The Luminary: Eleanor Catton – WORD Christchurch

Cover of The LuminariesFiction is one of the places we can go to experience real closure.

WORD Christchurch Writers and Readers Festival was a place for hometown heroes and heroines as well as international stars. Eleanor Catton was one of the highlights of The Stars are out tonight. She read from The Luminaries in a piece that included my favourite quote (page 502 Luminaries nerds): ‘I suppose that to know a thing is to see it from all sides’.

On Saturday 30 August, Eleanor was in conversation with Kate De Goldi in front of a packed Cardboard Cathedral. Here are some of the quotable quotes from this interesting session:

Diane Setterfield, Eleanor Catton, and Roberta at WORD Christchurch

Morning tea for forty three: WORD Christchurch

Diane Setterfield, Eleanor Catton and Roberta Smith

I had tea with Eleanor Catton and Diane Setterfield on Saturday morning at WORD. Well, myself and about forty other Book Discussion Scheme members, that is.

Morrin Rout hosted the event, armed with a long list of questions submitted by BDS convenors. I loved that the event kicked off with a chat about hairstyles – just like every book club I have ever belonged to! Diane’s was described as “artfully tousled” and Morrin’s as “strangely thatched.” Eleanor, her beautiful sleek long locks flowing down each side of her face, just smiled enigmatically.

Here’s how it went:

How has your background and upbringing influenced your writing?

Diane said she was the first person in her family to go to university. She had been a voracious reader as a child, but her family was unschooled. She always keeps her mother in mind as her sole reader. This gives her books a wide readership range.

Eleanor comes from a family of readers – there was no TV in her home. She credits her brother’s reaction to a short story she wrote when she was 7 or 8 years old with her writing rule: always to see your work as your detractors might see it.

How do you get into the minds of people who are not your age, gender or nationality?

Bellman and blackDiane (The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman and Black): It helps if you are a shy, quiet observer. Observation and listening make up seventy-five percent of the work. Always stretch a bit beyond what you believe you are capable of. The rest is a kind of magic.

The Luminaries is such a complex novel, how on earth did it come about?

Eleanor: I knew I wanted to write a historic novel about the West Coast gold rush (1864-1867). Overall it took me five years, and there were long periods of incubation in that time. I found a wonderful website called Solarium where you can see the exact position of the planets and the sun, moon and stars for any date in the past. For two weeks I studied the skies over Hokitika for the three year period in which I was was interested. In particular, I noticed Mercury (which represents trickery and deceit). So in a way, the story had been constellated for me. But it was a real headache to write and I have many, many folders in my computer under the heading Luminaries!

Where did you get your ideas for these two books?  What were your influences?

Diane: The Bellman and Black book began from listening to the radio (BBC Desert Island Discs, to be precise!) The radio is where all good books should start, in my opinion! Then I wanted to write a ghost story where a really robust character is haunted, but set it somewhere unscary. So the question becomes – is he mad or is he haunted? I was also fascinated by the vast London emporiums of mourning paraphernalia. Oh, and I always knew, from way back, that I would write about a character called William Bellman.

The LuminariesEleanor: Jung got me thinking about Astrology.

At what point in the writing of your book did you know what the title would be?

Eleanor: Right at the very start of the book I knew it would be called The Luminaries.

Diane: I only worked out the title right at the end!

What books are you reading now?

Eleanor: The Golden Bough – A Study in Magic and Religion

At this point I had a balancing meltdown with my muffin, my coffee, my notepad and pen and I missed Diane’s answer. If any reader who was at this event can remember Diane’s answer, or indeed can add any more information to this blog, just  comment below!

Because of the small number of invited guests (thanks Book Discussion Scheme), I felt more connected to these two authors than I would have done in a large packed venue. And, as a result,  I feel inspired  to read both The Luminaries and Bellman and Black. You can’t say better than that now can you?

Crossing our fingers for Eleanor Catton

Cover of The LuminariesNot long now until the winner of the Man Booker Prize is announced. Kia ora Eleanor Catton and best of luck. From me and all of us at Christchurch City Libraries – librarians and library users alike. I wonder what the Man Booker equivalent of Break a leg is –  Bust that Man Booker?

The Luminaries is a bloody BRILLIANT piece of fiction.

The Man Booker Prize will be announced at London’s Guildhall on Tuesday 15 October 2013 – 7 to 11pm (BST).  So we will be at our desks or having breakfast here in NZ – the event starts at Wednesday, 16 October 2013 at 7am.

