Note: this article was written on 22 February, 2014
I attended writer Eleanor Catton’s PWF author talk today. I find it diabolical that she is 28 years old and has already published two great novels to such acclaim. She recently won the 2013 Man Booker Prize for The Luminaries, her second novel and the book she is currently touring.
I had a front row seat and my iPad ready to take notes, but a couple of minutes in I shut it down. It was the most interesting session I attended at the festival, and I didn’t want to be focused anywhere else.
Catton described the book as an astrological murder mystery, though more of a mystery than about murder. Woven into The Luminaries‘ structure are the twelve signs of the zodiac, Jung’s twelve archetypes, the Golden Ratio, and an attempt to create a writing loop akin to the loops of Godel (mathematics), Escher (art) and Bach (music). The author went into fascinating detail about the complex structure of the novel, and if you’re interested she describes it far better than I could in this piece in The Guardian.
What I want to write about here happened after the session. I joined a well-kinked snake of a queue and after an hour Catton signed my copies of The Luminaries and The Rehearsal (her first novel). We chatted as she kindly defaced my books, and I asked if she felt exposed after being alone writing for such a long period; she said The Luminaries had taken five years to write – ‘2 years of thinking and three of actual writing’.
Catton said yes, she felt very exposed,
‘Especially because other people have been reading my characters, they know all about them, but they’re mine and there’s something private about them because they’re mine, and it’s weird that other people know about them now’.
I also asked about being a writer, specifically whether Catton thought the way to become a better writer is just to write, or if it’s important to study writing. I asked because she completed her Masters at the much-lauded Iowa Writers’ Workshop and now lectures at the Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland.
She had a think, and then said it was important to do what works for you. She added that in doing her Masters, she found a really close group of writers to interact with.
‘The thing about studying is the conversations you have, the intense discussions about ideas and concepts (Catton made a compacting motion with her hands, like patting at an invisible football of playdough). I would never have had that discussion about Godel, Escher and Bach if it wasn’t for that group.’
I hadn’t thought about that angle. Whenever I think about study, I think about learning new skills, and honing existing ones. Studying creative writing makes me think of technique, structure, characterisation, etc. But Catton was talking about conversations and debates with other writers, the kind that stir you up, inspire you, point you in directions that you would not have gone without them.
Writing is such a solitary pursuit. Catton’s comments reminded me that discussing your work – or concepts within your work – with others, particularly other writers, can help to inform your own practice, and make theirs fuller too. In studying, you learn as much from other students as from your teacher.
A final note: during her talk, Catton was asked if there was any advice that she would pass on to other writers. She quoted:
‘If your novel starts happy, it must get happier, if it starts sad, it must get sadder.’
which was advice that she had been given by one of her own teachers.