When New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize in 2013, she became the youngest-ever author of the longest-ever book to take out the literary world’s top award. This double record-breaking achievement might have overshadowed a lesser author, but not Catton, who is as assured and eloquent in discussion as her astonishing novel The Luminaries. The novel has drawn attention for its beautifully realised characters and vivid setting, as well as for the intricately plotted narrative that draws heavily on the zodiac for its elaborate structure. This structure is integral to the novel, but largely invisible for anyone whose knowledge of the zodiac is less encyclopaedic than Catton’s. Her familiarity with the novel’s historical setting, the gold rush town of Hokitika on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, is no less impressive and I began by asking her about the many attractions of this setting for a novelist.
Zora Sanders: I want to ask you about the attraction of the gold-rush-town setting for The Luminaries. I can’t imagine why anyone would set a novel not in a nineteenth-century gold-rush town, because it’s obviously the best setting you could possibly choose, but what was it about that setting that attracted you?
Eleanor Catton: I think setting has to be dramatic for it to be attractive to a writer. I’m a real defender of theme as the starting point for fiction. I know that’s quite an unfashionable thing to believe, because people often say, ‘You’ll ruin your work if you begin with theme. Begin with character, begin with setting, begin with whatever.’ But I just think that’s wrong. Or at least not true to my experience, which is that what drives theme is what fascinates you and what you care about, what you believe in. ‘Theme’ is essentially the values of the book, the values that the eventual book will hold.
When I was in the really early stages of researching the book, the point where I knew I wanted to write a book but I didn’t know which book, I started thinking about the tussle of power between fate and will. The idea of fate being something that is handed down to you, and will being something that you make for yourself. And this theme crystallised in this setting because, of course, on a goldfield people talk about making their fortune, which is a really interesting phrase because you think about somebody’s fortune in the divine or cosmological sense as being something that’s been handed down to you, but then this is something that they’re making themselves. And even weirder is that prospectors who had made it rich were referred to as ‘self-made men’, and the idea to me that somebody could walk into the wilderness, kneel down and pick up a lump of ore from the ground, and then be described as having somehow created themselves, that seemed so fraught.
Z.S. You have a wonderful, amusing narrator in The Luminaries who tells us so much about what certain characters are thinking and the kind of people that they are. Is there a tension between what the narrator can tell you about a character and what you can never know, what happens in their own mind? Of course, there are a lot of characters where the reader never sees directly into their minds—Carver, Lydia Wells, for example—but there are also lots of characters that are open books.
E.C. I think that there is a big difference in all humans between the way we describe and analyse the things that we do, and the things that we do themselves. And there are different layers, just with the characters in The Luminaries. There’s what we’re told about the characters and then the way we see them in the context of others. What would be a good example? I think Nilssen is a character that gets a little bit of a short shift in The Luminaries because his archetype is the constellation of Libra, and in the first part of the novel I was staying true to the planetary placements. And on the date on which that first part is set, the planet Saturn was in the constellation of Libra, and Saturn is the jailhouse warden, Shepard—he’s a very strong, imposing, cold, frightening character.
And I think that Shepard brings out the worst of Nilssen because he makes Nilssen very self-conscious and Shepard ends up having Nilssen’s advantage in a lot of ways, and making Nilssen look like a bit of a fool. But I think that’s not necessarily the way he would be in the context of anybody else. It’s one of the things that I actually really like about astrology as a system (not at all as a tool for divination, which I don’t really believe is possible, that anybody can divine the future), I like how incredibly relational astrology is, that says ‘everything depends on context’. The only way that you can understand Libra is as a principle but in order for that principle to be animated it needs one of the seven influences of one of the seven planets. But each of them is slightly different, and what happens in the meeting is going to be dependent not only on those two figures but also on the placement that it is in the sky in general.
