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5 minutes with Man Booker Prize Winner, Eleanor Catton

2013 Man Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton speaks exclusively with MiNDFOOD about her mystery novel, The Luminaries.

5 minutes with Man Booker Prize Winner, Eleanor Catton

What or who inspired you to write The Luminaries?

I’ve always been attracted to the drama of the landscape on the West Coast—the coastline is so savage, the mountains so impressive, the bush so tangled and wet—and growing up in Christchurch I visited a good deal. In the months after The Rehearsal was published, I was reading a book about the history of medicine, and I found out about the idea of astral twinship: the notion that two people, born at the very same instant under the very same sky, will share an identical fate. I knew at once that I wanted to follow that idea.

Being a period piece, what kind of research did it demand?

I read a few books on New Zealand history, and on the history of the West Coast gold rush in particular, but in actual fact the most productive research that I did was to read nineteenth-century fiction. For a while I tried to read only novels published before 1866, so as to get a feel for what my characters would have read themselves; later on in the process, I relaxed that a little, and began to read late Victorian and Edwardian fiction as well. I take a lot of notes when I read, and often go back through novels to type out phrases or passages that have captured my interest in some singular way.

Astrology plays a part in the structure of this novel. Do you follow astrology and horoscopes yourself?

I follow a few daily horoscopes on Twitter just for fun, but I don’t really put much stock in horoscopes: they are too reductive to be really interesting. One thing that I have started doing, though, is trying to guess the star sign of a novelist from the way that they write—and of course, privately trying to guess the star sign of all the people I meet. I also pay close attention to the phases of the moon, having found that I usually start arguments when the moon is full.

Could you tell me a bit about your path to becoming a novelist?

I was lucky growing up in that my parents didn’t own a television, and because my mum was a children’s librarian, I spent a lot of time at the library. So reading, and re-reading, played a big part in my early life. I wrote from a very young age, always stapling bits of paper together to make ‘books’, though as I got older this became more private, even secretive. After I graduated, I applied to the Masters in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington. I was accepted, and wrote The Rehearsal as my master’s thesis the following year.

You spent some time at Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Could you tell us a bit about that?

Iowa was absolutely transformative for me, both socially and creatively. The workshop itself is large, comprising fifty poets and fifty fiction writers at any given time, so the chances of finding creative soul mates, so to speak, are very high. I made the most important friendships of my life there, including of course my partner Steve, who came back to New Zealand with me when my visa expired. Looking back, it seems that most of the learning happened outside the workshop itself—at the bar, or around the pool table, or at the coffee shop, everyone arguing about Tolstoy or the present tense or fictional coincidences or what have you. There was a strong culture of togetherness, and debate, and apprenticeship to the technical craft of writing. Everyone was very mindful that the workshop’s open timetable was a gift, a respite from the demands and responsibilities of ordinary life, and we all worked hard as a result. The Midwestern winter helped: there’s nothing like a blizzard to provide a decent excuse to sit down and work.

The Luminaries is published through Allen & Unwin in Australia and Victoria University Press in New Zealand.


In 1866 on a gusty January day in a remote gold mining town on New Zealand’s West Coast, a prostitute named Anna Wetherell is arrested. This would have gone unnoticed, if it weren’t for three other noteworthy events that occur on the same day: an unlucky drunk dies, a wealthy man disappears, and a suspicious ship’s captain unexpectedly weighs anchor. Wetherell is connected to all three of these men. Enter Walter Moody, who arrives in town in the hopes of making his fortunes. He finds himself eavesdropping on 12 local men in a hotel bar, who have covertly met to discuss these unsolved crimes. Before long, Moody, who is carrying a secret of his own, finds himself embroiled in the mystery.


Born in Canada and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, Eleanor Catton has won numerous literary awards despite being just 27 years old. Catton received the Adam Award in Creative Writing for her debut novel, The Rehearsal, and received the Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to study at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The Rehearsal was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. Catton currently lives in Auckland, New Zealand. At the age of 28, Catton has become the youngest author to win the Man Booker Prize.

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