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Posts Tagged ‘Eleanor Catton’

SWF 2014 logoI am a dilly-dallier aren’t I? I’m still catching up on my SWF posts. Apologies for the delay, but sometimes life gets in the way.

On SWF Friday I went to a panel session entitled ‘Judging Women’, sponsored by the Stella Prize. Chaired by Aviva Tuffield, Executor Director of the Stella Prize; Eleanor Catton, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries (my review here); Clare Wright, winner of the 2014 Stella Prize for her non-fiction history, The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (see Lisa’s review at ANZ Litlovers); and Tony Birch, one of the Stella Prize’s judges, historian and novelist, who was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2012 for his novel Blood.

Tuffield opened the session with a history of why the Stella Prize was created, listing the statistics in key areas which indicates the bias shown toward male authors: the way males dominated literary award shortlists and winner-lists (both in the Miles Franklin (the much publicised ‘sausage fest’ year was noted) and also in State Premier’s Awards, as well as overseas awards such as the Booker Prize; the bias toward male authors in reviews in literary journals and newspapers; and the higher proportion of male reviewers of said works. Women writers are also under-represented in school reading lists. The statistics on the Booker Prize are worth highlighting, with men accounting for circa 90% of shortlist nominees. Hence the setting up of the Stella Prize. Tuffield noted wryly that in the two years after the creation of the Stella Prize, two women have won the Miles Franklin, and she noted the all-women shortlist of last year. Coincidence? She suspects not.

Opening up the discussion to the panel, Tuffield asked Catton about the furore she created in the wake of winning the Booker when in an interview she said male authors get asked what they think, whereas female authors get asked what they feel. Catton said her experience was that it was not men ‘keeping women down’, and most often the stereotyping interview questions she was asked came from women. To her, feminism is being aware of the statistics. And being self-aware, too, because she went on to note that she had to catch herself sometimes, for when she thought about philosophers she always pictured or thought of men rather than women, as if men were the only ones capable of being thinkers. So we’re all complicit in the way women are thought of, but, she felt, ‘feminism goes wrong in laying blame’.

There was a huge difference, Catton said, between sexism and misogyny. She believes there is sexism in the publishing industry, but not misogyny. She felt there is a problematic expectation that as a woman author her writing must speak to feminist issues. Briefly outlining the way her novel is structured around twelve men who represent the twelve signs of the zodiac, she noted that had sheused twelve women the story would have been about women; using men allowed the story to be about other things, such as astrology and determination.

Tuffield turned to Wright who, when she announced to her male academic colleagues she was going to write a book about the Eureka Stockade, they said ‘what can you possibly add to the story?’ It had been done, they said. Unless she could unearth new primary sources, the subject had been exhausted. Her approach was to go back to the same archives with different questions. As a result, she came back with different answers. Women were in the records, they just hadn’t been written about before. Indeed, the book took ten years to write not because she was off searching for needles in the haystack, but because there was so much material.

Wright made fun of the fact that she is rarely asked what she feels – perhaps, she said, academics don’t have feelings?! But she is asked about gender often.

Her book is about democracy, one of the ‘big’ topics. She talked about previous experience in trying to make the documentary Utopia Girls, learning that you cannot pitch to broadcasters that you want to make a doco about women: you have to say the doco is about ‘a great Australian story’. That is the approach that opens doors.

She went on to talk about the presentation of her book in bookstores, particularly in airports, with her off-handed social media comment about tables in airport bookstores being ‘dick tables’. She would go and re-arrange the books in the stores so hers, which was usually buried somewhere in the back, had more prominence! Now, after winning the Stella Prize, her book was front and centre, so the prize is definitely working.

Tuffield noted the reaction to the second year of the prize was much different than the first. In the first year it was all about the gender question. This year the focus was on great books. This was a great time to bring Birch into the discussion. He outlined the very deliberate and considered approach to judging that chair of judges, Kerryn Goldsworthy, demanded. He said she had scheduled a full day for the final discussion of the shortlist in the choosing of the winner. Birch said he had judged other prizes but none had the same passion in organisation that the Stella Prize has.  As a result, he himself felt even more committed to the process.

Birch made the comment that the body of work read this year – 160 books! – was more complex and enlightening that he had read before. Echoing Tuffield’s need for the prize, he gave his own experience, recalling the time he had read a tiny review of Meme McDonald’s Love Like Water, which he considers a great Australian novel, and next to it was a huge two-page spread on Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is all about the tragedy of male premature ejaculation!

