Hokitika scoped by Hollywood

ANOTHER ACCOLADE: Man Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton.
ANOTHER ACCOLADE: Man Booker Prize winning author Eleanor Catton.

Hollywood is heading for Hokitika, with the West Coast township in line to be used as the setting for a planned television adaptation of Eleanor Catton's Booker Prize-winning novel, The Luminaries.

In an interview with the Sunday Star-Times today, Catton said she had insisted the production be filmed in New Zealand, and will be taking producer Andrew Woodhouse to the West Coast, and in particular Hokitika, where the novel is set during the gold rush.

"I would insist on location, just because the flora and fauna in New Zealand is not anywhere else in the world and we have such great film facilities in New Zealand, so why not?" Catton said.

"Some things I wouldn't compromise on: it wouldn't make sense to be filmed anywhere else. I don't even know if I could put my foot down about that, but if I could, I will.

"But I don't mind other things changing a little bit ... I would be very open to changing a lot of the story because what gives you a thrill on the page does not necessarily give you the same feeling on screen."

Coasters yesterday welcomed news of the possible filming, saying they were eager to see their district showcased.

"It's really exciting for the town," Westland mayor Mike Havill said.

Many Westland places described in Catton's novel remained unchanged since the 1860s, he said.

"I'm sure they'll find some great locations here."

The local-born dairy farmer said the book was proving a great boon for Hokitika, Westland and the entire West Coast.

Havill, who was halfway through reading the book, said he would formally welcome the young author for her event "An Evening with Eleanor Catton", to be held at Hokitika's Regent Theatre on March 13.

It will feature her in an hour-long conversation with her British publisher Max Porter and autograph session afterwards.

The owner of Hokitika's Take Note bookshop, Claudia Landis, was excited to hear film scouts were heading to the town. "Isn't that wonderful?"

The shop had sold hundreds of copies with some visitors specifically buying the novel in Hokitika.

"We've got a stamp to show they've bought it here," Landis said. "It's been a really, really huge thing for us but it's a lot more important for Hokitika."

The West Coast's other Booker Prize winner, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, was the shop's most popular back-listed book, selling 30 to 40 copies a year, even though it was first published 29 years ago.

"We have a lot of people coming to the West Coast because of The Bone People. It's been a really important book for us."

Catton said a clause in the contract she had signed with producers didn't allow them to "kill off" any of the book's characters without her permission.

She said budget considerations might halt original plans for a 12-part mini-series, each part centred on one of the novel's core characters, and might instead see seven episodes which could match the book's intricate astrological structure.

Catton said two writers, who she couldn't name, were reading the novel with a view to writing an adaptation. She didn't plan to be involved in writing the scripts but would take a consultancy role.

Hokitika i-site supervisor Kristy Russell said filming The Luminaries TV series would "put Hokitika on the map".

Plenty of international visitors were asking for information about Hokitika locations in the book.

"I had one couple come in and I had to show them where Revell St is because it's mentioned a lot in the book. They just wanted to go to Revell St and sit at a cafe to have coffees."


Eleanor Catton apologises for being "kinda vague". She's out of practice, she says: this is her first interview since the hurried, hungover scramble of British media the day after her life changed (or perhaps didn't, as we will find).

Since she won the Man Booker Prize last November for her remarkable novel The Luminaries, Catton has had a long holiday, mainly offshore.

She put an out-of-office message on her email for a month, began writing again only last week, and has yet to make a public appearance to truly gauge the level of attention she may face.

But already she has been forced into one defensive measure - what she calls her "wallet-sized bouncers" - a stack of her publicist's business cards which sit in her handbag, ready to fend off suitors.

"It is amazing how many people ask for my personal details, cellphone number and home number and address just to be able to send me things . . . It's interesting, because once upon a time I would have always said ‘come on over, have a glass of wine'. Now I am very protective about it and keeping people at arm's length a little bit more."

This extends to interviewers. On the day that Lorde tweets her unhappiness at her Auckland airport reception from the media, Catton declares the New Zealand media has been "by far the worst" of any she has dealt with: rude, spinning, "disloyal".

"I shouldn't start complaining, but it is disconcerting when you realise that people are looking at everything you say, wanting to find the story that is most sensational in it."

And so her answers often come with long, thoughtful pauses. "I am just thinking," she says at one point, "I have to start visualising what's coming out of my mouth in newsprint."

She thinks it is probably the loss of control: "I had complete control over what The Luminaries looks and sounds like . . . [in news stories] I feel that lack of control really acutely; I find myself saying ‘this isn't as good an article as it could have been' or the wrong kind of article."

While it's "hard to turn your ears off", she says she doesn't read them any more, or at least has trusted offsiders to filter them for her. She finds it infuriating that negative reviews appear on her Twitter feed because people have used her @eleanorcatton handle in their links.

But despite stoushes with literary figures such as C K Stead and feeling that her privacy is invaded, what appears to have hurt most was a triviality: when this website turned a series of her tweets discussing the Hunger Games novels (she's a fan) into "advice" to author Suzanne Collins. "It makes me sound like a complete tosser."

And yet she is not an ingrate. Catton is an engaging interviewee: cheerful, friendly, giving each question more attention than it deserves and providing long, complex, fiercely intelligent and compelling answers.

The problem for her interviewer is that to avoid traducing her, you might need the journalistic equivalent of The Luminaries' 832 pages to do her justice.

Lloyd Jones, who was once shortlisted for the Booker said that "it changes you". Catton rather hopes that it has not - or at least not for the worse.

She tells me, aghast, she has discovered some major authors can now demand their work goes to press without any editing. "I couldn't imagine anything more atrocious than getting to that place. I hope I never get to that place."

She says that books don't really have messages, but if The Luminaries had one, it would be that money doesn't change you - a small fortune changes hands several times through the course of the narrative without benefiting any who possess it.

