I think it’s safe to say that An Evening With Eleanor Catton was one of the most anticipated events on the DWRF programme. It’s not often that Dunedin hosts prize-winning novelists, let alone Booker Prize-winners, and it was brilliant to see that the DWRF organizers chose to make Catton’s even something special, with abundant canapés and a glass of champagne handed to you right at the door.
The talk was held in the spacious foyer of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, with a camera sending live feed to two large screens set up to help the capacity audience see Catton and host Finlay Macdonald on the platform at one end of the foyer. Macdonald was a genial and funny presence, whose interviewing style made us all feel very comfortable and put us all in a mood to enjoy the event (or maybe that was the champagne).
Catton was a funny and warm presence herself, and I got the feeling that she’s someone who comes to clear, firm opinions but only after turning a thought over carefully and thoroughly in her head. This thoughtfulness was clear in the way she talked about how The Luminaries came about. She described the novel as “the Antipodean version of the Victorian novel” and noted that part of its structure came out of an earlier attempt to write a novel for young adults.In fact she seems to rate young adult and children’s literature very highly, because, in her words “the endeavour is very pure… a child will only read to the end because they love the story”, not because it’s won a prize or because the child wants to appear smart. In this way, children’s/YA literature is all about the reader.
This regard for the reader seemed to be very important for her. She talked about how she really wanted The Luminaries to be fun to read, and several times she mentioned doing something a certain way − for example, constructing the architecture of The Luminaries − because she thought it would be a fun thing to do. But that sense of just wanting to do fun things is clearly tempered by some serious thinking − she talked about having ‘control documents’ on her computer, including one which detailed every scene in the book and how she wanted each scene to feel, and how having these documents enabled her to look at the book from a telescopic or bird’s eye point of view.
It was also interesting to hear Catton’s point of view on modern fiction. The Luminaries apparently came out of frustration at a lot of modernist and experimental fiction, where she felt there was “a lot of withholding”, and she talked about how you can be influenced (and motivated) by something you feel could have been done better − in other words, a kind of ‘negative’ influence.
Catton also showed some real impatience with literary fiction; when asked by Finlay Macdonald about the oft-forecast ‘death of the novel’, Catton replied that the novel did something unique (and irreplaceable) in that it could “give the experience of externality and internality at the same time − like life”, where we live in the world but also have our own internal, thinking life as well. But she said she would be quite happy for consciously ‘literary’ fiction to die off, and described it as a dull genre where nothing seemed to happen.
She went as far as to say (in her quiet, firm way) that literary fiction “needs to open its doors and stop being so ridiculous about genre fiction”. Macdonald summed it up rather neatly when he suggested that perhaps “the boring novel is dead”! Certainly the amount of love the audience showed for The Luminaries indicated that Catton had succeeded in writing a very un-boring novel. In fact, one audience member confessed he’d been so riveted by her book that one night he forgot to cook dinner − about as good a review as you can get. (signing line to the left).
Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus on behalf of Booksellers NZ
Eleanor Catton will give a talk at the Auckland Writers’ Festival in the event called ‘Our Booker Winner’, at 5.30pm on Saturday 17 May.