Eleanor Catton, the Canadian-born New Zealander who became the youngest writer ever to win the Booker Prize by writing the longest book ever to win that honour also took a prize here this month, the Governor General’s Literary Award. Here, she reflects on the influences that have shaped her as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
I have written ever since I knew mechanically how to do it. My mum was a children’s librarian, so I spent a lot of time in the library. My reading life, because of my mum’s work, was evenly split between American, Canadian, Australian and British authors. The most influential was Avi, who wrote my favourite book of all time, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and Anne of Green Gables was a big book for me. In terms of British authors, the Doctor Doolittle series by Hugh Lofting, most especially The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle, when they go to an island that is in peril because it is floating out of the tropics and all the animals are dying, so Doctor Doolittle has to enlist a pod of whales to push the island back into the tropics with their noses. In Australia, Robin Klein, who wrote a book called People Might Hear You, and also John Marsden, a book called Tomorrow, When the War Began, which recently has been turned into a rather awful film. In New Zealand, there is a wonderful book called The Runaway Settlers, by a writer called Elsie Locke, and it takes place in the 19th century, as my book does, and it also involves a gold-rush story.
Did you imitate any of them?
Yes. I believe really strongly in imitation, actually: I think it’s the first place you need to go to if you’re going to be able to understand how something works. True mimicry is actually quite difficult. One of the first books that I ripped off consciously was by Elizabeth Winthrop called The Castle in the Attic. I have this very vivid memory of walking in to find my brother had discovered a story I had written in which a knight is working the kinks out of his arms and legs, and my brother had this in one hand and had Elizabeth Winthrop’s book in the other, and he was comparing them. They were very obviously similar.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
The book that I see the most in it, kind of surprisingly to me, is The Brothers Karamazov. That book begins quite slowly and then maps out all the characters in the household. I see the three brothers as emblematic of mind, body and soul; it’s quite archetypal, formulaic, but not in a restrictive way, but in kind of a divinely harmonic way. And the novel builds and builds, with everybody trying to figure out what’s happened and put everything in order, and its apex is an extended courtroom scene, and then it kind of tails off after that. So in terms of overall structure, that was an unconscious imitation. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in some senses it has nothing in common with this book, but I really admired the way that the key to the mystery of that book, the moment of devastation on the reader’s part, is so deftly achieved, and that really had an influence on me. I wanted to do something similar.
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
No, because it’s conscious: I’m always trying to learn something. When I was writing The Luminaries, I read a lot of crime novels, because I wanted to figure out which ones made me go, Ah! I didn’t know that was coming! Especially the late-19th-century mysteries. I think if you read actively, it’s not so much absorption, it’s appropriation. And I think appropriation is exactly what you want: You want to enlarge your toolbox, and enlarge what is available to you as a writer.
This interview has been condensed and edited.