Twelve questions

Sarah Stuart poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve Questions: Eleanor Catton

Eleanor Catton, 27, is the youngest author on this year's prestigious Man Booker Prize longlist with her second novel, The Luminaries. She flats in central Auckland and teaches creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology.

Eleanor Catton says she's not an easily intimidated person but the thought of 
meeting the Man Booker judging panel scares her. Photo / David White
Eleanor Catton says she's not an easily intimidated person but the thought of meeting the Man Booker judging panel scares her. Photo / David White

1. How did you hear about the longlist and what was your reaction?

My editor in London, Max Porter, called me with the news. He called my cellphone about six times, and then sent me an email ("Pick up the PHONE!"), but I was cooking and didn't hear the buzz. Finally he tried my home phone, and I answered. I was making fish cakes - I'd just put the cakes into the oil - and I watched, beaming, as the oil turned dark and started to smoke. I didn't eat until about an hour later, by which time the cakes had cooled and congealed. They were disgusting.

2. Julian Barnes won two years ago; Hilary Mantel last year and Colm Toibin joins you on the long list this year. How intimidating is that kind of company?

I don't think I feel intimidated by the company so much as by the prize, and all the fuss surrounding it. I feel like I already know those authors quite well, just by virtue of the fact of having read and loved their books.

I'd love to meet them, to talk endlessly about fiction and why it matters and what it comprises. I don't feel at all the same way about the judging panel, though: the thought of meeting them scares me a lot.

3. Are you an easily intimidated woman?

No. In my experience intimidation is linked to competition in a fundamental way - people who are intimidated, or who consciously intimidate, are competitive in their attitudes towards others - and there's no room for competition in literature. I do feel very impressionable, though, both as a writer and as a person.

4. You grew up in a literary home, without a TV. Was it horrific?

Endlessly. Even worse, my parents didn't own a car for quite a few years, so it was a double whammy. We biked around Christchurch on a fleet of bicycles (two tandems and one single), and I died with embarrassment every time I was spotted by a classmate at school.

5. Your first novel The Rehearsal, was about the aftermath of a teacher's affair with a pupil. Did anything like that happen at Burnside High and what kind of a pupil were you?

If it did, I never knew about it! But I have heard Burnside's library doesn't hold The Rehearsal which is perhaps a bad sign... I think I was a pretty happy kid. I was in the school choir, and rowed for a couple of years in a quad boat (sculls), so I had both an artistic and a sporting life. I ended up leaving school after my sixth form year, and went to university a year early - I was dating a guy the school didn't approve of and they got up in my business. I didn't like the intrusion into my private life.

6. Horoscopes feature prominently in The Luminaries and yet you don't believe in them: why not?

A real picture of the heavens depends so much on the moving parts of the zodiac: firstly, the latitudinal position from which you are looking at the stars, and secondly, the placements of the seven planets, each of which brings a specific influence to the overall portrait. I often generate charts online for events in my life (I did one for The Luminaries, which is a Leo with an Aquarius rising) but I don't put much stock in newspaper horoscopes. Once you know a bit about astrology, it becomes clear most horoscopes just recycle the basic principles or traits of each sign.

7. If you were writing a horoscope for yourself, what would the first five lines be?

Pay attention to non-verbal communication. Watch out for double standards. Once you've heard everything, go back to the first thing and rethink it. Let someone else take the reins for a while. Listen when you talk to yourself.

8. You have lamented in the past New Zealand's anti-intellectualism. Is that a hangover, do you think, from our history?

Yes, I think so - and a product of our size. A small country can't be "most" or "biggest"; it needs either to be "best" or "first" to make headlines. Sport offers the possibility for a nation to prove it is the best, and many of our national heroes were the first in various fields, but it doesn't work in the same way with literature and art. That could change. I'm confident that it will change.

9. You scandalised the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival by not hating 50 Shades of Grey. What other kinds of awful entertainments have you enjoyed?

I loved the remake of Battlestar Galactica, but I'm not sure if that's awful enough. Perhaps HBO's TrueBlood? Or movies adapted from John Grisham novels?

10. Keri Hulme has yet to write her second novel after winning the Booker more than two decades ago. Can you imagine that kind of pressure?

Writing is very sustaining to me; it helps me to process the world, to make sense of myself, to be happy. I can't imagine quitting any time soon. I must admit, though, that the idea of turning down all invitations and requests feels pretty attractive sometimes.

11. What is the most odious aspect of modern life?

Being contactable. Missed connections, false assumptions, and mistaken identities make such good stories.

12. What's the most interesting thing you learned from your research for The Luminaries?

I loved discovering that the very centre of our galaxy lies between Scorpio and Sagittarius. In astrological terms, that's between the house of reincarnation and the house of the collective unconscious. I reckon that's a pretty interesting place to find the heart of a galaxy.

- NZ Herald

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