Dazzling, luminous, vast. These were the words the Man Booker Prize chair of judges used to describe the 2013 winning novel, The Luminaries by 28-year-old writer, Eleanor Catton. The triumph was significant for two reasons: Catton was the youngest author ever to receive the prize, and her intricate tome, The Luminaries – a complex, ambitious, 832-page work guided by astrological movements – is the longest novel to claim the award in its 45 year history. This is how most discovered her, and awestruck phrases suddenly became associated with her name: the youngest author ever for the longest book ever.
Since receiving the prestigious prize, Catton has continued to intrigue – adept at social media, friends with musician Lorde and writing about her home country for a global audience in an essay for the Guardian that would daunt lesser 28-year-olds. She has also been fearless in speaking about the gendered reactions to her work, and skewering old guard critics for their prejudiced reaction to her age.
As I set up my recorder, Catton and I discuss the interviews she has done since the explosion of her name following the Booker win.
‘One thing that has really changed for me in the last little while is that my attitude towards journalists and the way I conduct myself around journalists is really different. I think that it’s an amateur mistake – a totally reasonable one – to act as though you and the journalist are mates. That was always the way that I was, and I have gotten burnt by that a couple of times.’
KYD: They’ve done that to you a bit haven’t they – with your comment about NZ reviewing culture?
EC: One of the things I really lament in the literary culture is the lack of opportunity for reply in various situations. It seems as though there’s so many situations in which the writer, whoever the writer is, is silenced and prevented from replying or responding.
A creative writing workshop is a classic situation where the writer just has to sit there and not speak. Or also in reviewing: if you get reviewed either well or poorly, any kind of reply is completely inappropriate. Certainly a reply that defends your work, that’s the most inappropriate reply of all. But the problem is that it means there’s no debate and there’s no dialectic and no opportunity for people to change their mind through conversation, which I think is the real shame, because that’s what a healthy artistic culture is all about.
KYD: Yes, if anyone is ever to respond it is regarded as this furore. I guess the feeling is that a book is a self-contained, finished thing. You put it out into the world, and whatever response it receives, that’s it.
EC: Oh yes absolutely. When you make art, you make this kind of discrete entity that has its own consciousness and its own natural laws and principles and you think it has to be this kind of enclosed world. Especially in fiction, that’s what you’ve created. But I think there’s this whole other dimension to the writer’s life, which is this whole idea of being a public figure, and in a lot of ways we’ve lost the idea of the public intellectual. Maybe I’m speaking as somebody of my generation, but I don’t feel like there are public opportunities to work through an idea and change my mind. And so I feel that when interviews happen, they usually take one of two forms (this interview I’m not counting [laughs]). The first thing is that they’re just asking the same questions over and over again, so they’re saying, ‘Where did you get the idea for this book?’ and then the second type of interview is the type where the journalist has read all of your previous interviews, and goes back through them and says, ‘When you said this what did you mean?’ And it’s very strange. It’s almost like you’re getting meta-interviews because you never move beyond that initial thing that you said.
So, for example, just after the Booker Prize night I did a day of media, and I did this interview where we were talking about the poor reviews of The Luminaries, and I said something that was actually a throw-away comment, that I had noticed that the most vehement objections to the book had tended to come from men who were of a certain age, and I thought that that was significant. I’ve been asked about that so many times, but in responding to that, I had to just go back to that moment and defend what it was that I was thinking then. Nobody ever begins by saying, ‘Do you think that now?’ Or, ‘Do you still think that? Has anything changed since you said that?’ There isn’t this sense of ongoing change. It’s always harking back to that one thing you have to live and die by because you said it once in an interview, like a politician.
KYD: It’s certainly true of politics that if you are seen to change your mind it’s construed as a backflip. You would hope that art isn’t as constrained. But that’s a very interesting idea of a ‘meta-interview’. Certainly in preparing for this today I was looking at the types of questions that you are normally asked. And what I was quite interested in – and I guess I am engaging in a bit of a ‘meta-interview’ as well – is it all appears to be on externality: your age, your gender.
