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.


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.



5 thoughts on “Eleanor Catton on character

  1. Thanks for this. I was feeling bad that although I bought an e-copy and have it in on my iPad, I haven’t read it yet. But if you haven’t either yet, then I feel so much better.

  2. I’ve read several books recently which really hooked me because I loved the character. One of them is Sarah Winman’s “When God was a Rabbit’ (2011) and the other is David Bergen’s “Leaving Tomorrow” (2014). Interestingly enough, both of these books start off with the birth of the main character, who actually (seem to) remember it because they tell about it. I said to David Bergen (he had a reading at McNally last night) “the baby in your book remembers a lot.” He laughed and used my comment as the opening line in his reading! I didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or flattered, as I felt a bit of both!

    • Then the authors succeeded in giving you great pleasure.–Glad you could be at the Bergen reading. Was it his launch? I think you gave him a great line–“the baby in your book remembers a lot”! Go for “flattered.”

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