Interview: Author Eleanor Catton on 'The Luminaries', astrology and Man Booker longlisting

'It’s been a real ride getting on the longlist'

You’re long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. You must be really excited.

It’s been a real ride. Only three New Zealanders have ever been on the list before and only one has ever won. It’s totally national news.

Are you feeling competitive?

I’ve started reading a few of the others on the long-list, and all it does is make me feel I can’t imagine how the judges… It’s so subjective. It’s not a performance sport, I can’t do anything about it.

This novel is huge, over 800 pages; how did you complete it?

Just many hours. I can’t rush it out and I think dialogue takes longer, and so much of The Luminaries is dialogue. If it’s wrong the whole book’s off because it’s the one completely unmediated part of the story where the characters speak for themselves. I’d just get up in the morning and not go to bed until I’d written 2,000 words.

Could you explain a little of what happens in the book?

It’s set on the south island of New Zealand in the gold rush of the 1860s. The book opens with a council of 12 men who’ve met in secret to discuss a series of crimes. A young man named Walter Moody has come to make his fortune and when he walks in, unbeknownst to him, he has a piece of information that is very valuable to the people whose party he’s just crashed.

It’s been compared to a Victorian novel.

One of the things I really like about Victorian novels is the close anatomisation of character. People’s gestures and mannerisms and the quality of their thought is very closely identified and analysed. These 12 men in the room are, in their personalities, representative of the 12 signs of the zodiac.

Do you read horoscopes?

I think they’re silly. Astrology’s a moving system that depends on where you’re looking at it from on Earth. My horoscope here in London would be completely different to down in New Zealand.

Have you heard of Mystic Meg? She’s quite famous.

Oh right.

She’s always correct.

I wouldn’t want to denigrate Mystic Meg, but astrology is more interesting to me as a system than as a tool for predicting anything.

You have Chinese and Maori characters. That’s not something you see much in Victorian novels.

The readership of Victorian novels, when they were published, was much less diverse. People were probably white, and had enough money to be literate. Very often there are phrases in Italian, German and French that are left untranslated. I wanted to critique that convention – to not form an assumption about the reader of the book – so I have untranslated Maori and Cantonese phrases.

You’ve been described as the golden girl of fiction. How do you feel  about that?

Any description of a person that comes from the outside is very hard to deal with. People don’t like being summarised. It’s nice to receive a compliment but it makes me feel a bit uncomfortable.

How have you found promoting your book overseas?

With my first novel, The Rehearsal, it dealt with teenage sexuality and homosexuality. The reception was very different in different countries. The UK was comfortable with those aspects of it, but the US was not.

Biography

Eleanor Catton, 27, is from New Zealand. Her debut novel,  The Rehearsal, was published to acclaim in the UK in 2010. Her second book, The Luminaries, was long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize and is available in hardback now

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