The New Zealand-raised writer talks about the success of her first novel and her forthcoming work, The Luminaries.
Eleanor Catton’s debut novel The Rehearsal was a startling success. A tale of performance and shifting perceptions around a series of events, the narrative moves—from what initially seems like a heavy-handed treatment of teenage confusion—through clever plotting and characters into an impressively emotional and formally rigorous work.
Long-listed for the Orange Prize and translated into a number of languages, it achieved considerable critical acclaim both here and abroad. “That was pretty shocking,” Catton admits of its reception. “I think if I had known at the time I was writing I’d have been completely stymied. I don’t know if I ever would have written anything. I would have been completely terrified, which is kind of the state I’m in now.”
The book’s success took some time coming. Understandably, Catton has all but moved on from when she wrote it. “What’s weird about it is The Rehearsal is so much, thematically, about appearances and imitations, and copies taking on a reality of its own—I feel that that’s happened to me in talking about it. I can rattle off these lines about it, and every so often, I’m ‘shit, I’ve said this so many times before.’ I can’t really remember the book that well, the feeling; the state I was in when I wrote it. It’s quite strange really.”
“I’ve had this thing recently, where I’m so involved in my second project that I almost feel angry trying—I’d get frustrated having to put my mind back there. I was describing it to a friend the other day, ‘it was like if someone keeps on asking about this love affair you had five years ago and you’re in this new relationship and you’ve been in this new relationship for ages, and it’s frustrating because you don’t want to talk about that person anymore.’”
She admits that the writing is almost from a different author to the one she is now. “It is so different—I’ve learnt so much since then. That was such a long time ago. I don’t think I would write a single page of that book the same. I think one of the funny things about a novel is that it does end up being this time capsule of a certain period of your life. You can look back and think, ‘wow, I really thought like that back then.’ It’s really unnerving. It requires a lot of bravery that I wasn’t prepared for. I kind of expected all of the bravery would happen during the stage of publishing. Now, I realise there’s quite a lot bravery in accepting there’s a part of your past and your evolution as a thinker that other people still have access to and you’ve outgrown.”
Catton published the novel when she was 22, and says getting recognition early was an unusual process—especially given that in the book’s aftermath, she was studying and teaching at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “The difference between New Zealand, U.K., and the U.S. [is that] they have really different ideas, just those three countries. Really different ideas of what success means and what youth means. The United States is a culture that’s obsessed with youth, and obsessed with the idea of the prodigy. Britain is a little bit more comfortable with it, but I feel like New Zealand is not actually that comfortable with that idea, especially not when it comes from a brain. When it’s an athletic prodigy, a Dan Carter kind of thing, people are willing to get behind it, but I feel like New Zealand’s a country that’s quite uncomfortable with intellectualism in a lot of ways.”
“The fact that my book was trying to be intellectual was a stumbling block for me in a way. It feels like it melted away when I got recognition overseas.” It also meant that Catton was lumped with the label ‘precocious.’ “I hate that adjective. I got slammed with it a couple of times. It’s so funny. I feel like it’s such a condescending word. There’s no escaping it either. It’s quite a putdown. It won’t last forever. It has an expiry date.”
The novel has also found a solid international audience, and Catton says she’s fascinated by the subtle differences in some of the translations. “There’s this idea of culture codes, the code that means a book with as certain cover will get picked up in New Zealand is not the same code that is driving readers in France or wherever. Even though those readers and their sensibilities may be quite similar in what they like or don’t like, just those advertising triggers are interesting to me.”
Furthermore, The Rehearsal has a fairly amorphous sense of time and place, and differences such as those between the New Zealand and American school years wouldn’t necessarily translate to overseas readers. “Months of the year are organised around the New Zealand calendar, so it begins in February. When the book first came out in the U.S., they felt funny about that. They’re pretty funny in the U.S. They have to change the spelling. I read a couple of reviews when it first came out there. People were quite annoyed about what they called ‘British-isms,’ which were creeping in—I have no idea what these British-isms are—[and] I think that’s one thing that’s quite strange about American media. They’re so used to saturating the market with American-ness they’re very uncomfortable with work that assumes they have a different knowledge base than they do. It’s pretty easy to imagine a school year that begins in February. We do it whenever we watch Sweet Valley High.”
Was The Rehearsal a challenging novel to write given its constantly shifting registers and characters? Catton answers, “I’m a really slow writer and I do a lot of editing as I go. A paragraph will take me half a day. I’m not one of those people who believe that people have an inner voice that one can tap into and then it’ll start flowing and your aura will start growing. What happened to me with The Rehearsal [was] I wrote what is now the first monologue in an evening, and that presented a stylistic gambit, that I produced from somewhere. The words just fell out, or they arranged themselves in that way. It’s not something that exists that you can excavate, it’s something you’re building, the more you stick to it, the more momentum it gains.”
