Eleanor Catton’s second novel, The Luminaries, was the clear winner of 2013’s Man Booker Prize, a double coup given the book is more than 800 pages long – and New Zealander Catton is only 28 years old.
A Victorian style murder mystery set in gold rush era New Zealand, its twelve chapters are organised according to the star signs of its characters, and range from 300 to only two pages in length.
In this special Wheeler Centre event, Eleanor Catton speaks to Louise Swinn about the epic novel and the ideas that have bled into it –including Jungian archetypes, the zodiac, 19th Century newsprint and the ‘settlers narrative’ of New Zealand’s North Island.
They discuss the roundabout way in which Catton arrived at the style and era of The Luminaries, her fondness for ‘a certain kind of verbal wordplay’ and her disdain for literary fiction’s distancing of itself from genre fiction.
On the subject of her approach to writing, Catton confesses that she ‘never really wanted anything else’ but to be a novelist, and explores the role of influence, fear, trouble and writing for ‘an imagined audience of every author that you’ve ever read’.
Asked about a bloom of historical fiction in New Zealand, Catton speculates that it may signal a literary maturity which allows writers to rebel against the sense of a rigid past; but she also argues that The Luminaries does not strictly belong to the genre.
She briefly considers the adaptation of the text into a miniseries –citing an interest in the difference between film and publishing contracts –and, on the subject of children’s literature, offers a list of influential books she read as a child (her mother was a children’s librarian), and argues for why libraries are superior to book stores for that genre.
Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. She won the 2007 Sunday Star-Times short-story competition, the 2008 Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the 2008 Louis Johnson New Writers' Bursary and was named as one of Amazon’s Rising Stars in 2009.
Louise Swinn is a writer, editor, publisher and reviewer. Her work appears regularly in the Age, the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald.
Louise was one of the founders of Sleepers Publishing, the Small Press Network, and the Stella Prize.