It’s just been announced that Eleanor Catton’s new book, Birnam Wood, will be out on March 7, 2023. We revisit our exclusive chat with her where the author talks about her surprisingly relatable writing process, her advice for writers and how she feels about the sudden fame she experienced when she first won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. For our chat with her about adopting The Luminaries for television, click here.
You became very famous, globally, for something that is at its heart a very solitary occupation. When you look back now, what do you think of the whirlwind of that year and all of the headlines – good and bad – that came out of it?
It feels very alienating, like those years were narrated in third-person rather than in first. I once heard it said about jet-lag that recovery takes one day for every hour of difference on the clock – so if you fly from Auckland to Los Angeles, a five-hour time difference, it will take you five days to adjust. I’ve come to think about being in the public eye in the same way.
I have had a strict no-self-Googling policy in place for quite a number of years now, which helps.
If I am onstage, or visible somehow, for an hour, then I won’t really feel normal again until I’ve spent an entire day offstage and completely out of sight. I was on the road so much in the years after the Booker prize, and clocked up so many hours of public visibility, that I feel like I’m still catching up. I have had a strict no-self-Googling policy in place for quite a number of years now, which helps.
When you were interviewed by Paperboy a few years ago, you spoke about your new novel being set in NZ on the eve of a global catastrophe. When I first heard about the concept, and that you had been preparing by reading Lee Child, I was thrilled because a) I love a Jack Reacher book and b) it seemed such a great, futuristic concept. Now we’re in a global catastrophe and your idea seems chillingly prescient. How do you feel about the idea now? Is it a bit spooky your fiction starts to mirror reality a bit too much?
Oh dear, this will teach me for talking about work before it’s written. My ideas for the book have changed quite a bit since then. The novel began life as something more explicitly apocalyptic, and I first played around with setting it in the foreseeable future, but then I changed my mind and set it in the recent past. I shouldn’t say any more about it – I would just be making the same mistake, because it’s sure to change yet again – but I hope that the influence of the great Lee Child endures. It was Elizabeth Knox who first recommended the Reacher books to me actually. Thank you Elizabeth!
Now that we’ve all become used to home offices, I wanted to ask about your home set-up: where do you write best? What time of day? Do you have any must-haves you do to get your brain in the right space to write?
I start working at a desk, but usually end up taking my laptop to the couch in the living room, more because of restlessness than anything else. It takes me a very long time to write anything, so I usually chip away all day, have a crisis of confidence about four o’clock, and then get into a rhythm sometime after that.
I usually chip away all day, have a crisis of confidence about four o’clock, and then get into a rhythm sometime after that.
If it’s a very good writing day, I will do a lot of cleaning as I write – washing the dishes and wiping the stovetop and so forth, while I turn a scene or a sentence over in my mind. On bad writing days, the kitchen stays dirty. I spend the evenings either jubilant or furious, and then I go to bed and the next day it starts over again. I tend to alternate between periods of writing and periods of reading; strangely I find that I can’t do both in the same day.
How did your upbringing shape what kind of writer you are, and what kind of work you wanted to do?
I was very lucky growing up, in that my mum worked as a children’s librarian when I was young. It meant not only that I read a lot, but that we were often reading the same things, and so we could talk about our impressions together. Our family was strange in that we didn’t have either a car or a television, which stressed me out as a kid because I felt that it meant I had to be extra imaginative and extra entertaining whenever I had friends over. I wasn’t very polite about these privations at the time, but I’m grateful for them now.
In NZ, we often have had a bad habit of only being proud of our ‘local’ talents once they’ve been given the international tick of approval. Did you find this with The Luminaries or do you think we’re becoming more open to work from our own people?
I think the problem cuts both ways. Yes, our tremendous cultural insecurity means that we are constantly seeking affirmation from abroad, sometimes to the point of obsequiousness; but we also indulge in a kind of defensive boosterism, or building ourselves up, that can be just as deadening and homogenising as our national habit of taking people down. We’ve grown so used to the narrative that we punch above our weight internationally that to engage critically with local talent has become a kind of sacrilege—and this is a real problem, because it’s only by engaging critically with local talent that we challenge it to grow.
If I were to argue, for example, that 90% of all American fiction, or British fiction, was complete rubbish, I am sure nobody in New Zealand would disagree with me (or even care); but if I were to argue that 90% of all New Zealand fiction was complete rubbish, there would be an uproar—and all the more, I think, if I used specific examples.
It’s a sign of our immaturity as a country that we can’t handle criticism, even (or perhaps especially?) when it is intelligent, rigorous, and made in good faith; and it produces a kind of vicious circle, because artists who haven’t been challenged tend not to produce art that is particularly challenging, and on it goes. But then again, we’re a young country. We’ll grow.
Finally, what advice do you have for people who want to start writing? How can they get out of their own way and back their own ideas?
This is a tricky question, because I would say it’s just as important, and maybe sometimes even more important, to learn how to get into your own way, and throw out your own ideas. Building confidence is crucial, but so is building doubt: absolutely everyone starts out writing sentimental, self-serving rubbish, and what distinguishes good writers from bad writers is only that the bad writers stop there.
Absolutely everyone starts out writing sentimental, self-serving rubbish, and what distinguishes good writers from bad writers is only that the bad writers stop there
In my opinion, everything begins with reading: it’s only by reading others well that you will learn how to read yourself, so that you will be able to see both what’s strong about your work and also what’s weak about it. Friends help, too—not the lovely well-wishing kind, though they are important for emotional reasons, but the opinionated, impassioned, demanding kind, who will challenge you to be better than you have been, and better than you are.
The Luminaries screens Sundays at 8.30pm on TVNZ 1 and the entire series is available now on TVNZ OnDemand