After her Booker Prize-winning 2013 novel The Luminaries turned Eleanor Catton into a reluctant literary celebrity, she found refuge from the ensuing media attention in a surprising place: gardening guides and plant encyclopedias. “They’re so grounding,” she says with a laugh, speaking from her home in Cambridge, England. “You know, the alphabet moves forward in a sequence. They’re factual, they’re not trying to sell you anything.”
The meditative pleasures of farming manuals sowed the seeds for her first new novel in a decade: Birnam Wood, a twisty, propulsive thriller about a New Zealand anarchist gardening collective seduced by an American billionaire, whose offer to fund their activities conceals his true motivations. Set to be published on March 7 by McClelland & Stewart, Birnam Wood marks the New Zealand writer’s return to the literary spotlight.
Her first novel, The Rehearsal, established Catton as an unmistakable talent upon its publication in 2008 when she was 22. Catton told a startlingly original story, set in a performing-arts school in the wake of a scandalous affair between a teenage student and her teacher, which demonstrated her genius for structure and her ear for the pleasurable, playful rhythms of dialogue. Soon after, she left New Zealand for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she met her husband, the poet Steven Toussaint, and began writing what would become The Luminaries.
30 highly anticipated Canadian titles coming in 2023
The book is an insane literary feat by any standard: a pitch-perfect Victorian murder mystery set during the New Zealand gold rush, plotted according to the movement of the heavens during the story’s time frame. Catton reconstructed the night skies of 1866, when the story is set; each character represents an astrological sign or heavenly body, and their fate unfolds according to the logic of the stars. But The Luminaries is more than an experiment in structure: it’s also a riveting page-turner. At 848 pages, it is still the longest novel to win the Booker Prize, and Catton – who was 28 when the book was crowned in 2013 – remains the youngest winner in the award’s history.
Overnight, Catton became New Zealand’s most famous living author, and spent the next few years travelling the world as her country’s de-facto literary ambassador. (By virtue of her birth in London, Ont., she’s also a Canadian.) But in 2015, she acknowledged her discomfort with the role at the Jaipur Literary Festival. “I’ve really struggled with my identity as a New Zealand writer,” she told an interviewer. “At the moment, New Zealand, like Australia and Canada, is dominated by these neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians … they would destroy the planet in order to have the life that they want. I feel very angry with my government.”
The interview sparked a firestorm of Kiwi indignation, and even a reprisal from the Prime Minister, at the time, John Key. Catton was deeply shaken, and stopped giving interviews to the New Zealand press, withdrawing from the public eye. “It really knocked me sideways,” she says, “and it’s one of the reasons why I didn’t return to writing fiction for a long time.” Instead, she began writing screenplays, which allowed her to slip inconspicuously into a collaborative project. “I didn’t want to be the only one responsible for a piece of art.” She penned the script for Autumn de Wilde’s 2020 adaptation of Emma, and condensed The Luminaries into a six-part series for the BBC, which was released the same year.
Set in 2016, her new novel follows a group of idealistic millennials uneasily united by their membership in the Birnam Wood gardening collective: charismatic founder Mira, perceptive and overlooked sidekick Shelley and Tony, an aspiring investigative journalist and eat-the-rich Marxist. Financial salvation for the struggling organization appears in the form of Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire who encounters Mira on the massive estate he plans to purchase and turn into his doomsday sanctuary, and offers her a Faustian bargain. But the apocalypse bolthole is a cover for Lemoine’s real endeavour: to illegally mine the adjacent national park for rare earth minerals, in order to become “by several orders of magnitude, the richest person who ever lived.” The novel’s geography is fictional, partly for pragmatic reasons: Catton wrote most of it during the pandemic, while New Zealand’s borders were closed. “It was quite a funny writing experience, in a way, because I was writing about New Zealandness while legally unable to be there,” she says.
