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Powell’s Q&A: Eleanor Catton

Describe your latest book/project/work.
My second novel, The Luminaries, is set in the New Zealand gold rushes of the 1860s, though it's not really a historical novel in the conventional sense. So far I've been describing it as "an astrological murder mystery."

I used the Mac download Stellarium and also the interactive sky chart at to generate star charts for the years 1865-1866, as seen from the position of the New Zealand goldfields. I then tracked the motion of the planets over that year, and came up with a kind of horoscope for the novel. I wanted the charts to dictate the form and content of the book: However the planets were aligned, on any given day, would dictate what was happening on the fields below.

Making the plot fit the sky was difficult. I began by researching crimes, cons, and tricks, and reading as much classic crime as I could get my hands on. I researched the history of the zodiac, and the temperaments associated with each of the twelve Sun Signs; I studied up on the planets, and their astrological significance; I read novels published in the 1850s and early '60s, to get a sure feel for how people talked and spoke and wrote during that era; I read early New Zealand history, looking for stories to steal. Out of all of these notes and scraps, a murder mystery started to form.

It's a very different project from my first book — it's plot-driven, for a start, and the cast of characters is much broader and more varied. I'm having fun with it. I hope to be finished by the end of 2011.

What is your astrological sign? If you don't like the sign you were born with, to what sign would you change, and why?
I'm a Libra. I'm happy to be an air sign, but I do think I have a little too much air in my chart as a whole — some more water would be useful, especially in my personal life, as an emotional counterweight to all that abstraction. But if I could make a switch, I'd probably choose another air sign: Aquarius, the visionary. Virginia Woolf was an Aquarius. Actually I've always been a little envious of people who are born in the last quadrant of the zodiac: Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces. People born under those signs always seem to me to possess a kind of old-world glamour, a sophistication, that I don't feel like I have.

Offer a favourite passage or sentence from another writer.
One of my favourite sentences comes from Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. It's only three words long: "Ralph smokingly considered." I love how outrageous the adverb is in that sentence. I think the adverb is a much-maligned part of speech. It's always accused of being oppressive, even tyrannical, when in fact it's so supple and sly. I love "Ralph smokingly considered" because Henry James takes the physical action (smoking a cigarette) and makes that adverbial; he takes the mental action (considering a remark) and makes that the central verb. It's totally unorthodox.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
My parents took me to the Brontë parsonage in England when I was a teenager. I had a fight with my mum, burst into tears, jumped over a stile and ran out into the moors. It felt very authentic: A moor really is an excellent place to have a temper tantrum. I was interested in the artefacts of the sisters' lives — the papers they wrote on crossways, the tiny parlour where they sat side-by-side — but only out of conventional curiosity, not really as an act of worship. Apart from that, the closest I've come to any kind of pilgrimage is making a trip to Deadwood, SD, after having seen and loved the television show.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
The Wire, without a doubt. That show is an education. In each episode, in each season, the patterning of subplot to plot has all the thematic echo and interplay of a Shakespearean drama: There are mirrors everywhere, mirrors and wheels. A close second for me would be Six Feet Under, but for very different reasons: I love how that show can be flamboyant and hugely imaginative and remain deeply empathetic and deeply felt.

How do you relax?
I play the piano. Having a piano in the house really calms me down. It's such a reliable object, so heavy and immovable; the keys are always there, lined up, waiting. If I've been writing or reading for a long time it feels good to do something that's creative but non-lexical.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
In practice I'd say that's probably false. Most people lie to evade responsibility of a kind. Being a writer requires a great deal of imaginative empathy, and a person who is adept at evasion is rarely (in my view) a curious person, or an empathetic person. Invention is such a small part of the writer's art. Curiosity, devotion, and compassion are far more necessary.

How did the last good book end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I've recently returned to Christchurch, New Zealand, after three years living in Iowa. I was thirsting for some New Zealand literature, and feeling a little guilty that I hadn't supported NZ writing very much at all while I'd been away, so last week I picked up Alison Wong's As the Earth Turns Silver, a historical novel set in turn-of-the-century Wellington. It's a beautiful book: lyrical, poised, full of feeling.

Five Novels I Adored When I Was 16:
Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
The Great Elephant Chase by Gillian Cross
People Might Hear You by Robin Klein
The Runaway Settlers by Elsie Locke
Back Home by Michelle Magorian

÷ ÷ ÷

Eleanor Catton was born in 1985 in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand. Her debut, The Rehearsal, won the 2009 Betty Trask Award, was short-listed for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and was long-listed for the Orange Prize. Her second novel, The Luminaries, was awarded the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction and the 2013 Man Booker Prize. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and an MA in fiction writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Rehearsal
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  2. The Luminaries
    Used Trade Paper $12.50
  3. The Rehearsal
    Used Trade Paper $7.50
  4. The Portrait of a Lady Used Mass Market $1.50

  5. Great Elephant Chase New Mass Market $11.00
  6. Alias Grace
    Used Trade Paper $4.50

Eleanor Catton is the author of The Luminaries

2 Responses to "Powell’s Q&A: Eleanor Catton"

    Devonai September 27th, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I am impressed by your attention to detail for the astronomical and astrological aspects of your writing. I have always attempted to integrate astronomical lore into my own writing, as well as provide as much actual accuracy as possible when it comes to contemporary astronomy. One of my best guides for this has been Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning.


    Diane A. November 16th, 2013 at 5:21 pm

    I am so impressed with Ms Catton's writing skills! after only a few pages...three...I knew this was a book I couldn't take lightly. Having read your interview with her, I am especially pleased to learn of the research she did to get the syntax correct, the rhythms seem so right. One report referred to a "Dickensian" quality, but it seems to me you can tell it's another time and another country. I know next to nothing about astrology but I don't expect that to interfere with the pleasure I will take in finishing the book, and I admire the divisions of book and sky.

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