To mark the 10th anniversary of her Booker win, Eleanor Catton and her editor Max Porter discuss the book’s exhilarating journey towards publication and the prize
‘I took her to Nando’s,’ laughs Max Porter over Zoom. ‘She’d never been to Nando’s.’
The ‘she’ in question is 2013 Booker Prize winner, Eleanor Catton. The three of us are on a call, discussing the aftermath of the ceremony that changed her fortunes as a writer, a decade after the fact. Porter, at the time, was her editor at Granta.
‘Nando’s at the Westfield in Shepherds Bush,’ she confirms. ‘I wasn’t a fan. I haven’t been again.’
In some ways, once you know the back story, a peri-peri chicken chain restaurant is the only place you can imagine the two friends ending up after scooping one of the best-known literary accolades in the Anglophone world. The book was not only Catton’s big break, it was Porter’s first outing as an editor, too. ‘We were so young,’ he marvels.
‘So scared,’ Catton corrects.
‘Terrified. We literally clung to each other, looking around like, Oh my god, there’s Ishiguro!’ Porter laughs. ‘But we were also very open-hearted. We had good intentions: we wanted to be in good conversation with other people about books. It was a joyful competition taking place all around in the air; all of us arguing furiously about the other books, their benefits and their weaknesses. And then to win it - we were gobsmacked.’
One of the pleasures of plot to me is that the writer has done the hard work so that the reader doesn’t have to— Eleanor Catton
Now an 821-page bestseller, a BBC-adapted mini-series, and one of Queen Elizabeth II’s chosen Commonwealth novels for 2022’s ‘Big Jubilee Read’ to boot, Catton’s second novel, The Luminaries, has been described in many ways: as a historical novel, a ghost story, a crime thriller, an intricately plotted character study, and a staggering feat of formal technique. It opens on a wet night in gold-rush era 19th century New Zealand, where a cast of 12 men have gathered to conspire upon a series of strange events taking place around them. Two weeks prior, the town’s local drunk, Crosbie Wells, had been found dead in his cabin which contained an undisclosed fortune, as well as an unsigned deed allotting £2,000 from newly arrived prospector, Emery Staines, to a prostitute by the name of Anna Wetherell.
Wetherell herself was found that same night near dead in the street, with hundreds’ of pounds worth of gold sewn mysteriously into her dress. The first chapter of the novel is a retelling of one day which equally muddies and helps make sense of the link between these events from the differing perspectives of the 12 characters we meet initially - a Maori gemstone hunter, a banker, a hotelier, a whoremonger, a Chinese opium dealer, a merchant, a chemist, and so on. Each of these men’s actions and identity is governed by one of the 12 signs of the zodiac, while the characters whose circumstances they discuss are governed by planetary movements (Wetherell and Staines alternate as the Sun and Moon, for example). After 360 pages, in which the events of the day that led the men to gather acquire a whole, circular logic in the reader’s mind, the book gathers speed, with subsequent chapters charting the development of the book’s core mysteries halving in length.
The appeal of The Luminaries needs little explanation, even ten years on; the list of potential readers as diverse as its cast of characters. It can as easily be handed to astrology girlies who receive notifications from Co-Star and subscribe to Astro Poets, as it can to fans of the Victorian sensation novel, or even of Dan Brown. And although its central preoccupations with wealth, migration, and colonial discord function most obviously as plot drivers, they pose deeply philosophical questions of its audience regarding questions of language – to whom you feel safe speaking to, and under what circumstances – how you might parse the value of someone’s life in one hand while holding your own in the other; the relationship between wealth and savagery. It is, on every level, an intricately thought-out piece of machinery, the sort of thing all writers should read once to understand what their craft can achieve, even if they seek to write different books.
‘One of the pleasures of plot to me is that the writer has done the hard work so that the reader doesn’t have to,’ Catton tells me. ‘So that when you get surprised by a plot event as a reader, there’s such a gratitude that you feel that the writer put in the hard yards to kind of make something come back around that they’d skilfully engineered so that you’d forgot that one detail, or you didn’t notice this echo, or whatever it is.’ Still, she admits: ‘I had lockjaw for six months while finishing it.’ To hear the process of writing and the lead-up to publication, it’s a wonder that’s the only malady she suffered.
