Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, is something of a Man Booker Prize anomaly.
Not just because she is the youngest-ever winner, but that she is assuredly the only author in the prize’s history ever to base a book partly on information from astronomy magazine Sky & Telescope.
At one level, Catton’s The Luminaries is an old-fashioned mystery. It is a pacey and beautifully written tale of love, lust, greed and murder, following Edinburgh-born Walter Moody trying to make his fortune during the gold rush on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island in 1866.
At another level, however, the structure of The Luminaries is based upon astrology. Yes, astrology. But the tome is far more complex than Mystic Meg’s column. Catton used charts from Sky & Telescope and a software program called Stellarium to plot the stars and planets during the course of when the narrative takes place, with characters linked to the heavenly bodies. There are 12 “stellar” characters who correspond to the Zodiac signs and seven “planetary” characters, all grounded by the “earth” character, Crosbie Wells, the murdered man whom the mystery revolves around.
One could be forgiven for thinking this means The Luminaries has a patchouli-scented MBS airy-fairiness about it, but it does not. The structure lends the novel a beguiling complexity, yet one can still enjoy the story itself without knowing, or caring a fig, about the astrology behind it.
Catton came up with the idea when she was thinking about doing a NZ gold rush story and started reading about star signs. “I previously had a rudimentary understanding of how astrology works,” she says. “But I became really taken with the idea that what it is fundamentally about is there is no truth except for truth in relation: nothing is objectively true, something is only true compared to something else.”
She was delighted to discover a “triple conjunction in Sagittarius, three planets in the same sign” around the time she had been planning to set the novel. “As I tracked it over the year, I could see that certain planets were following each other and it set me to thinking about how I could put that into a story. Mercury, which is a planet that governs reason, was following just behind all the other players of the action. So I could build this narrative that the person who is trying to unravel the mysteries is one step behind it all.”
She pauses and laughs. “It sounds a bit mad, I know. Astrology started off as an intellectual curiosity but it has become something more and I’ve gotten slightly obsessed. This is my first interview for the book and I’ve been wondering how much I should talk about astrology without sounding crazy. And I’ve been forbidden from talking about astrology by many of the people in my personal life.”
Catton was born “accidentally” in Canada—her family was living there while her father was doing a PhD on a Commonwealth scholarship, and a child had not been on the cards—but grew up in Christchurch, apart from a year in Leeds when she was 13 while her father was teaching at the university there. Leeds was “amazing” but an eye-opener: “My older brother and I went to a rough comprehensive and the kids were so terrifying. There was a kind of toughness in people my own age that I hadn’t experienced before.”
She read English at the University of Canterbury, NZ, earned a masters in creative writing from Victoria University, then attended the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa. By the time she arrived in the US, however, she had published her first novel, The Rehearsal (Granta), when she was all of 22. Catton says she has grown up a lot since The Rehearsal was published, and demurs that “being a young novelist means that you have to put up with the fact that what you wrote when you were 22 is going to be out there for public consumption”.
Still, Catton’s début did not do too shabbily: in the UK it won the 2009 Betty Trask Award, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize.
The Rehearsal is a contemporary novel with a non-linear, slightly experimental structure, and slim (300 pages) compared to its successor: The Luminaries is just plain big, clocking in at more than 800 pages. The latter is also a departure with its historical setting and, astrology excepted, it has quite a traditional 19th-century structure, a sort of Kiwi Woman in White. It is big in themes, touching on colonialism and the birth of a nation: it could well be regarded as the first Great New Zealand novel.
“The size of the book was a real surprise to me,” Catton nods. “It just kept growing and growing. My publishers would be able to tell you that I had been lying to them about when the book was going to be ready for the last three years. But I’m much more interested in the entertaining, immersive qualities of writing than I am with more abstract formal qualities. It might be a weird thing to say, given the architecture of The Luminaries, but I would much rather read an entertaining novel that is simply written, then an extremely lush novel that is difficult.”
Catton has written “about a book’s worth” of another departure, a Young Adult story based in the 17th century, but has put it aside. “Writing a YA novel is the thing that I want to do more than anything,” she says. “In a way The Luminaries is a good training for YA because it is so intensely plotted, and it’s about learning how to navigate and satisfy readers’ expectations and their desires—which are not necessarily the same thing. In fact, they are often really different. Now that I know how much fun it is to work out a mystery plot, I’m a little bit hooked.”
1985 Born in Canada, raised in Canterbury, New Zealand
Education University of Canterbury, NZ, BA, English; Victoria University, NZ, MA, creative writing; Iowa Writers Workshop, MFA
2008–11 Teaches creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop
2009 The Rehearsal published
2012–present writer in residence at the Michael King Writers’ Centre, Auckland
Awards The 2009 Betty Trask Award; Amazon.ca First Novel Award; 2010 New Generation Award
Granta, 9781847081391, £7.99
A high-school sex scandal between a teacher and a pupil has disastrous consequences for a group of girls.
Books sold: 17,507 since 2007
Photo credit: Robert Catto.