He felt women give more to their work, and young aspiring female writers need more role models, especially as women don’t put themselves forward in the same way men do. Catton echoed the need for role models, underlining the importance of the confidence to take risks as a writer. And having read The Luminaries, and heard Catton talk about that book in another session at SWF, it is clear she does not lack in confidence (in a good way).

Tuffield asked Birch what it was like to judge fiction versus non-fiction. Was it challenging? Not in a negative sense, no, he said. Birch himself has been a historian, as well as a fiction writer, so he quite enjoyed reading across genres and forms. The judges never judged one genre against the other. It was all about the quality of the work. Someone had come up to him this year and said a non-fiction work would have to win because fiction won in the first year, but there was never any question of that. The three criterions used in judging were: originality, engagement, and excellence.

I must admit it did make me wonder: if the Stella Prize had the funds to award both a fiction and a non-fiction prize, would they do so? On the evidence of this discussion, they would not.

Tuffield noted the coincidental links between Catton and Wright’s works: 19th Century goldfields. Catton said she read a lot of 19th Century literature in preparation for writing The Luminaries, including a period in which she read Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, and Portrait of a Lady in succession, all novels that end in much the same way. It was both a great and heart-wrenching period, and she asked herself why women protagonists had to die at the end of such great works. She suspected it was because in those days the notion of women with eyes wide open was too threatening for society. She was, as a result, conscious when in writing a book in that style, to have women end in a position of some power, although Wright picked Catton up on the type of characters Catton chose for her women: a prostitute and a madam, arguing that in the goldfields women were a much more varied lot than these two stereotypes(!)

Overall, a very interesting discussion. Yes, it was run by the Stella Prize and tilted towards its message, but it’s a good message. A little rebalancing in those statistics is a good thing. Each on the panel had something important to add to the question of how we judge women authors. My own view is that much of the exciting writing in fiction right is coming from women. Eleanor Catton is one, to whom you can add Eimear McBride (thoughts on her SWF session coming soon), Jennifer Egan, and our own Alexis Wright. They are experimenting with all manner of things: form, style, genre, myth. (And before you jump on me, yes there are many others, and yes there are exciting male writers doing experimenting too, like Knausgard (a 2013 SWF guest) and Houellebecq, et al. To start a list like this is always doom to failure! The point is women deserve their place in our literary consciousness.

I was going to publish reflections on Alexis Wright in discussion with Geordie Williamson, but you can listen to the full podcast here.

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SWF 2014 logoIt’s ‘thinking season’, as the SWF advert reminds us, and there was much thinking going on today at the six(!) sessions I got to.

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…

 

 

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The luminaries by Eleanor CattonWinner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is a wonder. It succeeds as both a conceptual work, based on astrological signs and charts, and a thrilling set of mysteries, all of which are interrelated.

Set in the mid-1860s gold rush in New Zealand, the story commences with Scot Walter Moody arriving into Hokitika on the western coast, seeking to make his fortune in the nearby goldfields. On the night of his arrival he stumbles into a gathering of twelve men in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel. The men are from various backgrounds and classes, and Moody slowly comes to see they are all there for some kind of council.

They have come to discuss a series of unsolved crimes that, to an outsider, they might seem involved with. A successful young digger has disappeared. A whore has attempted to take her own life. And a hapless hermit who is fond of drink has been found dead in his cottage, surrounded by a fortune. Moody himself has a tale to tell, too, for he has witnessed something—an apparition of some kind?—on his stormy voyage into Hokitika that has shaken him to the core. He recalls the scene thus:

What had he been thinking of? Only the cravat, the silver hand, that name, gasped out of the darkness. The scene was like a small world, Moody thought, possessed of its own dimensions. Any amount of ordinary time could pass, when his mind was straying there. There was this large world of rolling time and shifting spaces, and that small, stilled world of horror and unease; they fit inside each other, a sphere within a sphere.

Each of the twelve assembled men has their own astrological sign. The shipping agent Thomas Balfour, for instance, is Sagittarius. The Maori greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare is Aries. Each of their personalities is set down in accordance to their sign, and their actions are likewise governed by the position of the planets and other astrological influences on the days of the key events. (Other characters are linked to planets, with related influences; Moody’s influence is reason. The dead man, Crosbie Wells, is Terra Firma.)

