Scotiabank Giller Prize Spotlight: Eleanor Catton

September 22, 2023

Eleanor Catton’s novel Birnam Wood has been longlisted for the 2023 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Eleanor Catton is the author of the international bestseller The Luminaries, winner of the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her debut novel, The Rehearsal, won the First Novel Award, the Betty Trask Award, and the NZ Society of Authors’ Best First Book Award, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize, and longlisted for the Orange Prize. As a screenwriter, she adapted The Luminaries for television, and Jane Austen’s Emma for feature film. Born in London, Ontario, and raised in New Zealand, she now lives in Cambridge, England.

What inspired you to write Birnam Wood?

I was growing impatient with auto-fiction and the ascendancy of a certain kind of temporally fragmented, self-referential, shallowly “progressive” novel that seemed to me to mimic the logic and the imperatives of social media. I wanted to write against that kind of book. I was interested in exploring the vanities and hypocrisies of people who are convinced that because their politics are right, they can do no wrong, so I started out by reading a lot of overtly political books: manifestos, polemics, societal critiques. But it wasn’t until I re-read Macbeth, sometime toward the end of 2016, that an idea for a novel really crystallised. The form came first: I knew that it would be a character-driven thriller where nobody thinks that they’re the Macbeth of the story. And I knew how it was going to end.

What do you hope readers take away from Birnam Wood?

A sense of tragedy as distinct from nihilism.

Where is your favourite place to write? What is your process?

I like to edit sitting up and to write lying down (I don’t know why), so I like to be able to move between my desk and a sofa in the living room. When I started Birnam Wood, I kept a word count calendar on my computer and set myself the goal of writing 5000 words a week. Setting targets had worked for me in the past, but with this one I could never manage more than about 500 words a day. The book just had its own speed, I guess.

Is there an activity you do to help inspire writing?

I love to rearrange furniture, and to switch around the pictures on the walls, nearly always to far less advantageous positions than they were in originally. I once heard that shifting furniture was also Margaret Thatcher’s favourite pastime. I hope that this is where the similarity between us ends.

What’s a book you recommend others read and why?

Katrin Marçal’s Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is an essential primer in both economics and feminism, exploring the many ways in which economic orthodoxies devalue women and women’s work. It’s a bracing, funny, enlivening book that will leave you fired up and demanding change.

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