Z.S. I have to say, I’m well known among my friends as an astrology sceptic, and when I was talking about this book and how much I loved it, some people were surprised and said things like, ‘You? How did you like it?’ But of course astrology in a fictional setting makes sense because a reader is always trying to divine the hand of the governing principle in the book that they’re reading. You’re always trying to understand, what’s happened here, what are the links? And there is an underlying purpose, things have been created for specific reasons and there is a kind of solar system of characters and events that occurs in any novel. Obviously it’s very explicit as the governing principle of your book now, but was astrology something you were interested in before you started writing?
E.C. No, I wasn’t, actually. I had no feeling about it one way or another. In 2008 I started getting interested in the tarot and started doing amateur tarot readings in bars with my friends, and at dinner parties and studying all the seventy-eight cards, just examining them as pictures. And what I really like about the tarot is that it’s incredibly easy to read if you are good at spotting patterns. If you are good at spotting differences and similarities you do a nine-card spread for somebody and you just look at the figures and think, Okay, this person here is looking to the left and this person here is looking to the right, and they’re both in the context of your past, what does that mean? They’re little mysteries to be solved that have to do with observing the figure on the card and making sense of it in whatever way you can. So that was forming an avenue of interest.
How did astrology come into it? I was having a conversation once with somebody who did believe in astrology, and I considered myself at that point a healthy sceptic, and I said, ‘Come on, you know, talk to me about it.’ And she was explaining her reasons for finding it a credible system of belief and I said, ‘Well, you know, in your experience of meeting people and trying to guess what star sign they are, or them telling you, in your experience is there a sign that is less like itself than all of the other signs? Like a sign that when you find out who they are you’re always mistaken because you’re always mistaking them for one of the others, because they’ve got more latitude and more variables or whatever?’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘That is such a Libra question,’ and I was so miffed …
Z.S. This is clearly something that they teach you when you first get into astrology: always turn the question back on the person …
E.C. But she didn’t know my sign. That was the clever thing—she’d got me. I was a little cowed by that and I said, ‘Well, is there a book that you would recommend?’ and she said, ‘This book called Sextrology.’ So I went ahead and ordered it. And around about that time I was putting The Luminaries together in my mind. My experience is that there’s a ‘just post–big bang’ state in the early parts of putting a project together where you’ve got all these gases and atoms kind of floating around and colliding into each other. It’s almost too big to be contained and it’s kind of vaporous. I was in that state and thinking about the two meanings of the word ‘fortune’, meaning both a great deal of money that you might find in a goldfield and also your fate.
And I think it was around about this time that I read a book on New Zealand history because I was starting to get interested in the gold rush as a possible set for a theatre of ideas, and I read that the first white man to discover gold in Otago was a man named Gabriel Reed and he put a spade down into the earth and stamped on it and shovelled away the earth and said that gold glittering in the hole ‘shone like Orion on a dark winter’s night’ and I remember that comparison with Orion caught my interest. I was thinking about stars and then I ordered this Sextrology book and just started reading it from the beginning, studying up on all of the twelve male characteristics.
That is because the kind of astrology that is present in The Luminaries is very strongly gendered. Again, it’s the contextual thing—there is a certain principle that animates every sign but supposing you’re an Aries and you display a very headstrong nature, that’s going to be rewarded and punished in very different ways if you’re a woman than if you’re a man, just because our culture’s very strongly gendered in terms of the way that we treat certain behaviours, and so by the time that you become an adult, an Aries man and an Aries woman look quite different. So a lot of female readers of the book have been very dissatisfied with the representation of the sign that they are, if they make the connection between their sun sign and the character who is that sign in the book, and I always say that there is very little in common.
Z.S. You’re going to have to write a study guide that accompanies the book so people can read it and appreciate the astrology in it, although you just recommended Sexology, was it …
E.C. Sextrology, yes, I admit to that, it’s such a disreputable source for the book. They did another one that’s called Cosmic Coupling, which I also bought; I read that as well.
It is an interesting system, though. It’s so ancient and it has a great deal in common, I was quite surprised to discover, with music. In the sense that in the Western scale, as we understand it, we’ve got seven natural notes; so we’ve got A, B, C, D, E, F, G as our seven. But in order to get from that A back up to the A above, you make twelve semi-tonal steps; so you’ve got seven then you’ve got a twelve laid on top of that seven. The same is true in the zodiac; you’ve got twelve signs and seven planets, so there’s a similarity there. And there are all sorts of other ways in which sevens and twelves are found together in a culture. For example, there’s twelve daylight hours in a day and then seven days in a week, you know, or twelve months of the year and so on. A lot of the other systems that inform other artistic dimensions of our lives is kind of twentieth century, or twenty-first century I should say, I’m always a little bit behind the times, you know, but there are these harmonies that exist.
Z.S. There are all the musicians and composers with symphonies dedicated to the movement of astrological bodies; it’s clearly something that’s occurred to people throughout our culture …
E.C. In the Old Testament of the Bible, the word ‘angel’ is used synonymously with the word ‘star’, you know. It’s unclear whether, at the time of the writing of the Old Testament, people believed that angels were stars and stars were angels, or whether the word was just the same for either.
A thing that I found very interesting about the zodiac when I started really studying it as a system is how easy it is to pattern the twelve-part story of the zodiac onto other archetypal narratives of our Western consciousness. The easiest way to understand the zodiac is a story with two halves, which becomes self-reflexive halfway through. So, the first half of the zodiac from Aries through to Virgo gets replayed in the second half but with the addition of self-consciousness. So the Aries principle is kind of the objective principle, the objective man is the Aries man, but the Libran principle is one of abstracted certainty. So it’s not objectivity of identity or of self; it’s objectivity of an idea. So there’s been this kind of generalisation that’s happened, or this kind of reflexivity that’s happened.
For example, you can pattern the stories of the twelve principles in this twelve-part story on the Bible very easily, and divide the book into those that are original and those that are self-reflexive. So, for example, the zodiac begins Aries, Taurus, Gemini, so roughly that’s Aries the objective, Taurus the subjective, and then Gemini the union of the two and the synthesis of the two. And that corresponds very directly with: Aries as Adam, Taurus as Eve and Gemini as the knowledge of Good and Evil, which starts off the story. And then continuing on, Cancer is a water sign, as the flood has to do with sources and going back to the beginning. Leo is a regal sign, a fire sign, and is the Hebrew kings, David, Solomon and everyone. And then Virgo, the disenfranchised idealist, is the wandering Israelites, and you can continue on all the way around. I think that it’s almost beside the point to play a kind of a chicken and egg game with that because the point isn’t what came first or what’s influencing what; the point is how astonishing it is that as human beings we are so ready to read meaning into everything that we touch. That we see a pattern of stars and we see a picture, you know, that’s kind of incredible.
Z.S. It’s kind of what makes us human, this desire for pattern and meaning, and meaning-making systems, particularly.
E.C. For sure, and it’s funny with The Luminaries because I’ve been criticised from a bunch of different quarters for the book being too patterned; as though that kind of compromises its humanness, or even sometimes compromises my humanness, as some reviewers will put it, and it really baffles me because I think that the ability to see beauty and patterns is the most human ability that I possess. I can’t think of anything that’s more human than that. Well, at least on an intellectual realm, I mean, animals can’t do it.
Z.S. I was reading David Milch, the creator of Deadwood (another great nineteenth-century gold rush setting), talking a lot about gold, and he said that apparently baboons can’t live in groups of more than forty because they have to be able to see their leader at all times. But for humans, gold is the token of the leader, it’s the totem of power and you only have to be part of the system of gold in order to be part of civilisation; you don’t have to have the person there all the time, the gold sort of stands in as the totem.
