Earlier this evening I had the pleasure of listening to the very erudite, engaging and funny Eleanor Catton speak with Steven Gale about her Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries (my review here). Catton opened by talking about the delivery of the manuscript, some two years late!, to Granta, her publisher. It wasn’t until she wrote the final scene, which appears near the end of the novel, that she could see the whole picture of the structure coming together. The next day she felt as though she had shed twenty kilos (I know what you’re thinking: that MS probably weighted that much!). For a brief time she did not experience her fear of her own mortality, though she reassured us this fear has since returned(!).
Looking back on the person who wrote the novel now, she said, is a confronting thing, although she’s still ‘on-side’ with The Luminaries. She sees a different person when reading back passages now, and wonders how confronting thinking of these early works will be years down the track. Her first novel, The Rehearsal is for her very confronting because she was so raw (ie, young), when she wrote it.
Asked about her connection to the west coast of NZ where the novel is set, she said she has had family living near Hokitika and relayed a very humorous story of a family cycling trip she made when she was 14 to that region. Cycling over high passes is hard yakka, and this hardship makes you connect to landscape in a much stronger way than if you were passing through it in a car. That is one of the things she likes most about New Zealand: the best views you can’t see from the road. It was on this trip as a 14-year old that she first had the idea of writing a mystery set in the goldfields. It was telling that she mentioned here that it was pleasing looking back from the age of 28, because 14 is half her current age, and that was mathematically pleasing. Anyone who has read the novel will understand the waning structure and how each section is half the preceding one. So when she sat down to write the story, it was the landscape and the township of Hokitika, so beautifully depicted, that came to her first.
In speaking to the question of authenticity in the voices of the Maori and Chinese characters she admitted one of the inventions she made was in using Chinese, who in real life arrived a few years after the story is set. She found the device of using the opium as a tool to set up disappearances and altered states of mind too attractive, so included the Chinese characters.
She spoke at length about the zodiac ‘conceit’ of the novel, as well as its construction, saying she had asked herself ‘wouldn’t it be cool if she could write Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in reverse, starting with the twelve characters, and later made the point that she thought of the novel as a coming together of 19th Century fiction with 20th Century crime fiction, or, put another way, the coming together of Murder on the Orient Express with The Brother’s Karamazov.
People have discussed the archetypal characters of the story, given they are governed by the stars. Was this limiting? No, Catton said. She gave the example of how Gemini is associated with communication, and so she assigned her Gemini character with the role of the local newspaper publisher. There’s a huge difference between archetypes and stereotypes, she said. Archetypes are shadowy, and take many forms, while stereotypes are one form only. So writing archetypes was actually liberating, making the point also that she liked to paint herself into a corner with the story to force herself to find the most creative solution.
The idea of ‘relationality’ appealed to her: how people change depending on their surroundings, including how a person can be altered by the people around them, how people bring out in the worst in some people, but the best in others. The question of will versus fate was a key underlying question for Catton, and she sees paradoxes in both. It was also important to use the theme of fortunes being made on the gold fields given the fortune telling connotations of astrology. And she noted the importance in drama of what Aristotle highlighted in his Poetics: reversals and discoveries, how they are the most important things in ‘story’.
Gale asked her about the use of 19th Century language, and she made the humorous observation that she started out ‘all excited’ with using it and used less of it as she went along (she had earlier made the extraordinary point that she doesn’t redraft). She immersed herself in 19th Century literature, marking out sentences and dialogue and turns of phrase, which she then re-read over and over until they seeped into her writing organically. She read for one and a half years, and then spent six months finding the opening sentence(!): trying to get the right ‘voice’. Fortunately, she said, laughing, the process sped up from there. Influences included a long list of authors, including Dostoyevsky, Melville’s Moby-Dick, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, ‘some’ Dickens, and then a host of crime authors. Otherwise, her reading is very eclectic, and finds her story ideas come to her mainly from non-fiction. Overall, she wanted to write an antipodean Victorian novel.
Her writing process is fascinating. She works a full day, getting up and setting herself a target and trying to get on with it, though often finds her frustrations due to a perceived lack of progress crucial fuel for a final hour of productivity. She’s a great believer in the notion that an author can start a story too soon; it’s important to know your story before you being, she said. After dinner she reads her day’s output aloud, including to her partner (who is a poet). Reading it aloud enables you to catch many things that would slip through. When asked about Dostoyevsky’s view that the artistic ambition is about suffering, she said yes, it is, because until a work is done it is a failure. (She also made the observation that Dostoyevsky was a Scorpio, so it stood to reason he would say such a thing!)
There were many other insights into craft, Hokitika, the zodiac, and so on. What I, and I’m sure most, in the audience came away with is the view that Eleanor Catton is a hugely impressive talent, mature way beyond her years. She is confident, collected, warm, thoughtful and very funny. And there is also a hint in her method of working of the burning desire that must fire in the soul of any writer tackling such ambitious works. I suggest you listen to the podcast when it goes up, to hear some very funny anecdotes, including an intense debate Catton had with friends in a bar about whether mercy or justice was more important (in response to a question on the Briggs-Myers personality test). In short, they each found the other’s answer to be couched in their own viewpoint of what mercy and justice meant, but they had to have the at-times tearful debate, which ended in the gutter after the bar closed, to realise their positions where mirrors. But they could only get to this realisation by having the debate. It was clearly thinking season that day!
A fascinating session. I’ll definitely be checking out Catton’s The Rehearsal soon, and can’t wait to see what she does next.
More from the festival over the coming days…