But what I thought was quite unusual was that the book itself is discussed externally as well. Because of its length, The Luminaries is written about as an object, with reviewers mentioning lugging it back and forth while catching a train, for example. And I wondered how you feel about the book being reviewed or commented upon as an object rather than a narrative?
EC: That’s a really interesting way of putting it. I’ve been quite surprised at how much focus there has been on the book’s length. And a book that I keep on thinking of is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, which I actually haven’t read. But when I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop it was this talismanic book beloved by a great many people there. And it seems to me that the way that book is revered and remembered, even before David Foster Wallace’s death, was as something where the heft of it was a kind of proof of its awesomeness. It was a challenge, ‘Are you man enough to read this book?’, essentially. And that question, ‘Are you man enough to read it?’ in the case of The Luminaries is a little bit strange for some people. I think that it is gendered.
But I also don’t think that it’s the most important aspect of the book, or really the most interesting thing to talk about. So I feel a little bit fraught because I do want to talk about what I feel, that it is a gendered objection. And also an objection that is dishonest in some ways, because I think the people who object to the length of this book don’t object to the length of all long books, they’re just saying that some people can write long books, those people are dead and from the nineteenth century, and you’re not one of them so you’re not allowed. And that bothers me because that means so many people are excluded. It basically means that that category is never going to grow or become more diverse.
But I don’t think those people are honestly saying that. I think most people who object to the heft of the book have probably read a Dickens novel. And if they haven’t read a Dickens novel, then I would wonder why they have a job as a literary reviewer [laughs]. I would expect that they had read at least one book over 200,000 words. So I don’t want the conversation about the length of the book to dominate. Because it already feels like it’s dominating in a way that seems a bit boring. It’s not the most interesting thing to me about the book, or about any book.
But I guess what I want to see, and what I was trying to get at in that throwaway comment in the Guardian trying to psychoanalyse the vehemence of some of the negative reviews, is just more consistency from the objectors. If you’re going to object to a book on the grounds of length, can we then agree that you will not read any of the followings books: Anna Karenina, Bleak House, so on and so forth [laughs].
I think that the refusal to engage with a book, or the refusal to read a book seriously, is something that always has more to do with the person than it does with the book. Because they haven’t yet experienced the book, or they haven’t let themselves experience it in a way that is free and honest. So they’re closing themselves off to the book before they’ve even begun, because – as you say – they’re looking at it as an object rather than as a potential experience. So I think in the case of those readers, they’re making a value judgement about my right to take up two weeks of their time, and they’re saying, ‘From you this is unacceptable, because I don’t think you have anything to say that is worth that much of my valuable time.’ And this is the thing, I don’t necessarily think I do deserve to take up two weeks of somebody’s time and I don’t think that any book deserves to be read, I just think that if you’re going to object to a book’s length then make your case in a way that is intellectually decent.
KYD: Yes, it annoyed me and outraged me a little bit. I heard a publisher say that had it not been long- or short-listed, The Luminaries would not have been read as widely as it was. It’s like this goldilocks publishing rule: can’t be too short, because people aren’t reading novellas, but also nobody wants lengthy 800 page works. And so I feel like the form of the novel isn’t going to progress if it’s stuck within this 300-400 page model.
EC: As a reader, when I see a really long book I see a promise. I think that the promise that the writer is making to the reader is so much greater because the chances of complete failure are so much more. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Because the chances of failure are the same for everybody. But in order to sustain somebody’s attention for a really long time, you have to not have any dry patches in the book.
This is another thing that bothers me about the people who make such a fuss about the length of The Luminaries. Ok cool you want it to be shorter, what part do you want to cut? Do you want to cut the structure, because then it couldn’t be what it is. It’s going to be a different book. Do you think any part of the plot needs to go? Which part? I can’t see how the universe of the book could be what it is, and achieve what it’s trying to achieve, and be any other length than the length that it is.
KYD: One thing I find attractive about your work is that you’re someone who is interested in the potential and limits of the novel. And that’s what really fascinated me in The Luminaries, even aside from the plot. So I wanted to ask you just generally at first, what drew you to the novel as a form (as opposed to short stories or poetry)?
