Eleanor Catton: Life after fame

People turn up in their hundreds to hear New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton speak. It takes some getting used to.

A phone call interrupts a leading writer in the act of writing.

“I’m up to my usual tricks of writing right up to my deadline,” Eleanor Catton says.

But she sounds relaxed about it. On Monday, Catton will deliver the New Zealand Book Council lecture at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington, on the subject of paradoxes in literature. A line from her prize-winning, best- selling novel The Luminaries is a jumping-off point. This is what she is working on when The Press calls.

After Wellington she heads to Hokitika for a particularly special public event, with British publisher Max Porter and television producer Andrew Woodhead in tow.

Have successful book, will travel. Just last week, Catton was at literary festivals in Perth and Adelaide.

“They were wonderful,” she says. “A lot has changed in terms of my festival experience. I’m now getting programmed alone, as the only person on stage, which never happened before The Luminaries came out.

“It’s a little bit odd having people show up in their hundreds to my events. It’s a quantum shift.”

New fame takes adjustment. She noticed another weird festival phenomenon. You get on the festival circuit and see the same writers again and again. She was “shadowing” Australian writer Hannah Kent, author of “a really marvellous book called Burial Rites”.

Like Catton, Kent is 28. They found themselves thrown together as the young Antipodean woman writers, treated almost like curiosities.

For example, there was a New York Times interview that had an air of disbelief about Catton, presenting her as unworldly, even naive. There was a sense that she wasn’t yet acting like a famous writer. Catton understands that response.

“I’m still young enough that I don’t expect everybody to stop talking when I come into a room or to spend a dinner party listening to me talk about my childhood. It puts me in a weird position. Is the prestige conferred by the Man Booker prize for the book or me I would prefer it on the book and for me to be treated ordinarily.

“There aren’t many precedents for a situation like that. But I don’t mind the discomfort of those situations because they’re interesting.”

Other festivals and tours are ahead of her. She gets to see Brazil and Sweden this year. She mentions a writer who talked of a balanced life of writing, travelling and teaching. That strikes her as a good mix.

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So, yes, she still teaches part- time at the Manukau Institute of Technology, which hired her before The Luminaries appeared. It might seem amazing to have a Man Booker winner helping teenage students with the basic craft of writing, but she felt it was important to keep teaching.

“I really enjoy it and feel passionately about the programme,” she says. “It’s idealistic and we are still shaping what we want it to be. Teaching is a great complement to writing. It’s very social and gets you out of your own head. It’s also very optimistic. It renews itself every year – it’s a renewable resource.”

She has noticed a change in how the students react to her this year. “We’re only in week two but there is a different quality in the room, especially when I deliver an opinion. There is less resistance.”

Catton clearly has strong principles about the value of art and creativity, their social function and their separation from commercial worlds. She has an obvious humility about the status she holds and the role she occupies.

When asked if life has become unreal since she won the Man Booker in November, her answer focuses on the practical.

“A lot of things have changed in a big way. I’ve got three different email addresses for different parts of my life. An avalanche of requests and invitations come in every day. One of the difficulties is that I can no longer respond to everybody or say yes to every invitation. I would have to live my life 10 times over.”

Some things were hard to get used to. She felt that she was interviewed as though she was a sports star or a politician, when “artists are the opposite of politicians”, always refashioning what they say and embracing controversy, not avoiding it.

That said, she liked the general pride that beamed out from New Zealand when she won.

“I think it’s really awesome. I feel very supported. People are proud which means a lot.

“But it’s a tricky thing when an artist becomes a representative of somewhere. Rebellion is also important. I am a New Zealander but I don’t want to swallow New Zealand identity in one gulp.”

At 830 pages, The Luminaries is a rewarding read but not an easy one. The joke is that it gets easier after page 400. You hear stories of people taking a week off work to read it and yet, because of Catton’s global success, it became the best- selling book in New Zealand last year, outselling recipe books and airport thrillers.

It is long and unusually structured, with an astrological theme. She is happy to call it experimental.

“I think all novels should be experiments. It’s silly that the word has been co-opted by a small sector of writers. I was always asking, Can I do this What would happen It was very scary to write, actually.”

That makes the question of whether the book should or could be “accessible” a tricky one.

“It’ll never be 100 per cent accessible. Even something easy will be inaccessible to people who want a challenge. Shakespeare is incomprehensible to some people.

“It doesn’t bother me at all if not everybody enjoys the book. You’re not going to get everyone on side with you.”

Even now, she still skims most of the reviews. It is always a “charged” situation.

“Writing is exhilarating but reading reviews is not. I’ve been really devastated by ‘good’ reviews because they misunderstand the project of the book. It can be strangely galvanising to get a ‘bad’ one.”

If travelling and teaching are two parts of that equation cited earlier, a third element is missing. When does Catton get to write the next book

“I’m not in a hurry. I’m in a bit nervous about starting something new.

“I don’t want to rush into anything. Projects take a long time to gestate with me.”