Eleanor Catton on character

Eleanor Catton, the youngest person ever to win the Man Booker prize (at 28)–this for the longest book ever to win it, the 800+ page The Luminaries–was in Winnipeg recently to kick off the Winnipeg International Writers Festival (aka Thin Air). I enjoyed hearing her read and be interviewed.

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Eleanor Catton at Thin Air 2014

An hour allows only impressions, of course, but in reading about her elsewhere I find my impressions corroborated: Catton is a hugely intelligent and articulate young woman with a friendly, open demeanor. Her life has been irretrievably altered by the fame and money the Booker confers (one feels almost anxious for her sake), but she seems quite solidly grounded. Perhaps her years of immersion in a novel about the 1860s gold rush in New Zealand, with a host of characters who  feel they’ll be changed if only they strike gold, will stand her in good stead. “Money,” she told us, “is incapable of transforming us; only love can.”

Catton spoke at some length about how she constructed her story around the Zodiac, working “from the archetypes outward,” and the interaction of the twelve signs and seven planets. What I took away from this, and appreciated, was her emphasis on knowing thoroughly one’s characters, as well as noticing the beauty of structure and patterns and various schemes by which we organize meaning and relationships. (For what it’s worth, I’ve found the Enneagram useful for going deeper into my fictional characters once they present themselves to me—to consider their underlying motivations, their ways of being healthy, their ways of being unhealthy, and so on.) An archetype is a mold or form within which to work, said Catton, in contrast to a stereotype which reduces people to one trait.

“It’s important to love your characters,” she said further; writers shouldn’t condescend to them. “If you can get the reader to fall in love with a character, you’re giving the greatest pleasure a reader can have.”

Although I haven’t read The Luminaries yet, I’ll watch for “twinship” when I do, which Catton said is at the heart of the novel. She’s interested in mirror opposites, the interplay of fate and will, sale versus gifts, and value versus worth.

 

 

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Seven in one blow: Mierau, Toews, and other recommends

We’ve  just spent several days at Hecla Island, probably our last camping trip of the year. The routines and menus of these outings are virtually identical–one leaves the routines of home only to fall with pleasure into the routines of away–but there’s always something interesting that differentiates each from the other. This time it was the garter snake, and next the skunk ambling toward me on the path (diverging to another path before it reached me, which as Robert Frost would say, made all the difference), and then the full body plant in the lake when I stumbled on a slippery rock at the shoreline. And a particular book.

image.phpI’d attended, on Friday evening, the launch of Maurice Mierau’s Detachment, subtitled An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), which tells the story of Mierau and his wife Betsy adopting two young brothers from Ukraine. It seemed a good book to read aloud, as we sometimes do when on the road or away, and so we did, beginning on the drive to Hecla and continuing at various interludes–by the fire, over our morning maté or in the evening after H. had dealt with the flies drawn out of the cool autumn evening into the warmth of the trailer (though he never managed seven in one blow like the valiant little tailor of Grimm’s fairy tales fame). We finished the book on the return drive. Continue reading

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My Life in Middlemarch: a review

DownloadedFileI’ve not read much in the genre of writers writing about their reading, so I may have had some misconceptions about what Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch was going to offer me. At any rate, the expectations I had were almost entirely disappointed.

My reading of Middlemarch, I hasten to say, was no disappointment; I was quite taken with that sprawl of a novel, its plot(s), its portrait of 1830s English life, its pathos and humor, the authorial voice. I supposed, that in then turning to Mead, my reading would be enhanced–deepened–the way a very incisive review or the ideal book club can enhance the experience of reading by way of insight into themes and situations, and solid arguments on this matter or that. And all this with a memoirist twist, as promised in the cover copy–the voice of someone who’s breathed in the air of the text for a long time and is in plump literary health on account of it. Continue reading

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The experience of being honored

Besides celebrating our 40th anniversary last Sunday (Aug. 10) with food and conversation and stories and a slide show that still chokes me up a little, some awfully nice things were said to and about us in that public setting. Our children spoke generously and touchingly, and H. and I had the opportunity to give tribute to one another.

Later, we talked privately about the powerful effect this experience of being honored has had on our spirits. I find myself still moving within the effect of it, in fact, as if in awe, and have been wondering how to describe it. Continue reading

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Anticipation

I’m re-reading Middlemarch by George Eliot in anticipation of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch, waiting for me on the reserve shelf at the library. I plan to get into that book post my finish of the base book, and post the celebration of our 40th anniversary with family and friends this coming Sunday. All our children and grandchildren will soon be spilling into this house from parts east and west for about a week, and yes, we’ve got enough beds and mattresses for the 15 of us. More on that event, perhaps, in a future post. Though maybe not. I’ve already gushed some nostalgic tears, picking photos for the slide show and listening to the songs they’ll be set to. Generally I find it hard to put into words the deepest and most familial of joys. Or maybe I just like to hold them private. But about the books, for sure, later in August.

But this note to say I’m having a lovely summer, my novel manuscript revisions done and me in full break from writing and the weather quite glorious, the birds frequent to the feeder and bath for their pleasure and ours as we watch, and the tomatoes ripening, and the pink-purple petunias sprawling fuller over the balcony railing of the front porch than any year yet. I’m full of anticipation and I feel blessed.

sc0014f93dP.S. A quote from Middlemarch‘Fred’s studies are not very deep,’ said Rosamund, rising with her mamma, ‘he is only reading a novel.’

I guess Fred wasn’t reading Middlemarch; it’s a fine, deep book.

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The M Word

I’ve just spent a couple of days with a collection of essays about motherhood. About life with a uterus, as Kerry Clare puts it. It was like slipping into this wonderful story circle, 25 articulate women speaking honestly of being–or not being–a mother. Choices or surprises. Twins. Abortion. Miscarriage. Child death. Step-parenting. Single mothering. Infertility. Delightful children. Difficult children. Now and then, when the children were especially demanding and the writer felt herself turning into someone, as Deanna McFadden puts it, “crammed into the corners of her own life,” I longed to put my hand through the page with a pat and say, It gets better. Usually it does, I think. But such a typically maternal gesture, isn’t it? Coming from the stage I’m in now, which is post-Mother in a way, easier on every level but with some terrific adults in my life who happen to be my children. Me still, and again, in Heidi Reimer’s words, “gobsmacked and humbled”by their existence. Continue reading

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Does the First World War belong to me?

The first question Susan Sanford Blades asked me in an e-mail interview about “Mask” was, Was this story informed at all by any of your personal experience (via family etc.) with the war? (“Mask,” which will appear in The Malahat Review this summer, concerns the repercussions of an English soldier’s facial injury in the First World War.) A perfectly appropriate question, perfectly innocent, about the story’s origin. When I read it, however, I reacted with an inner gasp of panic. Does the First World War actually belong to me? 

It had never occurred to me to me that it didn’t, but in that moment, before I went on to answer Susan, it loomed large. Did it belong enough, that is, for me to use it in a story?    Continue reading

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