The last week has been so busy. On top of our Rose Tremain visit, I chaired the Q&A with lovely Eleanor Catton, and had another workshop with Margaret Atwood. I don’t have much to add to my previous reports apart from the fact that she turned her attention to my work and deemed it:
a very good first chapter
Yeah, read that back over. A very good first chapter, huh? Now read it again. Now play it cool.
I was delighted: I’d been fully prepared for her to dismantle the thing in front of me until I burst into tears, but it went really well. She took the story seriously and helped me figure out a few knotty logistics. There are still issues, obviously, but I think they are mainly structural and I have been blessed with an excellent dissertation supervisor who might be able to help me on that front. Mostly her feedback made me feel that I’ve not misjudged this project, it’s something I have stuck with for good reason and will continue to stick with. I felt very lucky.
And then there was Eleanor Catton! my colleague Kate Gwynne and I chaired the Q&A with her on Wednesday evening and it was a delight. It sounds silly but I was sitting next to her, looking at her dress and her shoes and her skin, and thinking, wow, this woman really is pretty much my age. She’s the sort of person I could meet at a party or in class, but she has done this amazing thing. It made me oddly proud, that somebody of my own generation could turn out such a fine and assured novel as The Luminaries. Most of the other authors we see are much further on in their careers, and they’re very succinct, in a way that suggests that they’ve answered your question about a million times before. They are really used to doing public appearances and to being treated Like A Writer. I didn’t really get that impression from Eleanor Catton. She took her time answering questions, talking all the way around them and into them, like maybe she hadn’t been asked that before and had to really think about her response. I loved it. It felt like talking to a real person about her real process, and it was so much fresher for it.
At the literary festival event the audience’s response was different to her than it had been to the other authors. They were quite reverent to people like John Banville, but they weren’t so willing to give that to her. There was more of a tartness, a cynicism, an air of ‘well I’m sure it’s very clever, but…’ . Only subtle, but it was there.
I forget now that I am in the safety of the lovely MA, but being a clever young woman is not always that pleasant. You have to work quite hard to persuade people that you know your stuff, and once you’ve persuaded them they sometimes get this little tinge of crossness. Especially when you are doing well or aiming high. I remember telling a near-stranger that I had an interview for this MA, and without missing a beat they replied, ‘you won’t get in’. This is not the same as being Eleanor Catton, but I’m not at all surprised that some people have criticised the audacity of publishing an 834-page second novel at the age of 27. It just shouldn’t be done.
But let me tell you, she knows her stuff. She spoke so carefully about her process. She types out everything she thinks might be useful from other books, because she says that’s a good way of really learning. ‘Their words passing through your body’, she says. She talks about wanting to achieve an ‘ornate’ plot, which I think is a lovely way of putting it. She said that ‘every book is a promise’, and that you need to think about delivering that promise to your reader right up to the end. You have to take them to where you’ve told them you’ll go. Well, look, I just loved her. I have such respect for her workmanship. I love that there is this future for fiction. And I would remind you that I have written a very good first chapter.