E.C. Oh, I like that idea, that’s interesting. I do think that the New Zealand gold rush was distinct from all the gold rushes in the States in that the legislators in New Zealand had time to learn from mistakes in other countries. A lot of them had been in California; at least they knew what had happened in California. They definitely knew what had happened in Victoria, which was very recent, and then in the case of the West Coast of New Zealand, that was preceded by the Otago gold rush. What this means is that there was time to develop a lot of very strict laws around the management of the digger’s life. And one of the strands that’s running through The Luminaries is the difference between what George Shepard calls the savage and the civil—the brutal law, the savage law, the law of the land, and then the bureaucratic law, which has to do with fraud rather than theft, or blackmail rather than battery. It’s what we would call the difference between a white collar crime and a blue collar crime, which is actually a quite patronising distinction because it’s assuming that it is economically … I don’t know, there’s something that I’m uncomfortable about.
Z.S. Something else that I wanted to talk to you about is the humour in the book. I was often laughing and chuckling along—
E.C. Oh, cheers. That’s good.
Z.S. But I often found it very hard to explain to someone else what was so funny because you have to know the character to get the joke. There’s a great part where Lauderback and Balfour are going to another town for a ribbon cutting ceremony, and they’re talking about how unspoilt the land is, and Balfour says something about the birds not having learnt to fear humans yet, and Lauderback replies with this wonderful line, ‘Oh, but birds are very stupid’ … and I found that line so funny, but it was because I knew him, I could imagine Lauderback so vividly in his pomposity, dismissing an entire species. A lot of the humour I found to be like that, integral to the character. It often bugs me in fiction when you have a novel that’s trying for realism, a social-realist novel, and nobody cracks a joke in the entire novel, nobody even speaks with humour …
E.C. That is a bad sign, isn’t it.
Z.S. It absolutely kills me, and I think there are a lot of well-respected novelists, and you read the book and not a single character has smiled in the course of 500 pages.
E.C. I think that’s usually a sign probably that the authors are taking themselves too seriously more than anything else.
Z.S. I think so too. I also wonder what you think about use of humour as a way to demonstrate character in fiction?
E.C. Yeah, well, I think that it needs to come out of affection for it to be really funny. I think the little things we usually chuckle at are small affectionate satires or parodies of things that we recognise but that don’t threaten us. I think there is another kind of comedy, which I’m not skilled at, which is making light of the things that do threaten us. And that’s just not my skill set; I wouldn’t know where to begin in that area. It’s funny because satire was a really big part of my childhood because when I was growing up … I haven’t told any other interviewers this, this is going to be the scoop of the interview, it’s not a very good story though.
Z.S. Hah, great.
E.C. When I was growing up, our next-door neighbour was digging out her compost heap and she found this little family of mice. I was playing in the garden and she called me over across the fence and she said, ‘Would you like a mouse as a pet?’ and I said, ‘Yes, please,’ and so she brought them over in her gardening gloves and I got this mouse. And I was so proud of it and I called it Gregory. And I’d get little saucers of milk and a watercolour paintbrush and hold Gregory in my fist and then dip the watercolour paintbrush in milk and hold it up to his mouth and he’d suck the milk off the whiskers. He didn’t last very long. He lived for about three or four days, and then he died.
But anyway, for some reason Gregory became the token word in my household for satirising somebody: you would just call them Gregory, and then, I don’t really know how it happened, satirise them in a way that made it clear that it was not about Gregory but actually about your father, or whoever. The first manifestation of this was for my dad’s birthday. I was twelve, so it must have been for his forty-second birthday, my sister and I made him a little book that we had written and illustrated that was called ‘Gregory Knows Best’ and it was a satire of all of dad’s parenting styles.
So in ‘Gregory Knows Best’, Gregory did such things as: he didn’t trust his children to brush their own teeth so he would always brush their teeth for them (which was something my dad did) and all sorts of things like that. And then my mum was next and we satirised her and it got called ‘If Gregory was Queen of the World’—because my mum used to always say that to us, whenever she’d come home from work and the kitchen would be messy, she’d say, ‘If I was queen of the world, people would clean up their dishes.’ And then my brother got a Gregory book as well that was called ‘Gregory goes to Double Standard City’, which—it’s so ridiculous—was named after a very famous outcry of my brother’s when my parents were being unfair, or he felt they were being unfair to him, and he shouted, ‘What is this? Double-standard city!’ We thought it was very funny, so we made a story of him going to Double Standard City. This is quite a long way away from your question but one thing that is notable is that my sister and I, who were the chief satirists in this, never got a Gregory book about ourselves.
