Cultural cringe imposed a tedious drag on Eleanor Catton's literary ambitions. The New Zealander author admits she was governed by ''a strange prejudice'' while growing up: the only novels that excited her were set in other countries.
''The books that really made an impact on me were not set in New Zealand. Some were New Zealand novels but the New Zealandness of them was not what carried me or excited me,'' Catton says by phone from her home in Auckland. ''It's a strange prejudice. It was part and parcel of the slightly aggravating national inferiority complex we have in New Zealand.''
Catton, whose recently published second novel The Luminaries was on Tuesday shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, says cultural insecurities are absorbed from childhood. For instance, children will put on an American accent when they are being deliberately funny. ''Adults do it, too,'' she says. ''It's the language of TV. The other thing is to affect a slightly British accent when you are trying to sound smart.''
For a long time, Catton, who turns 28 this month, was terrified to admit she wanted to be a writer. ''It was cowardice and insecurity,'' she says. ''There are so many ways of posturing that people associate with being a writer. They imagine you wearing a beret and drinking only red wine and being full of yourself, and so for a long time the way I felt about writing was too private … So I lied about it.''
After the success of her first novel, The Rehearsal, about a sex scandal in a high school, published in 2008 when Catton was only 22 and long-listed for the Orange Prize, she made her move against the impact of cultural cringe. She focused on writing a long novel in 19th-century style, partly because New Zealand literature lacked that tradition. And she chose a historical subject no one had ever touched: the New Zealand gold rush of the mid-1860s. ''I wanted to write a book set in the gold rush on the west coast of the South Island,'' she says. ''Since I was a teenager, it was one of those things I would have really liked to have seen … It really excited my imagination and I really wanted to do something with it.''
The Luminaries is set in 1866-67 around the settlement of Hokitika. At more than 800 pages, it is a complex Victorian whodunit beginning with a Scotsman named Walter Moody arriving in Hokitika and interrupting a meeting of 12 men in a hotel. Their individual stories build a mystery around the death of a man called Crosbie Wells.
Moody is among seven characters, including the opium-addicted town prostitute, Anna Wetherall, Hokitika's richest prospector, Emery Staines, and a villain called Francis Carver, who are linked to Moody's contested gold fortune. Among the 12 ''good men'' are Maori greenstone hunter Te Rau Tauwhare, newspaper man Edgar Clinch, Chinese goldsmith Quee Long, chemist Joseph Pritchard and shipping agent Thomas Balfour.
The west coast gold rush followed the Otago gold rush on the south-east coast in the early 1860s. Before then, the west coast was almost completely unpopulated. The Ngai Tahu were the only Maori tribe on the South Island. ''They would only go to the west coast to pick up greenstone,'' Catton says. ''They didn't settle there. There were no villages or anything like that, so this savage untouched land suddenly had this capitalist enterprise descend, churning up the area looking for gold.''
An intriguing aspect of The Luminaries is its structure as an ''astrological fable'' around star charts: the 12 men in the hotel represent the 12 constellations of the zodiac and the seven other main characters are the planets (the dead Crosbie Wells is terra firma). It is also framed as a mathematical construct: it is told over 12 months in 12 parts, with each consecutive part half the length of the previous part, so that part one, ''A Sphere within a Sphere'', is 360 pages, but the final part, ''The Old Moon in the Young Moon's Arms'', is a mere two pages.
Preceding each part is a short synopsis, as in Victorian novels, and the language replicates the diction of the times, even employing antiquated conventions such as censoring curses (as in ''d--ned'' for damned). In all, it is a hugely ambitious novel.
Catton says that after her first novel she wanted to tackle a novel that was highly structured and conceptual, which up to that time were the sort of books she found boring. ''I much prefer a plotted novel to a novel that is really conceptual. The Harry Potter novels are a good example. They're full of well-plotted, robust mysteries.''
Catton was also interested in the way people used astrology as a method of giving meaning to their lives, and how someone could guess her star sign (she's a Libran) just by observing her personality. ''Astrology is wonderfully psychological, more than people realise,'' she says. ''Most people's encounters with it are very superficial, newspaper horoscopes and that sort of thing …The way I describe it is if you imagine a clock with a moveable dial around the edge of the clock, and the clock has seven hands - that's kind of the way the zodiac works. The 12 numbers on the clock are the signs of the zodiac and they're always fixed, in the same place essentially, and the seven hands are the seven planets moving independently of one another, freewheeling between the signs. Then there are these things moving around the edge of the clock, the 12 astrological houses, dividing up the sky into 12 equal sectors.''
These houses are calibrated against the position of the sun, she says. Because the hands are constantly moving, the possibilities for different patterns are endless. ''Whenever a certain pattern is set up in this system - this planet in this sign etc - that will mean something in terms of what influences are brought to bear on the overall picture.''
Catton, who teaches creative writing at Auckland's Manukau Institute of Technology, was born in Canada after her parents, both New Zealanders, had moved temporarily to London, Ontario, with Catton's older brother and sister. Her father, a philosopher, studied for a PhD on the history of science at the University of Western Ontario.
When Catton was six years old, the family returned to New Zealand, settling in Christchurch. She attended Burnside High School, studied English at the University of Canterbury, and completed a master of creative writing at Victoria University of Wellington. She wrote The Rehearsal as her thesis.
Catton cannot remember a time she did not want to be a writer. As a child she was impressed with Elsie Locke's The Runaway Settlers, a historical novel about a family that settles in Christchurch after fleeing from a violent father in Sydney. ''It takes place during the gold rush and I always loved those chapters. I read them over and over.''
Catton's mother was a children's librarian, so the family had ''really decent books for kids''. Catton loved Rene Goscinny's Asterix and Herge's Tintin, as well as British classics such as Hugh Lofting's Dr Dolittle series. Later the fantasies of Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling ''took over my consciousness'', she says, but eventually she came under the spell of compatriots Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame. She thinks Frame is head and shoulders above everyone else in New Zealand literature. ''No one is quite like her.''
In 2008 Catton was awarded a fellowship to the renowned Iowa University Writers' Workshop in the US. Iowa's two-year MFA course was a transformative experience. Not only did she produce her manuscript for The Luminaries while there but the course opened her eyes to the power of fiction writing. ''I had never read Victorian novels before going overseas. I read a handful of authors but I had not immersed myself in the literature of the 19th century. One of the dear friendships I made was with another fiction writer, a woman who was absolutely in love with Tolstoy, so I read Anna Karenina and it rocked my world. It … changed how I felt about what fiction could do.''
Catton was deeply impressed by the scope of Tolstoy's novels. ''The kind of empathy Tolstoy extends to each character is so generous and loving and humble. Even the character obviously modelled on Tolstoy in Anna Karenina is not given special treatment. It astonished me that he could have such empathy as a writer.''
Catton, who lives with her American partner, Steven Toussaint, a poet she met at Iowa, says the older generation of New Zealander writers no longer takes centre stage in New Zealand's literary scene. She feels sanguine about the current wave of young authors, such as Pip Adam, Hamish Clayton and Lawrence Patchett, who display few scars from the cultural cringe that once affected her.
''We are on the cusp of a new change in New Zealand,'' she says. ''A new guard is coming in. The face of New Zealand literature is about to change radically.''
■ The Luminaries is published by Granta at $29.99.
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