Eleanor Catton is a 23 year old writer from New Zealand, and has already received excellent reviews of her debut novel and an admirable handful of literary prizes and awards. She has been described as ‘a giggly, tomboyish chatterbox from Christchurch’ as well as ‘a new talent who has arrived fully formed’. There is much to love about The Rehearsal with its simmering adolescence, theatrical performances, and fast delicious prose. Annie Clarkson asks the author about theatricality, sexual tension and the experience of being a younger sister…
Annie Clarkson (AC): Firstly, I want to say I loved reading The Rehearsal. The way you write about adolescent experience with all its acute emotions, simmering hormones, and identity struggles is brutal and very honest. How did you get into writing this style? Was it an intense experience to write?
Eleanor Catton (EC): It was definitely intense! I wrote the bulk of the novel in quite a short period of time – about eighty thousand words in eight months – and during that time I really immersed myself in the novel’s world. I got glandular fever towards the end of the year and it took about a month of fevers and shivering before I realised that my symptoms weren’t actually novel-related, and I was genuinely ill.
The book’s flirtation with theatricality meant that the characters’ means of expressing themselves all had to be very declamatory – there was not any room in the novel for self-denial, because I wanted all the characters to speak their minds and speak each others’ minds in a way that was wholly performative. That meant that all the characters had to be relatively acute social observers, and the novel’s emotional side was “told” instead of “shown”. At first this way of writing seemed to run contrary to my received ideas of what was ‘good’ writing, and so it took a while to take off. Once I got inside the novel’s brain, though, the style became more and more natural, and I acclimatised to the novel’s voice.
We had a joke in my master’s class that we would all come to the end-of-year party as a character from our fiction. Everyone said I should come as the saxophone teacher, but I knew that I could never sustain that relentlessly stylised manner for even a few minutes, let alone a whole evening. I could never come up with that kind of thing on the spot.
AC: Ideas around theatre and performance are deeply embedded in your novel: dramatic dialogue/monologues; cues for characters to enter, stage lighting and characters playing their ‘part’ in the drama that unfolds; all the rehearsing and learning that takes place at the drama school. It felt very ‘real’, as though you might have personal experience of acting or acting school, or was this a result of painstaking research?
EC: Most of my exposure to performance methodology came from studying theatre and dramatic theory at university. I’ve never been to drama school, although I have taken the odd drama course and done a bit of community theatre work in New Zealand. I’ve acted in a few amateur short films, most notably a 40-minute zombie flick called Under My Skin, where in the final scene I heroically stab a craft knife into a zombie’s eye. We used a pig’s eye for the close-up and the experience was enough to convert one of the actors to vegetarianism. My experience making short films taught me more about writing fiction than about acting, though, especially with regard to pacing and plotting. I’m too self-conscious to ever be a really good actor.
AC: There is a simmering tension that builds throughout the novel, partly created I felt by the fact we rarely meet Victoria and Mr Saladin the central characters in the sex scandal in the novel, and yet we hear so much about them through gossip, conjecture and guesswork by other characters. Are there any real life scandals that you’ve experienced or read about or that fascinated you enough to write about scandal in such a way?
EC: My high school years passed virtually without incident. I have more in common with Stanley than with the girls – like him, I spent my school years longing for one of my classmates to dare to do something rash. Now that I’m older, I’m not sure that scandal and gossip really interests me that much. It wasn’t the actual fact of the sex scandal that drew me to write the story of The Rehearsal – ideas of performance and performativity were my main focus, and the sex scandal just gave me the opportunity to explore them.
AC: The Saxophone teacher is a wildly compelling character. We never learn her name, but she is the confidante to numerous girls in the book who seem to openly spill out their secret wishes and desires. She seems to incite their obsessions and live her life through their relationships. Is she the character you most enjoyed writing?
EC: I wrote The Rehearsal as my master’s thesis, and my thesis supervisor gave me a piece of advice at the beginning of the year which really stuck with me: he said that if a book starts off funny, it has to get funnier; if it starts off weird, it has to get weirder, if it starts off sad, it has to get sadder. Like all good advice it seems pretty straightforward at first glance, but I came to realise that having to trump oneself means having to outwit oneself, and that’s actually really difficult. With the saxophone teacher, it meant that I had to go out searching for metaphors and quirks of language that were more and more outrageous, because she opens the novel with such a fanfare of outrageous language, and I didn’t want that to just fizz away. I remember quite a few days’ work where all I did was hunt metaphors. I spent a lot of time with my thesaurus. But I did enjoy writing her speeches very much– her theatrical savagery was great fun to write, however painstaking it was, and I feel tremendous affection for her, too.
AC: I was very interested in the relationship between sisters Isolde and Victoria. It feels like one of the ‘truest’ relationships in the novel, not manipulated by other characters, and imbued with a certain amount of sadness. Was this your intention? Are you perhaps a younger sister?
EC: Yes, I’m the youngest of three – I have an older sister and an older brother – so I guess the experience of being the youngest is something that I identify with closely.
You’re right that the relationship between Isolde and Victoria has a quality that none of the other relationships in the book have: it is not at all predatory. Isolde doesn’t really actively seek out knowledge about her sister’s affair with Mr Saladin, and even in her private speculation about it she is quite respectful, I think, and even whimsical. The sisters aren’t trying to exploit or manipulate each other, which in the larger context of the novel is really quite remarkable. Isolde sees her sister as a human being, even if she doesn’t quite understand her. She sees beyond the performance to something real.
AC: I wanted to ask something about the success you’re experiencing. I read a review where you were described as a ‘fully formed new talent’. How has it felt to experience such success with The Rehearsal? And win awards? And do you feel like writing is a talent or something that is learnt?
EC: I am still astonished and a little bit suspicious that The Rehearsal has even been published – I haven’t quite wrapped my head around that yet. It’s especially weird to begin talking to a complete stranger and find out that they’ve read it – I feel a little backfooted, actually, as if they’ve gone through my bedroom drawers while I wasn’t at home.
The awards have been very nice because they provide me with enough security to keep writing, but really they are incidental to my relationship to The Rehearsal, which will always be very personal and very private. I suppose everyone’s first novel is a coming-of-age novel in some sense, and The Rehearsal is mine – it cemented the years of my life where I decided on what was important to me, in my art and in my person, and the book’s public presence will never change how I feel about that.
I do think writing is a talent, but I think that being talented has a lot to do with devotion and careful study and love. I don’t believe in inspiration “versus” perspiration – I think they each reflect each other. I know that I have improved enormously as a writer by studying it as a formal discipline.
AC: So, what are you writing at the moment, and what can we expect to read from Eleanor Catton next?
EC: My next book is going to be something quite different – set in 1860s New Zealand, a kind of weird sci-fi fantasy thing. I’m also working on a quartet of novels for young adults, set in seventeenth-century Britain. I’ve been thinking a lot about plot in the last few months, and to fuel that exploration I’ve started to read crime, which is a genre I’ve never had much to do with before.
AC: As a last question, I believe that a lot can be learnt about a writer from the kinds of books they read. What three books (or writers) have most impacted on you as a reader?
EC: It’s strange to even think about impact as something that can be measured! I couldn’t bear to name a top three – it would seem cruel. George Eliot’s Middlemarch was vastly important to me, not only for the gorgeousness of every sentence but for its sheer breadth and depth and amazingly psychological truth. Camus’ The Outsider is a book I’ve reread many times now – it’s very close to my heart. The book I read and adored most recently was Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
If you want to watch a brilliant teaser trailer for The Rehearsal click on the following link: