Reaching for the stars

Author Eleanor Catton is the joint-winner of the Herald's New Zealander of the Year for 2013. The Man Booker prize winner talks to Geoff Cumming about fame, childhood and why she needs to push the boundaries every time she writes

Eleanor Catton is one of the three winners for New Zealander of the Year. Photo / APN
Eleanor Catton is one of the three winners for New Zealander of the Year. Photo / APN

Eleanor Catton is late for a very important date. A snowstorm in northern California has put her a day behind schedule to reach Portland, Oregon, leaving less time for a rummage through Powell's Books, the new and second-hand bookstore that takes up an entire city block.

Catton likes nothing better than reading and re-reading books. The books she read as a child shaped her more than anything else, she says.

There's been precious little time for books since the Christchurch-raised novelist won the Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries.

She's been on a circuit of book promos, cocktail parties and media interviews in Britain, Canada and the United States since before mid-October. Next stop is Seattle, then New York, then Chicago for Christmas. She won't get back to the Mt Eden apartment she and poet partner Steve Toussaint share with her cats until after New Year's Day.

"It definitely hasn't been all work." In North America, she's been catching up with relatives and friends from her fellowship at the Iowa writer's workshop in 2008, where she wrote some chapters of The Luminaries.

Toussaint has joined her and they've had time for sightseeing.

Taking to the road is possibly the best thing she could have done.

The Booker ranks alongside the Pulitzer Prize as the most prestigious in English literature. The Luminaries is, superficially, a historical murder mystery written in the style of a Victorian sensation novel. But there is much more going on. The Independent likened it to conceptual art: "Catton has not merely inherited or mimicked an antique style of fiction but set out to reinvent it for our times." Booker judge Stuart Kelly praised Catton's ability to "make the novel think in a way that a novel doesn't do normally ... No novel has been like this before."

Some cross to bear. Her win even prompted sympathetic (or patronising) commentary on how a 28-year-old from a small country at the ends of the earth might cope with the media glare.

She prefers the advice of 2002 winner Yann Martel (Life of Pi), who told her he accepted all the invitations that started coming his way and enjoyed the ride. She's become a staple in The Guardian and was featured in The New York Times. But much of the media coverage has focused on her relative youth and that she won with just her second novel.

She is learning to tolerate inane questions, if not the focus on her age and where she comes from. She's learning that unguarded comments (like the one about the paucity of literary criticism in New Zealand) in one setting can cause strong offence in another and that many journalists interpret the term "off the record" loosely.

What many journalists and commentators don't get is that Catton exists on a higher intellectual plane to them - rather than her, it is the mass media which is out of its depth. She wants to discuss gender issues, diversity, philosophical questions; reporters ask her to nominate her favourite word.

"The odd thing about suddenly being in the public eye is that the way you interact with the world is the same, but people are treating you very differently." In Canada, she was taken aback by hosts wanting to put her in their best rooms and take her to fancy restaurants. "I'm still the same person I was."

If her win has brought any worries, it is that it might make her too comfortable. "I'm really conscious of the fact that struggle is really important for art and if artists stop struggling, they lose something," she told APNZ after her victory.

She takes her art very seriously. She talks of novelists needing to "revere the form" and distinguishes her creative ambitions from writers with less pure motives. They must be willing to experiment, and to fail.

"What kind of art do I want to create? What I would hope is that each book I write is idiosyncratic and doesn't resemble any other book that already exists in the world. I don't really see the point in writing something that someone has already done. Pure creation is divine - it's the calling into being of something that wasn't there before."


Catton never wanted to be anything other than a writer. Growing up in a home without a television, the third child of a philosopher father and librarian mother who eschewed technological trappings, she found her imagination more than fired by children's books.

"I not only enjoyed reading but re-reading and returning again and again to some fictional landscape and world they were creating on their own. Re-reading to me is almost a more important part of a writer's evolution than reading is."

Though she didn't appreciate them at the time, her expat-American father Phillip's insistence on tramping in the Southern Alps or dragging the kids out of bed to gaze at the planets would provide fodder for future literary exploration. After school, she would cycle to his office at Canterbury University "and just write" on his computer until it was time to go home. She wasn't rattling off short stories but novels, defying conventional wisdom about how aspiring writers should learn their craft. "I didn't have that trajectory at all. I wasn't reading short stories as a child - I wanted to write like the stories I was reading."

Former teachers recall a "zany, creative and original" student who won essay writing competitions and loved drama. She studied English and Latin at Canterbury then graduated from Victoria University's Institute of Modern Letters with honours. Her first novel, The Rehearsal, which alerted the literary world to a singular new talent, was written for her masters.