The story is divided into twelve Parts, each of which is preceded by a chart to show the position of the planetary influences in the various astrological signs. For instance, in Part One, set on 27 January 1866, we have Mercury, Mars and Jupiter in Sagittarius (Balfour’s sign). And it is Balfour who first engages with Moody and begins to tell him some of the story.

Each Part has a set of chapters, and each chapter has a quaint introduction, which start with the words ‘In which’. The first chapter is entitled ‘Mercury in Sagittarius’ and is described thus: ‘In which a stranger arrives in Hokitika; a secret council is disturbed; Walter Moody conceals his most recent memory; and Thomas Balfour begins to tell a story.’

The first Part is 360 pages long, a page for each degree of a circle, ‘a sphere within a sphere’. Subsequent Parts gradually reduce in length, like the waning of a moon, until the chapters are no more than a page long. Meanwhile, the introductions to each chapter become, in the latter Parts at least, longer, waxing as we near the conclusion.

The danger with high-concept novels, as Catton herself acknowledges, is that they risk becoming slaves to the concept and fall down on the level of pure story. The more elaborate the scaffolding, the higher the risk. But story does not suffer in The Luminaries. You could ignore all of the astrological elements and enjoy the story as it stands and as it is written, with some of the well-established Victorian tropes, such as opium dens, a fallen woman/whore, and séances and the supernatural. The prose is assured, and written in classic Victorian style too, from flamboyant character names and descriptions right down to the missing letters in the word ‘d—ned’.

It’s a real page turner, with judicious revelations of relationships and past actions that have contributed to the three events the council has come to discuss. There are lies, deceits, tricks, intrigues, conspiracies, conmen, mix-ups, espionage, rumours, revenge, secrets, promises made and broken, murder, adultery, blackmail, and strange coincidences. And there is, buried in the many revolving tales, the love story of two soul mates. Best of all, it’s fun to read.

Catton manages the panoply of characters with their interwoven pasts with aplomb. They are not stereotypes, but rather have the depth, complexity and contradictions of us all. They have almost Dickensian names: there’s Reverend Devlin, a mercantile ship owner named Carver. And Catton delves deeply into each of them, their physical descriptions, mannerisms, foibles and outlook.

There are interesting themes at play: greed and exploitation; many kinds of love (familial, of a companion, of a lover); honour. There is also the question of whether we have free will or act in accordance to some higher, preordained influence. Perhaps it is both, for the omniscient narrator, in explaining a shift from Aquarius to Pisces, observes ‘were of our own making, and we shall be our own end.’

Exploring the theme of greed, there is a lovely exchange between Te Rau Tauwhare and one of the gold diggers who believes gold and the Maori’s greenstone could be interchangeable: why do we seek gold and not greenstone, one mineral and not the other? No, replies Tauwhare, they are not the same. And we know this because Catton has established the special meaning of greenstone to the Maori people. (Catton also shows Tauwhare’s pain and bitterness when he thinks of the £300 his people were paid for all their land, and the theft it equates to given all the gold in its soil and rivers.)

There’s fun to be hand along the way. Take Mannering’s comment after Balfour’s tale of why the twelve men are gathered for their council comes to a conclusion 350 pages into the novel: ‘A little more than [Moody] bargained for, perhaps.’  How droll!

There are also some lovely touches that reinforce the structural theme. Balfour asks Tauwhare for the meaning of the word Hokitika in Maori. Tauwhare struggles to put it into words, but “at last [he] lifted his finger and described a circle in the air. … ‘Understand it like this,’ he said, regretting that he had to speak the words in English, and approximate the noun. ‘Around. And then back again, beginning.’” It is a beautiful underlining of the structure of the novel itself, which wanes like a moon until it is new again, reaching the start of the story at its end. Beautiful. And one of the main gold claims in the story is called the ‘Aurora’, which is a word for dawn.

The Luminaries is the sort of novel perhaps only David Mitchell would have attempted, and maybe not even him. There will be theses and PhDs written on it. At 832 pages it is the longest to win the Booker, but don’t be put off by the length. At the end, although I was completely satisfied, I hoping there might be more. All I can do now is sit back and admire the waxing of a major literary talent.

And as a fan of great book and cover design work, I dip me lid to the cover design, by Jenny Grigg, which is terrific. And kudos to Granta for publishing such an ambitious work.

Read it, and let me know what you think.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

2013

Granta

832 pages

ISBN: 9781847088765

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased, rather appropriately in this instance, from Megalong Books in Leura!)

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