Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Triumph in world of writing puts NZ 'on literary map'

Eleanor Catton's Man Booker Prize win puts New Zealand on the "literary map", according to colleagues and students who watched live as the 28-year-old author received the award.

Twenty of Catton's Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT) creative writing students and fellow tutors cheered, cried and let out "big whoops of joy" as she was named winner of one of the world's major literary prizes in London yesterday.

MIT Creative Writing School head Robert Sullivan said it was an emotional scene and the group were very proud and thrilled for Catton, who has taught creative writing at the school for the past year.

"It's just been a really wonderful thing for our students and colleagues. It's such a major thing for her personally and in a sense she's carrying our country's literature with her."

Mr Sullivan called The Luminaries an "amazing achievement".

"It's a truly historical novel in that it's set in the 19th century and it really puts New Zealand literature on the map, not just in contemporary but also historical fiction."

Student Matt Wort described Catton's teaching style as full of constructive but positive feedback which inspired the best in her students.

"We do a lot of exercises that are a lot of fun, to get our minds going. They're real energetic classes. She has a real poetic way of writing prose, in a way that it is still prose with so much more meaning."

Mr Wort said the Booker Prize win made the students believe that they could also one day bring home the award.

University of Canterbury professor of English Patrick Evans said Catton seemed destined to win the Booker Prize.

"She did that novel The Rehearsal which is not a normal novel to be written by a young thing. Apparently she's the kind of girl who you'd see scribbling everywhere."

Professor Evans, who worked in the same department as Catton when she was Writer in Residence at the university in 2011, called the author a "lovely woman who would be quite overwhelmed by this".

"She's so unaffected and she'll be so surprised. I just hope she can handle it."

He said Catton's publisher, Victoria University Press, should be commended for taking a punt on a 300,000-word novel, when novels were usually about 80,000 words.

The acting head of English at the University of Canterbury, Christina Stachurski, said the win was a coup for the department, which "recognised Ellie as a writer of some exceptional talent".

Catton had followed in the footsteps of the 1985 Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme, who was also Writer in Residence at the university when she won for The Bone People.

Dr Stachurski said she expected Catton would go on to write more "stunningly original and different" novels.

Catton wrote the final draft of her novel in residency at the University of Auckland's Michael King Writers' Centre in Devonport last year.

Catton was born in Ontario, Canada, and moved to Christchurch with her family at the age of 6. She lives in Mt Eden with her poet partner, Steve Toussaint, whom she metwhile doing a writers' workshopin Iowa in the United States.

The Luminaries is set in 1866 gold-rush Hokitika, and was described by the Booker judges as "a New Zealand Twin Peaks".

Catton's first novel, The Rehearsal, was released in 2008 when she was 22. It won the UK Society of Authors' Betty Trask Award, and it was long-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction.

Catton has also won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short story competition, the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship, and best first book of fiction in the Montana New Zealand Book Awards 2009.

She told the Herald she had found out about the Booker shortlist while in Dublin's Trinity College library.

"I had this horrible ring tone. It is officially the most embarrassed I've ever been in a library, and this the library of libraries."

While she had been anxious about the shortlist, she said in September she was relaxed about the prize itself.

"I was quite anxious about the shortlist but now that it has come out I feel very Zen about the actual prize."

Catton is the third New Zealander to make the Booker shortlist, after Keri Hulme in 1985 and Lloyd Jones, for Mr Pip, in 2007. The winner receives 50,000 ($95,100).

- additional reporting: APNZ

Writer pays tribute to her influences

Catton's speech (abridged):Thank you. When I began writing The Luminaries I was very much in the thrall of Lewis Hyde's wonderful book, The Gift, as I still am.

And his conception of the creative enterprise as explored in that book was very important to me in how I came to understand the West Coast during the years of the gold rush.

The region is rich in two very different minerals, gold, prized by Europeans for its value, and greenstone or pounamu, prized by Maori for its worth. Gold, being pure currency, can only be bought and sold. Pounamu, as a symbol of belonging and prestige, can only be given.

An economy based on value, in Lewis Hyde's conception, is not necessarily inferior to an economy based on worth, but the two must somehow be reconciled in the life of an artist who wishes to make a living by his or her gift, by his or her art.

On the West Coast, this intersection of economies has a national significance, speaking as it does to New Zealand's essentially bicultural heart.

I am very aware of the pressures upon contemporary publishing to make money and to remain competitive in a competitive world, and I know that it is no small thing that my primary publishers, Granta and Victoria University Press never once made these pressures known to me while I was writing this book.

I was free throughout to concern myself of questions not of value, but of worth. This is all the more incredible to me because The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher's nightmare. The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but even more egregious, astrologically impossible.

I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to have found friends and colleagues and people who have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.

To everybody at Granta and at Victoria University Press back home, thank you.

I would also like to make some very brief but heartfelt individual thanks. To my editors, Sarah Holloway and Max Porter, whose influence on The Luminaries has been conspiratorial, rigorous, and for me, incredibly personally sustaining. To my publishers Fergus Barrowman, Philip Gwyn Jones and Sigrid Rausing, who were kind enough to take a chance on me.

And to my dear agent Caroline Dawnay in whom I trust completely. I must also thank my beloved, Steve Toussaint, whose kindness, patience and love is written on every page of my book.

Lastly I would like to thank the Man Booker Prize and this year's judging panel.

- NZ Herald

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