Tuesday, 22 October 2013

'I've been singing Royals to my cats for weeks' - Eleanor Catton sings

Eleanor Catton (right) with her partner Steve Toussaint (left)

Eleanor Catton has had a whirlwind week since she won the Man Booker Prize 2013 for her novel, The Luminaries. She accepted the prize from Camilla Parker Bowles in London’s Guildhall, partied into the small hours in the fashionable Two Brydges, and did a straight thirteen-hour day of interviews after two hours sleep. She is currently in Canada, attending writers’ festivals in Banff, Vancouver and Toronto.

New Zealand sales have sky-rocketed. Victoria University Press haven’t had a copy in the warehouse since publication. Every reprint has been sold out before delivery, and total orders are now over 30,000. Ebook sales have hit an unprecedented – for New Zealand – 4025, an intriguing figure given the number of wrist-strain jokes.

The Luminaries has got New Zealand booksellers excited. Tilly Lloyd, the owner of Unity Books in Wellington said that the Man Booker Prize produces huge sales, but sales for The Luminaries were 'astronomical'. 

"The Luminaries had springs right from its Wellington launch and has broken all our sales records. People have poured in the doors for it. We’re totally proud of Eleanor Catton, VUP and the IIML, but it’s a big coat-tails moment for all of us in the NZ book industry," said Ms Lloyd. 
Steve Toussaint holds a big book

Since its publication in August, the recurring comment from readers has been that The Luminaries is large, yet, even before the Man Booker Prize announcement, the novel was selling well. We asked Eleanor why she thinks in our apparently time-poor age, people were still drawn to long novels.

"I think that people often turn to literature to escape the condition of their daily life, rather than to see it repeated or echoed. I certainly wouldn't want to read a novel composed of tweets, or advertisements, or emails; I'd much prefer to read something enlarging, something contrasting, something new. 
Actually I don't think that the balance is shifting one way or another. There have always been long books and short books. Long novels can offer pleasures that shorter novels can't—a fuller immersion, for a start, but also a bigger promise, a more serious contract between the writer and the reader—but as with every aspect of fiction, these are qualities that need to be earned. My belief is that every novel has its spirit level: the length that it deserves to be."

In the same 24 hours that Eleanor took the top prize in London, she shared the headlines with Lorde who won the top prize at New Zealand's Silver Scroll Awards. (We won’t mention the third headline act of last week.) Much has been made of the ages of these two high-achieving women, and we asked Eleanor what she thought of all the fuss.

“Age and gender are bound up together, and it's quite hard to look at one aspect without looking at the other: when discussed by the media, I'm a young woman rather than a youth. I'm proud to think that young women's sense of what is possible might be enlarged by the story of The Luminaries, but I'd also be proud to think that about any reader, whatever their age, gender, and background. Biography has to do with the artist rather than the art, and I'm more interested in the art. Lorde is a fantastic lyricist and she writes top-notch pop songs. I've been singing ‘Royals’ to my cats for weeks.”

The Luminaries is a finalist in Canada’s $25,000 Governor General’s English-language fiction prize, which is announced on November 13 in Toronto.
Eleanor Catton after 12 hours of interviews following her Man Booker win last Wednesday

Letter to all booksellers from VUP

A letter to booksellers about the extraordinary success of The Luminaries
Dear friends,
Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize success is the biggest thing that has happened for VUP. We are overjoyed for her, and thrilled by the support she and we have received from the New Zealand book trade, and by the gusto with which NZ readers are now embracing The Luminaries.
It is hard to be prepared for an extraordinary event like this, especially when one of the charming features of the Man Booker Prize is that the judges make their decision on the day and the publisher gets no warning at all. We have been as surprised as everyone else by just how fast this is taking off, and we are doing our very best to resupply everyone as quickly as possible.
The next reprint of 10,000 copies is being airfreighted from Australia and is due at Random House NZ on 29 October. As many of you know, it is oversubscribed, and I am afraid we will have to part-fulfil many of your orders.
The next reprint of 20,000 is already underway. We don’t have a firm date yet, but we are optimistic that the further wait will not be much longer than a week.
We are very grateful for your support – as we are for the support of Random House NZ, Allen & Unwin Australia, Book Systems International and Archetype Book Agents – and we will keep you updated as soon as we have further news.
Happy days!
Fergus Barrowman
Publisher VUP

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

And the winner is...