EC: I think it’s because I’ve studied the novel and I value the novel above all other art forms. It’s the one that I feel most strongly about and I know the most about. I started reading novels as a child, and when you start reading as a child you read for love. You’re reading so voraciously and putting yourself so bodily into the world of the book that you’re reading. All of the writing I did as a young person – right from the very moment I could read I was always writing – were novels. Well, that was what I would call them, in my head. Even really short ones that I would type out on my dad’s computer would say ‘a novel by Eleanor Catton’ [laughs].
What I say to my students about what is, I think, the unique property of the novel, is that fiction can be both interior and exterior at the same time. Which is very like consciousness. You and I, when we’re talking to one another, we’ve got body language and we’re speaking and things are happening around us, but at the same time, we’ve both got an interior life that is also shaping how we’re perceiving all of the external stuff, and those two things are operating in parallel. And fiction can represent that in a way that no other art form can.
So music, for example, can do the internal stuff quite well, but it can’t really do the external representative stuff very well. And film can do the external stuff really well, but it can’t do the internal stuff. Even a voiceover is a cheap approximation of what a novel can do really eloquently.
I think the difference between the novel and the short story is the time you get to spend inside another person’s head. It’s so much longer and the compression and amplification of the way that time can pass is so such more supple in a novel because it’s much longer. To me it’s the single art form that best records and distills and captures the experience of being alive. I don’t know any art form that does that in the way that the novel does.
KYD: There’s this intimacy with novels as well, because you spend so long with the author. Even though you use the distancing ‘we’ in the narration of The Luminaries, you are very present in it.
You and I are the same age. And when I found that out – and I already loved the novel – I felt a real affection for you. So I know it was regarded as a kind of precociousness, that you’re so young to win The Man Booker, and you received a lot of criticism from older critics, but the other side of it is that, for people of our generation, it’s really inspiring.
EC: One of the things that I really believe is that a prerequisite for good conversation to happen is that both parties need to say to one another, ‘I have as much to learn from you as I have to teach you’, and I think with two artists who respect each other, who can say that to one another, the most amazing art can come out of that. The most amazing dialogue and new ideas and inspiration can come out of that. And I think that one area that it very rarely happens is between the young and the old. And I think that that’s actually a bit of a shame. Especially in a world that is changing as fast as ours is changing. I’m very comfortable to say to a person older than I am that I have a lot to learn from them, but I also do believe that I have a lot to teach them. If somebody couldn’t say that to me I would have to conclude that true dialogue is not possible. It’s fundamentally true across cultures and genders, why not between the young and the old?
KYD: You mention artists connecting, I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there’s a great Tumblr ‘Awesome People Hanging Out Together’. And one of the highlights of last year for me – and that should definitely be featured on that site – was the picture of you and Lorde in bed choosing a picture on your phone. I thought that was just so brilliant. How did that come about?
EC: I actually know Lorde’s mum, because she’s a poet in Auckland. There was a mutual friend of hers who knew we were both going to be in town at the same time, and she set it up. I’m really thrilled over the last year to be put in so many sentences with Lorde because she’s awesome. But I don’t know if she’s quite as thrilled as I am [laughs]. I think I’m much cooler by proximity.
But she’s such an impressive artist to me, I did feel that when I met her, she’s loads younger than I am, that I had a lot to learn from her. It is very pleasant to be associated with Lorde so much because she’s such a rockstar but it has been really interesting to watch her reception in New Zealand and compare it to mine. Because obviously she’s in this kind of stratosphere that’s completely different to the world I occupy, but even so, the New Zealand Herald did this big fold-out spread on the both of us, and it excerpted reviews from home and reviews from overseas to contrast what the reviewers had said. And it was quite interesting the similarities there. Lorde’s album had been really ripped apart on a music blog at home that has quite a lot of influence, and I had received quite a shocker of a review in the New Zealand Listener.
