Eleanor Catton’s favourite novels are the ones she can never return to. “I like novels that, after I finish reading them, I feel a kind of a sense of longing, like I want to go back there but then I also know that if I did, it would play out in the same way," she says. "It’s kind of like remembering an earlier part of your life that you loved…but also knowing, obviously, that you can never go back there." She describes the feeling as sad, but not tragic. "It’s kind of meditative, sort of melancholy and even joyful.”
The universe of longing Catton creates in her second novel, The Luminaries, won her the 2013 Man Booker Prize last month, making her, at twenty-eight years old, its youngest recipient. The Canadian-born, New Zealand-raised author sets her a murder mystery during the height of the 1860s New Zealand gold rush. In many ways a pastiche of the traditional Victorian novel, Catton also bases her characters’ successes and shortcomings on astrological charts, a subject she devoted a lot of time to studying prior to writing the book.
She is currently a part-time writing teacher Manukau Institute of Technology in South Auckland. I spoke with Catton while she was in Toronto.
Erica Ruth Kelly: The first thing I’d like to talk about is one of the lines that one of the characters, Cowell Devlin, speaks halfway through the novel. He says “The promise of great riches is a dangerous thing.” Now that you’ve experienced the nomination and the win, would you agree with that line, that this promise has been, perhaps, a dangerous thing?
Eleanor Catton: Yes, absolutely, yeah. And I think that the temptation of extreme wealth or the promise of extreme wealth is often packaged by our money-conscious world as a chance to become a completely different person. We have this idea that actually, if we were to suddenly become rich, we would become more gracious or more tasteful. Or just kind of better in some way or more well-read, maybe, or smarter. Of course this isn’t true at all. Money is wonderful at opening doors for people, providing opportunities. But it’s up to you how you grasp those opportunities and follow through.
ERK: Could you talk to me about how you developed Anna, who is, to my mind, one of the most compelling and complex characters in the novel? She seems to act as a litmus test for other people’s morality, and people want to hurt her and protect her in equal measure.
EC: Well, [there’s a] kind of dance between Anna and Emery, who do switch places just before the book starts. As you find out quite later on in the book, they’re astral twins, their destiny is exactly the same, but because she’s a woman and he’s a man, the way that I understood it is that their destinies are kind of a counterpoint. So if he is rising in fortune, she is falling in fortune. And that aspect of the plot had been present from the very beginning so I was really conscious when I was building her character. And I think that what I was interested in playing with is how, I mean, you know, the prostitute motif in fiction often really troubles as it’s often used. One thing that I really object to is when a prostitute character is used as an occasion for somebody else’s self-development. Somebody’s hitting rock bottom, they go and visit a prostitute and they have some sort of epiphany there. For me there’s just something completely horrible about that idea, that a prostitute is very often used in a story as a spiritual milestone, but for somebody else. I really didn’t want to do that at all.
ERK: It seems to me that on some level, the book is a philosophical meditation on time since the present and the past are conflated throughout the novel. Time doesn’t work in a linear way, insofar as we’re allowing another moment to enter into our present moment. Is that duality something that you’re considering when you’re writing? Are you thinking how the world you’re creating in your mind is going to be created in the mind of the world of someone you’ve never met?
EC: There’s no fixed time that it takes to write a paragraph. There is a general time that it takes to read a paragraph. And so you’re completely right in that you’re trying to sculpt something that is going to exist in time. But in sculpting it, you’ve basically got the time that you need. And I think that especially in a story that involves suspense and kind of teasing, the teasing out of mysteries, it’s vital for the writer to be thinking about the reader’s experience at all times and be kind of keeping track of what the reader knows and doesn’t know. There are a whole bunch of instances in the book where I would tie myself up in knots for years in the writing and only quite a lot later when I realized, going through the book and trying to read it at the reader’s speed and at the reader’s point of view, that actually if I simplified things, if I told the reader less now and more later, then I could kind of sculpt that.
ERK: I understand that the relationship you have with The Luminaries is in a constant state of flux and evolution. Has that relationship changed now as a result of having to speak about the book so much?
EC: Yeah, I mean in a way it has. I think that when you do any kind of interview and somebody asks you to describe the book as a whole and parts of the book and your intentions in parts of the book, you kind of surprise yourself in how you end up talking about it. Well, this is my experience anyway, that quite often I don’t really understand what the book’s about until I’ve talked about it quite a bit… In a way, it’s quite a lot like therapy, I think. You know, when people go to therapy and the therapist says “Explain your relationship to me,” all of a sudden, that’s when the therapist starts working, because the words that the patient uses, they become the thing that you then have to talk about...It’s funny. A novel is such a, on one hand it’s very like a child, in the sense that you made it and it’s got bits of you in it and it’s got its own consciousness and it kind of lives and dies by its own decisions, in a way. But on the other hand, it’s not at all like a child because it’s only got one parent and the kind of creation is a little bit more, almost divine, because of that single-parent thing. My experience from reading a lot of undergraduate manuscripts, because I teach creative writing now, is that a piece of fiction will always show much more of yourself, much much more of the writer’s self, than maybe you realize when you start out.