March 21, 2014 6:34 pm

The Inventory: Eleanor Catton

‘I am frequently angered by corporate greed and think education should be free,’ says the youngest Man Booker Prize winner
Eleanor Catton©Robert Catto

Eleanor Catton, 28, won the 2013 Man Booker prize for her second novel, The Luminaries, and is the youngest winner of the prize so far. She was also made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit last year.

What was your childhood or earliest ambition?

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To be a writer. Once I told my parents I wanted to be a vet and they arranged for me to sit in on a feline surgery (a cat was being neutered) as an observer. But I wasn’t interested in the job itself – only in writing about it.

Public school or state school? University or straight into work?

I went to a state school in Christchurch, New Zealand, and then straight on to the University of Canterbury. But I worked part-time all the way through high school: first with a paper round, then at a fast-food outlet, a video store and a hardware store.

Who was or still is your mentor?

The teacher who inspired me the most at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was the marvellous Edward Carey – but somehow “mentor” doesn’t feel the right word. Perhaps “inspirer” or “co-conspirator” or “co-reader”.

How physically fit are you?

Hiking shoes©Dreamstime

Keep-fit pursuit: hiking

I like hiking and cycling, and occasionally swim lengths as a way of solving a plot problem (anything rhythmic helps) but I’m very sporadic. I’ve never joined a gym.

Ambition or talent: which matters more to success?

Ambition – but only when it’s curious.

Have you ever taken an IQ test?

No. Every time I take the Myers Briggs I get a different result, so I don’t know whether I’m introverted or extroverted either.

How politically committed are you?

I vote far-left. I am frequently angered by corporate greed and think education ought to be free and teachers paid well. But I’ve never really done that much to act on these beliefs except to vote and join unions and try to live responsibly. The only organisation I regularly donate to is Greenpeace.

Do you consider your carbon footprint?

Yes, with increasing guilt every time I make the trip to the UK from New Zealand.

Do you have more than one home?

Auckland©Dreamstime

Home: an Auckland apartment

No, I live in a rented apartment in Auckland.

What would you like to own that you don’t currently possess?

A house.

What’s your biggest extravagance?

A trip to the picture framer’s, with a selection of prints, is the most joyous outing I can imagine. I’ve spent more money on framing than on anything else I own.

In what place are you happiest?

At home with my feet up, reading.

What is the greatest achievement of your life so far?

Getting the structure of The Luminaries to work.

What has been your greatest disappointment?

If you had a coat of arms, what would be on it?

My mother’s maiden name is Oakley and my father’s surname is Catton, so I had always imagined a cat rampant underneath an oak.

I see disappointment as something small and aggregate rather than something unified or great. With a little effort, every failure can be turned into something good.

If your 20-year-old self could see you now, what would she think?

She’d be pleased that writing is at the centre of my life and that I’m happy. But I wouldn’t want her to see me. She wouldn’t have worked so hard on The Luminaries if she’d known that it was going to come together in the end.

If you lost everything tomorrow, what would you do?

Try and understand why.

Do you believe in assisted suicide?

Under certain circumstances, yes.

Do you believe in an afterlife?

Not with people in it – I believe in an afterlife for ideas and forms.

If you had to rate your satisfaction with your life so far, out of 10, what would you score?

10.

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Eleanor Catton will be talking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, which runs from March 22-30

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