Eleanor Catton: a luminous new star in the literary constellation
New Zealand author Eleanor Catton is not yet 28, but her second novel is one of the favourites for this year’s Man Booker Prize
On completing her primary degree at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, she did a master’s at the Victoria University of Wellington. For her thesis she wrote a novel, The Rehearsal. It secured her MA, and also set her on the path to a literary career. It tells the story of an affair between a teacher and one of his teenage pupils, which causes a local scandal that is quickly intensified when the local drama school decides to bring it to the stage. Catton smiles serenely and mentions that the novel was published in New Zealand by a small university press.
By the time she had arrived at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, already with a published novel, everything was about to move a stage further. An agent had noticed The Rehearsal, and it was bought by the UK publisher Granta, which offered Catton a two-book deal, one of the books having already been published, never mind written. She then turned to an idea she had happened upon while reading a newspaper archive before she had written The Rehearsal; that idea became The Luminaries.
Hokitika, on the west coast of South Island, is a magical setting for a novel. Her schema of astrological charts as an organising principal, with a dozen main characters born under the 12 different star signs makes her colourful, highly entertaining novel sound far more contrived than it is. But then Joyce also used a given episodic structure – Homer’s Odyssey in Ulysses – and it works. The only time a New Zealander has won the Man Booker prize was in 1985, the year Catton was born. The book was Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which Catton has never read.
Catton teaches creative writing in Auckland. So what are the most important qualities for a writer? “There are three things I tell my students a writer should have: curiosity, empathy and kindness.” It obviously must have something to do with the stars as well. She appears to have already figured that out.
The Luminaries is published by Granta