Eleanor Catton

Author portrait © Robert Catto

I meet Eleanor Catton in the Langham Hotel straight after her Woman’s Hour debut and the day before the Booker shortlist announcement. I have a feeling that her second and most recent novel, The Luminaries, will be on the shortlist and I also have a feeling that she already knows whether it is or not. “I’m going to have to give a deceitful answer one way or another now,” she says, laughing when I bring it up. Of course it does make it on to the shortlist (at 27 she was the youngest person ever to be shortlisted for the prize) but it seems unfair to press her on this before the announcement so instead I ask how she felt about being longlisted. “Oh, it’s just been such a ride, it was so great for my book. And I think my publishers were happy because obviously as a long book it’s quite difficult to move copies.”

It is a long book, at over 800 pages, but Catton is understandably slightly bored of talking about its length. “Is it a long book or a short book is a question that’s beside the point for me. I feel that a good book is a book that should be the size it is and a bad book is a book that shouldn’t be the size that it is. A bad book that’s very short might be bad because it’s underdeveloped, and then a bad book that’s long might be a bad book because it’s self-indulgent or whatever. I definitely wasn’t trying to write a short book or a long book but I was trying to write a good book.

“The night after I finally finished it I sent it off to my editor – and I’d been lying about how finished it was for years. The next day, I was just floating down the stairs. I felt like I’d lost twenty kilograms. The impossibility of the book had been weighing on me, this fear that I would just not be able to work it, the relationship between the structure and the plot of the book was not going to work at some point and I’d have to make a choice. You know, ‘this planet’s in the wrong place… how do I get these two characters in the same room?’ It’s a slightly strange project to set oneself to work a structural conceit and a lot of people could argue, and a lot of people have argued, that it’s a completely artificial thing to do, to impose a kind of skeleton on to a book. They say ‘What’s the point? Why? What are you trying to achieve?’”

I believe absolutely that by reading well what you’re doing is confronting people who are unlike you and the more you read, the greater your understanding of that difference becomes.”

She notes that in New Zealand all the reviews by women have been good and all the reviews by men have been bad. We ponder this for a while without reaching a satisfactory conclusion, and focus instead on her nationality. “You know, Katherine Mansfield said I’m a writer first and a woman second, and I feel that I’m a writer first and a New Zealander second. It’s funny because a national sensibility informs the way we are in all sorts of ways, in every way, from facial expressions and our body language to the way we treat people we respect. One thing about being in the public eye outside of New Zealand is that you then become emblematic of an entire nation’s sensibility. People have asked me if this is the Great New Zealand Novel and that’s a ridiculous question because that doesn’t exist for any country I don’t think. There are wonderful writers but I don’t think any writer can be emblematic of a culture. They can be emblematic of certain attitudes or certain eras… For me the great pleasure in reading fiction is falling in love with fictional characters who are very different from people I might know in real life, to really feel this closeness to other human beings to the extent that it feels that they are both in my life as real people and also that I’m actually in their lives as a an observer or even as a silent participant. In that sense I believe absolutely that reading fiction is a pursuit which can help develop a person’s sense of empathy, that by reading well what you’re doing is confronting people who are unlike you and the more you read, the greater your understanding of that difference becomes. The problem with the idea of the Great New Zealand Novel or the Great American Novel or whatever is that it cheapens that really wonderful dimension of literature for it to be an occasion for the reader to confront diversity in others and to then think about themselves in the context of that diversity. Holding up one novel is like saying ‘Forget all the rest, this one novel has it all.’”

One of the possible reasons (aside from its size) that people might have held The Luminaries up as the Great New Zealand Novel is because it has an old-fashioned kind of moral imperative. Is that something she recognises?

“One of the things about nineteenth-century novels, and to a certain extent Edwardian novels, is the prevalence of the omnipotent third-person voice, the voice that says ‘Hey, I can go into anybody’s head in this room that I want to and I can control time, you just settle back because I’m going to do all of the work.’ This has fallen very out of fashion and something that’s very interesting to me about twentieth- and twenty-first-century fiction is the predominance not only of first-person novels but also of the present tense and how very often the two are used together, which for me is almost always a turn-off. A first person voice is already boundaried because you can’t know what I’m thinking and I can’t know what you’re thinking right now, but the present tense is also boundaried because we can’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s a double trap and massively restricting the tools available to the novelist. I think one of the reasons that the third-person omnipotent narrator has fallen out of fashion is because we really don’t like the idea that we can be seen from the outside, that we can be summarised, that in a couple of sentences someone can say ‘You’re like that.’ We don’t like someone being able to do that to more than one person, we’re weirdly uncomfortable with the idea of a novelist being a social commentator to the degree that they can see into a wide range of people.”

