PWF2014 catch-up: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton speaks with Susan Wyndham

On the Saturday (22 Feb) I went to listen to Eleanor Catton talk with Susan Wyndham about The Luminaries. I think this was the day I wore my new navy skirt I had bought in the op-shop at Freo the day before, when we went to find the Eyrie building. This is a skirt which is completely transparent in the sun, a fact I only realised when I got back to Melbourne and stood admiring myself in a full length mirror in a well-lit room. It requires a half slip. Perth has lots of sun. Oh well.

I sat in lovely Winthrop Hall, then completely unselfconscious in my navy skirt, pretty happy with myself actually. I had gotten a good seat, and was with a dear family friend from America who coincidentally was at the festival with her husband. Louise is a retired English teacher and we first met at their place outside of Boston in 1999. But enough of skirts and old friends. To Catton and Wydham.

Once Catton started speaking, I realised I couldn’t understand much of what she was saying. Was it the acoustics, I wondered. The amplification. No. I could hear Susan Wyndham clearly. Even though I was having trouble hearing, it was quickly clear that Eleanor Catton is, as Annabel Smith has said:

“… nothing short of a brainiac – she’s like an eighty year old mind in a twenty-something year old body.”
And that’s the impression I got as well, sitting there managing to pick up about a fifth of what she was saying. I don’t think it was because I’m deaf (and I am a bit, but as I said, I could hear the moderator); yes, Catton was speaking quickly in the manner of a person who has much to say and wants to get it all out, but later, on another day, at another session (recap to come) I understood her. So, I just don’t know. (Also, my friend next to me had NO trouble understanding Catton.)
I had an exchange with Susan Wyndham on twitter about this, and she suggested the festival might have a podcast or transcription available, but no, they don’t. The Wheeler Centre said they will be making available a podcast of a Catton session they hosted (also featuring Louise Swinn from Sleepers Publishing. I’ll put the link up once it becomes available.)
Before we get to my notes, some background. I struggled big time with The Luminaries (read my response here) but I was so attracted and impressed by several things. Firstly the form Catton chose to house the content in, and secondly this Guardian review by Kirsty Gunn — an author I saw at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, and a writer who I rate even if only for the light-bulb moment she gave me with her talk about form, something I was wrestling with at the time. (I bought her novel The Big Music, and it’s something I need to get back to. It’s quite the difficult read, but as persisting with The Luminaries showed me, these books can be really worth the effort.) I’m glad I persisted with The Luminaries because it turned out, this book was one of my major reads for a long time. It inspired me the way she ended it.
My notes from the session:
The Luminaries was partly inspired by an Agatha Christie novel. Catton wondered what it’d be like to write a detective story, without a detective. Where the reader gets the information from all the different POVs, but doesn’t really feel any closer as they read on
(Note to self here: “I just realised that I don’t know what happened to the hermit, or I didn’t retain it. Is this the huge ‘shaggy dog story’ element that Gunn was referring to? Is it a huge trick or a great achievement that by the end of the novel you don’t care about the murder mystery/or have forgotten about it?)
Susan Wyndham asked about Catton’s plan, what was the seed for the story, how did it evolve?
Answer: No plan.
(Now I’ve got notes about the circular stained glass window at the back of the hall, above the organ pipes, behind the two women on stage. I see that there are two shades of brown used, that there are plaques around the hall, that the ceiling has beautiful woodwork with indigenous designs. This is because I can’t hear.)
– A cast of twelve, Catton began with archetypes. She attributed characteristics of zodiac signs to her characters. ‘I didn’t have a plot yet. I knew if I started writing… started putting these figures in motion somehow, the mystery would happen.’
Catton ‘wrote the words: There’s been a murder but I can’t tell you how and I can’t tell you why.’ At that stage, when Catton wrote those words, she didn’t know what had happened but she knew as a reader, if she read those words, she’d want to keep reading.
Talking about the golden ratio (this is where that braniac appellation is well justified. here’s a wiki page, but for most of us, we already know about the Fibonacci sequence, even if we don’t know that’s what it’s called. Here’s a pic that shows one example of it occurring in nature:
Catton said the reason for structure of each chapter being half the previous:
“I don’t know… can I do it? [was the challenge of it]. And if I can, what would it look like?’ (I have to say I love this. This idea of ‘can I do it, can it be done?”
– The word ‘luminaries’ refers to the sun and the moon, two complementary halves.
“I wanted to write a book I would want to read. As a writer of literary novels, if you know what’s going to happen, your reader probably will as well.”
– it took about 5 years to write
– each of the 12 characters have an intimate relationships with Anna Wetherall but none of them really see her
– Anna is the moon; the moon rotates through each of the 12 signs over a period of about a month.
[Insert here about Catton’s first novel The Rehearsal, which I bought and read immediately after finishing The Luminaries. It is fabulous, so different, so original. She does, I believe, ‘have the goods’ and one blogger believes she is of first rank in her generation of writers; here is David Hebblethwaite’s take on The Luminaries, review here.]
About The Rehearsal, Catton said it started as a theatre piece, a monologue in the voice of the first voice you meet in the novel, a saxophone teacher. The piece was for the actor to be on stage, delivering the monologue, while she takes off her clothes. As the monologue ended, she would be standing in a school uniform, and thus be the next character to speak, a schoolgirl. (I don’t have it written down but there was some exchange I think about why a sax teacher, I do remember it made me think of Will Ferrell’s Anchorman‘s jazz flute for some reason.)
– Both The Rehearsal and The Luminaries are preoccupied with looking at things with a limited knowledge. We don’t know — as an outsider — how things are in an intimate situation, and that is very interesting. (As Catton said this, there was a whisper of agreement from someone sitting nearby, this connected with the audience.)
That’s it. If there’s anyone who has better notes for this session, I’d love to read them, and link to a blog post about it.
NEXT UP: Session about “Fallen Women” with authors Hannah Kent and Evie Wyld, with Annabel Smith chairing.