We have been shaking with excitement all morning here at VUP at the news that Eleanor Catton has won the Man Booker Prize 2013. The Luminaries is a book we are proud to have published and we wish Ellie all the best for the next few, we imagine, dizzying months ahead. You can hear her speaking with Nine to Noon's Kathryn Ryan here. Tim Wilson of Seven Sharp talked to Ellie before she left for the UK and you can watch that story here.

Ellie spoke earlier about some of the research that went on behind The Luminaries:

'The Woman in White, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, Moby-Dick, Middlemarch, The Portrait of a Lady, and Anna Karenina were hugely influential, some for reasons of character, some for reasons of plot, and some for reasons of style. My nonfiction research was a little more scattered. I read a few books on New Zealand history, and West Coast history in particular, but by far the most helpful non-fictional resource was the National Library of New Zealand’s newspaper archives, which has digital copies of every edition of the West Coast Times, the Lyttelton Times, and the Otago Witness, among a great many other newspapers and periodicals. I was able to see how much everything cost; what kinds of foods and wares were available to buy and sell; what entertainments were on offer; and, most importantly for The Luminaries, I was able to read transcripts of actual court trials from the period. The trials are extraordinarily vivid in their detail: I recall a man sentenced to death by hanging, shouting from the dock, ‘I have in me three hearts and my father knows it.’ That line gives me chills.'

The National Library is a treasure indeed.

And here is Ellie's full (and generous) acceptance speech:

"Thank you. When I began writing The Luminaries, I was very much in the thrall of Lewis Hyde's wonderful book, The Gift, as I still am. And his conception of the creative enterprise as explored in that book was very important to me in how I came to understand the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, during the years of the gold rush.

The region is rich in two very different minerals, gold, prized by Europeans for its value, and greenstone or pounamu, prized by Maori for its worth. Gold being pure currency, can only be bought and sold. Pounamu as a symbol of belonging and prestige, can only be given. An economy based on value, in Lewis Hyde's conception, is not necessarily inferior to an economy based on worth, but the two must somehow be reconciled in the life of an artist who wishes to make a living by his or her gift, by his or her art.

On the West Coast, this intersection of economies has a national significance, speaking as it does to New Zealand's essentially bicultural heart. I am very aware of the pressures upon contemporary publishing to make money and to remain competitive in a competitive world, and I know that it is no small thing that my primary publishers, Granta, here in London, and Victoria University Press in New Zealand, never once made these pressures known to me while I was writing this book. I was free throughout to concern myself of questions not of value, but of worth.

This is all the more incredible to me because The Luminaries is and was from the very beginning, a publisher's nightmare. The shape and form of the book made certain kinds of editorial suggestions not only mathematically impossible, but even more egregious, astrologically impossible. A very sensible email from one of my two editors, Sarah Holloway or Max Porter, might have even earned the very annoying and not at all sensible reply, 'well you would think that, being a virgo'. I am extraordinarily fortunate to have found a home at these publishing houses and to have found friends and colleagues and people who have managed to strike an elegant balance between making art and making money.
To everybody at Granta and at Victoria University Press back home, thank you.

I would also like to make some very brief but heartfelt individual thanks. To my editors, Sarah Holloway and Max Porter, whose influence on The Luminaries has been conspiratorial, rigorous, and for me, incredibly personally sustaining. To my publishers Fergus Barrowman, Philip Gwyn Jones and Sigrid Rausing, who were kind enough to take a chance on me. And to my dear agent Caroline Dawnay in whom I trust completely. I must also thank my beloved, Steve Toussaint, whose kindness, patience and love is written on every page of my book.

Lastly I would like to thank the Man Booker Prize and this year's judging panel for considering my work alongside the work of such wonderful and important writers as NoViolet Bulawayo, Jim Crace, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ruth Ozeki, and Colm Toibin, and also for providing the value and the worth, jointly, of this extraordinary prize. Thank you."


