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22/04/2014

Eleanor Catton’s triumph – and some advice for writers

Eleanor Catton

 Eleanor CattonAt twenty-eight, Eleanor Catton was the youngest-ever winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2013 for her second novel The Luminaries, which at 832 pages in length is also the longest book to have won the coveted prize. Eleanor visited UEA in April to answer questions at UEA’s spring literary festival. Sarah Young interviews her here in another exclusive for New Writing.

Eleanor also conducted a question and answer session with a group of current MA students, sharing insights into her craft, process and why on earth she chose to write such a long book! Here, MA student and fellow New Zealander Sarah Young summarises some of the useful nuggets gleaned.

Why write a 832 page novel – or why write a novel at all? Because it doesn’t exist yet. As Eleanor Catton told an attentive audience of MA students recently, “don’t write the book you think you should write, but what you want to read – the book that doesn’t exist yet, and because that fact drives you mad.”

For Catton, the book she wanted to exist was one that was structurally ornate – but not at the expense of a gripping plot. Outcome: The Luminaries, a book for which she first found the title, and then had to find a story to go with it.

Set in the mid-1860s New Zealand West Coast gold-rush, the novel is both structurally complex and entertaining, with a meticulously designed astrological structure driving both character and plot development, and decreasing chapter lengths, which mimic the waning of the moon in its lunar cycle, imbuing the 832-page-turner with great momentum.

As well as studying the movement of the stars in that historical period, Catton spent two years reading a great deal of fiction from the era and also non-fiction prior to writing – a process which helped her get into what she called the “consciousness of the novel’.

She described an organic process of following what interested her, although she also asked friends for book recommendations, and the seed of an idea in one book would often lead her on to another. She also made copious notes, which she would then type out and highlight again – a process of words moving through the body at least twice helping to further embed this consciousness, and fully inhabit the style and diction of the period.

Months of reading New Zealand newspapers from the 1800s with her breakfast gave her a feel for the language and the type of information you couldn’t find in a historical tome, such as the price of a pair of shoes, or the classified adverts, while the full transcripts of court sessions provided an goldmine for the novel’s celebrated court scene. While she did read historical texts, she urged writers to wear their research lightly and not let it bog down the novel.  As she pointed out, “kill your darlings is mostly good advice”.

Catton had plenty of other tips to share. Here are a few, in digest:

1. Stuck for what to write about? Follow your curiosities, your loves and your rage – but remember that rage is different to outrage. Rage is powerful, outrage is just plain boring and annoying. Catton asked us, “What drives you mental? What can you not believe is in the world? Write what you want to exist in the world.”

2. All fiction must intensify – if it starts sad, it’s got to get sadder. Think of horror movies –you know from the beginning they’re only going to get scarier. Make a promise to the reader at the beginning, and then enlarge on that so it becomes even more than you promised.

3. Keep your reader in the front and centre of your mind at all times. Be conscious of the distance you have from the novel compared to the distance they have. You have control over what your reader already knows, and what you want them to know. If you plant a mystery on page one, and don’t refresh or remind the reader of that plot point later, they will forget and it won’t remain a potent mystery anymore.

4. Serve both the reader who may intimately know the type of universe you are creating, and the reader who “has never had the experiences you’re writing about. Know where you’re going to end – but not how you’re going to get there. If you can figure out what happens next, chances are your reader will too, but if you don’t, you can still surprise them.”

Eleanor Catton spoke at the UEA spring literary festival on April 2nd. Her novels, The Rehearsal and The Luminaries, are published by Granta.

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