• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Eleanor Catton: the stars align again

Eleanor Catton wrote her first, three-page novel when she was five. The Luminaries, longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is a little longer.

Eleanor Catton The Luminaries book review
Eleanor Catton. Photo/David White

‘Fergus sent me a box.” This is the story of how Eleanor Catton found out what she had done. “I’d asked for three copies of my book.” Fergus is Fergus Barrowman, head of Victoria University Press, Catton’s New Zealand publisher. The book is The Luminaries, her second novel, recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

“I received this enormous box, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s Fergus doing sending me 10 copies? I only asked for three.’ And I opened the box … and this is a really pathetic answer to your question, but truthfully, the first time I became aware of the size of the book was when I opened that box, and it was three.”

Brilliant young author sits down at keyboard, starts writing, forgets to stop: this is not actually the story Catton is telling me, although for a giddy moment it’s the story I think I’m hearing.

The Luminaries, as you will gather, is not a small book. “People keep making jokes about wrist injuries. That is, I think they’re jokes.” A murder mystery set in and around Hokitika in the gold rush year of 1866, the novel uses astrological star charts as an organising principle, rotating 12 characters born under 12 different star signs through a complex 12-month schema, while eight other characters move in and out of phase with them. It is over 800 pages long.

“The idea was that a man turns up in a bar on the West Coast, during the gold rush. He has his own weather. He’s extremely wet, and it’s obvious it’s raining on him, but it’s not raining on anyone else. So he’s kind of treated with suspicion, but he sits down and he’s given a meal, and as he begins to eat his chest begins to bleed. He kind of staggers back, and it becomes obvious he’s been shot. And again, this is very strange, because nobody in the room has shot him, and there’s no audible gun shot. So that was the first idea.”

Catton wrote stories all through her childhood. “I’ve still got the first novel I wrote, it’s called The Wizerd – spelt with an E. It’s three pages long. I was probably five.” By the time she was 20 and doing her honours year at Victoria University, her immediate interest had shifted more towards film – “I was doing these amateur movies with a group of friends. Zombie movies, things like that.” But one day this story idea strolled into her head. “Sometimes ideas just appear, it’s very difficult to explain how or why.” This was well before the first glimmerings of what became The Rehearsal (2008), the concise, dazzling high-wire walk that can fairly be described as the best-received New Zealand literary debut of the past decade.

‘One of the things I really dislike – not so much in genre writers but in writers of so-called literary fiction – is when people are just doing the same thing over and over again. It’s always something you can sense. That somebody’s fiction isn’t serving a vital role in their lives, that they’re just trotting out the same-old same-old, to get the advance and move on. I want every book I write to be different from the last.”

You’d have to say she means it. Catton was able to predict The Luminaries’ final word count with some accuracy a good year out from finishing the first draft – she was taken aback when she opened her box of proofs only because she had failed to visualise what this would translate to once it left her laptop – because she based its structure on a device derived from the geometrical idea of the golden spiral.

Eleanor Catton The Luminaries book review
“Can I write a book that has 12 parts, where every part stands in golden ratio?” Photo/David White

“I had become fascinated with this idea … can I write a book that has 12 parts, where every part stands in golden ratio in terms of length to the part that comes after it? I did the maths, and I came up with a figure that was well over 300,000 words. And I laughed, and said, ‘This is ridiculous, I need to put this away and think of a different idea.’

“And so then I was muddling along, and I thought, ‘Well, can I do a book where each part is half the length of the part before?’ So I did the maths again, and came up with a figure in the high 200,000s, which is what the book currently is. So again I laughed, and said, ‘This is ridiculous, no one would ever want to read a book that was that long.’”

A second way in which Catton has written a book completely unlike its predecessor: The Rehearsal is set in a well-defined social milieu that could exist in just about any Western country. The warp and weft of The Luminaries is its comprehensively evoked time and place. Not by coincidence, much of it was written while Catton was overseas, doing a two-year stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

“Growing up, I had always had this prejudice New Zealand was not a literary subject or a literary setting. That changed at Iowa. It took going away for me to realise the task of a New Zealand writer is very different from the task of an American or British writer: if you’re writing about a place that doesn’t exist in the collective imagination or only exists in a very insubstantial or incidental way, that’s a very different project than if you’re writing about, say, New York or London, places that have actively shaped our cultural imagination to the degree we all have some sort of a relationship with them. The task isn’t inferior or harder or easier: it’s just different.”

Well before Catton left New Zealand, she had decided the germ of her next novel would be her gold-rush weatherman story idea, which had been sitting in her head for years, cross-connecting with other ideas and inching towards critical mass – but her awareness of the West Coast, and its gold rush days, goes back a long way.

“We moved back from Canada to Christchurch when I was nearly six, and Mum started working for the National Library. Her job was to design and manage school library collections on the West Coast, and she would very often take me over there with her. And then when I was 14 I did a four-day tandem cycling trip with my dad, over the Lewis Pass to the West Coast and then back over the Arthur’s Pass. When you’re cycling, you get a completely different appreciation of the landscape, because it’s going past so slowly.

“And I remember on that trip I was thinking a lot about the gold rush. One of the big important books for me when I was growing up was Elsie Locke’s The Runaway Settlers, in which the gold rush plays a small part. You know how some places capture the imagination more than others? There are places I know quite well in the South Island that have never seemed story-worthy to me in the way that journey and the West Coast in particular do.”

For a year, Catton allowed herself to read only books published earlier than 1866 – books her characters might plausibly have read. “I take a lot of notes when I research, and maybe twice as many when I read fiction. There’s a point in Madame Bovary where she starts dyeing her fingernails with lemon juice, and I used that for one of my characters. I have no idea whether anyone has ever actually done it.” The books that had the biggest influence on the novel, “far and away”, were Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov – actually published somewhat later in the century – and The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins. “It’s a really awesome detective ghost story.”

Eleanor Catton The LuminariesThe use of accurate astrological charts for each of the characters to chart out the plot is another legacy of Iowa. “In my first year living in Iowa City, I met a poet who was really interested in astrology. I didn’t know anything about it. I asked her whether there was one star sign that most commonly got mistaken for other signs. She laughed and said, ‘That is such a Libra question’ – correctly diagnosing me. I was intrigued.” Much reading followed.

“I don’t truck much with horoscopes, and the idea of predicting the future seems pointless to me, because it’s just too complicated and we all have free will … but as a way of making sense of relationships, I like it as a system.

“It’s a 12-part pattern we’ve imposed upon what is really just a random scattering of stars. We’ve read a story into that, and I think it’s an incredible part of being human that we want to weave meaning wherever we see it. Meaning has momentum. It picks up pieces of lint, you know? The more robust the archetype, the more pleasure it will give and the more stories it will yield. It’s impossible, I know that – but there’s something romantic about it, and mysterious and magical. I would prefer to believe in something that is slightly silly – I would prefer to make that act of faith, because I like the system so much, than to take a scientific stance.”

THE LUMINARIES, by Eleanor Catton (VUP, $45/$35).

Related content:

Guy Somerset's 2009 profile of rising star Catton, plus her Radio New Zealand interview with Kim Hill

The Listener review of The Rehearsal