It’s amazing how many people, I think to both of us, have either written, or talked to us directly, about the probability of us choking in some way: either going nuts or letting fame get to our heads. It’s kind of absurd that people who have never experienced this would think about giving us advice about how to cope in a world they’ve never entered.
KYD: Going to the idea of artists working together. We’ve both studied literature, and part of that is looking at literary periods where artists often self-identify with a movement – like the Beat Generation for example. Perhaps the most recent example I can think of is ‘hysterical realism’ with Zadie Smith, Thomas Pynchon and writers like that, which was of course a term bestowed by a critic, but they did share a particular aesthetic.
I wonder if you think you are part of a literary school at all, and if you think it is important or necessary for artists to work together on a form or aesthetic that they believe in?
EC: I think that it would be a mistake to make any value judgement about whether they’re useful or useless. One thing that I’m really pleased about, when I think about being this age and in this century is the increasing move towards diversity. And I think the more we can normalise diversity the better. And I think that, in a way, that acts against the idea of traditions and so it could be that this is going to become something that is less socio-economic or political and more aesthetic. I would like to see that change.
I don’t really feel myself to be part of a school in any way. I do think that there’s a picture of our generation that is post-workshop in the sense of the workshop story and the workshop novel. I think that has become a very tired thing. And I think a lot of people, myself included, have become impatient with that. They don’t want to write what their teachers are telling them is the right way to write. They want to break the rules as much as possible.
But the more interconnected we become as a culture, the more time goes by and the more books there are to read, the less likely it becomes that you can ever read all the books that matter. Already we can’t do that, and that’s going to be even more true at the end of this year and even more true the year after that. So what that means is that every writer in the world is forming their own personal canon. It’s no longer ‘the canon’ of literature, it’s a personal canon that not only depends on what you choose to read and what you don’t, but the order in which you read them. Which is, I think, very significant. It is one thing that is often left out of the canon conversation.
So I am excited about the idea of personal canon forming and I’m exited because I think we’re moving beyond the idea of the workshop story, and I’m excited about the fact that we’re moving towards diversity. The most cantankerous voices in contemporary criticism are the ones who are trying to keep hold of something which doesn’t exist anymore. I think that that’s always a danger.
KYD: We had a debate in this country a few years ago about an Australian canon. A lot of important historical Australian fiction was out of print and not taught at university. One of our publishing houses decided to re-publish them, and we had a very important conversation about our literary history. I understand that there isn’t a canonical New Zealand tradition of the period that you’re writing in, either because you’re a relatively young country like Australia, or that no-one was writing about that place in that era. Can you explain a little more about that?
EC: I think the first really big problem when we’re talking about a New Zealand canon is the fact that we’re a self-declared bi-cultural nation. So if we’re going to establish a canon, it’s got to be equal. And what that means is that privileging the work that is invariably by white people – because they could read and write in the nineteenth century – seems a little bit corrupt. You don’t have the equivalent Maori experience. There are a few exceptions, there are diary accounts and so on, but it’s by no means an even thing.
I think that the relative youth of the country plays into the fact that there aren’t many works of the nineteenth century. I’ve never read any. I know that there are a few Victorian thrillers and letters home, but it seems like in New Zealand they’re read more for anthropological purposes or historical purposes rather than for literary purposes.
I guess in writing The Luminaries I wanted to speak to that fact. I just wanted to write New Zealand into the nineteenth century. A novel that could potentially have been written in the nineteenth century. I mean in a lot of ways of course it couldn’t, because some of the more avant-garde aspects of the novel would’ve been loathed by the Victorians [laughs] but in terms of style, at least, it might have come out of that time.
KYD: It is a Victorian novel, but you have altered it politically. There are Chinese and Maori characters. Was that a decision you made because you wanted to give them a voice that they wouldn’t ordinarily have had in the literature of the time?
EC: It’s important to tread really carefully when using metaphors like ‘give somebody a voice’ because of course you’re not giving them a voice. You’re using your own voice and temporarily invoking an experience that you’ve never had. But it was important to me to show the incredible diversity of the time. It was much more diverse, even more than it is now. The Maori presence on the west coast wasn’t great, and so even having one Maori character in the zodiac, that was representative historically of the presence they would’ve had in the community at that time.
