Five Questions for Booker-Winning Author Eleanor Catton

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She might not be a Zoomer age-wise, but 28-year-old Eleanor Catton has accomplished enough to give her honorary status. As the youngest writer to ever win the internationally prestigious Man Booker Prize, she joins the ranks of many notable authors, such as Philip Roth, Kingsley Amis, and Hilary Mantel. Zoomer talked to the writer during her recent visit to Vancouver, about her award-winning novel The Luminaries, literature’s national identity, and plotting her novel with the stars.


Related Post: Book of the Week – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Athena McKenzie: There has been much made of your use of astrological charts to structure The Luminaries. What came first for you, the structure or the story?

Eleanor Catton: They came together, in the sense that about five years ago when my first book had just come out and I was just dreaming about what to turn to next, I started doing a lot of research in a whole lot of different areas, knowing that I wanted to write a gold rush story and not being really sure of the how or the why. The following-my-nose thing, where I’d read a book and it would interest me in a way that made me want to read another book — just going on these journeys. One of the books I read that didn’t really end up influencing The Luminaries at all was a condensed history of medicine and in this I stumbled upon the idea of astral twinship. It just really fascinated me, this idea that two people, if they were born underneath the same sky, in the very same instant, and quite near to one another, they would share a chart, so share a destiny. I liked this idea and was sure I could use it in some way. What that ended up doing to my research, was turning me towards astrology and the history of the zodiac. I started doing more reading there and began to wonder if I could do a book where all the component parts of the zodiac are people, and they act in these ways that mirror the heavens. In a way, the structure and story came together, because by the time I started writing the book and putting words down on paper, I already had the first star charts.

AM: You said you wanted to write about the gold rush. What drew you to that era?

EC: I think it’s always been in my blood. My family is relatively outdoorsy, and I’ve done a lot of walking and camping on the west coast of New Zealand, quite close to where I grew up in Christchurch, which is on the other coast. The landscape feels really personally important to me, in the way that some landscapes do. You carry some worlds around inside you in different ways than others. For me, the west coast and the journey to the west coast from Christchurch over the mountains, feels really spiritually charged.  You can’t walk on the west coast without coming upon old rusting bridges, and old shaft mines, and all of the detritus of the gold rush. It’s all still there, it’s just rusting away. Those things were just in my consciousness as a child and it felt like there was something dangerous and slightly glamorous about the gold rush.

AM: Do you think there is a difference between New Zealand writers and Canadian writers because of this consciousness and the landscapes they each carry?

EC: I think every national literature has its own identity in a way, and that can be quite a broad identity. It would be quite difficult for me to describe what New Zealand literature is like, just because every time a book comes along, you have to revise your understanding. I do think there is some similarities in the issues that New Zealand and Canadian writers have to deal with. One of them would be reconciling an bicultural nation in a multicultural world. Also, our relationship with Britain and America, like Canadian writers, the difference in market between the UK and the US, we’re on the outside for both and you have to break into each market.

AM: The book is described as Neo-Victorian and the language is very rich and immersive. How did you get there?

EC: Through reading. The couple of years before I put anything down on paper I read as much Victorian fiction as I could and I took a lot of notes along the way. There were all sorts of notes. Sometimes I would come across a sentence structure that was unfamiliar to me but I liked it  — an archaism that caught my interest. Other times it would be details of daily life that I hadn’t known about. For example, at one point in Madame Bovary, she drinks vinegar to lose weight, and I thought this was brilliant. That would be an example of something I would write down and store away. That sort of detail delighted me.

AM: What do you read for pleasure?

EC: I try to read as eclectically as possible and I believe there is something to be learned from everything. The broader you are as a reader the more versatile you’re going to be as a writer. For the Luminaries I read a lot of Victorian fiction and 20th century crime, just to figure out how to put the plot together. That reading has now put me on to what would be my favourite authors of all time, which are the Victorian writers. When I’m not researching a project and doing the quite focused reading, I like reading children’s literature a lot — I went through a stage when I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials every year — and writers from the sixties and seventies like Iris Murdoch. The books I’ve read the most often are the children’s books because  if I’ve got ten minutes or want to fall asleep I can just open them at any page and instantly be immersed.