Thursday, 10 October 2013

Imaginary landscapes – heading to Hawthornden Castle

Lynn Davidson reports from her recent literary travels

I’ve been to two writing festivals in the past month – the first was the Byron Bay Writers Festival which I went to with my son Elliot and his partner Cat, and then on my own among the throngs to the Edinburgh Festival(s) – International/Book/Fringe. At the Byron Bay Writers Festival you bought a ticket for a whole day and got a rubber wrist band to wear. With the sun shining on softly billowing marquees and silky rainbow flags you kind of felt like you were at a music festival – and then you were. We went to a love poetry session chaired by Mark Tredinnick who described poetry as ‘an architecture of utterance’. Performance poets read their own work: C J Bowerbird read a performance poem about the gritty side of love while raucous birds added some background screech. When Kelly-Lee Hickey read Cohen’s love poem ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ the white tent seemed to hold its breath until the end of the poem.

A session with M J Hyland was lively (she used the ‘c word’ about a reviewer who had been less than kind) and generously full of tips about her process. She not only gets friends who are good readers to read her work; she asks them after about a month what they remember of the novel and what they think the centre of the novel is. Personally I think it would be scary to get a surprise pop quiz by MJ a month down the track after reading her work … what if you’d forgotten the gist of it! Horrors. She also meditates for half an hour each morning, which includes slumping in a chair with cigarette and coffee before heading into her writing day. Generally I like hearing the Aussie writers talk, they have a certain appealing zest and irreverence.

Highlights for me of the busy, vast Edinburgh Book Fest (and I’ll add here I wasn’t there to hear Ellie Catton read – I heard she was wonderful) were Kay Ryan, Jackie Kay, Kathleen Jamie and the great story-teller Colm Toibin. Kay Ryan talked about the importance of ‘getting going’ with writing; she says if you can get going, something can happen. She often uses Ripley’s Believe it or Not and murder mysteries as inspiration. She was funny and wry and generous with her readings. Her asides – pre, mid and post poem reading – were almost poems in themselves. One memorable quote: ‘I like the texture and the sound of facts but I don’t care about them actually.’  How liberating.

Kathleen Jamie talked a bit about what she called the ‘hinterlands’ of poems  – I think she means the land you can’t see when you look at the landscape of a poem, but it’s there. She spoke about her recent breast cancer and how, during her recovery where she spent a long time relaxing in her garden, a friend sent her some rose-scented body moisturiser and how lovely the scent was, and then she talked about the scent of Damascus roses and she wove around to Rosa Luxemburg and I almost forget now, but maybe she was really talking about a prose poem, ‘Healings 2’, in her new collaborative book Frissure where artist Brigid Collins paints the line of Jamie’s mastectomy scar as a rose with a line of Robert Burns falling off the edges of the page: ‘You sieze the flo’er, the bloom is shed.’ The poem finishes ‘To be healed is not to be saved from mortality but rather, released back into it:/ we are returned to the wild, into possibilities for ageing and change.’

So since then I’ve been to County Kerry in Ireland and my ex-sister in law has taken me around peninsulas and onto islands. Back in Scotland I spent some days on the Isle of Islay, revisiting after 27 years. It’s as beautiful and strange and as full of eccentric characters as it ever was. I ate a memorable meal there called Hebridean chicken with black pudding, haggis and whisky sauce.

It was on Islay that I heard about the death of Seamus Heaney. It’s hard to imagine that he is gone. I was going to hear him read at the British and Irish Contemporary Poetry Conference next week. At least the poems are still with us – we can enter them at any time and hear their music.  

Now I’m resident (for a short, heady time a fellow) at Hawthornden Castle and hope to spend my month here writing poems and perhaps essays that may have some interesting hinterlands. We went beneath the castle the other day to explore the Pictish caves. Our host Hamish unlocked the heavy wood door to the caves with a large old key. We all (except me) bowed down a little to enter caves that are like large burrows, rounded at their edges. At one point a cave opened onto the side of a very deep well (Seamus would have found a poem there). In another cave carved into its walls was what looked like an extensive wine rack, but was a dove cote. For doves. In the caves. You heard me.