She later returns unprompted to the question to consider the role of the nightly conversations she began with her partner, American poet Steve Toussaint, during the long parturition of The Luminaries.

"I don't feel that worried about everything that happened last year, because I still feel I have a really strong conversational element in my life; that every night there is another one to be had and I feel that is going to keep me honest. Or that's what I am hoping for: that if I started talking like a dickhead, Steve would be like: ‘you are talking like a dickhead'."

That internal filter has briefly silted up. It kicks back in: "That's not going to look very good in print, I guess."

Catton had also somewhat prepared herself for Man Booker victory, if only by supposing it wouldn't happen. She decided that when she made the judges' long-list that she would be simply happy with that achievement and not yearn for anything more.

"Affirmation is a really tricky thing to want from the world because it changes so much . . . at moments of being single, you can imagine people asking what you want most and saying all that you want, the only thing that I want is to be happy in a relationship," she explains.

"But as soon as you are in a relationship, someone will say what do you want and nobody ever says nothing - you always say all that I want at this moment is to get this job . . . as soon as you get the thing you said you wanted, it recedes away from you."

Despite all that, the jackpot the Booker represents - not the $50,000 prize money, but the near-instant multiplication of sales (one past winner, Howard Jacobson, saw a 1,918 per cent rise) - has of course had material impact: Catton admits it is "super weird not worrying about money".

She suggested last year that it was "always a bad thing" when writers become too comfortable and lost "the place of struggle".

But she absolutely rejects the idea of the starving artist in the garret. Indeed, her world seems almost as unsolitary as a writer's could be.

She teaches creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology and tells her students they should become friends and talk and discuss their work, and so "demystify" the creative process.

It fits with something she once said about how being a better author makes you a better person; she talks about how you can become more empathic and sensitive and have a better regard for your audience's desires and again, none of this fits with the selfishness of the "starving artist".

The motivation now, she concludes, is not to drop her standards.

"I think the worst thing that a writer can do is convince themselves that anything they would write would be good automatically and I think that does happen to certain artists at certain points of their career, they become complacent: that just by showing up at a party, that party is immediately more fun . . . I would hate it if that happened to me."

The Luminaries took five years, a time of clear struggle where Catton stitched together bursaries and degrees and residencies into enough income to live in "places with mouse infestations" and still stayed true, despite advice to the contrary, to the ambitious architecture of the novel - which is arranged with 12 parts, each decreasing in size, to match the moon's lunar cycle, and in which characters are linked to the signs of the zodiac and act within those characteristics and also with each other based on the movement of the heavens.

"It was all a gamble, and I didn't know how it would turn out," she admits. "And all of my friends and family, at least at the beginning, knew of the structure I was trying ... and found it hilarious how unwieldy and stupid an idea it was, which it completely was.

"So I was having to be strong in the face of people teasing me, in a very loving and gentle way, but I still had to put up some sort of fortification. I know it won't be true any more. Now I can just decide to write."

Almost every profile written of Catton - and there have been many - has included a string of adjectives, usually about her poise, sobriety and level head; all characteristics usually attached to one much older. It seems a backhanded way of referring to her remarkable youth - she is only 28, and published her first novel, The Rehearsal, at 22.

She feels her success has too often been described as coming "despite" her age and makes a forceful case for the advantages of youth: not least the bullishness required to deliver such a novel of such a complex structure against the advice of all those around her.

She cites Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein at 19, which among its other achievements, virtually invented a genre.

"I think often what naivete brings is a sense of hopefulness, because there is no reason why that [The Luminaries' structure] should not work, so you just try it."

Such ambition, she hopes, may be the local impact of The Luminaries. Catton recalls reading Elizabeth Knox's The Vintner's Luck at 13 and realising what could be possible. She hopes she can lead others to "feel the same possibilities".

Catton hasn't yet embarked on the next big project. She's at a stage of reading lots of non-fiction (in her handbag today is something on the psychology of children's play) and she says the same process began her research for The Luminaries, which in turn produced thick folders of notes that "builds up this kind of ground layer of soil and things take root out of that".

She confides that she has managed to spend the past three days agonising over the first 400 words of an essay for an overseas magazine.

Famously, Catton grew up without a television; her parents said she would later thank them for it, and she did. She still doesn't own one, instead watching box sets of decent dramas on her computer.

And so on the day of the Grammys, unable to find a decent livestream, she spent a frustrating time tracking Lorde's success on Twitter. She tweeted "Hooray!".

She feels there is a "possessive thing" where New Zealand claims individual triumphs as its own ("The country didn't win the Grammy; Lorde did.") and perhaps an arrogance in our continued self-portrayal as the underdog. In the same breath, she also likes the way the country unites around success.

It is intriguing that Catton and Lorde are two young, creative women, who threaten to achieve a status once reserved for male sportsmen.

John Key said dismissively, back in 2009, that "while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us."

Offered the Key quote, Catton earnestly talks up her love of the All Blacks and the importance of sport, then pauses, considering the possible headlines from every angle.

"I want to say something critical of John Key, but I am not sure I am willing to do it."

Eventually, she says, Key wouldn't be able to say something like that in a healthier artistic culture because it would be derided.

"I was less depressed that he said it, more depressed that it didn't mean anything," she says, and mentions Judith Collins tweeting the Booker (or as she put it, Brookers) was "a prize given for the most unreadable novel".

Whether Key, who rather loves standing shoulder-to-shoulder with popular heroes, will now have changed his mind is yet to be tested.

Catton pops above the parapet three times next month at the New Zealand Festival Writer's Week for lectures and talks. The Lorde-at-the-airport treatment may be unlikely, but the wallet-sized bouncers will definitely be on duty.

Sunday Star Times