Eleanor Catton is one of those authors. Like Nam Le, who graduated from the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop (where the 24-year-old is currently studying), the story of her first book’s publication and success is a veritable dream run.
The Rehearsal, a remarkably clever, sharply funny, daringly experimental novel about adolescence, identity and performance, was first published by New Zealand’s Victoria University Press. Then it was picked up by Granta UK for ‘a very good five-figure sum’, followed by US rights sold for ‘a six-figure sum’. All this while she was still a student.
This week, The Rehearsal has been shortlisted for the 2009 Guardian First Book Award. (Earlier this year, it was awarded the Montana First Book Award for Fiction in New Zealand.)
And it deserves the hype. The Rehearsal is a finely layered novel of ideas; highly stylised in the telling, but simultaneously populated with an arresting cast of characters who are gifted with razor-sharp dialogue. (‘Sleeping with a minor isn’t exciting because you get to boss them around,’ argues one character, refuting a school counsellor. ‘It’s exciting because you’re risking so much.’) The plot centres on the aftermath of a sex scandal at an all-girls’ school. One girl’s affair with her music teacher affects her schoolmates, their teachers and their parents in various ways. (‘The parents cry and ask each other what did he do to her, but the girls are burning with a question of their own: what did she do?’) The novel focuses on three girls, all students of the same enigmatic saxophone teacher. And, at a nearby drama school, the students are busily, earnestly transforming themselves into actors, hunting for a juicy subject for their first big performance.
I spoke to Eleanor for The Big Issue a couple of months ago and was charmed by her down-to-earth enthusiasm and her unbridled passion for writing. We talked for over an hour – very generous of her, as she was itching to get to Tuesday night karaoke at ‘the Writer’s Bar’. (It was 1pm in Melbourne, 10pm in Iowa.) And, of course, I wasn’t able to use all of the best bits of our conversation in my Big Issue profile. Here are some of them. Enjoy. And I urge you, read The Rehearsal!
I read that you were collecting words that you wanted to use in the book and even during the editing process, the words came first.
I did do that in a weird kind of way. I still have all these files on my computer where often I was just transcribing whole passages out of books that were really affecting me at the time. There’s one by a French philosopher from the 1950s called Georges Bataille and he wrote this book called Eroticism that I really strongly recommend you read if you’re interested. It’s really amazing. The ideas that come out of Julia’s mouth in the book – also the saxophone teacher, but most particularly from Julia – they’re paraphrasing Georges Bataille’s ideas. At one point Julia says to the saxophone teacher, ‘what Mr Saladin wanted was not control, but lack of control’. That idea is just crucial to this book that I was reading at the time.
That’s really interesting, because the psychology of attraction and sexuality and how that works is so integral to the book, so I was interested if that was something you were really setting out to explore in it.
Yeah. Yeah, it’s really interesting to me now to go back to these documents and to my source material and see how much of a debt I have to these really quite random books, but also how far I ended up straying from them. I think I approached researching this novel really quite methodically. But I’ve only written one novel, so I don’t know whether that’s something that I’d do again.
But I feel like there are days when I was writing, when I’d just know, I’d come to a point – like one of the more outrageous speeches of the saxophone teacher – and I’d realise that I needed a metaphor that was more ridiculous than the metaphor I’d just used in that same scene. So I’d just spend something like eight hours looking through the dictionary and trying to look for a metaphor that would be more ridiculous. So I did a lot of strange kind of obsessive-compulsive things that I don’t think I’ll do again.
It sounds like it worked. So, your research was less a matter of ‘I’m going to immerse myself in these writers because I want them to influence me’ and more a kind of ‘I need this, so I’m going to look at these sources’. Is that right?
It’s funny, because since I wrote it, I’ve been around so many more writers – a great concentration of writers who are at an early stage of their careers. I hear people talk about ideas like, ‘if I’m writing about the South, I don’t want to read Flannery O’Connor in case she influences my work somehow’. And I think that idea never really occurred to me. And I think it might have freaked me out, really, if it had occurred to me at the time.
The very first monologue of the book, which is now the first page of the book, was the very first thing I wrote. I feel like the voice in that scene is so insistent and so idiosyncratic in its own way that I never feared that another author would influence me. Because the book was shouting at me from the beginning.
One of the things I really loved about the book is that real hyper-awareness all the characters have all the time of how they’re appearing. That sense you’ve talked about of them performing their identities.
I think that I … I feel quite awkward a lot of the time, I think. I feel like an awareness of how I’m behaving often paralyses me socially, in a way that chimes with the paralysis of some of the characters.
Something that every single character in the book has in common is that all of them have this sort of longing or yearning to escape who they are. And that is something I identify with very strongly. I don’t think I’m a deeply dissatisfied person, but I think the idea of transformation, or the idea of becoming someone else and leaving the old self behind, is something that’s really attractive to me, I guess.
It’s really interesting what you were saying before, that you identify with that performing of the self. I think that’s common to a lot of writers. I wonder if there’s something in really observing how you’re behaving (and analysing it) that feeds into your writing.
I think it’s a dangerous game, you know. It’s hard to be an observer and a participant at the same time. And when you start becoming an observer of your own life – that can just become a danger. And I think I’ve been really scared about that in the last little while. I don’t want to turn my life into a collection of experiences. I have a bit of an anxiety about that. I want to try to live and not be watching.
That’s a pretty valid thing for a writer to think about setting out on their career, because there is that whole thing of writer as anthropologist.
It’s really funny actually, being here at Iowa. I’m absolutely loving my time here, it’s absolutely wonderful. But I’m surrounded by … there are 100 people in the program and half of them are poets and half of them are fiction writers. And going home to New Zealand – I just went home this summer in May, New Zealand winter – and just to realise that not everybody in the world is a writer is really weird. I’m talking to people and they’re like ‘I was driving my truck the other day’ and I’m like, ‘you have a truck?’
Part 2 to follow …