The day after Eleanor Catton handed in her manuscript for what would become her 2013 Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries, she realised something quite strange: “I no longer feared dying. As soon as I finished I didn’t fear for my own mortality any more.” But she certainly has plans for another book; just not yet, as she told her fans at the stately City Recital Hall on Thursday night.
Ms Catton is the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize, at age 28. However, the idea for her novel came 14 years earlier, while on a four-day tandem bike trip with her father. The trip was a rite of passage in her family, with her older brother and sister having already completed the trek. “Our particular cycle trip was to take us to the west coast (of New Zealand’s South Island), over the Lewis Pass and back through Arthur’s Pass in a loop, and it was hard! I was 14, I wanted to be putting on makeup and thinking of boys. I didn’t want to be with my dad sweating on a mountain road.”
Now, she thinks it was “precisely because it was hard that I developed a particular relationship with the landscape. I started thinking about the goldfields, which you can’t help but do in that part of the world, because the detritus, the rusting, and the mines are all still there, and I started thinking about writing a goldfields mystery.”
Her critically acclaimed novel, The Luminaries, is a massive 832 pages involving a spiralling journey of mystery, love, lust, greed and murder. Set in Hokitika, a booming goldrush town circa 1866, the story opens on a dark and stormy night as Walter Moody arrives to make his fortune. He seeks refuge in the Crown Hotel, where he happens upon a meeting of 12 men who all have some connection to a crime. The story unfolds from multiple viewpoints, leaving readers to piece together the puzzle. In Ms Catton’s own words, The Luminaries ended up being “kind of a cross between Midnight on the Orient Express and The Brother’s Karamazov”.
Fans and critics alike were drawn to the ingenious structure, which uses the signs of the zodiac and astrology as a governing conceit. The idea came from reading Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology and also a keen astrologist, she says. “Jung spoke about the zodiac being a 12-part story, a mythic story, a voyage out and then a return with a line of symmetry in the middle.” The Luminaries is structured in 12 parts, each part half the length of the preceding part so the book “forms a kind of spiral, and it wanes”.
Ms Catton says the paradoxical relationship between fate and will was explored by using the zodiac to predetermine her characters’ nature and roles; the men introduced in the opening chapter are all aspected to one of the signs. “The book begins in Sagittarius, and my Sagittarian character is a shipping agent for the reason Sagittarius is associated with the house of journeys and voyages.”
Working with archetypes was “fun”, but when a fan jokingly commented that she’d written a biblical story, Ms Catton realised archetypes allowed people to make infinite connections. “They said well, you’ve got an eminently good-hearted worthy character, who disappears and then reappears, he’s attended by 12 men, and the first time we see him he’s shouting the word Magdalena!”
She described the creative process as involving a tortured journey filled with “a lot of scowling, a lot of sighing, a lot of cut and paste, and going back reading over what I’ve done before and getting fed up and going online and coming back again” and finally an hour of brilliant productivity at the end of the day. The actual writing didn’t begin for 18 months, and in the following six she only managed to write the opening sentence. This is because Ms Catton is a firm believer in researching to “keep the novel preserved in everything it possibly could be without fixing it yet. It’s one thing that I often see in my students; I feel they start writing before they even know what they want to say. Which to me is too early.”
A creative writing lecturer at the Manukau Institute of Technology in southeast Auckland, she tells her students not to worry about writer’s block, “it just means you’re doing the wrong thing; you should be in the reading phase”.
Ms Catton advises reading your work out loud to someone at the end of each day. “If you’re lucky enough to have somebody who will at least pretend to be listening, this is helpful. Because you get scared when you’re reading to someone else, you get that fear, ‘actually, is this really dumb?’ But that fear helps you look at your writing in a completely different way.”
Reading your work aloud to yourself is just as important. “This allows you to catch so many things: words you’ve used three times on a page; words that sound all right when you wrote them but really dumb when you say them out loud; any kind of inconsistencies or judders.”
And “you should write from the part of yourself that loves, rather than the part of yourself that wants to be loved”. Because if you love to read, she says, your work will inevitably be good.