Eleanor Catton and I are meeting each other across half the world. We are using Zoom, we have iPads and smart phones on standby and Catton has her baby monitor in case her two-year-old daughter wakes. But these everyday devices can be put to deeply sinister use by deeply sinister people.
That’s one of the themes of her third novel, Birnam Wood, in which a bunch of savvy green activists cross paths with a tech billionaire in a New Zealand national park. The results make gripping and disturbing reading.
When Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize she found the idea of representing her country very fraught.Credit:Murdo MacLeod
The world woke up to Catton in 2013 when her second novel, The Luminaries, won the Booker Prize, making the then 28-year-old New Zealander the youngest author to have won the award. The judges described her novel as vast, dazzling. She was hailed as one of the most important writers of her generation.
A hard act to follow, but Catton hopes to do so with a very different book. The Luminaries was set in the 1866 New Zealand goldfields and was highly experimental. Birnam Wood is also about mining and greed, but it’s much less experimental and totally contemporary.
It’s been described as an eco thriller and Catton is happy with that description, though she began thinking of it as a satire, in the era of Trump and Brexit and “that feeling of sudden terror about the future that seemed to take hold of us at that time”.
That sent her back to rereading Macbeth. “Suddenly it seemed to have this great contemporary relevance. I saw it as a play about what happens when we feel too certain of the future. I had this idea that each of the novel’s characters could be Macbeth, but none of them would think of themselves that way.”
Shakespeare was also good for her thriller pacing: in Macbeth’s early scenes, you always know something just before the character in the next scene finds out. “I tried to emulate that. You can see what they’re missing.”
Macbeth is certain of the future because the prophecy says he will remain king until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. But as the play shows, the wood can move. In Catton’s novel, Birnam Wood is the name of a group of idealistic young New Zealanders who grow seedlings on plots of vacant land, often flouting property laws. The guerrilla gardening collective jumps at a chance to set up a secret project in Korowai National Park. But they reckoned without Robert Lemoine, an American billionaire who has secret projects of his own.
One inspiration for the plot was when the conservatives in government in New Zealand floated the idea of mining in national parks. The idea was howled down – especially by overseas people who wanted to imagine New Zealand as a clean green country, which Catton says wryly has become more and more of a lie over her lifetime. “I wanted to take the idea that was floated and imagine that somebody had seen it as an opportunity.”
Lemoine has made his fortune marketing hi-tech drones, and everybody in the story is constantly spying on everybody else. “I wanted to comment on how we utterly depend on our devices and the screens that mete out this surveillance,” Catton says.
Eleanor Catton on Booker Prize night 10 years ago, when she won for The Luminaries. Credit:Athony Devlin
However, Catton is not interested in delivering preachy messages to her readers. Oddly enough she was inspired by Jane Austen, whom she sees as adept at satire, narrative and drama. “I wanted to position characters so they would draw out the maximum drama from each other. They would live and die by their own actions, so a reader would see things would be different if they’d made different choices.”
So her Birnam Wood characters are flawed, petty, competitive, stirred by all too human emotions or led astray by their own righteousness. The nearest thing to a real villain is Lemoine: “I was interested in the cultural worship of psychopaths, how fascinating we find them, how we reward them. He can rationalise the cost of what he’s doing … he’s very funny, seductive, he has charisma. He was a lot of fun to write.”
Catton was born in Canada and grew up in Christchurch with an academic father, a children’s librarian mother and no television in the house. It sounds like the ideal childhood for a writer.
“It was a very book-friendly household,” she says. “I was left to my own devices as a girl, I played imaginary games with my cat, I’m sure I was very dictatorial.” Her mother used to tell her she had a writer’s name; whatever the reason, she’s never known a time when she didn’t want to be a writer.
That ambition led to a master’s degree in creative writing and her debut novel, the prizewinning The Rehearsal, published when she was 22. She was awarded a fellowship to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she began to write The Luminaries. The Booker win changed everything, for better and for worse.
For better, the £50,000 ($87,000) prize money gave her time to wait for an idea for a new book and the opportunity to travel, pre-pandemic, meeting writers and readers in different cultures. For worse: “I found the idea of representing my country to be very fraught. I felt a lot of pressure to say certain things about the country, and no more.”
That feeling came to a head in 2015 after the prime minister and others bagged her for criticising New Zealand’s “neoliberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians” at the Jaipur Literature Festival. One right-wing broadcaster called her a traitor and an ungrateful “hua”, a Maori word that sounded like something else. Catton says she became depressed and experienced a strange delusion when she felt buildings were going to fall on her.
“It lasted for months,” she says. “If I walked outside any door, I would brace myself for the facade to come down and kill me. It wasn’t until I could give it a name that I realised it was something that was happening in my head.”
Perhaps it’s partly a legacy of that bruising time that Catton now lives in Cambridge in England, where her husband is studying for a PhD, and has no plans to return to live in New Zealand. She doesn’t believe Jacinda Ardern’s government changed anything significantly.
“Certainly she responded to some of darkest times New Zealand has known with incredible elegance and grace and ways that were iconic and inspiring. But in terms of political change, I’m not sure what I can point to. Inequity is rising in New Zealand at a terrific rate.”
She worries about her generation, who sacrificed more during the pandemic. “People who were wealthy ended up making a profit and people who struggled were struggling more.”
In this environment, people such as her fictional Lemoine are the most dangerous. “Every time you do a Google search or post something online or click the Agree box, your data is being monetised and sold down the line to advertisers and private interests. We are all keeping these people in this position of obscene power and wealth. They can’t be voted out and they are absolutely in a place where they can blackmail governments.”
But she still hopes things can change. “With judicious reforms we could end up reclaiming the Internet.”
Birnam Wood is published by Granta at $32.99 on February 28.
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