The Chinese characters were actually for a much more architectural reason; I wanted to include Chinese characters partly because opium is so wonderful for plot, because you can have people not remembering things, and falling into drugged states, and I’d also read the Maltese Falcon and the plot operates around the use of drugs as a way of temporarily making somebody disappear, so I was into that. I guess the Chinese characters were useful for the reason of bringing opium into the narrative, in a way that I could bend towards my purposes of writing a mystery novel. And they’re also useful because their language would have been severely limited, misunderstandings can happen, which is also useful in a mystery plot. But in fact, I really bent history in including them because there wasn’t a Chinese presence on the west coast until 1868 so I advanced them forward a little bit because I really wanted to build them into the narrative in that way.
Te Rau Tauwhare, the Maori character, I gave him the dignity of being Aries, which is of course the first sign of the zodiac, because obviously his people have the original claim on the land. So the zodiac begins with him essentially. And then next in the zodiac comes Charlie Frost, the banker who was Taurus. He and Te Rau Tauwhare are the only two in the whole zodiac who were born on New Zealand soil. So the beginning of the zodiac is Aries and Taurus, they are the fundamental elements that everything else starts to be built upon. In astrological thinking they are referred to as the objective and the subjective principle.
So in a way, in placing these two characters there at the beginning of the zodiac, I was kind of imagining that between them they made up New Zealand identity in this way. One is a settler, one is a native New Zealander, and in their characters, in my mind at least, they kind of combine to form the New Zealand sensibility in that Te Rau Tauwhare is very proud and Frost is very embarrassed of who he is [laughs].
KYD: I came to the book knowing that it had an astrological structure, that’s what interested me, and it was quite amazing to read it that way. Often, though, works can either privilege structure or plot, usually to the detriment of the other. But you manage to do both brilliantly – this was true of The Rehearsal as well – and I wonder how you negotiate the two?
EC: Well as a general comment I would say that it is the duty of all artists to break down binaries.
So one of my driving ambitions throughout was to write a book in which neither structure nor plot had supremacy. Because I’d never seen that. I was really interested to learn that one of David Mitchell’s inspirations for Cloud Atlas was reading If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino and he found it so dull that he thought, ‘I’m going to do this, but make it interesting,’ so he wrote this amazing book that has massively improved upon Calvino. But the reason I found that really interesting is that my ignition point was also a book by Calvino. Poor old Calvino [laughs] I’m not being nice to him.
But it was called The Castle of Crossed Destinies that I read I think in 2009. It’s a book where he took all the cards of the Tarot pack and spread them out to make this big sequence, and the book follows this journey through the sequence of the Tarot cards. And when it was recommended to me, I was learning to read the Tarot at the time, along with some friends and so I thought this sounds really interesting. And I read it and I was just so disappointed with it, I was so bored by it. It seemed like the entire book was a trick, it was just a celebration of his cleverness in having thought up this procedure. The procedure meant that actually it wasn’t any fun, and I didn’t care about anything, and that for me meant that the book was a failure.
So I set myself the challenge to write a book in which the structure and the plot were co-dependent and informed one another, and you couldn’t separate one from the other, but neither one of them was supreme. My ambition in creating this was that I would create an experience when you read the book that you had a sense there was this architecture behind the book that you couldn’t see. That if you chose to look for it you would find it, you would find something interesting.
For example, in astrology, every one of the signs has a ruling planet, and I’ve made sure that for every character in the book, that ruling planet has a direct influence on the character whose ruling planet they are. And I don’t expect people to know about that, if you care about that it doesn’t really matter. But what I wanted was an experience where the reader’s trust was one of mathematical integrity or architectural integrity, where they would think, ‘If I go and learn about astrology I will be rewarded.’ But at the same time the straightforward plot was still enjoyable. You don’t want to make it a reading requirement.