I’d read that Catton is a fan of TV box sets and sees in their popularity an appetite for narrative that unfolds at great length. When I ask her about this she says: “How long do we spend with the idea that Tony Soprano has a difficult relationship with his mother? We spend so many hours with that question… like the question of how far will Walter White go before he stops and thinks ‘Who am I?’ I think now more than ever there is an appetite for depth and consideration, for art that takes its viewers or readers seriously, that doesn’t just pander to a sense of readership that is indistinguishable from market. You know, the mysteries of the human condition – I don’t want to sound too grand – but the mysteries are really the things that unite us all together. The things we don’t know are things we can never know – we don’t know when we’re going to die, we don’t know what’s going to happen if we get really sick or what happens after death. All these kind of big philosophical questions are actually the universalising questions because obviously there’s no answer to any of them. Literature can help us ask those questions of our own lives but it can never answer them, it can just help us ask them better.

“I think reading makes us feel more deeply, which is actually both good and bad. Literature is an alternative to taking drugs and getting drunk because it enlarges your experience, it’s thrilling and it tilts your imagination, alters your perception and is hallucinogenic essentially. I think when a culture is very unhappy it’s because people have no artistic dimension to their lives, they’re not being exposed to art and literature. When someone says they are a reader I always feel OK about them, I feel that they have a good dialogue going with their subconscious, with their emotions, and they’ll be fine. Whereas when someone is deeply unhappy or spinning out of control, very seldom I find that they’re also a reader. As an artefact, novels in particular can help us deal with states of ambiguity or a lack of closure. It’s never enough at the end of a book. One of the most pleasurable but also complicated things about some reading experiences is that you miss the beginning of a book so much that you want to go back and read it again.”

We talk about the reception of The Luminaries and the fact that it’s been called anti-modernist. “It’s a pastiche of a Victorian novel but just because it’s looking backwards it doesn’t mean that it can’t also be looking forwards. Pastiches are fundamentally modernist.” I mention that aspects of the book remind me of Tristram Shandy. “Right, and that’s about the art of telling – it’s meta, in the same way Don Quixote is meta. In a way that’s what the astrological structure of my book does: it’s saying that everything about the plot is premeditated, but what does that mean about the book’s fate? If the plot of the book has been patterned on the movement of the stars, in what way does that mean that the plot of the book has been predetermined? That was the question I was interested in asking each of the characters and myself. What is the function of self-knowledge? In what way are we in conversation with the idea of our own fates, and how are we interpreting the events of our lives?”

Which brings us to Anna, a prostitute in the book, and the extent to which she is a control of her own fate. “I wanted to subvert the tradition of heroines of grand Victorian novels having to die at the end or get married. I didn’t want her to die, and in fact I wanted her to be in a stronger position at the end of the book than at the beginning of it. And the way the men of the town leap on this assumption that she must have tried to commit suicide, it’s a critique of the fact that women always have to die at the ends of these kinds of books. In Victorian society but even to a certain extent now, there’s nothing culturally more frightening than the idea of a woman with her eyes wide open who is in full control of herself and has opportunities and the means to make those opportunities develop. I think one of the reasons that Anna Karenina has to die or that Emma Bovary has to die is that they’ve seen too much, they’ve become influential, too powerful in a way.

“I saw Germaine Greer speak quite recently and she offered the most beautiful interpretation of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I’d never thought of it before but I just thought it was so great. She said that of course Shakespeare’s tragedies have weak women in them because they are tragedies. In an environment like Hamlet’s court in Elsinore, Ophelia is so lame – and Lady Macbeth is so feeble and shallow – that any kind of happy resolution is impossible. And by contrast, the strength of the women in Shakespeare’s comedies allows for happy endings: it’s Olivia’s or Viola’s strength that allows for that. I just loved that way of putting it.

“I didn’t want Anna to become the prostitute motif, where the prostitute becomes the occasion for someone else’s development or catharsis. You know, in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, visiting a prostitute is pivotal in the young man’s life. And the prostitute in those kind of scenes is always incredibly tragic, incredibly wise, and I have such a problem with that and the way that that figures in a lot of literature and other art forms because it seems extremely othering of the woman. It seems like the woman is just existing as a stop in someone else’s journey, in someone else’s narrative.”

I ask if she has started writing a new book yet. She looks ecstatic and says, “I haven’t started a new book. All I’ve done is drink wine and watch TV for six months.”

Alex Peake-Tomkinson writes book reviews and features for the Mail on Sunday, the TLS and the Daily Telegraph.

The Luminaries is published by Granta Books in hardback and eBook. Read more.