If candor could be monetized, Eleanor Catton would be minted in gold.
For the Stateside debut of her latest novel “Birnam Wood,” the New Zealand-born novelist did not hold back Wednesday night, describing her feud with former Prime Minister John Key; how screenplays differ from books; the dangers of vanity, and the importance of the here and now.
A decade after becoming the youngest person to win the Booker Prize for her second novel “The Luminaries,” Catton fielded questions from author Meg Wolitzer at a sold-out Knopf-hosted event at the Brooklyn Center for Fiction. After making a strong case for complexity, Catton made no qualms about how TikTok, talk shows, Netflix and celebrities like Reese Witherspoon are injecting reading into pop culture.
“I feel broadly in favor of that actually. Reading isn’t a zero-sum activity. It’s the opposite of that. When you read a wonderful book and get to the end of it, all you want is to read something else. Any reading activity is a positive thing. It pushes you out of yourself.”
Having written the screenplay for the 2020 Autumn de Wilde film “Emma,” Catton is at work on “a lot” of screenplays at the moment (none of which she could discuss), and her next novel — another thriller set in New Zealand. Here, highlights from subjects discussed during the Q&A.
Thinking of fiction in terms of optimism and pessimism
Eleanor Catton: It is hopeful but not optimistic…there’s something slightly passive about optimism. It’s purely interpretative. Plot is hopeful. In a plotted book, actions matter. The mistakes we make matter, even if they matter for the worse. They matter because I share in great tragedy. They still change something. A novel is hopeful about change, because change is what it’s all about.
Is “Birnam Wood” about what has been offending her?
E.C.: This book definitely comes out of a deep dissatisfaction, bordering on rage, that I feel about the impertinence of the contemporary political left and the way that it seems to be tearing itself apart, when there are bigger problems to contend with…I had the idea and title by the beginning of 2017, but it wasn’t until 2020 that I started working on it proper. Right before I had the idea, I had made these quite tepid remarks at a literary festival in India [in 2015 about New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister John Key] that were astonishingly picked up in my native New Zealand by none other than the prime minister. He went on breakfast television to tell the nation that I didn’t know what I was talking about and not to listen to me. This ignited this national media firestorm that I found quite damaging. It lasted for weeks and weeks, and everybody weighed in. I became very depressed and just kind of saddened. I had a lot of anger towards New Zealand after that period. It took me a long time to realize that that wasn’t going to help the book.
E.C.: I had said that he was neo-liberal and challenged. He had a great response. He called me “a fictional writer,” which I hope is written on my tombstone. I did get some petty revenges in the book. He brought back knightships in New Zealand, which had been abolished, in order to give himself one. He is now Sir John Key. There’s a character who receives a knighthood at the beginning. It was quite fun to refer to him as “Sir Owen” throughout the book…There’s a great sense in New Zealand that if you achieve any international attention or recognition, your job as a New Zealander is to paint the country in the best available light. I have a huge problem with that, because it’s the logic of an abusive relationship. You don’t tell people what goes on at home or something bad will happen to you.
New Zealand’s identity problem
E.C.: There’s a lot of self-exaltation that goes on, because it’s a country that is beautiful, remote and the history is relatively short. It has participated in world wars, but not to the extent that other countries have. There’s this sense of “Oh c’mon, don’t pick on us. We’re the good guys.” That masks a lot in the country. It allows citizens to get away with a lot of self-congratulation. There isn’t a lot of engagement about how deeply complicit we all are. The questions that are raised in this book are questions that face everybody on the planet. There’s an interconnected world. We are complicit in injustice.
Whether the first draft is for the writer, the second draft is for the editor and the third draft is for the reader
E.C.: I would agree with that when it comes to a screenplay. The words of wisdom that are always bandied about a screenplay is that a film is made three times. A film is made in a script. It is remade in the shoot and remade again in post-production. Those are three distinct movies, each with its own identity. For me, that isn’t true with a novel, partly because I don’t really draft. I move very slowly and am constantly cycling back to the beginning and reading what I have already [written].
Taking things slow
E.C.: I couldn’t imagine working longhand or with a typewriter, where you are condemned to look at the stupid word that you just put in place five minutes ago. I need to work in Microsoft Word to move things around and to be fluid in the moment. But I work very slowly. I’m sounding like a psychopath again. I like to have a sense of what the reader’s experience is and what questions they probably, or hopefully, will be asking, what their mood will be, what they will have forgotten and what they will hopefully be looking toward. I can only know that if I know exactly what the book looks like up to the point where the cursor is.
The dangers of research
E.C.: It’s so time-intensive and there are so many interesting things in the world that you can become so pleased with yourself about knowing something that you will just jam it into the book no matter what. You want to show the world that you discovered that and you are so clever and brilliant. That is a very tricky thing. I see the research that goes into the book as forming the subconscious of the novel. I do a lot of reading, particularly in nonfiction, before I start writing a book. I take a lot of notes, writing out whole passages and put them into my computer in these endless documents. I return to them again and again, as I am writing. So I am aware of the research at all times. But you really need to think of your reader as someone who is situated in the present. The research can get in the way of that relationship. If something really excites you, chances are it will probably excite me too.
The effects of studying Jane Austen
E.C.: I feel really strongly that what a form is is a question. It is the question that the book is asking. If a book feels formless, the author quite often doesn’t know the questions they’re asking, or even if they are asking a question at all. If you have a sense of the why, the how will take care of itself. With this book, I knew I wanted a high body count just because I thought that would be fun. When I started writing, literally everybody was a contender for the first to die, the first to be killed, or the first to kill. I considered everybody for manslaughter and murder, and both victim and perpetrator. It was quite fun because I didn’t know who was safe. I didn’t want anybody to be safe.
Was the “Birnam Wood” ending inevitable?
E.C.: You want the feeling of inevitability but inevitability comes out of a feeling of first being surprised. At first, you think, “Oh no.” and then you think, “Of course – it couldn’t be any other way.” The novel “Emma,” for example, is so influential that it’s infected pretty much every romantic comedy that’s ever been made. With somebody who’s declared she’s never going to get married, it’s so surprising that she would get married. It’s so inevitable. That’s the way that irony works. It takes you to the furthest point and flips it, but it doesn’t just flip it once. It flips it again. There’s kind of a double reversal that happens. I don’t believe you can begin from the inevitable. The inevitability follows from the surprise.