KYD: I think that the era you’ve set it in helps that as well, because with an omniscient narrator, you always have the sense that they know exactly where the plot is going, they know everything about the characters. And this is very true of The Luminaries, that generally when we’re introduced to a character, we’re given a long description of their attributes, a little bit like a horoscope.
EC: Oh, that’s where I took most of them actually, cobbled together from disreputable websites [laughs].
KYD: What made you interested in astrology?
EC: If I was to chart the progression of events that led to forming the idea about this, it would be two main streams. The first was actually very literal, and it was the double sense of the word fortune: meaning both a large sum of money and also your destiny. Obviously it’s a gold rush story, so a fortune is going to have to figure into it. Really early on I knew that fortune telling was going to have to enter into it, because I was going to have to play on that double meaning in some way. So that had been in my mind for a long time.
And the other thing was the Tarot: looking at all these pictures and putting two pictures next to each other and thinking, ‘How can you make the correspondences here become a narrative?’ Or ‘How can you make them interesting?’ I feel like I’ve spent quite a lot of time over the last six months defending astrology, because people are quite rightly skeptical about the whole thing, because a lot of horoscopes are quite silly. Especially if you know a little bit about astrology, they become even sillier. Something like, Taurus: ‘Buy yourself something nice today’ [laughs].
But I think that sneering at any system of making meaning in the world is an incredibly foolish thing to do. And I think that one of the greatest idiocies of our modern age is how little respect we have for religion. I think that’s absurd. That disrespect of religion goes hand in hand with a disrespect of art, and a disrespect of metaphysics, and of conceptual truth and of morals and ethics. There is so much bound up in that rejection.
KYD: Yes, my understanding of astrology was a system used to make sense of the universe, and that’s astrology, and religion, and philosophy. And I wonder if you see fiction that way too. And the novel.
EC: When people are teasing me about astrology, or trying to provoke me, they’ll say, ‘Oh but people can make it mean whatever they want to mean.’ And I say, ‘Exactly!’ This is the fascinating aspect of the human condition, that we can look up at a chance scatter of stars, that revolves around us every night in the same sequence, and we can read a twelve part story into it. It’s fascinating that we can take all of these human impulses that are common to all of us – things like desire and will and social consciousness – and create something that in turn gives us meaning and gives us comfort and inspires us to create art. I think that the fact that we’ve created the zodiac is no more radical a thing to say than we’ve created the musical scale.
KYD: Given your interest in astrology, it is a very odd coincidence that Kerry Hulme, the only other New Zealand Man Booker winner, won the year you were born.
EC: I’ve been getting so many letters from astrologers, I get one every day. And they’ve all been asking my birth time. You can’t do it without, you need the exact minute, because it’s not enough simply to know the date, because obviously the skies are rotating all the time.
And I haven’t told anyone because I kind of want it to be my secret, I know where all my planets are, but I don’t want anybody else to know.
But one of my astrologers told me about the number 28 [Catton’s current age], apparently in numerology it’s known as the ‘man number’ because it’s the point at which a person is thought to reach full maturity, and when it cycles back again at 56 it’s called ‘twice man’ or something. And I’d never heard of this before, but then we were all saying, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s the Man Booker number!’
But of course it’s not amazing because not everyone wins the Man Booker on their 28th birthday, but it’s funny that we are actually primed to be delighted by connections. So when that connection came to me I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s so spooky,’ when of course it isn’t spooky at all, it’s just a stupid coincidence.
KYD: There was a satirical piece by Nicolas Lazzard, I’m sure you saw it, saying that we should pity you because something people strive for their whole lives is behind you. The more interesting point he was making was that failure is important. But I thought it was sort of arrogant to assume that you haven’t failed, simply because you won the Man Booker doesn’t mean you haven’t.
You wrote a beautiful piece for the Guardian about growing up in New Zealand and the failure of language against the sublime nature of the language. Could you talk about moments of failure and the failure of language?
EC: The whole concept of both success or failure is so fraught with difficulty. It’s so narrow. I don’t feel like I’ve arrived at a place and I think sometimes I’m questioned as though I ought to feel like that – now you’ve got the big one, it’s all downhill from here essentially. But I don’t even perceive there being any kind of hill at all.
