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The headlines all but wrote themselves when Eleanor Catton won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries at London’s Guildhall this week. Catton, who has just turned 28, is the youngest author to take the £50,000 award and the first New Zealander since Keri Hulme in 1985. Her novel, at 832 pages, is also by a considerable margin the longest winner in Booker history.
Yet for all the firsts, and against a shortlist widely seen as the strongest in years, it somehow didn’t feel like a surprise. A multilayered literary whodunnit set amid an 1860s New Zealand gold rush, The Luminaries had been one of the bookies’ favourites since the shortlist was announced last month. Chairman of the judges Robert Macfarlane, summing up his panel’s unanimous verdict, described it as “a novel of astonishing control”. And Catton herself, though slightly unsteady of voice, exuded assurance as she read her acceptance speech on Tuesday night. To borrow a line of her own novel’s fluent Victorian prose, this is a writer possessed of both youth and conviction.
The composure is still on display the following day as an underslept Catton talks me through the genesis of The Luminaries. It arose in part from a desire to test the boundaries between literary and genre fiction – a distinction she likens to that between Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies. “The challenge that I set for myself was to see whether or not plot and structure could coexist, and why it was that we had to always privilege one above the other.”
Perhaps appropriately for a novel that explores themes of fate and self-knowledge, The Luminaries is structured around an astrological conceit. The movements of its large cast are governed by the actual movements of heavenly bodies above the South Island settlement of Hokitika, where the action takes place in 1865-66. (Catton discovered these by typing the dates and co-ordinates into an interactive star chart.) The novel is divided into 12 parts that, like a waning moon, diminish in size as its characters seek to explain the series of mysteries with which it begins: the death of a hermit; the attempted suicide of a prostitute; and the unexplained disappearance of the town’s wealthiest man.
Did she find these formal constraints liberating? “Definitely, in this instance,” she says. “I’m not a good enough musician to be able to improvise freely but it felt a little bit like that – like I was playing in a key signature and I had these patterns that I could riff on or pull into the foreground or push into the background, as I pleased.”
The desire to write about New Zealand’s gold rushes had come much earlier. “That’s been in my mind ever since I was a teenager ... there was just something glamorous about it. It wasn’t at all like the Wild West, and it wasn’t really at all like the gold rushes in Victoria, Australia, either. For one thing, the [New Zealand] rushes happened in the 1860s, and so legislators had had a lot of intervening years to learn from the mistakes in California and also in Victoria. So I was quite astonished to learn, when I started researching The Luminaries, how strangely civilised the proceedings were. And it’s a theme that comes up in the book, this intersection between the savage and the civil, as the characters term it.”
Catton moved to New Zealand when she was six, having spent her earliest years in Canada. She grew up in an intellectual household in which television was absent, books were prized and literary ambitions nurtured. In one early sign of the latter, she sent a work of fiction to a publisher at the age of nine that, though not accepted, impressed enough to come back with an editorial critique.
She wrote her debut, The Rehearsal (2008), while completing an MA in creative writing at the University of Wellington. A study of the aftermath of a high school sex scandal, it won the Betty Trask Award and was described by the writer Joshua Ferris as “a glimpse into the future of the novel itself”.
Then came a fellowship at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she started work on The Luminaries in earnest. (It was also where she met her partner Steven Toussaint, a poet with whom she now lives in Auckland.) Catton speaks warmly of her experience in Iowa: “I think that, in principle, a workshop is such a beautiful idea – an environment in which writers who are collectively apprenticed to the craft of writing can come together in order to collectively improve. And I really like the socialist, the very communal, supportive ideology that lies behind that model.”
Catton bats away talk of her age but accepts the role that her Man Booker win has imposed on her as an ambassador for her country’s writing. “There are a lot of people of my generation in New Zealand literature, young writers on their first or second books, that I’m just really excited about. There seems to be a big gap between the generation above and us, it seems to be quite radically different in terms of form and approach.”
Asked about her debt to previous generations of writers, Catton is careful to distinguish between those she admires – Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame, for example – and those who have helped shape her work. Here she surprises, with choices such as Frances Hodgson Burnett, Willard Price, Michael Morpurgo, Roald Dahl and JK Rowling. “I think that writers of literary fiction would do well to read more books for children,” she says. “The project of the writer for children is so honest, because they can’t be self-indulgent. Children can see self-indulgence a mile away.”
Catton jokes that when people initially commented on the length of The Luminaries, she drew them away from comparisons with the likes of David Foster Wallace’s similarly proportioned Infinite Jest. “It’s not really a difficult novel, it’s a bit like one of the longer Harry Potter novels. And the scoffing that I would get at this response was, ‘Why on earth would you reference JK Rowling; of all of the novelists that you could put yourself in the company of, why her?’” In fact, for Catton, “the third Potter book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, is very much like part one of The Luminaries, in the sense that it stacks various narratives atop one another, including narratives from the distant past, and replays them in a way that allows you to see them anew”.
Catton’s openness to such parallels may speak partly of the confidence that comes with literary recognition but it also chimes with her obvious enthusiasm for popular culture – she has also spoken of her admiration for TV box sets such as Breaking Bad and The Wire. “They’re such an intersection of low and high – and everybody suffers when what’s seen as low and what’s seen as high drift away from one another. I think they need always to be in conversation. It comes back to Shakespeare: all the tragedies have their absolutely crucial comic scenes and all of the comedies have these characters that you have no idea what to do with because they get treated so horribly. The Malvolios of the comedies are just ... what do we do with Malvolio? He’s so wretched.”