I remember feeling just very weighed down at the end of The Luminaries. I was not sure, up until I finished it, that it was going to work— Eleanor Catton
In other interviews, Catton has described her previous (debut) novel, The Rehearsal as having sprung from her MA thesis; there was no plotting ahead of writing, and the book was workshopped twice by her peers. The Luminaries was a markedly different process. Porter arrived late on the scene, taking over from Catton’s previous editor, Sarah Holloway. At that point the book was already past its deadline to be submitted in its entirety for copy edits, and coming up to the deadline which made it eligible to submit to Booker for that year. Catton was not told about the latter, a fact which she feels grateful for in hindsight. ‘Sarah had been very instrumental in the early part of the book in giving me the confidence to run with my ideas,’ she says. ‘When she wrote to me to say that she was leaving, I actually burst into tears. I felt like I’d been broken up with by a very significant other. So I was quite suspicious when Max came along.’
The suspicion didn’t last long. ‘His style as an editor was much more excitable than Sarah’s in those first few months,’ Catton continues, noting how valuable an asset that quality was. ‘It’s hard to remember, almost, how fearful we were that it might completely flop,’ she explains. ‘It was this very long book, obviously very expensive to publish… it took a lot of quite old-fashioned approaches to story. It wasn’t a “book of the moment”, which made us all very nervous.
‘But what I appreciated about Max’s input was that he was just so ebullient. He had such a life force and was so committed to this book being an event. I’d never thought about it in that way before. I’d been obsessing about making the lengths of the chapters fit with one another, and making sure the plot didn’t have too many ludicrous holes in it: I’d kind of been bogged down in the litigiousness of it all. Writing that’s very heavily plotted can kind of drown in its own details and it can become so much about its own plausibility… they’re quite dull questions in a way, when you’re in the trenches as the writer. I found a real counterweight in Max,’ Catton says, grinning in his direction on-screen. ‘I remember feeling just very weighed down at the end of The Luminaries. I was not sure, up until I finished it, that it was going to work, I felt that my…I had such a vision for it, but the vision felt so unattainable. Max gave me so much hope.’
I had this terror of it not being done, and my life not having any meaning. And then I handed it in and thought, ‘Death can’t touch me now’— Eleanor Catton
‘I wonder if I’d been capable of that injection of hope had it not been my first book,’ Porter muses in turn. ‘Because I didn’t know what to be scared of. Further into my publishing career, I was terrified, I had a sense of how the market behaves, and how reviews behave, all these sorts of things. I think because I didn’t know, I was like, Okay! Let’s go! Let’s do it! This is incredible! Ellie had the job of building this thing, and I had the job becoming the book’s in-house motor, or engine.’
This, perhaps, underplays how gruelling a task it was to get The Luminaries to the finish line. As the deadline for Booker submission drew closer, Porter was instructed not to give Catton any conventional editorial feedback, lest it delay publication further. While she worked on the final portion on the book, work was already going ahead to finish copy edits on the first half, with Porter thinking through marketing and publicity, and how to ensure his first publication reflected his ethics as an editor.
‘I’d heard about a certain dynamic on the publishing scene, I’d witnessed it myself - editors treating junior editors or people in the sales team as underlings who all cohered to the grand imperative of the editorial vision,’ Porter remembers. ‘I hated that stuff: I wanted everyone to be involved. The sales department needed to know exactly what the book was. And as we were getting closer and closer to the deadline, they needed material really. We had to give the reps a book to sell, and we had to give meta-data to Amazon, to start to think about how we would publicise the book. The collaborative work with salespeople, marketers, reps, booksellers, designers, the relationship with Jenny Grigg, the cover designer… it was a fascinating and interesting process, with a lot of Ellie’s input. It felt like 15 different complex relationships which involved telling people where Ellie was at with it and what it was like, and thinking how to describe it in the copy, what not to give away. That all became interesting and exciting.