NZ Listener will be there:

  • Check out the 2013 shortlist on our page listing previous nominees and winners of the Man Booker Prize

LetsgoneManBooker – the Man Booker Prize 2013 shortlist contains Catton

Here is the 2013 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize – announced last night (Tuesday 10 September):

Cover of We need new names Cover of The Luminaries Cover of Harvest Cover of The lowland Cover of A Tale for the time being Cover of The testament of Mary

Kiwis are abuzz with the news that our gal Eleanor Catton has made it through to the shortlist. Here’s some of the action on Twitter. Firstly, from Eleanor:

And then the commentary:

The winner is announced on 15 October 2013.
Congrats Eleanor, we are rooting for you to knock the bstard off!

Man Booker Prize 2013

cover of The luminariesThe literary pages here are abuzz with the news that “one of our own” appears in the Man Booker Prize longlist. Youth, talent, partly raised in Christchurch and graduate of the novel factory (aka Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters) – Eleanor Catton is ticking a lot of boxes.

Also rather freakishly her novel The luminaries is set on the West Coast, where our last big international literary splash Keri Hulme set her Booker Prize winner The bone people. Apart from that the two writers and their work could not be more different, and that’s how it should be if we have a developing a varied body of writing in our culture. In fact I was just remembering that The bone people was originally published by a women’s collective here in New Zealand. Contrast with The luminaries – hardbound editions for the UK, the USA and here. You can read more about Keri Hulme’s win on NZhistory. (including the classic quote from Joanna Lumley who was one of the judges that year  ‘The so-called bitchy world of acting was a brownie’s tea party compared with the piranha-infested waters of publishing’.

It must be pretty exciting to see your work up there listed with such luminaries as Colm Toibin, Ruth Ozeki and Jim Crace.

The Man Booker judges this year are Robert MacFarlane, Martha Kearney, Stuart Kelly, Natalie Haynes and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst . All are writers, reviewers and academics. They had to read 151 books before they produced the longlist.

The shortlist will be announced on 10 September 2013  and the winner on 15 October 2013.

As usual the bookies are circling and offering odds. William Hill is offering 5 to 1 on Jim Crace and 6 to 1 on Eleanor Catton and Colm Toibin.

The Guardian describes the list as “daring and experimental”  and you can read plenty of other comment there too.

Already our copies of The luminaries are accruing a bit of a waiting list. Maybe you should pop out and buy – support New Zealand writers. And by the by – who designed that striking cover…?

Emerging at Wellington Writers and Readers Week 2012

Being an ’emerging’ writer is an interesting thing to be. What is the criterion for emerging? Is it that you are young? Not Cover of The Rehearsalaccording to one questioner at the New Zealand’s Emerging Writers session  at Wellington Writers and Readers 2012. Slightly unkindly, he observed that Eleanor Catton, Hamish Clayton and Craig Cliff didn’t look particularly young to him, causing each panellist to ‘fess up their age. All under 40, which might be a sign that they are young, because I’m not sure anyone who is not would announce their age from the stage of the Embassy.

Can a writer still be emerging when they have won prizes?  That would exclude Catton, whose debut novel The rehearsal won the New Zealand Book Award for Best First Book of Fiction, and Craig Cliff, who won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award for A man melting.

Perhaps writers are still emerging when they have only written one book so far. So how did these writers begin to emerge?

Catton wanted to break the convention of the coming-of-age novel – the idea that there is some sort of arrival into adulthood.

Clayton had an urge to write but nothing to say so he went to university, thinking that if you want to be a decent writer you need to be well-read. (If only it was that easy, I thought to myself). He discovered that you do have to be very patient for overnight success.

Cliff found that a 21-year-old man alone in a room writing a novel is never a good idea. A few years later he tried again, and it still wasn’t a good idea. Then he thought of trying the short story form, where a first draft can be finished in the first blast of inspiration.

All three are now working on novels set in the past, a departure for Catton and Cliff, but not for Clayton whose first novelCover of Wulf Wulf is about early 19th century New Zealand, its explorers and that fascinating and terrifying character Te Rauparaha.

Clayton and Catton saw some problems with the talk around Historical Fiction. For Clayton it is limiting; faithfulness in the rendering of time and place is not the point.   Catton sees the problem as the present foisting onto Historical Fiction the things we are most  preoccupied with now, resulting in works that exist only to confirm what we already know.