But it’s all to say that I think making fun of people and situations, true situational comedy, has to be affectionate. I don’t think it’s an accident that sitcoms are always incredibly sentimental. Something like the British show The Office, we wouldn’t even call that a sitcom because it’s not affectionate enough. So I do think that there’s something in there that, if your book is going to be funny, it needs to begin with you having an affectionate regard for your characters and also feeling, to a certain extent, as though you have been there at some point, you’ve been embarrassed as they’ve been embarrassed.
Z.S. There is nothing worse than reading a novel where it seems the author hates everyone in the book, hates all the characters.
E.C. It’s funny; I think that’s one thing that I’ve discovered as a teacher of creative writing more than anything else. Reading so much unpublished work as you have to do as a teacher, you know, beginner work, you realise how baldly a person’s moral prejudices, stances, beliefs, what have you, get completely transmitted onto the page. If you’ve got a blindness, then your book has got a blindness, it’s completely direct so it’s quite interesting. Your book will only ever be as kind as you are; if you’re not kind enough to think the best of people, your book won’t be able to do that either.
Z.S. I want to talk about Anna Wetherall and how you approached writing her, because for a very long time she’s talked around, and she’s talked about, and she’s often treated terribly by the characters but she’s also held in esteem and desired (and loved, in one case at least). She’s also the main woman character in the book. There are others but she’s one of the Luminaries, so she’s important.
E.C. I do feel a little squirmy when I think that my book only very narrowly passes the Bechdel test because of one scene.
Z.S. What’s the scene?
E.C. There’s one scene when Anna comes off the boat and talks to Lydia. I had this structural thing in place that meant they couldn’t be on the page together until the last half of the book because she and Lydia Wells are planetary characters and I never show them except from the perspective of one of the non-planetary characters. So there was a kind of a structural reason for that but I do also feel squirmy when I think that the first time a woman appears on the page is, I think, on page 250—it’s near the end of the length of a conventional novel.
Z.S. I think the subtitle for that chapter is ‘We Meet Anna Wetherall at Last’ or something … as if to say, ‘She’s coming, she’s really coming!’
E.C. I hadn’t thought about that before, that’s my anxiety showing. Well, like all of the other characters in the book she was built outward from an archetype. And of all of the archetypes that are in the zodiac system, if you think about the system as a kind of a primitive blueprint for psychology, it has a twelve-part story that goes from total objective certainty through to complete self-creation, from Aries through to Pisces. It has seven forces at work, and if you take away Mercury—the planet of logic and reason and dispassion—the six remaining planets each operate in pairs. You’ve got three groups which correspond to the Id, the Ego and the Superego; with the Superego being the large planets Jupiter and Saturn that govern our social consciousness, the Id being Venus and Mars that govern our desires and ambitions, and then the Ego being the Sun and the Moon, or in the case of The Luminaries, Anna and Emery. In a lot of ways the Ego is the hardest thing to pin down: how do you represent the subjective self? I shouldn’t say subjective, I should say the internal life or the external life, without too explicitly making either of those characters obviously a certain sign, which would throw off the whole schema of the book.
And so in building Anna outward from the idea of inwardness, I was thinking more about how everybody was treating her than really thinking about her. I was thinking about the motif of the prostitute in literature, which has always really deeply troubled me, partly because the prostitute is nearly always seen as a kind of a stepping-stone in the narrative of somebody else’s development. It’s always in the prostitute’s house that they realise they actually love their wife, or whatever. And if the prostitute is ever given her own story she’s always objectified in a completely different way as being of pure darkness, a pure wretchedness. There’s a passage in The Luminaries about Anna, which is about this inward lunar quality, where it says when the men are with her they kind of seek images of all the women they know but they are also looking for their own wretchedness mirrored back to them, and the line is, ‘she was a reflected darkness just as she was a borrowed light’, which, of course, is the moon, the moon borrows its light from elsewhere and reflects its darkness back.