What I definitely feel is that struggle is very important. But I don’t think struggle has anything to do with affirmation. With a book, by the time it gets to the point where someone is reading it to even consider it for a prize, it’s long after your relationship with it in a creative way has ended. And so the Man Booker can’t really touch the novel. It can’t change it. And the same is true of the negative reviews. It can’t alter it. You have to realise that whatever reception you get, the novel won’t substantially change. They can’t touch it.
And in a way then it means that it is beyond failure, that art is beyond failure, you can’t really have a failed piece of art. You can have a piece of art that people judge to have failed at creating a particular effect, but art itself kind of can’t fail. And I’d say a similar thing about language – that language has limits, but I don’t think that there are failures of language.
In a way the prize doesn’t mean anything, because I’m as much at square one as I was when I was writing The Rehearsal. The challenge is the same: to write a book that I would want to read, and that challenges me and that doesn’t exist in the world yet. I think the real failure would be if I ever forgot that.
KYD: One thing you note in the novel in relation to success, was the conflict between the savage and the civil. So a ‘homeward bounder’ allows a person’s entire reinvention. And I feel like the Man Booker is the equivalent of a homeward bounder for an author. Do you think it has in any way transformed or reinvented your life?
EC: I do think there is this real, dangerous power to the promise of transformation, and part of it is that the promise of transformation is always a promise, it’s slightly illusory. It’s something people spend quite a lot of time doing, imagining themselves transformed.
Someone asked me why I prepared a speech at the Booker Prize. I’m hopeless at public events, I can’t speak extemporaneously, I need a script or I just die. And when I explained this, the person who was asking was skeptical. I had imagined that moment, but I had also imagined everyone else on the shortlist winning, I’d played out in my head what was going to happen in the 24 hours that followed. I’ve also imagined winning an Oscar [laughs], everybody has. People imagine winning one with no involvement in the film industry at all.
In terms of how it has transformed my life so far, things are different. The idea that I don’t have to work is really strange. And I’m determined to keep teaching because I don’t ever want to succumb to the temptation. But money doesn’t help you become better reader. Money doesn’t make you become a better writer. Money doesn’t write your books for you. All that has to come on its own. And so in that sense nothing’s changed. It’s wonderful, I’d never want to be ungrateful. But it doesn’t touch any of the things that are driving my writing they remain unaffected by that.
KYD: I know that the television rights for The Luminaries have been sold to the BBC, which I find really interesting, because I feel that the TV series is almost the new form of the Victorian novel, in that it used to be serialised, like a Dickens novel, and The Luminaries strikes me as a perfect fit for a form like that. It’s so narrative based.
EC: I totally agree with you about the comparison with the Victorian novel. The best TV show that I’ve seen in its entirety is Breaking Bad, I think because it is a kind of Aristotelian tragedy. The end is a complete reversal of the beginning, every season is crucial and unified and there’s archs all over the place. The central characters are pared down to the absolute essential number of characters you need to drive a story in a very similar way to an opera or a Shakespeare play. You’ve only got five or six central players and everybody else is incidental. And Breaking Bad seems like they knew where they were going, there’s the sense that it was created by somebody who had a vision for the show as a whole. And nothing’s impressed me as much as that.
But there are definitely other shows that have impressed me with how they keep our attention in a serial way. I was so impressed with Battlestar Galactica, especially with how that began. And then you’ve got a show like The Sopranos in which every episode is almost individual, it doesn’t really need the arc of the whole series. But the character study in a grander scheme is so subtle. It’s profound in its subtlety. I think there’s a great many ways in which the TV series can be like a novel, not only serially but also in the ways in which a narrative can unfold. We’re seeing it being experimented with on screen in this really exciting way.
