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Tuesday October 22, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Tuesday October 22, 2013 MYT 8:10:18 AM
by charlotte higgins
Intellectual or emotional? ‘I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,’ shares Eleanor Catton. — Photo by ROBERT CATTO
The 2013 Man Booker prize winner on the unfair treatment of female writers and why her book The Luminaries riled male critics of a certain age.
ELEANOR Catton’s life swerved off its expected course almost exactly 12 hours before our meeting, the morning after her novel The Luminaries – a virtuoso work set amid the 1860s New Zealand gold rush – was named the winner of the 2013 Man Booker prize on Oct 15.
When the moment came, the TV cameras showed a face as still as a marble sculpture, pinned into immobility by shock. Then she dove into her handbag and rootled through it until she found her acceptance speech, which she delivered in a clear but tremulous voice.
“The superstitious part of me didn’t want to make the speech too easy to find,” she explains. “At the same time I knew I’d never be able to relax if I hadn’t prepared something. At times of emotional intensity I need a script.”
A person who radiates immense self-possession and quiet authority, she looks fresh and bright; she cheerily attributes that to the fact that she hasn’t taken off last night’s makeup. She slept through her alarm, and bundled herself into a cab, raking the previous night’s pins from her hair as she did so.
At 28, Catton is the youngest ever Man Booker-winning author with the longest-ever novel. She has £50,000 (RM256,000) in her pocket, and her book, having been a modest seller, has zoomed straight to the top of the Amazon sales ranking.
The win will mean, finally, a room of her own. At the moment she and her partner, American poet Steven Toussaint, rent a two-bedroom apartment in Auckland. While he works towards his PhD in poetry, “He gets the study, that’s the deal. So at the moment I don’t have one. The idea of being able to move into a bigger place is extremely exciting.”
With the prize also comes that mixed blessing, fame, and she’s already bothered by the uneven treatment accorded to men and women in the public eye.
“I have observed that male writers tend to get asked what they think and women what they feel,” she says. “In my experience, and that of a lot of other women writers, all of the questions coming at them from interviewers tend to be about how lucky they are to be where they are – about luck and identity and how the idea struck them. The interviews much more seldom engage with the woman as a serious thinker, a philosopher, as a person with preoccupations that are going to sustain them for their lifetime.”
Though generally well-received in Britain, The Luminaries, she said, was subject to a “bullying” reception from certain male reviewers of an older generation – particularly in her native New Zealand. “People whose negative reaction has been most vehement have all been men over about 45,” she says.
It is the peculiar constellation of her age, gender and the particular nature of The Luminaries that has, she believes, provoked “a sense of irritation from some critics – that I have been so audacious to have taken up people’s time by writing a long book. There’s a sense in there of: ‘Who do you think you are? You can’t do that.’ There’s a feeling of: ‘All right, we can tolerate (this) from a man over 50, but we are not going to be spoken to like that by you.’”
The Luminaries is, at the plot level, a page-turning, suspenseful story about a series of unsolved crimes, written in the manner of a Victorian sensation novel. In January 1866, in the New Zealand gold-rush town of Hokitika, a Scot called Moody walks into a hotel smoking room to find 12 men ruminating on a series of mysterious events: the disappearance of a rich prospector, the death of a wealthy recluse, the beating to a pulp of a prostitute. All the men are connected to these events and bound to each other.
But it’s the seriousness of Catton’s work that strikes you when talking to her – her belief in the novel both as a “builder of empathy” and as a carrier of ideas. For her, the daughter of a philosopher and a librarian, the novel is a tool for thinking with, as well as feeling with.
“What I like about fiction most is that it resists closure and exists, if the reader is willing to engage, as a possible encounter – an encounter that is like meeting a human being.” – Guardian News & Media
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