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Booker Prize winner Catton finds harmony in novel’s mix of mystery and astrology

November 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Eleanor Catton, 28, called her novel a "publisher's nightmare" for its length and complexity, but the fun she had writing it has paid off. "The Luminaries" won Catton the Man Booker Prize, making her that award's youngest winner ever. Jeffrey Brown talks to the writer about her "astrological dance" of a murder mystery.
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GWEN IFILL: The Man Booker Prize is Britain’s most prestigious award for novelists from Britain, Ireland or commonwealth countries.

Jeffrey Brown sat down recently with this year’s acclaimed winner.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1866, a young man arrives from England to join the gold rush under way in New Zealand. In a hotel lounge, he comes upon 12 men discussing a crime that’s just occurred.

It sounds simple enough, but what unfolds in the novel “The Luminaries” is what one reviewer called a mass confabulation, a tale of mystery and love, astrology, frontier justice, Victorian and very modern storytelling, and much more.

Author Eleanor Catton is from New Zealand, and at age 28 is the youngest writer ever to win the Booker Prize.

And congratulations to you, and welcome.

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ELEANOR CATTON, The Luminaries: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s been fascinating to read this and also to read all the reviewers trying to figure out and explain to their readers what it is.

So let me ask the author. What is it that you think you have done here or created here?

ELEANOR CATTON: I would say The Luminaries is a novel with two hemispheres, much in the same way the brain has two hemispheres.

On the one hand, it’s a fairly straightforward murder mystery of the kind of the 19th century type with blackmail and shipwrecks.

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: All of it is there, right?

ELEANOR CATTON: Well, that kind of thing.

And then in the other hemisphere, maybe the slightly more hidden hemisphere of the book, is a kind of an astrological dance that’s going on, where, as you discover, each of the characters is typical of one of the planets…

JEFFREY BROWN: The astrological signs, yes.

ELEANOR CATTON: … or one of the signs. And in the emotion, they reflect what is happening in the skies at that time.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the astrology even determines the length of chapters, right, and the way the story unfolds. Is it an interest in astrology or were you interested in a structure into which you could put this sort of old-fashioned, as you say, crime story?

ELEANOR CATTON: A bit of both, actually.

In my research for the book, I discovered, to my interest and astonishment, that astrology really is an incredibly mathematical system and one that has a lot in common with music. In music, we have got the 12 semitones and then the seven natural notes in the scale.

And in astrology, you have got the 12 signs and the seven planets. A lot of the kind of interrelations that happen and the harmonies that happen in the sky are quite similar to the harmonies that can happen or the chords that can happen in music.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so you started there? You had this idea I will take a story and sort of use the astrology to kind of help me tell it?

ELEANOR CATTON: Yes. I just — I felt — you know, I began by playing around, I think, and riffing, and feeling my way into the system and seeing what interested me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so the results — at the awards ceremony, the book — or I guess you kind of jokingly called your book a “publisher’s nightmare.”

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you mean by that? Because it’s a good read, but it’s a big read.

ELEANOR CATTON: Yes.

Well, I was — I broke all sorts of rules on this book. I was about two years behind my schedule and my publisher’s contract. They had specified a work of a certain length that I was to deliver. And this book’s about three times that word count.

I mean, it was a wonderful thing, actually, because, you know, there’s so many risks that publishers have to take that writers never really see, the financial risks and all the risks of labor and effort and that kind of thing. So, I felt really massively trusted by my publishers in all the territories around the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

Was it, in the end, fun to write? Again, going back to the — there’s a lot of puzzle aspects to it. There are many characters if you’re reading you’re trying to figure out. And one story leads to the next story, and then there’s the astrology. Was it fun to put all that together?

ELEANOR CATTON: Yes. It was enormous fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

ELEANOR CATTON: I think that writing has to be. I think that if you’re not having fun, then the reader — you can’t hope that the reader’s going to have fun.

JEFFREY BROWN: And am I right in thinking that partly you’re looking back to Victorian novels? One can sense Dickens here, but, of course, it’s a modern, contemporary tale.

Am I right in thinking that you’re interested in sort of what the novel can do in all of this?

ELEANOR CATTON: Oh, very much so, yes.

An interesting thing about New Zealand, you know, literature is that it really didn’t begin in any real sense until the 20th century. So we have no tradition in New Zealand of 19th century novels in the style of Dickens, George Eliot or people of that kind.

So, in a sense, I was trying to write New Zealand into a tradition that…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

ELEANOR CATTON: … not included a New Zealand voice.

JEFFREY BROWN: And being from New Zealand, does that bring something to this that we’re not aware of?

ELEANOR CATTON: Yes, I think so.

I think that it’s a different project for a novelist from a small country, because you can’t rely on anybody knowing any of the things that you’re talking about already. And so it’s — you have to both create the impression in the reader’s mind and also then kind of explore it, which is a little bit different than if you’re writing about a place or a people or an incident that is already a fixture in the kind of collective imagination of the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know that it’s the longest book ever for a Booker Prize and you’re the youngest author. That got a lot of attention. Did it mean anything to you, the age part?

ELEANOR CATTON: Well, I mean, I’m very, very — I feel it’s a great honor. I’m very pleased that it has worked out the way it has.

But the funny thing is, in my mind, whenever I hear youngest author, longest book, my mind started switching the adjectives. So, I keep on hearing longest author and youngest book, which I quite enjoy.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: And what’s next for you?

ELEANOR CATTON: Back to New Zealand. I’m teaching down there in Auckland, so back to teaching, and hopefully trying to keep my head on my shoulders.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book, the prize-winning book is The Luminaries.

Eleanor Catton, thanks so much. Congratulations.

ELEANOR CATTON: Thank you.