Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

"Paradox is the linguistic equivalent of an infinite loop" - When Eleanor Catton came to town


As the golden hues of this Indian Summer weekend gently drift away, the necessity to chronicle that resplendent evening last Saturday, where Ottawa was treated to the delightful company of Canadian-born, Man Booker Prize winning, rising star and author of The Luminaries,  Eleanor Catton, remained. The setting (New Zealand) and era (1860s) of her novel are akin to my personal discovery of The Kalevala at the public library; at once remote, yet beguilingly plausible, and an encounter with a vast sky populated with a constellation of characters.


As she began her conversation with host Adrian Harewood, the impression was one of stupefaction: here was the youngest ever winner of the prestigious prize, and with the longest ever entry to do so as well, and yet despite these singularities, there she was before a modest, intimate audience giving us her time with unvarnished candour. The first question was one of fame: in just her second book (her first, The Rehearsal, also garnered positive reviews and won the Betty Trask Award in 2009), it seems that she has catapulted to fame overnight. She confessed how this newfound affection could mean microscopic attention and calls for a reading, say at parties, for someone who is self-effacingly shy. It conjures up the image of a young Jane Austen, as played by Anne Hathaway.  


With The Luminaries set amidst the backdrop of New Zealand's gold rush, Harewood remarked that Catton has become a sort of gold rush herself, with many laying a claim to her. Catton enthused that she is "very happy to be claimed." The gushing pride and affection Canadians blanket on anyone they consider their own, for instance a Eugenie Bouchard, was embodied in the Governor General Award bestowed on Catton, which followed her Booker win, that Catton called a "connective award" that would link her indelibly to her natal home.


An interesting part of the evening's conversation revolved around the notion of public personas, and their necessity as a coping mechanism of celebrity. Catton related the tale of an encounter with Margaret Atwood at a literary event in Dublin, and her observation of Atwood's façade. Readers have a kinship with authors they love at an intensity that exceeds other artists perhaps due to the fact, in Harewood's apt phrasing, that they are "bathed in language." This creates a sensation of intimacy with a writer that is more immured to the falseness of this assumed familiarity.

Ralph Ellison, in an interview with The Paris Review,  recounts how:

At night I practiced writing and studied Joyce, Dostoyevsky, Stein, and Hemingway. Especially Hemingway; I read him to learn his sentence structure and how to organize a story.

It comes as no surprise that Catton admired nineteenth century English fiction, and the past century's masters; the ambition, and tautness of her prose leads one to amble to this comparison. While admitting that "ugliness is a tricky subject to navigate," she emphasized the necessity of its dissection. As an audience member pointed out, and Harewood affirmed, Catton seems to have an immense respect for the intelligence of her readers to follow her lead. She stated that a "return to the plot" as a new norm, especially following the modern and post-modern stylistic adventures that reached their apotheosis in Joyce's Ulysses.  


It was satisfying to hear the works that are beloved by her, particularly when they were shared by those in the audience. Specific works were The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi, the Dr. Doolittle series by Hugh Lofting, and general authors were Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. Her fondness for children's works lies in the fact that children don't pretend, but "read for the pure joy of it."


Her youth again seemed incredible given her poise. Catton had spent two years researching the novel, and advised that "it is important not to begin too soon." Sage words that seem to be the antithesis of a Norman Mailer esque superego bent on wreaking literary destruction on an unsuspecting world. She has set-up a remarkable grant aimed at giving writers "time to read." In an interview with The Guardian, she says:


We're very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn't understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I'm also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.  

Earlier this year, Catton was inducted as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature. There are many young artists you worry about, but Catton, despite the protectiveness she evokes with her humility, is not someone who conjures concern. It will be exciting to see what she does next in the ensuing years; I hope she gives her readers enough time to recover from her stellar sophomore effort.