A Correspondence
with Eleanor Catton

ARTS, Books, EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, Interviews
Exquisite thoughts on writing and reading from the Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries.

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JOAN FLEMING: Since the Booker Prize announcement, you’ve given hundreds of interviews. What, if anything, are you getting exhausted of talking about?

ELEANOR CATTON: My age, and the book’s length. One interviewer asked me if becoming the youngest winner of the Booker Prize had been intentional. I looked at her funny, and she rushed on to amend her question: well, had writing the longest book ever to win the prize been intentional? I’m not sure how to answer questions like that, and there have been a lot of them. They seem to confuse writing with headline-making. I didn’t set out to break a record.

JF: That is so uncomfortable. As if your writing practice is just a scheme to make yourself attractively blurbable. I know I’m not the only one to have been disheartened by some critics’ focus on your youth, your looks, and your gender—as if that’s the most interesting thing about the novel—instead of on the book’s experimental and intellectual achievements. I guess that’s the way of sound-bite media. I remember you saying once that there was more of you in The Luminaries than in your first novel The Rehearsal. What did you mean?

EC: I pushed myself much more in writing The Luminaries. The risks were greater, and risk is always revealing: I had to confront my own cowardices, and the limits of my ability, before I could learn how to be brave. In a way my presence in the novel—as I feel it—is tied up with the book’s omniscient third-person narration, and with the fact that it’s peopled so overwhelmingly with men: because I couldn’t be anywhere, I had to be everywhere, if that makes sense. On the surface, it might seem as though I have more in common with the characters of The Rehearsal, but as a thinking, feeling person I feel much more revealed in The Luminaries: the book believes what I believe, and wants what I want, and mistakes what I mistake, and loves what I love.

JF: I want to ask it: what do you love?

EC: I love unguarded expressions of love: enthusiasm, passion, worship. Emery Staines, who is first the Sun and later the Moon of The Luminaries, is for me the book’s loving heart. He’s terribly naïve. But his naivety is a kind hopeful projection, a wilful delight in the curious and the good. I love people like him: people who would prefer to be enchanted and wrong than to be cynical and correct. I’ve always favoured Buzz Lightyear above Woody for that reason. Buzz is quixotic. He wants to believe. Woody’s tragedy is rejection; but Buzz’s tragedy is the loss of the illusion that sustained him. In a way The Luminaries asks its reader to be quixotic. Astrology, like all meaning-making systems, can be wonderfully sustaining. But in order to countenance it, you have to let yourself be a little bit naïve.

JF: Who might make up your dream cast of actors for the film version of the book? I imagine Christina Hendricks (Joan from Mad Men) as the cunning fortune-telling seductress Lydia Wells, and I reckon Timothy Spall would do a splendid Mannering.

EC: Those are excellent choices. My top picks are James McAvoy for Moody, Dominic West for Carver, Brendan Gleeson for Mannering, Richard E. Grant for Pritchard, Vincent Cassel for Gascoigne, Mark Williams for Balfour. These names are coming quickly to me because I have a deeply tragic folder on my desktop containing downloaded images of all the actors I’d like to see in a dream-cast TV version. Occasionally when I was stuck writing I would click through the photos really quickly, and pretend it was a film.

JF: I am curious about how completely the psychology of the characters is informed by astrological theory. Is the banker Charlie Frost’s total subjectivity—his inability to put himself in others’ shoes, or to be attentive to other’s behaviour—a particularly Taurean quality, for example? Or is that just Charlie? When I read the passage on Harald Nilssen’s proclamation of the health benefits of his regular lunch (“dark gravy, pastry, and ale”), and the description of how he makes a habit of “recommendation” for the profit of “other, less visionary men,” I remembered that when some friends visited from America, you insisted they eat hokey-pokey ice cream and chocolate fish (or whatever—the New Zealand favourites!). Also Nilssen’s love of “preposterous, hypothetical” argument; I thought, that’s Ellie. Am I reading too much into the Libra-Libra connection?

EC: Astrology is gendered: the same principle will manifest quite differently in a male personality and a female personality, simply because men and women get treated very differently in our culture, with some personality traits being rewarded, and others discouraged, depending on the gender of the person in question. There is something of me in Nilssen, but only in a refracted kind of way: as a male Libra, he shares a gender with his sign (Libra is an air sign, which is masculine) and is therefore understood to “embody” the Libran principle. As a female Libra—a woman born under a masculine sign—I “enact” that same principle. A male Taurus might well recognise himself in Frost—subjectivity is key to the Taurean sensibility, enacted in men, embodied in women—but of course people only recognise themselves when they are willing to do so. I love the difference between embodiment and enactment: it seems to share something with Jung’s concepts of introversion and extraversion, in that it suggests a difference of direction, of movement. Virginia Woolf and James Joyce are a good case study, as they were both Aquarians—she the enactment, he the embodiment, of the same essential principle. I found out the other day that I share a birthday with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I rather like the idea that I might enact in the world what he embodied in his person. But I also found out that David Cameron shares a birthday with PJ Harvey, so go figure.

