Meeting a luminary – Eleanor Catton at the Union Chapel, Islington

There are not many industries in the world in which we get to regularly meet our idols. Sports agents, perhaps, or television producers, have the privilege of meeting stars a large proportion of the time. Book publishing presents a whole different ball game however. It is hard find those who care as much about books as the people who live and breathe them in their day to day lives. That is not to say that the average person who reads doesn’t deeply care about the people behind the words – but book famous is not the same as famous.

To cite an example of my point; my dear colleague Franny recently posted a photo of her and a member of the so called ‘music’ group, One Direction. As anticipated, this photo garnered a large amount of social media attention, and around 60 ‘likes’ (plus some quite scathing vitriol from a scorned sibling). Later that week, she met the journalist turned novelist, Dawn O’Porter, a woman not quite so likely to induce a mass fainting frenzy among adolescents but still, a celebrity in her own right. She attained a cool 26 ‘likes’ for the pleasure of posing with the lovely Franny.

Finally we come to the subject of this piece, the magical evening Franny and Perks met Eleanor Catton, the winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize and my genuine idol. Our photo together, bearing in mind the creepy nature of Facebook ensuring that the entirety of both our friendship groups would be able to view the photo, got 13 ‘likes’. I feel I need to diminish this further in all honesty, due to the fact one of the likes was from a friend of my Mum who likes literally anything I do on Facebook, plus the like from my friend who upon me excitedly questioning her new found love of literary fiction, responded she had no idea who I was talking about, but liked my new friend’s glasses.

What a lovely lady
What a lovely lady

My point is that Eleanor is nowhere more a celebrity than within the hallowed halls of Penguin or Harper Collins, where anyone who is anyone in the industry would need to know her name. One of the beauties of working in publishing is meeting people whose book you enjoyed and letting them know how much you did so. Even if, as in my case, you become overcome with sheer emotion and end up saying ‘thanks for writing it’ in a quavering voice and obviously putting the fear of God into the lady you are about to cry. I mean – ‘thanks for writing it’? The woman wrote a storming 810 page novel that blew my head off and my heart out, the longest novel to win the Booker and became the youngest person ever to do so. And my response to that was an equivalent to ‘cheers mate, appreciate that’. It’s something I need to work on.

In any case, Franny and I didn’t meet Eleanor due to working in the book business,  we met her due to catching the London stop on her whirlwind tour of the UK. She was at the Union Chapel in Islington, in conversation with Robert MacFarlane who chaired the Man Booker in 2013. They talked for a good hour and a half about the novel, but I got the impression her ideas about the book, both during its formation and after, were so vast and sprawling that a much longer time frame would be needed to contain them. It transpired that the book has depths in astrology and astronomy it would take months to decipher. Eleanor admitted later she was aware that she was plotting a course for characters using the stars that many readers would never pick up on. Her two main characters, representative of the sun and moon (one of whom barely makes an appearance in the book – but more on that in another post I feel) orbit each other while surrounded by the 12 members of the zodiac.

For me, the most touching item Eleanor discussed was the character of Anna, the ‘whore’ figure of the novel. She said that she had tired of so often reading 19th Century novels where the whore figure is an empty and shallow one – a vessel for a male character to reflect himself off, rather than able to have any herself. This meant how important it was that Anna had her own story, her own narrative. As someone who felt the same reaction to all those novels that never quite allowed a prostitute her own voice, even though she probably had the most to say in the novel, I have been grateful for Anna ever since I closed the book. To know the writer meant this was gratifying somehow. Anna couldn’t have meant more; she is, after all, a Luminary.

The final point that she discussed that was so romantic and devastatingly brilliant that even Robert MacFarlane was speechless for a second, I ironically don’t want to discuss, due to not wanting to ruin this experience for anyone reading. Suffice to say Eleanor kept one aspect of the novel hidden and concealed until the closing pages of the novel, simply due to how important she viewed it. It was fascinating to hear an author speak this way about a purposeful effect she has had through prose. The fact she chose to keep probably the most important theme of the book hidden from the reader by choice is something I could take a long summer reflecting upon.

In fact, when I later had my stammery, lame encounter with her, I managed to ask the really deep and meaningful question of whether she had a favourite character in the novel – that’s right guys – you’re working with a pro here. People who have already finished the novel will understand my surprise when she responded with ‘Emery’. But then I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised – Emery was always present in some form – if not for us, for Eleanor at least.




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