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.
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.