Earlier this year we interviewed a young New Zealand writer we believed was destined for great things.
That writer was Eleanor Catton, the newly crowned Man Booker Prize Winner for 2013. Sit back and enjoy our chat with her, highlights of which were featured recently in the LA Times.
Man Booker Prize winning author of The Luminaries
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in London, Ontario, Canada, while my dad was studying at the University of Western Ontario. (My birth was a bit of an accident: nobody else in my family is Canadian.) The family moved back to New Zealand when I was six, and I grew up in Christchurch.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
When I was twelve I wanted to be a writer. If you had asked me when I was eighteen, I would have told you that I wanted to make films or to work in publishing, but that was only because I had lost the confidence to say out loud that I still wanted to be a writer. I won’t be turning thirty until 2015, but something I’m interested in right now is creative writing education. I’d really like to work with teachers to develop new and interesting ways to teach creative writing to children and teenagers.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Actually I think that I’m still on side with my eighteen-year-old self in most respects. Of course certain things were terribly important to me then that don’t seem so vital to me now, and vice versa, but those are differences of degree or emphasis rather than of substance.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
My mum was a children’s librarian when I was growing up, and so I read a lot, and re-read a lot. The three books that I have re-read more than any others are Avi’s The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight, Mister Tom and Kit Pearson’s A Handful of Time. I love those books with all my heart. Close behind those top three would be Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle series (my favourite was The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle) and Willard Price’s Adventure series, especially South Sea Adventure.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
A novel is unlike any other art form in that it offers the possibility of inhabiting somebody else’s mind. Film is external, and visual art and music are representative, but a novel’s ability to inhabit and navigate an internal landscape is unique. This quality is endlessly fascinating to me, and there just isn’t any other kind of art that fascinates me to the same degree. I love film and music and visual art, but only as an observer, not as an apprentice.
The Luminaries is set in 1866 on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, in the boom years of the gold rush. It’s a mystery story, but I’ve been calling it an ‘astrological murder mystery’, because the action of the book is patterned on the actual movement of the planets through the twelve signs of the zodiac over a single calendar year.
From the Publisher:
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. A wealthy man has vanished, a whore has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely patterned as the night sky.
The Luminaries is an extraordinary piece of fiction, which more than fulfils the promise of The Rehearsal. Like that novel, it is full of narrative, linguistic and psychological pleasures, and has a fiendishly clever and original structuring device. Written in pitch-perfect historical register, richly evoking a mid-19th century world of shipping and banking and goldrush boom and bust, it is also a ghost story, and a gripping mystery. It is a thrilling achievement for someone still in her mid-twenties, and will confirm for critics and readers that Eleanor Catton is one of the brightest stars in the international writing firmament.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
My biggest hope is that people will find characters to love. I think that falling in love with a fictional person is one of the greatest pleasures that exists. The characters we love become a part of us; they shape us and change us, and we remember them as we would real people.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I admire writers who take their art seriously rather than taking themselves seriously. I admire writers who think deeply about why they are doing what they are doing, and remain humble and thoughtful after experiencing success. I admire inventors of all kinds.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
I hope that every book I write will be completely different from the last. I have also made a private pledge that I will never write a novel about somebody trying to write a novel. There are more than enough of those.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Read everything. You can learn from everything that has a narrative—books, of course, but also films, TV shows, computer games, advertisements, conversations, speeches, articles, the news. Read things you don’t like, and try to figure out why you don’t like them. Ask ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ as much as possible, and don’t be content with an easy answer.
Eleanor, thank you for playing.