In Part 2 of this excerpt from my recent chat with Eleanor Cattton (author of The Rehearsal – recently shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award 2009), the young New Zealand novelist talks writing routines, the value of reading your writing aloud, and the way appearance or labels (or both) can affect people’s expectations of your personality – and the way you can find yourself playing to those expectations.
[At the end of a chat about the experience of making movies with friends:] You obviously really enjoy group collaboration. How is it when you’re writing then, and you’re in that really intense solitary headspace? Do you find that hard?
No, I actually really like writing. Before I started hanging out with this large concentration of writers, I didn’t realise that not everyone enjoys it. I feel like I write for pretty intense periods. I write mostly at night. Actually, I wrote most of The Rehearsal during the day, but I tend to write at night at the moment. I feel like I’m always wary of saying how I write or what the best way for me to write is, because it changes so swiftly and I don’t want to look at it too closely – in case it changes underneath me or something. You know what I mean?
Completely fair enough. You don’t want to analyse it and get rid of the magic of it? Magic’s a dumb word, but…
Yes. With The Rehearsal, [for] a large proportion of the time when I wrote that, I was going out with this boy who I would read the scenes to. He was a sculptor and he was working from home for pretty much the whole time that I was writing. So what I would do is … write a scene and then I would come and sit by him with my laptop as he was sculpting and read aloud to him. And I would watch his face while I was reading. And every time he scowled, which he did quite often, I’d say ‘oh, does that sound weird?’ and he’d say ‘yeah, that sounds really weird. It doesn’t make any sense to me’. And I’d know when I had written a good scene, because he’d go really quiet. So I’d keep it.
That sounds great – having a reader dedicated enough to have done that.
It was quite nice, really. It was always me reading it aloud. He would never read a scene on its own for the first time. I think he only read the book in its entirety when it was already a proof copy. I think it was particularly good for The Rehearsal, because so much of the book is performed – so for me to have to say it out loud, I’d catch a lot of the things that sounded weird.
I thought the staging and performance metaphors were also great illustrations of how fiction and storytelling work. I wondered if that was something you were consciously doing.
Yeah. I did this course that really blew my mind about the theory of drama. And through that I also got exposed to feminist theory and also queer theory. There were theories of literature that really, massively, influenced me. And not only in terms of art, but also how I want to be. One of the quite weird things about people my age in the world right now is how many different performances are available to us. This might seem really shallow and like a crazy answer to this really literary question …
Not at all.
I’ve had a lot of really radically different hairstyles in my life. And it’s amazing to me how differently you get treated just by virtue of your appearance. When I first started writing The Rehearsal, I had these dreadlocks. The dreadlocks were bright red and white. And I’d walk into a room and whatever I said, everybody would laugh. And I’m not a particularly hilarious person. But there was something about my appearance … people just felt at ease when I was around. Because I looked like some kind of surfer chick. But I don’t know how to surf! It’s really funny.
All of last year, I was growing my hair out and I had this kind of really long, boring hair. And then in summer, I just cut it really really short again – so it’s really quite short at the moment. And I got a bit of a Mohawk. And people just think I’m so much more hardcore than a few months ago. It’s so funny. But I find myself playing to the roles people are casting me in. Which is crazy.
One of the strange things about being in the world today is that we have these images of everything. Every possible way of behaving, we know what it looks like before we ever experience it. I kind of feel like I’m quoting from the book, but I think that idea is really interesting. If you say ‘emo’ to a fifteen year old, they’ll be able to come up with this sluice of adjectives. But more than adjectives – they’ll be able to come up with a costume for that. They know what that thing looks like. But that thing, it’s just a role. But we know what it is so strongly.
So I think that these kinds of ideas of performance are pertinent in a way that they weren’t before, before the internet or even television were so widespread.
The idea that something starts off as a performance but then becomes reality, is that the sort of thing that you were interested in?
Yes. Definitely. I think that’s true of my life almost every day. I feel like I … I feel awkward in the role of the writer. I’m still a student. Everything that’s happened with The Rehearsal has been really wonderful and astonishing to me, but it also doesn’t really feel like my life. It feels like this kind of fantastical joke or something. I’ve only just realised.
Up until maybe about a month and a half ago, I would get really anxious whenever I would go and do an interview like this with any kind of publication. I actually had a conversation with my publicist in the UK, my Granta publicist, and she said ‘You can do whatever you want. You don’t have to pretend to be anything.’ She really told me off, because I was feeling really anxious about it. She gave me the hard word, you know. It was a great conversation, it had a really profound effect on me.
I realised I’d had this idea of what a writer should be like. And it wasn’t me and I was feeling weird about it and I was feeling kind of like a fraud. And I feel like I’ve let go of that now, I feel like ‘oh, okay’. It’s really like a happy accident. I’m still just a student, making mistakes, and just, well, just being twenty-four. You know.
This conversation took place as an interview for The Big Issue, where Jo Case is books editor – and where the polished version of this interview was published.