So I was trying to build her from the idea of inwardness in the sense that none of the characters really see her. The only character that does is Emery and we don’t have access to that; it’s there, it doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to them together. He’s delighted by her, he’s delighted by a very simple thing that she says, that was hers, and she said it and he responded to it. And I think that everybody else in the book objectifies her in some way, they look at her and they see what they want to see. Clinch is in love with her but he’s in love with an idea that he’s projected onto the space where she is.
Emery was much, much harder to write than her because—
Z.S. It’s always hard to write a character that’s as sweet as he is.
E.C. Yeah, or that naive in a lot of ways. I was very taken with the Jungian idea of the Animus and the Anima: the idea that for all our external, projected, revealed qualities there are these counterweights that lie behind them that are maybe buried or just in opposition to the ones that are showing. So if we show a confident masculine nature, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a feminine nature, it just means it’s in shadow. Anyway, with the two of them my ambition was to try and literalise that into people, so that they would have this relationship in which, for a time, they would switch places. For most of the book Anna is the Sun and the moment at which she becomes the sun is the moment she makes the decision for herself. I mean, the switch is actually activated by them sleeping together, which happens at the end so it’s a bit of a spoiler. But none of the men, for example, can understand that she might have just quit what she was doing, they think, Oh, she must have committed suicide, or tried to. And of course she must have done that because she’s so miserable.
But the point is that if she were just treated as a person, then the possibility for happiness would be there, which it is by the end of the book. The prostitute motif is very troubling because the unfairness of it as a motif in literature is that the prostitute is robbed both of her autonomy as the main person in her own story and of her right to a hidden life because everybody is also making assumptions about how awful her life must be, and it’s as though people want to own all parts of a person. I think the idea that somebody is only revealing a part of themselves is, for somebody who frequents prostitutes, a difficult thing to process.
Z.S. When it’s in that relationship of a transaction, the idea that you’re not getting what you feel you’ve paid for is perhaps what’s upsetting: ‘I’m paying for this person and I want everything that comes with them. They’re not allowed to keep anything back because that’s not our deal, that’s not what we agreed on, they have to give me everything.’
E.C. Yeah, there were a whole lot of things I wanted to critique using Anna’s character. One of them was the prostitute motif in literature but another was the huge number of female heroines, especially in the nineteenth century, who die, especially by suicide. I had this very depressing month where I read The House of Mirth, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, I think, back to back, oh and then Portrait of a Lady, which is the saddest one of all because Isabel doesn’t die. But it’s even worse—she kind of just destroys herself—and I was thinking, Why is it that the woman has to die? What is it that makes this the inevitable ending? And what occurred to me was that, especially in Victorian culture, and also to a large extent in contemporary culture, I think that there’s nothing scarier than the idea of a woman with her eyes open. A woman in charge of her own destiny, who’s woken up to herself, who knows, who sees herself and others for what they are. And I think that in some narratives the only option with something that powerful and that terrifying is to destroy them, and so the woman has to die. So I knew from the very beginning of writing The Luminaries that I absolutely did not want Anna to have a sad ending, and in a way she has the happiest ending of anybody in the book. She has complete freedom by the time the book ends; her fortunes have almost perfectly reversed with Emery’s—she’s got money, you know. She doesn’t have that many
friends, I guess.
Z.S. But really, who’d want to be friends with most of those guys?
E.C. Haha, that’s true.
Z.S. Walter, perhaps?
E.C. True, but he’s left town! It’s funny actually; I’ve talked to the producer who’s bought the rights to The Luminaries and one of the things I’ve said to him is that in the TV version much more should be made of the relationship between Anna and Moody because I think there’s the potential for a really interesting love triangle there. Moody is going to have to essentially solve the case in his detective role. But that will be much more complicated if he has feelings for Anna as well, and also it’s much better TV—the more people who like each other, the better the TV, as Game of Thrones has taught us.
Image credit: Marianne Hargreaves