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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.)
Structure
– 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.

 

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