Our interview with Eleanor Catton the youngest author to win this year’s Man Booker prize.
Eleanor Catton’s stunning Man Booker-shortlisted second novel The Luminaries opens in the New Zealand township of Hokitika in 1866 where, under the cover of darkness, 12 men – a Maori gemstone hunter, a banker, a newspaperman, a hotelier, a goldfields magnate, a Chinese goldsmith, a commission merchant, a chemist, a shipping agent, a justice’s clerk, an opium-smoking hatter, and a chaplain – have “convened in stealth” to discuss a recent series of mysterious events.
Two weeks ago, on the night of January 14, the politician Alistair Lauderback rode into Hokitika, encountering in the course of his journey across the mountains from Christchurch first the dead body of the drunkard hermit Crosbie Wells alone in his cottage, then the unconscious Anna Wetherell, an opium-addicted prostitute, collapsed in the middle of the road. That very same night, the wealthy prospector Emery Staines disappeared, just as Francis Carver, a ship’s captain with a dubious past, weighed anchor in a hurry. The aftermath of these incidents – most notably, the discovery of a great fortune in the supposedly poverty-stricken Crosbie’s cottage, and the subsequent arrival of his estranged wife, a woman no one had ever heard of before, to lay claim to it – has seen the 12 men connected in a “strange tangle of association” that each of them, for reasons of their own, wants to see unravelled.
The Luminaries is a shining gem of many facets: a historical novel, its setting the New Zealand gold rush, peppered with details of the period, from opium dens to séances and tarot cards; a 19th-century pastiche that draws on a diverse range of inspiration, from Moby Dick, George Eliot, and the Russian novels (The Brothers Karamazov in particular); all told in the vein of Wilkie Collins’ sensational mysteries – the twists of the plot include conspiracy, murder, theft, adultery and blackmail – and with a list of characters as diverse and interconnected as any Dickens novel. As such, I have to admit my surprise when Catton tells me that one of the most influential books she read while writing it was Simon Lovell’s How to Cheat at Everything: A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles.
I met Catton on the morning of the last day of her United Kingdom publicity tour.
She apologises for her tiredness, citing a late night of celebrations the evening before, but nevertheless she’s articulate and engaged throughout our conversation, her natural poise and self-containment suggesting someone older than her much-talked-about 27 years – she’s the youngest author on this year’s Booker shortlist.
What she wanted to extrapolate from her experience of reading Lovell’s book, she explains, is identifying what makes the reader gasp out loud and admit, “Wow, cool, I didn’t see that coming!”
Satisfying her audience is clearly very important to her.
“The way that I write, or try to write, is to think about what I would want as a reader, what would make me keep going.”
An admirable, but also necessary quality given that The Luminaries is over 800 pages long, but one that she apparently gave plenty of thought to as, despite its length, I was rapt from beginning to end.
Every aspect of her work is thoughtful. She writes fiction in order to “struggle with ideas I’m intrigued by”.
While her first novel, The Rehearsal, the story of a high school sex scandal, explored theories of performance and gender theory (ideas she’d encountered at university but wanted to think through in more detail), The Luminaries grew out of an interest in thinking about “how we talk about ourselves to ourselves; how we narrate our own experiences back to ourselves”, but somewhat unexpectedly, perhaps, the route she took into this examination was via astrology.
“I read about the subject in very Jungian terms – he wrote about the zodiac as a pantheon of archetypes”.
What she then goes on to explain is a far cry from the maddeningly all-encompassing, “Oh, you’re a Gemini, that’s why you do that!” summing up what has made so many people’s relationship to their horoscopes a hostile one.
“The interesting thing that I discovered about the zodiac is that it’s not at all an essentialist system, it’s entirely relational. Gemini is what astrologers would call a principle, but it’s only animated when it’s put into context with one of the planets. This just spoke to me emotionally; the idea that context is everything.
“This is what I was really interested in, with respect to both astrology and the gold rush – the whole question of self knowledge and how we can be imprisoned or liberated by it. When you notice yourself doing something, when you confront some aspect of who you are, does that information or that knowledge mean that you are freed from ever doing it again, or does it mean that you are trapped in it?”
But Catton doesn’t do things by halves.
The Luminaries doesn’t just examine these ideas against the backdrop of the gold fields – the blank slate where men could reinvent themselves – or play with the double meaning of fortune; astrology is the defining model for the novel’s structure and plot. The 12 men are the fixed stellar constellations around which orbit those at the heart of the mystery, the planetary characters of the piece – each character’s individually plotted astrological chart dictating his/her interactions with those around him/her.
“What I was trying to do in the book was to create an experience for the reader quite like the experience of looking at the night sky. In the sense that on the one plane of the book you can read it through just as a conventional adventure story, but on another level you can read it as a structural experiment or structural artefact.”
This “internal patterning” isn’t crucial to the reader’s understanding of the book, but it is there; like a complex and intricate clockwork mechanism. Catton likens this layering to that at work in the zodiac: “On the surface it’s very visual, it’s a 12-part story, it has fixed parts and moving parts and so on, but, in my experience, the more time I spent researching it and contemplating it as a system, the more kinds of internal patterns and echoes I discovered.” Aptly, the novel is also split into 12 parts, each one roughly half the length of the previous one, mimicking the moon’s lunar cycle.
At the same time as relying on ancient patterns, Catton is also plotting them anew, though. Set in the “black of the antipodes, where everything was upended and unformed”, the skies are “inverted, the patterns unfamiliar” to men who arrive from the northern hemisphere. The Luminaries has been heralded in some quarters as “the Great New Zealand novel”, praise that makes Catton “deeply uncomfortable” as it’s a sentiment that she sees as both “extremely outdated and a bit gauche, actually, the idea that a nation’s experience, or a national attitude or flavour could be summed up in one piece of art is turning its back on diversity”, and thus particularly problematic for a bi-cultural nation like New Zealand.
She is, however, “just thrilled” to have made the Booker shortlist, and feels “much more relaxed” now that it’s out. “The judges’ decision now is going to be a consensus or statement of some kind and I’m OK with that. Anyone who’s ever been in a book group knows how difficult it is to get a whole room to see or evaluate a novel in the same way!”
Now it’s just a waiting game, her work is long done.
“It’s not a performance sport,” she tells me with a laugh, “so I can’t screw it up at this stage.”
Lucy Scholes is a freelance writer.