So I’m really excited about that because what it means is a return to character, and a return to theme. This idea of development or growth, which is central to character and theme, is returning to the idea of TV. Both of those things dropped out of our consciousness at the time when the sitcom was in the ascendant, you couldn’t have either of those things. Like, you can’t kill off somebody in Friends, because what are they going to do the next episode? [laughs]
So, in the making of The Luminaries it will be really interesting to see how it plays out. I don’t know anything about the film industry, and it’s so different from writing a novel because it depends so much on others – directing and acting and writing it. The collaboration element will be really interesting to investigate. But I think because The Luminaries wouldn’t lend itself very well to a sequel, it’s probably going to be a fixed series. I thought briefly about the idea of a sequel, but then I thought I don’t really know how, too many people are dead [laughs]. I’d have a lopsided zodiac at the end.
One of the things that I’m really pleased with is that the producer Andrew Woodhead bought the rights back in August, so it was before the book had even been shortlisted.That was really nice because he just believed in the project and thought that he could make it into a piece of TV. I met him and I liked him and we talked about our favourite shows and found lots of similarities and it just felt really spiritually right. It wasn’t like he was jumping on a bandwagon or that I was chasing the money or anything like that. It was just that we saw in each other something that would be fun to work with.
KYD: There’s one other thing I wanted to get your opinion on: the fashion for spare prose, where it’s almost as much about the white space on the page as the words. I wondered how you feel about that style of writing, as your work is not like that at all, and whether your novel is a reaction against that.
EC: Well, I think there’s a misconception that exists where people think that brief means clear and length means unclear. Or that people think that five short sentences are clearer than one long sentence that is the same length as the five. I just don’t think that that’s true. Clarity is a matter of precision of vocabulary and mastery of syntax and grammar, but it’s also a kind of choreography. It’s about being able to steer somebody through a sentence where they never have to go back. They’re sure of where they are the whole time. And it’s nothing at all to do with brevity, I don’t think. I also think in terms of vocabulary, there is a misconception that to use a plainer word is clearer than to use a word with more syllables. Words don’t mean the same things as one another, and sometimes you need polysyllables to convey a certain idea. Chance doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as accident, they have a completely different cloud of meaning around them, and one is not a superior word to the other. I think that there’s a lot of prejudices that people have about clarity, which is actually more to do with them than to do with the work. It’s to do with what they don’t want to see.
I think that somebody like EM Forster is an incredibly clear writer, but he’s got a huge vocabulary, and his syntax is sometimes quite elaborate, but there’s a precision about the way that he renders the language in the world of his fiction that seems to me very clear.
If people thought that The Luminaries was unclear, then that would be interesting to talk to them about, but I haven’t heard anybody say that. I think that sometimes people just have prejudices about difficulty.
Another distinction that would be good to make is that there’s a huge difference between difficult and obscure. I think that you can make something difficult and you can make something obscure. Some concepts are difficult, and some are obscure and you can render them clearly.
KYD: It’s almost seen as an elitsm. Which is annoying because why shouldn’t something be challenging? Why shouldn’t we try to read a book that’s long. But I know that’s an unfashionable view.
EC: Well I wrote an essay on elitism. I came up with a definite way to separate the true artist from the pretender. A true artist is someone who is always happy when the bar gets raised. And a pretender is always disappointed when the bar gets raised. They would prefer the bar to be lowered. I think when a true artist reads a book that astonishes them, that they could never have written in a million years, they are delighted, they are full of love. And when a pretender reads that same book they get jealous. They wish instead that the book had been worse.
KYD: You’ve said before about how female authors are asked about how they feel instead of what they think, and it seems like we have to self deprecate so everyone else feels better. Like female celebrities who have to be shown looking awful without makeup so we all feel better about ourselves. And I get the sense that with your writing you are proud of it, and yet you want the bar to be raised, you want to be better and that’s almost confronting in a female author.
EC: I’ve had so many experiences in the last 6 months where I’ve written something that’s academic or that’s polemical and people have said, ‘Yes we’ll run this in our magazine or newspaper so long as we can run an interview alongside this in order to humanise you.’ They always use that word. And it’s astonishing. What is inhuman about somebody using their brain? Shouldn’t that be the greatest definition of what being human is – it’s what sets us apart from everything else.