The title is borrowed from Macbeth, and it’s hardly a spoiler to say any story named for a Shakespearean tragedy is headed for a bloody disaster. When Catton began writing, she knew how she wanted the book to end, but not how to get there, a challenge she relished. “It’s quite audacious to call your own book a thriller,” she says, laughing, but she was keen to try her hand at genre fiction for a change. “Literary writers act as though what they do is harder, but I think it’s the opposite,” she says. “I guess I wanted to stick up for plot.”
Though structure plays a supporting role to story, Catton took a meticulous approach to planning the book, mapping out the relationships between the characters against the roles of the play. Each can arguably be read as Macbeth, blinded by ambition and desire, with another serving as their Lady Macbeth, who manipulates and drives them toward disaster. “I wanted to design the book as tightly as possible so that each of the characters would play these roles to one another,” she explains. Revisiting the play, she realized it was not about destiny or prophecy, but about human nature in the face of temptation. “I wanted to give a similar sense, not of the inexorability of fate, but of the devastating chain of consequences that is put in motion when people start acting selfishly.”
In Birnam Wood, Catton doesn’t shy away from the themes that drew such reprisal in 2015, instead telling a deeply political story about capitalism, greed, environmental destruction, rapacious tech billionaires and the invasive omnipresence of social media, while also skillfully lampooning the New Zealand national character and identity. (Early on, Lemoine asks a couple what “Kiwi hospitality” means. “Just really friendly, I guess,” the man responds, weakly. His wife adds, “Informal, down to earth. Good coffee.” Canadians can relate, except for the quality of our coffee.) “I do feel a bit nervous,” Catton admits, when I ask if she’s thought about how New Zealanders might respond. “But I don’t live there anymore, which I suppose makes me a little bit braver.”
In fact, a lot has changed for Catton, now 37. She got married and moved to Cambridge in 2019, where her husband is pursuing doctoral studies, and recently gave birth to her first child, a daughter. At one point Catton excuses herself politely from our conversation to check on the household, which also includes a cat named Laura Palmer. “My nanny brought a dog to visit today, so there’s some drama downstairs,” she says.
While speaking, Catton expresses herself with the kind of intellectual and moral clarity that I imagine one can only acquire once they divest entirely from social media, which she did several years ago. Catton deleted Facebook after details of her 2016 wedding, shared on her private account, were republished in the media. She quit Twitter not long after. “I didn’t like what it was doing to my brain,” she says. “It’s a distorting, corrupting, manipulating environment. As we spend more of our time there, we’re losing a sense of what it means to interact in the real world with people, to have a proper conversation and see the effects of what you are saying on the people you are speaking to.” She adds, “I don’t think it’s possible to be a moral creature online.”
She wanted Birnam Wood to interrogate the ways our algorithmically determined digital and political bubbles insulate us from engaging with one another. “A lot of this book comes out of the deep dissatisfaction I feel with the state of the contemporary left, which seems so ill-equipped to mount any kind of meaningful challenge to these terribly insidious forces on the right,” she admits. “One often finds oneself in situations with left-wing people where they’re being told what to think or feel, what to like or dislike. And I feel the emotional poverty of that.”
Though Birnam Wood is animated by urgent political and environmental questions, Catton doesn’t believe in using the novel as a vehicle for activism. “That’s not to say that activism is unimportant,” she stresses. “But defending the institution of the novel is also important.” What novels offer, she says, is the unique opportunity to think beyond ourselves. “They require you to inhabit other people, which is kind of amazing.” She cites Emeric Pressburger’s 1966 novel The Glass Pearls, which follows an unrepentant Nazi scientist hiding out in London, as an example. She was captivated by the remarkable ability of Pressburger, a Jewish emigre whose own mother was murdered by the Nazis, to summon the reader’s empathy on behalf of his appalling protagonist. “That’s someone using the form of the novel for what it does best.”
“I don’t like arguments that say novels are important because reading makes you a better human being,” she says. “I don’t think it makes you a better human being. But I do think it makes you more of a human being.”
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.