We are thrilled, delighted and frankly beside ourselves to present part one of this two-part, almost-world exclusive chat with The Luminaries author Eleanor Catton. In this first part, the Man Booker-prize winning author talks about turning her “monstrously un-cinematic” book into a television series and the process that made it all possible.
I read The Luminaries at the very beginning of lockdown and I absolutely loved every minute of it. It was the meticulousness of the research that jumped out at me so much. What was your research process like for The Luminaries? How do you balance the creative aspect of writing with the details-orientated nature of research? Does one inform the other?
I’ve never thought of The Luminaries as a historical novel really, but as a formally experimental novel that borrows from the literary traditions of the nineteenth century, and that meant that from the beginning I thought of the setting more as a theatre than as a strict historical context that I had to get right. I invented a lot, ignored a lot, and altered quite a few historical details to suit the story—I brought forward the Chinese presence in Hokitika by a couple of years, for example, because I wanted the book to deal with opium and the opium wars. Thanks to the wonderful Papers Past archive which the National Library of New Zealand has made available online, I read a lot of the newspapers from the era, mostly early editions of The West Coast Times. I also immersed myself in 19th century fiction, and made a note of everything I liked—physical textural details, idioms, patterns of speech, habits of behaviour—as well as typing out whole passages if I admired the syntax and wanted to try and absorb it into my own style. In my mind I don’t separate reading and writing: each is just a phase of the other.
When you finish a novel like The Luminaries, I can imagine you might mentally put the whole thing to bed to then move onto the next project. What was it like cracking open that box again? Had you imagined it as a possible screen adaptation when you were writing it?
I love television drama, and while I was writing the novel I did fantasise in an idle sort of way that it might one day be adapted for the screen. But I never imagined that I would do it myself. It was only after quite a few established screenwriters (sensibly) turned the project down that the producers asked me if I might like to give it a go, and only then that I learned what a monstrously un-cinematic book it really was. Looking back, I doubt I could have picked a more difficult project for a first outing; in the end it took me longer to adapt the book than it did to write it in the first place. The adaptation is such a reinvention of the novel—structurally it turns the story inside out and back to front, and there are very few lines of dialogue, or even scenes, that are lifted straight from the book—that the sheer scale of the challenge kept my interest for a long time. But I’ve now lived with that story and those characters for more than twelve years, most of my adult life, and I am very happy to be moving on.
Is it true you retrained in screenwriting in order to tackle this project? Why was that important?
I see screenwriting as more craft-based than fiction writing, which isn’t to say that it is any easier, just that it can be learned and studied in a more classically formal way. There’s no literary form that is more capacious and plastic than the novel; film and TV, on the other hand, are highly formally constraining, both in terms of time and in terms of space (and, as I came to discover, in terms of budget; sadly, none of the epic shipwreck scenes in the early drafts of The Luminaries survived). Constraints can be circumvented of course, but only with great skill and a great reason, and you have to understand a law to be able to break it in an interesting way. So I had a lot to learn. I read a ton of books on screenwriting, and a lot of screenplays, often while watching the film or the TV episode at the same time—and I wrote hundreds and hundreds of drafts. I’m still learning. That Eisenhower quote, that planning is essential, but plans are useless, rings very true for me.
What are the main differences in creating something for the page and creating something for the screen?
A novel is complete; but even the most vivid and seemingly watertight screenplay still needs to be constructed, shot, and edited—and at each stage, the story is effectively rewritten. So while a novelist communes directly with the reader, the screenwriter’s job is to inspire the cast and crew to see, in concert, something that doesn’t yet exist—and of course those people are all creators too, and they will respond to the script with ideas and expertise and inspiration of their own. But it doesn’t stop there. With the budget and the schedule changing every day, there are all sorts of logistical challenges that the screenwriter is called upon to fix throughout the course of the production. It can be the case that something in the script never gets filmed at all, because the production ran out of money or ran out of time. Sometimes scenes have to be rewritten to suit a physical location or specific set design. Sometimes the direction and performance open up new possibilities for the story: a line of dialogue can become unnecessary if the actor nails the emotion with just a look, for example. And it can also be the case that scenes are actually created in the edit, with shots cleverly cheated and dialogue inserted after the fact, in order to address a problem that was never apparent on the page. In film, whatever the audience ends up seeing has been shaped by the artistry and vision of literally hundreds of people; nothing could be more different than a novel, the product, usually, of a single person’s mind. I find both forms exhilarating, but for different reasons and in different ways.
Astrology can sometimes be viewed as a kind of woowoo subject but you treat it with great reverence in The Luminaries. Were you worried that including astrology as such a main tool in the book would affect who read it?
No. Actually a perverse part of me rather liked the idea of discouraging the type of reader who would turn their nose up at something so endlessly fascinating and involving. I wrote the Note to the Reader that appears in the very front of the book before I even wrote the first sentence, as a way of asserting authority and giving seriousness to the book’s formal and mythological dimension right out of the gate. It’s useful as a kind of screening test: if that Note to the Reader annoys you, then the book isn’t for you.
Next week we’ll have part two, where Eleanor talks about her next project, her writing process and how she feels about the whirlwind of fame that surrounded her win seven years ago.
The Luminaries screens Sundays at 8.30pm on TVNZ 1 and the entire series is available now on TVNZ OnDemand