4 thoughts on “PWF2014 catch-up: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton speaks with Susan Wyndham

  1. How annoying not being able to hear her properly – there must some one else who took notes 😦

    I love the way she starts the story not knowing what is going to happen. I thought I was the only one who did this 😉

    1. This is what I loved about it too, or one of the many things that resonated for me (from what I could hear!) That for Catton, it sounds like writing The Luminaries was as much of an adventure and trip as reading that novel can be. I love the way she trusts herself, to do it that way.

  2. Thanks for this Jenny. It makes me feel so much better about finding The luminaries mystifying in places even though I enjoyed the read.

    Loved your story about your skirt. I bought a mode length skirt a few years ago – crushed cotton, in a blue tie-died sort of pattern. I wore it for about three summers before one of my friends said “you’re daring aren’t you!”. Then I realised that I needed a half slip with it!

    I am reading Kent now, and have recently read Wyld, so will read your post on them when I’ve finished Kent.

  3. Hey Jenny, I meant to comment ages ago when I first read this post – I’ll be interested to see what you think of Kirsty Gunn’s ‘The Big Music’ when you get to it. I had it sitting on my bedside table for a full year before I read it, on Boxing Day 2013 and the day after (feeling very pleased that I’d saved it up for reading on holiday, when I could just immerse myself in the book and plough through in two solid days). I LOVED it. I loved all its footnotes and appendices and additional materials; I loved the form and structure mirroring (reflecting, being, inhabiting) the structure of the bagpipe music, piobaireachd; and the language! Glorious. Simple and complex.

    When I finished ‘The Big Music’, the next book I picked up was Tim Winton’s ‘Eyrie’, and I had to put it down again after a few pages (actually ‘throw down in frustration’ is more accurate than ‘put down’); the language was such a shock after Gunn’s (Winton was – what? – all blustery, or something; lacking beauty, anyway). I found a way into ‘Eyrie’ eventually. But ‘The Big Music’ – wow. Loved it.

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