Eleanor Catton: In the last year, I’ve struggled with my identity as a New Zealand writer

Catton speaks about her suspicions of writers who go back and forth between different forms and her attempts to shield from fame


Eleanor Catton, won the Man Booker Prize 2013 for her debut novel The Luminaries. Photo: Mint
Eleanor Catton, won the Man Booker Prize 2013 for her debut novel The Luminaries. Photo: Mint

Jaipur: Eleanor Catton, who won the Man Booker Prize 2013 for her debut novel The Luminaries, has shielded herself from a very persistent media at the Jaipur Literary Festival these past few days, preferring instead, during her time off from duties at the lit fest, to fulfil a lifelong dream—go on an elephant ride.

On Saturday, she finally succumbed and agreed to meet a select few media people. Joking about her work, she says, “Someone said I must have been an Indian in my past life because I’ve written a book about gold and astrology.”

Catton, who cares deeply about her craft, speaks about her suspicions of writers who go back and forth between different forms, her anger with New Zealand for taking ownership of a very individual achievement, and her attempts to shield herself from the seduction of fame. Edited excerpts from the interview:

On reading

I’m not at all writing at the moment. The hardest thing (about travelling to literary festivals) is not to have the time to read. Reading so precedes writing, you have to read for so long before any kind of writing even starts to glimmer. That’s always the thing I crave the most at the end of any tour. I can’t wait to get home, sit in my room, put my feet up and just read for a couple of weeks.

On being a ground-breaking author

It has to be intentional actually; it’s really important if you are going to be experimenting in some way to do it consciously and for a reason. There’s nothing worse than a novel that is experimental where the writer doesn’t know why they are experimenting. Experimentation and form and content always comes about because the writer is curious about something, grappling with something, trying to ask questions that they themselves don’t know the answers to. That’s always been my approach to it, I guess.

I made myself a pact a few years ago that I would never write a book about a writer trying to write a book and I would also never write a book that resembled anything I had written before, to try to keep pushing myself onto new territories. I was thinking a lot about science fiction actually. It seemed like the natural successor to historical fiction except in the future, but I don’t know if I’m quite brave enough to go there.

On never writing poetry

I’ve got another pact. My boyfriend is a poet and we’ve got a pact between us that I would never write poetry and he would never write fiction. A dilution can happen when a writer is working in too many different forms. I see the writing life so much as an apprenticeship to a craft, and I think it takes a lifetime and you can’t diversify too much.

I think non-fiction and fiction have a great deal in common. But fiction and poetry are extremely different. I am often quite suspicious of writers who deal in different forms, especially when it is fiction and poetry.

On her creative winter

It’s a wonderful relief (not to have a book to work on at present). It’s really important to feel passionate and driven about what it is you are working on. I never really understood people who say they have writer’s block. It seems to me that the natural remedy to that would be to keep reading. There just isn’t an idea there, but no need to be stressed about that. There’s this seasonal nature to inspiration that we have to harvest. There’s the winter and then the spring, and then wait for the summer for it all to ripen. I’m quite happy in my creative winter.

On inspirations

Inspiration from reading precedes all else. The experience of reading for me is very much an experience of loving the experience and wanting so much to figure out how it works. And usually the ideas of novels are born there. Not actually in reading fiction, but in reading philosophy, which is where the ideas for fiction for me come from. My brain is working to try and think about how I can make what I’m reading live in a fictional context rather than in a context of non-fiction, so I’m making that translation. Inspiration happens often in reading imaginatively. How could I appropriate this, improve upon it, take it to a different context.

On New Zealand discrediting its writers

New Zealand has the misfortune in not having a lot of confidence in the brains of its citizens. There is a lot of embarassment, a lot of discrediting that goes on in terms of the local writers. I, for example, grew up just having a strange belief that New Zealand writers were automatically less great than writers from Britain and America, for example. Because we were some colonial backwater, we weren’t discovered, which I’m hoping will change. The matter of having this kind of cultural embarrassment about your place in the world, we really need to actively resist that and be brave. I don’t think good literature can come about without bravery. The last thing you want is a whole country of embarrassed writers slinking around.The good side of New Zealand is that there isn’t all that kind of shallow literary fame where everyone’s backstabbing each other. You kind of need a snobbery for those kinds of things to happen. But I think it is always a shame when people don’t stand up for what it is that they really believe. And I do think the problem we face in New Zealand is that we are reluctant to express firm beliefs in anything. An example would be, I was teaching in class in Auckland. I made up a statement with manifestoes from all over the world, different writers who all thought what writing should do or not do. I was going to give it out to my students and have them write about the one that spoke to them the most. When I was putting this document together, I thought, hang on, I don’t have any New Zealand writers here. And I spent an entire day on the internet trying to find an aesthetic statement from a New Zealand writer and there was nothing. Hopefully in the future, we have more people being brave in that way.

We have this strange cultural phenomenon called “tall poppy syndrome”; if you stand out, you will be cut down. One example is that the New Zealand Book Award that follows the announcement of the Man Booker Prize, in the year The Luminaries won it, there was this kind of thing that now you’ve won this prize from overseas, we’re not going to celebrate it here, we’re going to give the award to somebody else. If you get success overseas then very often the local population can suddenly be very hard on you. Or the other problem is that the local population can take ownership of that success in a way that is strangely proprietal.

So many people have talked in the media and me directly in ways of 2013 being the year that New Zealand won the Man Booker Prize. It betrays an attitude towards individual achievement which is very, uncomfortable. It has to belong to everybody or the country really doesn’t want to know about it.

I know I shouldn’t complain too much—I’m in such an extraordinary position—but at the same time I feel that in the last year I’ve really struggled with my identity as a New Zealand writer. I feel uncomfortable being an ambassador for my country when my country is not doing as much as it could, especially for the intellectual world. It’s sort of a complicated position to be in.

At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, (I dominated by) these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who do not care about culture. They care about short-term gains. They would destroy the planet in order to be able to have the life they want. I feel very angry with my government.

On writing from someone else’s perspective

I don’t feel like the male perspective is alien to me. I understand what it would be like to be a man. I suppose from reading a lot of books from male points of view, I don’t feel like it’s completely foreign to me.

It’s much more dangerous when a white writer writes from a non-white perspective than when people write across gender. That’s much more tricky territory, much more to do with the intentions of the person doing it. If your intention is to be curious, to enlarge your sense of the world, that’s a wonderful thing. But if your intention is to pillage somebody else’s point of view in order to claim some sort of status from that, is very bad, very immoral. I would never write a first person narrative from the point of view of somebody who had an experience that I had not been through. I know that a lot of writers really disagree with me. New Zealand writer Llyod Jones, who wrote the novel Mister Pip and was shortlisted for the Man Booker eight years ago, he very strongly defends his right as a white male author to go with any perspective that he pleases. I think everybody needs to have an area where they won’t go, something that they will respect enough to leave alone. I think there can be a very colonial aspect to writers who go into other people’s stories and colonise them, appropriate them. I have a problem with that.

On shielding herself from fame

I guess there is a certain kind of expectation now, but one thing that can happen to writers once their work has been acknowledged in a big way is that they go easy on themselves, very indulgent. And I am so worried about that; I never want that to happen. And my way of trying to deal with that is just not go near writing until all of this noise recedes out of my life again. When you are on stage, a lot your experiences are things you are talking about again and again and again and it can be seductive, you can start thinking you are quite important. You need to remember that you are not important at all. It’s what you give to your work, not what the work gives to you.

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