Life changed for New Zealander Eleanor Catton one evening in October when at a gala ceremony in London she was named winner of the Man Booker prize for her novel The Luminaries. Overnight, Eleanor went from being a struggling writer to fêted and famous, with book sales soaring. Three months on, she hasn’t quite adjusted.
“At times it doesn’t seem real,” admits Eleanor, who at 28 is the youngest person to win the prestigious literary prize.
“It’s very strange. I went from having 600 Twitter followers to 9000 and now I’m recognised quite a bit around Auckland with people coming up to congratulate me.”
While Eleanor’s life has changed in some ways, in others it is exactly the same. She and her partner, poet Steven Toussaint, are still living in a rented apartment in Mt Eden with their two cats Laura Palmer (as in the TV show Twin Peaks) and Isis (as in the Bob Dylan song).
Lined with books and filled with vintage rugs and quirky cushions, it’s homely and welcoming but it’s fair to say that, although it’s a while since Eleanor has feared her card being declined at the supermarket, she’s not exactly rolling in riches. She still has her day job, teaching creative writing students at the Manukau Institute of Technology and at home doesn’t even have a study of her own; mostly working on the sofa.
It takes a while for the royalties to arrive, Eleanor explains. “Everybody asks, ‘How do you feel about all this cash?’ But I haven’t seen any of it yet. And that’s kind of a good thing because I can prepare myself before it happens.”
It took five years for her to create The Luminaries, a rip-roaring mystery set during the gold rush in 19th century Hokitika, that covers 800-plus pages. Just as she was beginning to research it, Eleanor met Steve and his support has been unwavering.
“He’s lived inside the book with me and knew all the characters from the very beginning,” she explains. “It was helpful being able to talk with him as if they were real people.”
While in the thick of writing Eleanor put in long days, usually sticking it out through many unproductive hours before having a burst of energy and creativity at the end.
“Then, usually as we were making dinner, I’d read out to Steve what I’d written and he’d tell me if there were things that didn’t work,” she explains.
While both are writers, Eleanor says they’re never competitive. “We have different fields and don’t tread on each other’s toes,” she explains.
“There’s a promise that I’ll never write poetry and he’ll never write fiction so that’s fine.”
With such a time-consuming project there were tough times.
“It was scary because there were so many things about The Luminaries that I wasn’t sure were going to work,” admits Christchurch-raised Eleanor.
“But I kept writing and the book kept growing. There’s this piece of advice that a writer should always think of the book they want to read that doesn’t exist in the world and write that book. I knew The Luminaries was a book I wanted to read, which helped me through.”
Having The Luminaries shortlisted for the Booker Prize was as unnerving as it was thrilling. Eleanor recalls how in the taxi on the way to the ceremony the driver asked if she was all right and she realised she was gripping the side of the door so hard her knuckles were white.
“Everyone was joking that I was going to open the door at a stop light and just run off. It was quite tempting.”
Eleanor doesn’t remember how she felt when the book was named as the winner, “but Steve does a really good impression of everyone’s expressions at the moment,” she laughs.
The Luminaries is only her second novel and there are plans to turn it into a TV miniseries. It would be easy for Eleanor to be overwhelmed by the pressure to follow it up with something spectacular but she seems very calm.
“I’m not in a hurry to write another book,” she explains.
“It’s almost a year since I finished The Luminaries manuscript and that seems like a long time not to have written any fiction at all but it feels really nice. I’ve got so much reading to do. That’s one of the advantages older authors have – they’ve had so many more years on the planet to read.”
Eleanor enjoys all sorts of books, from thrillers to children’s fiction. The night before the Weekly photoshoot she was up until 1.30am finishing the best-seller Gone Girl by US author Gillian Flynn. Her number one piece of advice to aspiring writers is to read widely and well.
“If you don’t like a book, keep going because I think you can still learn a lot,” she suggests. “I have a policy that I only stop reading if a book is boring.”
She doesn’t know exactly what she wants to write next, although she’s keen on another mystery and is interested in the idea of time travel. Still, Eleanor can’t imagine doing anything else with her life.
“There’s something completely amazing about creating a story out of nothing,” she explains. “I’ve never had as much fun as I’ve had when I’m writing.”