on a limb and saying that it might just be the most unlikely form of literary shit-stirring we’ve seen in a while.  

Dazed Digital: How does it feel to be publishing this after the success of The Rehearsal?

Eleanor Catton: Well, The Luminaries is such a different book to The Rehearsal. There are only a couple of things that link the two books: there’s a certain preoccupation with looking at relationships from the outside, being shut out of human intimacy; and then there’s patterning. 

DD: What’s that?

Eleanor Catton: I patterned The Luminaries on the apparent movement of the planets through the 12 signs of the zodiac, and that’s an aspect of the book that probably doesn’t mean much to anybody but me.

DD: So you follow astrology?

Eleanor Catton: Oh no. I was just interested in it as a system. I set myself the challenge of seeing if I could make each one of the 12 characters true to their astrological profile. Could I do that and also get the plot working in a way that was astrologically determined? And then each part has one less chapter than the part before. So the last chapter of the book is only 50 words long. I don’t have a terribly good reason for all these patternings, but one of the things I love about the zodiac is just how endlessly fruitful it is if you’re looking for patterns. I wanted to build things into the novel that didn’t necessarily matter to the thrust of the plot, but would offer you rewards if you began to look into them with a bit more depth.

I don’t have a terribly good reason for all these patternings, but one of the things I love about the zodiac is just how endlessly fruitful it is if you’re looking for patterns

DD: Does that have anything to do with why the book is over 800 pages long? 

Eleanor Catton: No, not really. It was just that all of these different interests got absorbed into the project and this is what came out at the other end. I knew that I wanted to write about the New Zealand gold rush and I wanted to get a sense of what my characters would have been reading, so I started reading Victorian novels. That definitely had some effect on the book’s length. Because if you’re going to be performing these really quite minute psychological dissections of people’s moods and the various changes that a mood will suffer over the course of a scene, you’re going to end up with something quite long. 

DD: What books were you reading?

Eleanor Catton: I’d never read the big Russian novelists before, so I started off reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Then I moved on to Dickens, Thackeray and Wilkie Collins. Then Flaubert and George Eliot. I loved Middlemarch, I think that’s one of my favourite books of all time, actually. At the same time, I was reading a lot of 20th-century crime novels, like Graham Greene, moving on to Patricia Highsmith and Agatha Christie. It was like addition. I wanted to see if I could add what I liked about 20th-century crime novels to what I liked about the Victorian novel. 

I think the suicide, or the attempted suicide, that people are so keen to pin on Anna (a prostitute) in The Luminaries was a way of showing literary convention as something desperate or too easily resorted to as a solution

DD: We’d normally assume that a book of this length would be written by a much older writer.

Eleanor Catton: Well, I have a rebellious streak, and the way The Rehearsal was received focused on how old I was. So, unconsciously, I was probably resisting that. In the early stages of writing the book I was also thinking about how few women write long books. In terms of literary fiction, that tends to be true. There isn’t an equivalent of Infinite Jest or Gravity’s Rainbow written by a woman. Long historical books get written by women, but not contemporary experiments, which still seems to be a very male-dominated field. So I think that was definitely in my mind. When I started the book, I had this Yeatsian idea that I wanted the 12 parts of the book to dwindle. So each part would be exactly half the length of the part before. 

DD: The treatment of women is an interesting facet of the book. Is it something you’re concerned with as a contemporary issue?

Eleanor Catton: I read Madame Bovary, House of Mirth and Anna Karenina back to back and it was so depressing! The woman who wakes up to herself is always fated to die. Because we can’t countenance a world with wide-awake women in it. I think the suicide, or the attempted suicide, that people are so keen to pin on Anna (a prostitute) in The Luminaries was a way of showing literary convention as something desperate or too easily resorted to as a solution: ‘Oh dear, what do we do now? Better get rid of her...’ In the way that in romantic comedies, the third person in the triangle is always got rid of absolutely. Writers turn them gay or kill them off. Saying that, I think New Zealand is a wonderful place to be a woman. There’s a practical equality which is very much written into the Kiwi life. It’s not the case that the girls will go off with the girls and the boys will go off with the boys. It’s a much more inclusive environment. So I don’t think the prejudices that you see in the book are an issue in New Zealand today. We were the first country to give women the vote, in 1893. It’s quite interesting to think that New Zealand has so much in common culturally with the UK and it does still, but that their gender politics are still quite different.

DD: Most young authors choose short forms and write about young people’s lives. What would you say to those who will say the book alienates a younger audience?

Eleanor Catton: I don’t feel like literature has the power to alienate. I think that’s something people feel if they don’t connect with a work of art. But I don’t think a work of art can actively reject the person who’s looking at it or reading it.

DD: It’s quite a rare and admirable quality in a young writer to look outwards and beyond your immediate experiences. Do you think young literature has a dangerous preoccupation with the self?

Eleanor Catton: Thank you. I mean, there are loads of books that would fall under the category of semi-autobiographical writing that I adore. But I think that in general, I’m not so interested in the self. Well I don’t know that I’m interested in myself as a subject. I just feel that there are so many things I haven’t experienced that I want to write about. That ‘write what you know’ bullshit is the worst advice you could give to anybody. What I’d like to see in the next 30 to 40 years is more crossover between genres. I think that the divide between literary fiction and genre fiction is really silly. Literary fiction would be really enlivened by an injection from other genres. The other thing I’d like to see is less literary tourism – where you insert the name of a country that’s not America and say, ‘This is the book that gives you the X experience.’ Like the ‘New Zealand’ experience, for instance. I think we’re over that.

DD: What can we expect from you next?

Eleanor Catton: I think Granta would be quite pleased if I wrote something short! But the beautiful thing about the novel is that it can just be anything – it’s going to keep being whatever we want it to be, for as long as humans are around. For that reason, I think it’s the most supple and interesting form we have. 

The Luminaries is out now, published by Granta