“People generally seem surprised that I live there, as though New Zealand is a place to be from rather than a place to be. They ask if I’m moving to New York or London soon. But there’s rarely a sense of connecting my work to the work of other New Zealand writers, or placing me in the context of a tradition. I’m not sure if there is a very real sense, overseas, of what New Zealand literature comprises.”

JF: Speaking of gendered differences in reaction and action—you’ve talked of a certain “bullying reception” to your book here in New Zealand by a certain set of older male critics. The omniscient narrator, the idea that you “had to be everywhere,” seems to have affronted some male readers, as has the length of the book. Have you experienced this reaction in the UK, too, or in Canada? Has it been a peculiarly New Zealand response, perhaps because of the necessarily small pool of literary competition here?

EC: This is a point that has been perhaps overstated in recent weeks. There’s been a lot written about what I said, and in fact the way I think and feel about the reviewing culture we have in New Zealand has changed a lot through reading the responses and objections of others. Initially I used the word ‘bullying’ only to remark that, as we all learn at school, more often than not someone’s objections are more to do with their own shortcomings or failures than with yours, and that’s something that you have to remember when you’re seeing your artistic efforts devalued or dismissed in print. I don’t feel bullied when I receive a negative review, but I do think that some of the early reviewers refused to engage with the book on its own terms, and that refusal seemed to me to have a lot to do with my gender and my age. To even things out, I called attention to the gender and age of those reviewers, which at the time seemed only fair.

I feel that it’s very important to say that sexism is a hegemonic problem, written in to all kinds of cultural attitudes that are held by men and women alike. As a culture we are much more comfortable with the idea of the male thinker than the female thinker, simply because there are so many more examples, throughout history, of male thinkers; as an image and as an idea, the male thinker is familiar to us, and acts in most cases as a default. Consequently female thinkers are often unacknowledged and discouraged, sometimes tacitly, sometimes explicitly, sometimes by men, and sometimes by women. I am lucky, following the Man Booker announcement, that my work is now being read very seriously indeed; but that is a privilege conferred for the most part by the status of the prize, and I know that I am the exception rather than the rule. I’d like to see a paradigm shift, and I’m confident that one is on the way, but the first thing that needs to happen is a collective acknowledgement that reviewing culture is gendered—that everything is gendered—and that until each of us makes a conscious effort to address inequality, we will each remain a part of the problem, rather than a part of the solution. Protesting the fact of inequality is like protesting global warming or evolution: it’s a conservative blindness, born out of cowardice and hostility.

It’s also important for me to say that all of the early endorsements for The Luminaries were from men; a great many of my most considered reviews have been from men; and I relied upon the intelligence, sensitivity, and insight of a great many men in writing the book. I have said all this in interviews, actually, but in nearly every case, it’s been cut. People forget sometimes that an interview is a selective fragment of a conversation, not a transcript.

JF: What do you reckon the perception of the world-at-large is to New Zealand literature? Is there a common reaction people have when they learn that New Zealand is your home?

EC: People generally seem surprised that I live there, as though New Zealand is a place to be from rather than a place to be. They ask if I’m moving to New York or London soon. But there’s rarely a sense of connecting my work to the work of other New Zealand writers, or placing me in the context of a tradition. I’m not sure if there is a very real sense, overseas, of what New Zealand literature comprises.

JF: I feel hugely connected to and influenced by American poetry, and yet it feels troublesome to place myself within a tradition of American poets—because I live here, I write here, and I write about here, however refracted the sense of place in my poems might be. Obviously the setting of The Luminaries is vividly and historically New Zealand. Are there other ways you feel the novel is connected to “New Zealand writing” (whatever that might be)?

EC: One of the curious things about the West Coast gold rush was how few of the prospectors stayed on: a strike was known as a ‘homeward-bounder’ because it allowed the digger in question to quit prospecting and return home. I think that there still is a sense, in New Zealand culture, that if there is a fortune to be made, it’s a fortune best spent elsewhere—that a life in London or New York is somehow more of a life, somehow more alive and more interesting, than a life in Wellington or Christchurch. Te Rau Tauwhare and Charlie Frost are the two characters in the novel who were born in New Zealand, and as Aries and Taurus, respectively, they represent the objective and the subjective, the Adam and Eve of the zodiac’s twelve-part story. I like to think of New Zealand’s identity being a kind of fusion of the two of them: proud, like Tauwhare, but also embarrassed, like Frost. I haven’t really answered your question, I know: I think it’s because I find it much easier to spot attitudes than traditions in New Zealand literature. Perhaps that might be a kind of tradition in itself: emotional affiliations having shaped our literature more than, say, formal affiliations.

JF: You’ve mentioned The Luminaries was a response to conceptual works that wrung all fun out (like Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies which I admit I haven’t read). As well as being packed with intrigue and psychology and philosophy, The Luminaries is totally funny. The whole way through I found myself chortling out loud. Is there any tradition, international or otherwise, that does big cerebral philosophising with a grin, and which you feel you might belong to?