‘The Booker win was a colossal win for every single person who worked at Granta, right from the receptionist through to the guy who does the royalties statement. We all worked on that book, and I was very keen for that to happen. But that was sometimes at odds with the sheer editorial task, which was that Ellie would deliver me another 25,000 words and I had to read it overnight with a young baby. It was really hard work. I didn’t want to muck this up for Granta, or for Ellie. There were times where I was quite utterly terrified and alone in that. It was an exciting and adrenaline fuelled period.’
‘Well, I remember the day that I finally finished the book,’ Catton smiles. ‘It was late at night in New Zealand, and Max got it right away because it was morning where he was. He sent me a whole string of exclamation marks back, and that was it. I woke up the next morning - and this sounds kind of crazy - but I felt like I was immortal. I’ve never felt like that before or since, but the feeling lasted about two weeks. The way I came to understand it was that I’d been so afraid of dying before the book was finished because it was such an effort to get it to work, it was so difficult. And nobody knew how difficult it was, they didn’t know I was planning, or what the ambitions were. I had this terror of it not being done, and my life not having any meaning. And then I handed it in. I just felt so unafraid of death; I thought, ‘death can’t touch me now’. ‘If I were to die now, it wouldn’t matter because the book lives, the book is fine’. When I finished my next novel [Birnam Wood, March 2023], I was rubbing my hands together, looking forward to that immortal feeling. I waited for it to come, but it never did.’
‘That’s because [the process of writing and publishing] The Luminaries was mad,’ Porter tells her matter-of-factly. ‘It was insane.’
There’s more than a speck of irony in the chaos involved in publishing a novel described by that year’s Chair of the Judges, Robert MacFarlane, as being ‘as intricately structured as an orrery’. Yet there is a moment in Catton’s reflection on the difficulties of writing it which speaks to that contradiction, inherent also in the book’s balancing act between its tight-knit structure and vast plot.
‘I feel quite strongly that true freedom is not the absence of limit at all,’ she says. ‘In any context. Freedom is wrestling with a limit and realising who you are, with respect to that limit. I always knew from the beginning that if I had to choose between the formal limit that I’d set myself or the story being legible and fun and surprising, and satisfying - the story would always win. However, the novel would succeed in my mind the less I had to do that. And that’s always been true in my life, whenever I’ve really been backed into a corner: limits are where I find that I’m most creative.’
I always knew from the beginning that if I had to choose between the formal limit that I’d set myself or the story being legible and fun and surprising, and satisfying - the story would always win— Eleanor Catton
The Luminaries was longlisted for the prize before its publication date, a source of great triumph to what Porter names ‘Team Catton’ (those who had aided the book’s publication, as well as Catton’s family), and more broadly to Catton herself over the past decade. ‘I think that every writer knows that when they publish their first book, they’re really a liability to their publisher,’ she considers. ‘They’re very grateful. It’s an act of grace that they’ve been published at all. They’ll do their very best to have written the book that will make the publishers proud, but so many things are beyond your control as a writer. People can fall on hard times and their books can fall on hard times for reasons that have nothing to do with the book itself. And so that shift from being a liability to being an asset feels really great because it feels like you’re repaying their faith in you, and the permission they gave you to be brave, to be idiosyncratic, and also to defy them sometimes, to say, yes, I know that’s what you want me to do in this book, but I’m not going to do it. That’s something I feel very proud of. It’s been a source of great happiness for me in the last ten years.’
Some time after our conversation has concluded, I seek out Catton’s acceptance speech for the prize on YouTube. Her voice is markedly different in that recording. Having spent two hours listening to her quiet, confident explanations of book promotion, writing, and astrology, it’s a surprise to hear her tremulous; occasionally halting over the piece of paper on which her notes are written. I think over the tone of pleasantly bemused surprise present in her voice, and Porter’s, even ten years on while they recounted hearing the news that The Luminaries had been longlisted for the Booker; the close shave that meant the book almost didn’t make it to the deadline for submission; the stress both parties occasionally betrayed over the intensity of that time. Yes, I decide. A Nando’s, with the comfort of its set menu, warm lights, and relaxed, standardised interiors, would be the perfect place to celebrate the book’s win.