Last week, 11 April, Eleanor Catton was a guest of Edinburgh University at an event in which she discussed her book The Luminaries with EU writer-in-residence Jennie Fagan. The Luminaries won the Man Booker Prize last year and at twenty-eight Eleanor Catton is its youngest recipient. She was born in Canada and moved to New Zealand, where she still lives, when she was nine. So this was a rare opportunity to hear her speak and to buy a copy of the book and get it signed.
It is 1866, and Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men, who have met in secret to discuss a series of unsolved crimes.
Despite having achieved so much at such a tender age, Eleanor Catton was charming and modest. Her ambition for the book, in terms of how she would tell the story, was huge. She worked out the complicated structure in advance, determined to stick to it – plot and structure, she said, are sometimes uneasy bedfellows and plot usually wins.
Her structure includes using the signs of the Zodiac to delineate each character – she is fascinated by astrology which she came to through studying psychology.
She thinks of plot as ‘pass the poison’ – five people, a cup of poison, you have to keep track of who’s got it.
It seems to her that modern novels in the genre of ‘literary fiction’ tell what happened in the aftermath of a tragedy, or just before a tragedy – and that it was ‘no fun’ being the ‘inert waters in between’.
She still loves reading children’s and YA fiction. Her mother was a children’s librarian and EC read her way through the library. (Willard Price, Hugh Lofting and Avi (pen-name of Edward Irving Wortis) were early favourites.)
In fiction for young readers, she said, the author puts the reader first and sets out to entertain them and, avoiding the ‘inert waters’, this is what she wanted to do for adults.
She also wanted to produce a big 19th-century-style novel for the 21st century. (The Luminaries is 832pp.) Nineteenth-century novels were never in the first person nor the present tense which seems to EC to be a double limitation writers put on themselves now (although she cited The Hunger Games as a successful exception).
Nineteenth-century authors were not afraid to ‘play God’ and use the omniscient, third-person point of view, rarely used today. However, these novels were aimed at the establishment – white, western/northern hemisphere and educated. They would, for example, have quotes in French and Italian in the expectation that the reader would have learned these languages. These novels did not take any account of young nor coloured nor antipodean readers.
Her novel has quotes in Maori and Cantonese. She has been criticised for not adding a glossary but, true to the style of the 19th century novelist, she didn’t want to do that.
She takes creative writing classes at home in New Zealand. She has no truck, she said, with ‘finding/not finding your voice’. A book will have its own urgency, its own voice.
At question time she was asked about creative writing courses, in particular the one she herself attended at the University of Iowa. She said that as in all teaching there were good and bad ways of doing it. She’d resisted a tutor’s attempt to get her to write more like Raymond Carver.
The course’s main benefit for her, she concluded, was making friends – soul mates – other people who were happy to discuss eg the omniscient third point-of-view into the small hours.
I am looking forward to reading it.