Though Catton questions what her age has to do with her talent, she has no argument with the Herald's decision, in its 150th year, to celebrate our world-leading under-30-year-olds. "One of the things that we share is that we were all born at the beginning of the internet generation - as we were growing up, the world was expanding very rapidly. The possibilities that were available to us were completely different to my parents' generation."

Much of the historical setting for The Luminaries came from newspaper microfiche records of goldrush-era Hokitika. But the astrological data which influences the characters' interactions was obtained using an online planetary system generator allowing her to establish zodiac patterns in 1866, she told The Guardian.

The length of The Luminaries has prompted interviewers to ask how a generation whose attention spans were shaped not just by the internet but by television, computer games and smart phones might react. She can see their point. In northern California last week, she dropped in on her teacher uncle's third grade class. "We did a couple of story-building exercises together. It was so interesting how incredibly informed by computer games their ideas were. All of their endings involved people dying."

But Catton sees nothing old-fashioned about writing an 832-page novel, and says though people are time-challenged, they still look to books for escape.

"I don't think the novel is ever going to die; it's too strong for that and too infinitely adaptable."

She says television can be incredibly limiting in the way stories are told. "I think narratives using words are much more supple and subtle than narratives using visuals. You can't get inside the head of a person on TV as much as you can in a novel." Having said that, she looks forward to the TV adaptation of The Luminaries helmed by British producer Andrew Woodhead (Spooks, The Fixer) and, in a Guardian interview, admitted to admiring the long-form drama genre that started with The Sopranos - where "the emotional arcs and changes that you follow are just so much more like a novel".

Both her works have been praised for pushing boundaries; she is conscious she breaks conventional rules as a writer. She needs to settle on a theme or "big idea" to explore before she starts; a technique creative writing teachers discourage. "I need something that's caught my imagination that I need to give shape to."

She talks of the artist needing a spiritual purpose, attempting to answer a question or conflict in their mind. "The idea of art being inherently questioning I think is very important."

With The Luminaries, she manages to blend a historical thriller with themes of astrology and Jungian behavioural principles: "the idea that we have this hidden complement to the self that we project". Astrology not only shapes the book's structure but allows her to explore whether fate is pre-determined or a matter of luck.

If it sounds a challenging read, it's not. As critics have noted, readers might let much of the clever stuff wash over their heads and still be immersed in a ripping yarn of murder, prostitution and gold, laced with opium and the occult. It is also peppered with humour.

"I would say probably the most important quality of the creative art is playfulness and just playing. I think play is something we really forget how to do as adults. I would hope that I'm playful in the way that I go about the whole business of writing."

Again, she acknowledges the influence of children's books and their authors' ability to blend ethical and moral dilemmas with humour.

Like them, she has created a book that will be read and re-read.

Read also: Exceptional talents make one choice impossible


The other finalists

Steven Adams, NBA basketballer.
Ben Uffindell, Citizen blogger.
Kieran Read, international rugby player of the year.
Dr Sudhvir Singh, climate change warrior.
Fletcher Swan, Josh Jarvis, Jayden Rutten, heroic lifesavers.
Jamie Curry, YouTube star.
Hannah O'Neill, ballerina.


Past winners

2012 - Steven Swart, NZ cyclist whose evidence led to the downfall of drugs cheat Lance Armstrong
2011 - Richie McCaw, Rugby World Cup-winning All Black captain.
2010 - Emma Woods, who forgave the teenage driver of the car that killed her son.
2009 - Lenny Holmwood, who saved two policemen shot by Napier gunman Jan Molenaar.
2008 - Austin Hemmings, slain as he helped a woman being attacked; Tony McClean, who drowned trying to save students trapped by floodwaters.
2007 - Louise Nicholas, campaigner.
2006 - Kevin Brady, Auditor-General; Paula Rebstock, Commerce Commission chairwoman.
2005 - Jock Hobbs, key Rugby World Cup figure.
2004 - Dr Peter Gluckman, scientist.
2003 - Michael King, author.
2002 - Cliff Jones, police officer.
2001 - Peter Jackson, film-maker.
2000 - Rob Waddell, Olympic gold medallist, Lucy Lawless, actor.
1999 - Michael Joseph Savage, Prime Minister during the 1930s Great Depression (New Zealander of the Century).
1996-1998 - No awards made.
1995 - Sir Peter Blake, yachtsman.
1994 - Aucklanders, for enduring that year's water crisis.
1993 - Jane Campion, film-maker.
1992 - David Shearer and Anuschka Meyer, Somalian aid workers.
1991 - Dame Malvina Major, opera singer.

- NZ Herald

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