A literary star who takes her time to shine
Edel Coffey meets the down-to-earth Booker winner Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton, a softly spoken 28-year-old New Zealander, last year became the youngest person to win the Man Booker Prize with her novel The Luminaries. Five months on from the event, Catton remains charmingly down-to-earth. She still lives in Auckland with her boyfriend, the poet Steve Toussaint, and still teaches creative writing part-time in the polytechnic there.
Despite the fact both she and Toussaint are writers, there is no competition in their relationship. "We have an unofficial pact that I'll never write poetry and he'll never write fiction."
He did, however, help with advice on Catton's prize-winning novel. "I read The Luminaries aloud to Steve every night. He's heard the whole book aloud, all the way through, and he's read it since and knows it as well as anyone does. I feel grateful to have this relationship as the bigger cocoon around the smaller cocoon of being an author."
That's not to say she shares everything with Toussaint. "I'm still extremely protective of my computer screen. If he walks behind me, I come over all cross, so it isn't a total openness. I still have to be alone when writing."
Fans of Catton's will be impatient to see what she does next – but they will have to wait a while yet as she hasn't even started to write her next book.
The Luminaries told the story of Walter Moody, who goes to New Zealand in 1866 in search of his fortune but gets drawn into a series of unsolved crimes.
"I haven't written anything since I finished The Luminaries over a year ago," she says. "It takes a long time after a project to breathe out and collect my thoughts. I think if I were to write anything now, the questions that work would be asking wouldn't be questions that were vital to me. Curiosity and the 'what if?' that drives all creative enterprise needs a long time to take root in a person."
So she's in the cogitating period of the creative process. For The Luminaries, she spent two years reading and taking notes before even beginning to write it.
Unlike most authors who might be panicking at this point, Catton is very happy to be between books. "I'm not even between," she laughs, correcting herself, "because the new one doesn't exist yet."
Having chosen the most unassuming job in the world, that of literary author, she now finds herself in the awkward position of being a celebrity. "It has taken a little bit of adjusting," she says tentatively. "In New Zealand especially, the interactions are incredibly positive, with people wanting to say hello or that they read the book or that they know someone who read the book. I do miss the privilege of being anonymous back home. When I touched down in Heathrow, it was such a relief to be out of the country where everyone knew who I was.
"There have been things that have been difficult to adjust to in New Zealand because we don't have much precedent for treating writers like prominent cultural figures, so the way I've been represented in the press over there is more appropriate to a politician or a sports star. And they're looking for a story in a sensational kind of way, trying to start feuds or journalists watching my Twitter account and inventing news articles out of what I'm saying . . . I feel most misrepresented back home, ironically."
But Catton goes on to say she feels misrepresented most places. "Every representation is a misrepresentation. I've never read an interview – and I've stopped reading them – where I've felt the person I'm reading about is really me."
Catton will be back in Ireland this weekend, for the Cúirt Literary Festival. Ireland has a special place in her heart, as it was where she first received the news that she had been longlisted for the Booker Prize. "I'll remember that forever," she says.
She seems sanguine about beginning another book. I wonder is she feeling any pressure about following up an award-winning work.
"At every stage in a writer's career you have two enemies – one of absolute certainty and one of crippling doubt – and they are the two poles that lie on either side of you, and to drift too far in either direction is corrupting.
"I'm conscious that the more dangerous end is certainty. I would be foolish if I thought that the conferral of this prize meant I was automatically a good writer or that the next thing I write is automatically going to work or be a good book, so I'm being very stern with myself in preparing myself, protecting myself from ever even thinking about that. I'm quite stubbornly clinging to the knowledge that the task before me now is exactly the same task as before – to write a book that matters."
ELEANOR CATTON WILL BE IN CONVERSATION WITH RACHEL KUSHNER AT THE CúIRT INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF LITERATURE, GALWAY TOMORROW. TICKETS €15/€12. WWW.CUIRT.IE