She found a great symbol for the novel with the saxophone—accidentally, as it was an instrument played by a girlfriend at the time of writing. The saxophone “can only really start when you hit puberty. There’s a sexiness about it. You never see a little kid playing a saxophone because their hands aren’t big enough. That kind of fit in to the world of the book quite nicely, because it was this rite of passage instrument.”
The Rehearsal was also inspired by theories Catton was learning at university at the time, which included critical feminist thought, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism. “I think I’ve become more human or less theoretical over the last few years,” she says of those academic years. “I don’t know if I really believe that. I don’t want to rubbish deconstructionism or post-structuralism—I think fiction always has to have a heart. That’s what makes it fiction. You can define truth telling and not truth telling and whatever that might mean until the cows come home. What fiction is, is something that’s told to you that’s affecting. Even though that’s the hardest thing to put into a box, if it’s missing, you know in your heart it’s something that’s not worth reading.”
Catton’s worldview may have changed since studying, but how exactly did post-structuralism influence her writing at the time? “I think those post-structuralist ideas were interesting then, and I was using them to play around with what I wanted the book to be about,” she says, “But one of the things about The Rehearsal, is the period of adolescence, and especially adolescence [for] girls is a state of being that’s never been theorised; it’s not seen to be the province of theory. Young men? Slightly different, because there are literary models for young men who are grapplng… with big ideas. Teenage girls—it’s just ‘boys in reverse,’ which is so silly. I guess what I was trying to do was give the experience of being a teenage girl that kind of heart, use it as the place in which to explore ideas that you wouldn’t necessarily think were the property of those teenage girls. The idea that intellectuality and complexity of experience is something that is traditionally the property of some people and not others is just ridiculous and demeaning.”
Catton’s next novel, The Luminaries, is set during the gold rush in 1860s New Zealand. “In a way the book asks vaguely similar questions, a more grown-up version of the questions The Rehearsal asked,” she explains. “The biggest question in The Rehearsal, I think, is can there be a version of an event that is more true than another version, with the answer probably put forward being no. Even though you have an experience and I’m watching it, there’s nothing less real because I wasn’t in the room or close to the event. The question that The Luminaries asks is kind of an evolved version of that, it’s to do with self-knowledge.”
“The book is about astrology, which I really got into,” she adds. “Astrology is a really divisive topic. If you ask them their sign, some people get really angry, and see it as an affront to their privacy. Worse still, if they say what sign they are and you say ‘I knew that,’ and you start diagnosing them. The question I ask is what does self-knowledge mean? If you know you are a certain kind of person, does that mean you have to act in that way? Does perfect self-knowledge mean that you can act as unlike as that person as you know, or does it just mean you’re a slave to what you know about yourself?”
Catton’s research came largely from 19th century fiction. “I read only 19th century novels, and nothing that was published before 1866 to get an idea of what my characters would have been reading and how the world said they would have been speaking. The book is a pseudo-crime novel, a bit of mystery, so I read a whole lot of vintage crime, and made a catalogue of plot devices. The encyclopaedia of devices I could possibly use [included] such and such poisons on such a person, such and such pretends to be a clergyman but isn’t—a bullet point document [of archetypes] I can start building a story from.”
The setting also assisted with the theme. “The idea about a gold rush is interesting. The idea about a fortune, making a fortune, the 1860s was the beginning of the Victorian séances, and fascination of the occult. I was interested in the industrial tenor of the 19th century, the idea that you can be self-made, and how that especially in New Zealand, with this idea of it being a really young country, and they can come here, and be whatever they wanted to be. This land was there for the taking.”
Catton is hoping to avoid pitfalls associated with historical novels. “I have a real problem with a lot of historical fiction that gets written,” she declares. “All too often, the arena of history is used as this really comforting flattering mirror to make us feel really awesome about how much more enlightened we are in 2012 than we ever could have been 150 years ago. Something that really drives me mad [is] this so-called progress. Obviously, there has been this really amazing progress over the last 100 years—I’m a woman, where would I be? I still could write a novel, but I wouldn’t be educated. Globalisation of culture, people get put in the path of a huge range of places, and that’s really great. All of that, notwithstanding. [But] what really annoys me about historical fiction is when an author will use the proof of history to show the intelligence of a character in a cheat’s way. For example, somebody might be homophobic, and we understand that, hopefully in 2012, that homophobia is inane. We see that homophobic person and think, ‘bad character,’ and we think, ‘well done me’ for seeing that person is a bad character. The same thing happens in reverse, when someone acts how we would act, we see them as a ‘good character.’ There are obviously exceptions to that; there are humane and inhumane characters. There are ways of being virtuous and upstanding in the 1860s that we might not see anymore; that might see as stiff or besides the point. I’m trying to avoid that pitfall.”
Catton’s not sure when the novel will be finished (hopefully soon, she suggests), but in the meantime, The Rehearsal continues to enhance its reputation locally and internationally. Recently returned to Wellington, Catton will have much more to say about her current progress at Writers & Readers Week this March.