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The night sky on two levels

Robert Macfarlane interviews the Booker prize-winner Eleanor Catton

Robert Butler | April 4th 2014

When Eleanor Catton gives talks in public, which she did at the Union Chapel in London on Thursday night (and which she's been doing much more often since winning the Man Booker prize), she doesn't mention her mum. She knows her mum would hate that sort of thing. But she does mention her dad—which is how we know that he gave her a theme and an all-important link.

Catton was talking to Robert Macfarlane, chair of the judges who last October awarded her the prize, in front of an audience of 750, plenty of whom were twice her age. During the time when she was writing "The Luminaries", she said, her dad, who was a lecturer in philosophy, was becoming increasingly dismayed by the "corporatisation" of his university (students were rebranded as "customers") and eventually he resigned. One of the major themes of her huge second novel—which depicts the gold rush in New Zealand in the 1860s—is "the capitalisation of the world".

The theme of money, Catton explained, was contrasted with love. "I feel very strongly that love and money are opposites." You can't, literally, love money. No-one, she challenged the audience, could hold up a five-pound note and say "I love you". Macfarlane observed that the novel deals with "the disruptive power of a gift" and when Catton won the Booker prize a name she mentioned in her acceptance speech was the poet and scholar Lewis Hyde, author of "The Gift", a book about creativity and property. "You don't have to reciprocate a gift," Catton added, "It lives by circulation." 

Early on, Macfarlane—who writes the Landscapes of the Mind column for this magazine—asked about the novel's remarkable sense of place. Catton said she had done a great deal of walking and hiking as a child and her father had two pieces of advice which, when younger, she had viewed with some ambivalence. One was: "Nature looks more beautiful in the rain." The other was: "A view needs to be deserved". 

But her dad had another, very specific influence on "The Luminaries". When Catton was studying in America—she had a fellowship at the Iowa Writers Workshop—her dad, who is also an amateur astronomer, sent her an article which included a link to a website called skyandtelescope.com. Catton discovered that this website allowed you to scroll back in time and see what the night sky looked like on any given date. When she was doing this she saw that in 1866 (the year the novel is set) two unusual events occurred. That year there was no full moon in February and there was also a triple conjunction of Sagittarius. "The two things seemed very exciting to me." 

Catton had been reading Jung and was fascinated both by Jungian archetypes and by his description of the way in which the 12 signs of the Zodiac tell a story that progresses and then folds back on itself. As Catton expanded effortlessly on this theme, one astronomical or mythical detail spinning out into another, it was easy to see how much she must have had to leave out of her 800-page novel.

There could hardly be anyone better placed as an interviewer than Macfarlane, who said he had "re-re-re-read" the novel. (Possibly the only other reader who knows her book as well is her boyfriend. Catton would read him what she had written each day and when she killed off one of the characters he was furious with her.) But one of the most memorable moments came when Catton explained her conscious decision to keep the love affair between two characters private from the reader and Macfarlane looked at her with amazement. He had always wondered how that effect had been achieved. 

Catton compared the experience of reading the novel to looking at the night sky: it is enjoyable on two levels—anyone can take in the whole sky and enjoy the patterns the stars make, but others can zoom in and analyse the constellations and their movements. Pairings dominate the structure: from the luminaries themselves (the two great lights are the Sun and the Moon) to money and love, gift and theft, show and shadow, Will and Fate. The novel is about people self-consciously in search of a fortune, but there's a paradox here. "If you can see yourself from the outside you can't see yourself from the inside." With the Man Booker prize, she herself had been the recipient of a gift, but had she known that her book would win the prize, she said, she would never have written it. "The fear, the doubt, the bull-headedness would have been meaningless."

Eleanor Catton in conversation with Robert Macfarlane was co-hosted by Intelligent Life, the Royal Society of Literature and the Australia New Zealand Arts Festival

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