Craig is reading a lot (The story of a New Zealand River was mentioned) and using the part everyone reads in The Count of Monte Cristo as a model for the book he is working on, leaving out the bits everyone skips.

This was all very interesting as I don’t read much Historical Fiction. The last book I read in the genre was Wolf Hall, which led to some heated debates. I loved it, but others dismissed it out of hand because of its modern voice.  Any dedicated H.F. readers out there with an opinion?

NZer Eleanor Catton on the Guardian First Book Award shortlist

Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal has made it to the Guardian First Book Award shortlist. This is really exciting news for NZ literature and we’ve all got our fingers crossed for victory.

The Guardian reports of her chances in the article Fiction resurgent in Guardian first book award shortlist:

The third novel is New Zealander Eleanor Catton’s The Rehearsal, which has already acquired something of a love it or hate it reputation. The novel has two linked narrative threads: one set in a girls’ school in the aftermath of a pupil-teacher affair and the other in a drama school where details of the affair are used for the end-of-year production. The Bath reading group praised Catton’s writing style for its originality and accessibility, while one Oxford reader remarked: “At last! A book to get lost in.”

Emerging stars

I had a Meryl Streep in The deerhunter moment when reading Eleanor Catton‘s first novel  The rehearsal so I was really looking foward t hearing her speak about it, and to hearing from the other emerging stars of New Zealand fiction (no pressure).

Icelandic scholar Bill Manhire (thanks to Janet Frame I now know that about Mr. Manhire) was a strict taskmaster. It was all very organised –  writers alphabetical by first name, eight minutes to read and then to answer questions about their work, given time to think about a book they had been consumed by to be named at the end.

Anna Taylor was described in the programme as a ‘consummate performer’, a description she confessed left her a bit unsure of what to do but she read well from her collection Relief.  The collection explores people who find themselves in life situations where they are lost. Frank O’Connor said in The lonely voice that short stories deal with alienation and disappointment and this story did share those characteristics but it certainly made me want to read more.

Like the short story writers yesterday these young women were all  concerned with getting the voice right, although Catton confesed that the more time she spends thinking about the voice the less she knows about it.  Only Taylor’s preferences for form echoed yesterday’s panel. She loves to write short stories because she loves to read them, while van der Zijpp always wanted to do a novel.  Catton hardly ever reads short stories, she “adores novels” becsuse the reader can form a relationship with the novel in which they can forgive the novel its faults. She doesn’t do this with short stories.

Bridget van der Zijpp‘s first novel Misconduct won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (South East Asia and Pacific region). It’s about a woman driven to do an impulsive deed and the subject matter saw reviewers bandying the term chick lit about before running away from it, as in “with this subject matter this could be chick lit but it’s not”. Reviewers weren’t the only ones bemused by the subject of revenge; when van der Zijpp told people at parties women wanted to share their stories of revenge while men asked if it was autobiographical.

The rehearsal will be published by Granta in the U.K. and will also be published in the U.S. Catton confessed to feeling like what had happened after New Zealand had happened to the book, not to her. She is determinedly not thinking about the marketing campaign.

The observation in The rehearsal is so acute I asked Catton earlier in the festival if she had spent her entire high school years observing the way teenagers speak and behave. The  answer was no but she did confess in this session that her mum sometimes pleads with her “please don’t write that down”.

Bill Manhire continued the pleasing festival tradition of asking the writers to name a book everybody in the room should read.

Eleanor Catton – The watchmen – Alan Moore

Bridget van der Zijpp – The Believers – Zoe Helle

Anna Taylor – William Trevor, Alice Munro, T.C. Boyle (Emily Perkins is also a fan of Boyle’s)

Manhire’s pick was Robert Bolano – 26 66.

Eleanor Catton – an interview

She’s one of New Zealand’s up-and-coming writers, and probably the youngest at the festival. She’s also a friendly and charming character with a strong focus on her writing career. I had a chat with her in a buzzing Aotea Centre after the session with Kate De Goldi, M.T Anderson and Mal Peet.

We talked about her career as a writer, the process of writing, her time at the University of Iowa and more in this ten-minute interview.

Eleanor Catton’s first novel, The Rehearsal, is available at Christchurch City Libraries. Read a profile on the Victoria University website.