The new darling analysand of the literary world, Eleanor Catton, needs no introduction, except to say that she is the stellar young woman who has taken all her readers to another literary galaxy. In Sydney, as part of this year’s Writer’s Festival, she discussed the journey behind her 2013 Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries. On stage, with her legs crossed and hands cupped in elegance. Catton is pensive but giggly, starry-eyed but down-to-earth. She is what they once called very ladylike.
The Luminaries is a supreme work of imagination, which throws us into an ethereal terrain of time. So to start, Catton takes us to the months leading up to the publishing of her book. Already two years past her initial deadline, she had felt herself a canary in a coal mine up until the day after she handed in her manuscript.
“Because this was colossally long, and kind of much longer than I ever dreamed or indeed wanted to be, really, it kind of felt as though that this deadline was going further and further away from me as well.”
Although she felt pressured, her UK publisher, Granta, had a reason for their exigency as they had their own deadline to meet. They had planned to submit it for the Man Booker that year.
“But they thankfully kept this from me, and I just thought they were being anxious for no reason, so I’d kept on going off and watching whole seasons of Breaking Bad and this kind of thing that they would later go read on Twitter and get extremely angry about,” Catton said.
The New Zealand of her memory was another country than that of most. The novel’s lush imagery of landscape owes itself to the close relationship Catton developed with the West Coast from her family’s regular cycling trips. It was on one of these trips, when she was fourteen, which she first hit upon the idea for the novel.
“On that trip I actually started thinking about the gold fields, which you can’t help but do in that part of the world – just because the detritus of the gold rush is all still there. All the rusting, dredges and the mines are all still there.”
Not exactly a breezy piece of work, the novel’s narrative is intricately presented around an elaborate astrological conceit. The novel has twelve chapters, each being half the length of the one before it and preceded with astrological diagrams that guide the stories of its characters against the archetypes and planetary movements above nineteenth century New Zealand.
In the planning, Catton began her research by doing what good writers do first, a lot of reading. Her most inspired readings included a copy of Jung’s collected works, which planted in her a deep fascination with archetypes and astrology.
“I first of all just started looking at the zodiac and thought, how could I turn these archetypes into real people?” she said.
Like navigating over a frozen pond full of sharks, where at any moment the ice may fail to hold, Catton worried obsessively about how the novel’s various elements were to work, and at times she could not help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.
“I would come up against questions along the way like, ‘how am I going to bring out the Mars aspects of this particular scene in a way that doesn’t corrupt my Sagittarian archetype?’”
Although challenging, it was also these limitations that gave her the most clarity. She reasoned that often it was in the corner where paints oneself where the most creative solutions are found.
“That’s the job of the writer, especially in a plotted book, a book that foregrounds plot. By making things inconvenient for yourself, you’re kind of saying to the reader, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’m going to make things inconvenient for me so that it’s convenient, fun and pleasurable for you.’”
As if to tell the audience that the ice is now thicker than from when she first had thread, Catton read a segment from the very start of her novel to entice those who felt too daunted by the book’s length to begin it.
“’The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportment and dress – frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill – they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway – deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.’"
In true Victorian tradition, Catton’s world blazes in dramatic atmosphere, reveling in detail and description. The story begins with a group of men gathered together, on a dark and stormy night no less, to discuss the mysterious sequence of events that had recently occurred: the sudden disappearance of a wealthy young man, the attempted opium overdose of a likeable local prostitute and the discovery of a gold fortune in the house of the recently departed town drunk.
As these mysteries unravel, Catton uses the Dickensian conventions of coincidence, sudden reversals of fortune and circumstance to not only set in motion the narrative engine, but to question the randomness of life and how the nuances, morals and vices of human experience are drawn out in the face of it.
“All of us live our lives in a much narrower compass than actually what we are capable of, both for good and for evil…I think that if the circumstances were right, we could all do pretty terrible things or pretty inspired wonderful things,” she said.
Beyond the literary construct, astrological myths and clever plotting, which Catton seamlessly weds, she also reclaims the unfamiliar sensibility and language of the Victorian era.
“The book starts off much more nineteenth century than it finishes. And I think partly that owes to the fact that I got excited and then kind of ran off…” she said.
Although she wears this task lightly, Catton’s efforts to immerse herself in nineteenth century fiction, through extensive reading and equally intensive note-taking, took almost two years until she felt comfortable enough to write in that style.
“That passage that I read out just now took me the longest of any part of the book by a country mile…You’re kind of waiting for that click. You’re waiting for the cogs to come together, for a voice that feel sufficiently yours, but also a voice that is drawing all the things you admire and wanting to pay homage to.”
Catton’s storytelling in her book is as revealing and perceptive as her presence. Much has been said about her age, but perhaps it is this youthful capacity for wonder that belays her eminence.