Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton’s heavenly inspiration

An interview with ’The Luminaries’ author
Dafna Izenberg
New Zealand author Eleanor Catton holds her prize and smiles with her partner after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, in central London, Tuesday Oct. 15, 2013. Catton won the 50,000 pounds ($80,000) prize with her book ’The Luminaries’. (AP Photo/Anthony Devlin, Pool)
Eleanor Catton holds her prize and smiles with her partner after winning the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, in central London on Tuesday Oct. 15, 2013. (Anthony Devlin/AP/Pool)

In this year’s Man Booker winner, The Luminaries, which takes its name from the astrological term for the sun and the moon, two central characters meet for the first time in a short chapter that begins on page 625. It is a rare romantic moment in a romping tale of intrigue, a young man and woman alone on the deck of a steamship, watching albatross dip and wheel and ride the wind. The title of the chapter is “First Point of Aries,” which is how the zodiac refers to the vernal equinox.

When author Eleanor Catton is asked why she set the encounter against this particular heavenly juncture, something changes in her composure. Her sheaf of hair remains draped, unmoving, over her right shoulder, her tone stays even. But there is a tremor of excitement in her voice and she launches into a breathless description of the zodiac: how it is essentially a 12-part narrative, moving from objectivity to self-knowledge; how in each quadrant of star signs—Aries, Taurus, Gemini, for example—the third synthesizes the opposing ideas of the preceding two; how the first point of Aries is where the whole cycle renews itself, where the story of the zodiac begins again. Which is why Catton liked it as the moment for that meeting on the boat. Because that is where The Luminaries begins, chronologically.

The book’s earliest seed can be traced, loosely, perhaps, back to Catton’s philosopher father, whose “first love has always been astronomy.” As children, Catton and her older sister and brother were frequently dragged out of bed to witness a blurry comet or eclipse; all their picture books were about the solar system, including one about some kids falling into a black hole and emerging stretched out, like ribbons. “I was absolutely traumatized,” she says. This is one of Catton’s memories from Canada, where she was born in 1985 and lived until age six, when the family moved back to her mother’s native New Zealand.

Catton returned to North America in 2008—the same year she published her award-winning debut novel, The Rehearsal—to attend the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There she became aware of her frustration with what she saw as a bias against “plot” in the literary fiction community. It was as if, it seemed to her, in order to be taken seriously, a novel had to have nuanced characters and a unique intellectual structure—and very little in the way of action. “I feel that’s a little bit aristocratic, actually,” she says. “This idea that the philosophical life, the beautiful life, is one that is still, where nothing happens, where you can delay and mull things over and you don’t have to worry about who’s doing your laundry.”

While in Iowa, Catton received an email from her father alerting her to a website through which she could track the heavenly activity over any spot on the globe at any time in history. She had been to Hokitika, a gold-rush town on the west coast of New Zealand, many times as a child, and would often spot the detritus of the digs, a rusting old dredge or a sluice box. She’d always planned to write about the town, but hadn’t found a thematic scheme to lay over material so rich in story. She punched Hokitika’s coordinates into the “online star generator” and settled in to study its firmament. And then it occurred to her that astrology could provide the literary backbone of her novel, a way to weave heady ideas about fate and character into an adventure yarn, a way to rebel against the convention that a plot-driven novel couldn’t be culturally important.

Gradually, an ensemble was born—12 characters each representing a star sign, another seven standing for the planets. But the first two Catton conceived were the luminaries—the man and woman who met on the deck of that steamship. She wanted them to be astral twins, born on the same day, at the same hour, beneath the same sky. She wanted to see what would happen if two people who share a fate should happen to fall in love. She wanted to set up a relationship where the male and female were in counterpoint to one another. She was reading a lot of Jung, and she wanted to play with his notions of the animus and anima, such that one character’s fortunes would wax to the extent that the other’s waned.

As recently as this past November, she was still developing the story, tweeting that her Google history included “what happens when you eat opium” with the hashtag #plottwist. In January, she delivered the manuscript and by August it was on sale in New Zealand. Today, Catton is caught in a whirlwind of media engagements, but Hokitika is never far from mind. Crammed into the backseat of a car with three other people en route between events at Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, she giggles that there’s plenty of room—they all are air signs, after all. Signing a copy of her book, she sketches the symbol of the person’s star sign—and of her own—next to the two names. And she has recurring nightmares in which she discovers a breach in her plot. Catton and her partner, American poet Steve Touissant, whom she met in Iowa and with whom she now lives in Auckland, still review the story’s integrity, and recently he raised a question about one character’s past. Catton immediately burst into tears, thinking, “That’s it! That’s the loophole!” It took her several days to remember that she had, in fact, covered this piece of the puzzle.