Earlier this week, at London's Guildhall, Eleanor Catton's life was changed forever. In an instant, the 28-year-old Canadian-born, New Zealand-bred writer went from being the obscure author of an 800-plus page novel about New Zealand's Victorian gold rush to a literary legend. Not only did she win the Man Booker Prize, a staggering feat in itself. She is also the youngest writer (as well as author of the longest book) ever to do so.
What the prize confers on her (apart from a nice, if not entirely life-changing, chunk of change) is literary fame of the highest order. Watching her sweetly dazed acceptance speech on television, I felt happy, but also oddly protective of her: Fame and mantles of greatness are things many fiction writers have difficulty labouring under – unlike pop stars, movie actors and supermodels, who tend to roll around in them until they stink, like dogs in dead things.
Writers of fiction create parallel worlds with nothing more than thoughts and words. The creative aspect of their craft requires, for the most part, no collaboration, no meetings, and only the most basic external props. The need for separation can be so great that they often construct complex life mechanisms for shutting out the noise that fame generates.
Mechanisms like living in a small town. And rarely travelling. And going for windswept walks instead of off to wild parties. And staying the hell off Twitter. Mechanisms that are not really mechanisms at all, but ways of living that were perfectly normal 50 years ago but are now considered quirky, and even vaguely suspect, behaviour for those celebrated in their creative field.
Unfashionable as it is, a semblance of day-to-day banality seems to help many fiction writers protect the fragile bubble required to do their work. There is nothing new in this. Back in the day, Flaubert advised writers to "be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
Many of the great writers of our time have taken his advice to heart. Alice Munro, for instance, who has long lived in a modest house near the town where she grew up in Southwestern Ontario, is more likely to get onstage for a community-theatre production than to give an Ivy League commencement speech. She does few interviews and prefers strolling to jet-setting. She caused a Twitterstorm when it emerged she'd picked up the news of her recent Nobel win from a voicemail on her land line.
So much fuss was made of Munro's homey lifestyle, in fact, that The Onion ran a parody of her projected bumpkin image headlined Thunk U For Nobbel Prise, Me Happie Now. ("Me win lots wards befour but never Nobbel Prise … Nobbel Prise best prise. Biggest prise and most best prise.") It overshot the mark, I think, but the joke was well-taken: Munro might live a simple life, but she is anything but simple. The point is, the complexity of her work would probably not be possible without the spareness of her social calendar.
So, too, Donna Tartt, whose first book in 11 years is out next week. Tartt is a generation younger than Munro and has a very different image (gothic black bob to Munro's cloud of white curls) but she's maintained a similarly guarded private life. For an author who was launched into the world fully formed two decades back via a massive bestseller (The Secret History) and an eight-page interview in Vanity Fair, Tartt has remained astonishingly obscure. It's still unclear whether she's ever been in a long-term relationship, and she seems to live mostly in New York, but there have been rumours of considerable drinking and tropical islands.
She goes utterly silent in the decade-long gaps between her work, and when she pops up again, no one seems to mind. She is the kind of writer who, it has often been said, is just about the writing. On the subject of her sudden, shocking literary fame, she has been anything but cheerful. "I actually just kind of lived like a student, worked like a student. And then all of a sudden – well, the metaphor that comes to mind is a shark tank," she told a reporter years ago. "Journalists would say, 'Oh, what are you going to do to top The Secret History? If your name's not out there in two years, people will forget all about you.' I mean, jeez, what are they talking about?"
Indeed, the media often give a rough ride to public figures who refuse to play their game. This is partly why retiring writers such as Munro, Tartt, Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and J.M. Coetzee (who failed to show up to the dinner for both his Booker wins) do throw the publicity dog the occasional bone. Being a reclusive writer is one thing, but refusing to promote your work is quite another. Thomas Pynchon, who is what you might call a "proper recluse" in the style of J.D. Salinger, once told a camera crew, "'Recluse' is a code word generated by journalists, meaning 'doesn't like to talk to reporters.'"
Catton's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries, takes as its central focus the metaphor of the gold rush – the idea that people can remake themselves overnight, from rags to riches, obscurity to fame. It's a heady dream, and in Catton's case, one that's proved true. Here's hoping the outside adulation fuels her imagination to further heights – and that her worlds of words remain protected.