Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries interviewed by Robert Macfarlane
RSL, Union Chapel, Thursday 3rd April
The winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize, 27 year old Eleanor Catton from New Zealand, was interviewed by travel writer and academic Robert Macfarlane* earlier this month as part of the RSL event series. The evening kicked off with two men singing various traditional Maori songs, followed inevitably by the Haka. With our focus determinedly set on New Zealand – in case we had been inclined to wander – Macfarlane introduced Catton by describing the night The Luminaries won, with an anecdote highlighting the fact that Ben Okri is clearly great company as well as a good friend of Macfarlane’s, and that Catton was obviously startled to have won. She recalled for the audience that the moment she won, the internet ‘broke’ in New Zealand – her parents had to find out via the radio.
Catton veered between making statements with a glint of steel – despite the prize, she said “the same task is before me now” – and being charming to the point where it almost beggared belief. Every question he posed was ‘interesting’, everything she wrote was ‘gorgeous’ to Macfarlane. In their shared love of landscape they were brought together, and when they discussed this it felt like the audience were able to see where the bones of the novel came from. The Luminaries is a thin strip of a novel in that it covers the main street of a pioneering town and the beach, where the rivers meet as they come down from the hills. Catton spoke of this meniscus of land being trapped between the savage sea and impassable peaks. It is a land caught between ‘dangers’ where people refer to drowning as ‘the West Coast disease’.
Even when she has been abroad, Catton has been pulled toward her native land: her grandmother sent her the shipping news from microfiche across the ocean when she was in Iowa. She writes with two family maxims in mind: the idea that effort is individual, and that you cannot buy a view, it must be deserved. In addition, the Cattons maintain that everything looks better in the rain. This will not be news to any resident of the United Kingdom.
Despite the undeniable importance of the setting in terms of the initial events within the narrative, the action mostly happens inside. Virginia Woolf commented on how hard it is to move characters out of one room and into another. The chances of this happening and of then meeting others are significantly increased by being inside, on the whole. It also helps that the rain is relentless in the novel.
Without wishing to ruin it for those yet to tackle this huge novel, The Luminaries charts the interwoven fates of several characters within a gold mining town. A local prostitute and infamous opium addict is found badly injured by the side of the road, a shipwreck causes a key crate to go missing, a hermit is found dead and his estate hotly contested. As the town elders vie for prominence and a séance reveals a common desire to be hoodwinked, everyone is of course obsessed with gold. In many ways it is a novel about dividends, and Catton is clever on the subject of relations being bought. She feels love and money are opposite, and that the latter is only ever a transient vehicle for enabling the former in some way.
Catton planned out the structure of the novel with a piece of software that enables the user to program the night skies. By inputting the longitude and latitude, it shows you the stars in sky above that location, by adding any date it shows you the constellations at that time in order to see the skies revolve as well as the phases of the moon. In the late nineteenth century she found ‘a month without a moon’ between two full moons, and deemed it the sign to start her off. She had already been interested in astrology (to Maori New Zealanders, Orion’s belt is the bottom of a catamaran), but the idea of both fixed and moving parts interested her as well as providing assistance in crafting a plot of that complexity. She took astronomy archetypes and turned them into a novel: Sagittarius – said to represent the collective unconscious – is also the House of Journeys, suitable for a novel where the arrival of the mysterious stranger is key.
Macfarlane enquired after Catton’s casual use of the word ‘whore’ throughout the narrative; it did not lose its impact for him no matter how many times it cropped up. She agreed the word was a shock, and that she would never normally use it but in this case had no compunction doing so, before pointing out that the words whore, ore, California and Victoria all contain the same sound. Catton sees patterns in apparently randomly distributed data. She is clearly interested in connections, describing them in a neat way.
The evening concluded with a reading by Kerry Fox in darkness so complete that Macfarlane said he felt like he was at a séance himself. He helped Catton towards increasingly voluble responses as the hour progressed and was the ideal choice to interview such a modest writer at the start of her undoubtedly stellar career. I just wish there had been slightly less awareness of this fact throughout the evening.
*Kathleen Jamie’s 2008 review of Macfarlane’s book The Wild Places is one of the most crushingly funny pieces I have ever encountered. It may not be entirely fair, but with sentences like the below, that ceases to matter quite so much: “ if we do find a Wild Place, we can prance about there knowing that no bears or wolves will appear over the bluff, because we disposed of the top predators centuries ago, and if we do come unstuck there’s a fair chance that, like the man on Ben Nevis, we’ll get a mobile signal, and be rescued.”