EC: Absolutely: children’s literature. Books for children are always ethically and morally concerned, they’re nearly always extremely funny, and they’re always, always mysteries. Systematised magic, in children’s literature, is comparable to the perimeters of the philosophical thought experiment—I’m thinking of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Gillian Rubenstein’s GalaxArena, Diana Wynne Jones’s Howl’s Moving Castle, Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls—but a book for children is hopeless if it isn’t fun. I can’t tell you how many times I collapsed laughing while reading the Harry Potter novels, but I also can’t tell you how long I’ve spent meditating on the nature of love, and of sacrifice, and of courage, as explored in those books.

JF: One commentator, in an ironic and deprecating article where he encourages the reader to pity you for winning such a big award at such a young age, quotes Beckett: “failure is bracing and healthy for the soul.” If failure is healthy and useful in our growth as human beings, what function—healthy or otherwise—do you think fame and success can perform?

EC: I think that success is dangerous because it can make a person feel too comfortable; it can lull them into thinking that they have achieved mastery and don’t need to be curious any more. But failure can also do that: it can function as a kind of inverse achievement, where feel you’ve achieved the opposite of mastery, and you give up. Right now the successes of my life are much more visible than the failures; but that’s not to say that there haven’t been failures, that there aren’t failures.

It’s really important to me to remain in a dialogic state, both with myself and with the world. I’m not interested in mastery; I’m interested in curiosity and apprenticeship, in asking questions and contemplating mysteries and changing my mind. For me, a healthy life is one that can confront diversity with warmth and flexibility. I don’t think the Booker Prize will get in the way of that belief.

“Kindness is a core value for any artist, but most especially for a fiction writer: a self-centred person can’t see the world from another person’s point of view.”

JF: The book’s astrological structuring device engineers a dialogue between fate and coincidence, nature and nurture, circumstance and luck. From the perspective of astrology, you might say that each of the character’s decisions is pre-ordained; their movements are pre-determined according to the position of the stars at the time of their birth. The plot is advanced through unlikely layers of “coincidence,” and the characters are intricately interconnected and interdependent. These labyrinthine relationships are set against a rapidly changing gold-rush town in a volatile era, where a man or a woman’s fortune could utterly transform overnight. To me, all of this suggests a multiplication of life’s possibilities, rather than a reduction of them. Was this your intention? Do you believe in luck, or fate, or nature over nurture?

EC: In using star charts to generate the pattern of the plot I was, to a certain extent, pre-determining the story’s shape—but the idea of predestination doesn’t really make sense when talking about the creation of a novel, which is shaped and crafted out of time, and with a purpose. I chose each star chart deliberately, with a view to how I could use it, and I relaxed my hold wherever I needed to. I painted myself into a corner a great many times, and was often stuck for weeks, frustrated, staring at the pattern, trying to figure out how I could use the fact that Scorpio (Pritchard) is ruled by Mars (Carver), or that Saturn (Shepard) shifted into Virgo (Quee) in March of 1866. The plot involves a great many coincidences, some much sillier than others. But can you have a plotted novel without coincidence? I’m not sure if that would be possible. Stories depend on connection.

I see luck, and fate, and nature versus nurture, as methods of interpretation; for me, their usefulness is dependent upon the meaning they create. I am suspicious of the ways in which all three concepts have been co-opted, over the past century, by the fiscally and socially conservative, but I think that all three can be useful at times when a person is reaching out for meaning. Sometimes feeling lucky, or fated, or natural, is hugely meaningful, and hugely necessary because of that. By the end of The Luminaries the reader discovers that Emery Staines’ luck has been greatly exaggerated, as has Anna’s lucklessness; in effect, the community has projected onto both characters the interpretation that makes the most sense of their own individual values, their own individual desires. I think most instances of luck are like that.

JF: The prize is a huge game-changer—for you, for your writing career, and for your bank account. Do you feel any tensions between what you want to do with the money, and what you feel you ought to do? Are there any debts of gratitude you feel compelled to repay, either monetarily or psychically?

EC: I think I’ll probably do the sensible thing and buy my first home—an exciting prospect for somebody whose hobby is moving the furniture around (to the exasperation of my partner, and the joy of my cats). The debts of gratitude that I accrued along the way, in writing The Luminaries, can’t really be repaid with money. I really want to keep teaching at MIT, and to maintain the friendships in my life that are vital to me, and to stay connected with my family.

JF: That does sound smart. I am interested in your opinion about the myth of the tortured artist, and its usefulness for a society badly in need of healthy models of creativity. Most of the writers I know are struggling to make important art, but they are also struggling, equally hard, to live healthly, connected, value-creating daily lives. Do you think we are moving past praising the glamour of the non-functioning creative genius?

EC: I hope that we are. I find the idea of unsupported genius deeply distasteful: it disrespects mothers, and fathers, and teachers, and lovers, and all the accidents and opportunities and coincidences that conspire, along the way, to help create and launch an artistic sensibility. We need a new model: one that doesn’t depend on outmoded gender norms, destructive values, and the profoundly ugly idea that to be indebted is to be demeaned. Kindness is a core value for any artist, but most especially for a fiction writer: a self-centred person can’t see the world from another person’s point of view.

The Luminaries’ (VUP, NZ$35) is out now. Eleanor Catton will deliver a keynote address at the upcoming New Zealand Festival Writers Week.

Illustration by Tim Wong.