TORONTO - It seems like a heavy mantle to wear — the youngest author ever to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and that for only her second novel. And it's one that Eleanor Catton concedes is giving her a bit of pause.
The Canadian-born Catton was awarded the Booker for fiction last week for "The Luminaries," an 832-page murder mystery set during a 19th-century gold rush in New Zealand, where she moved with her family at age six from London, Ont.
"It's still early days, of course, but my feeling at the moment is that everything has changed and nothing has changed," she said from Vancouver, where she was beginning a Canadian tour of literary festivals that will take her to Toronto and beyond into November.
"Everything's changed in the sense that this has had a kind of catapulting effect and there's this new level of visibility that I'm going to have to deal with, and obviously a lot more invitations are coming my way and exciting things like that," said Catton, who turned 28 last month.
She admits to being somewhat worried about how winning one of literature's most sought-after honours may change her life and her writing — not that she's a stranger to accolades. Her debut novel, 2008's "The Rehearsal," won several prizes, including the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.
"What I want to say is I hope that nothing in my life that I care about changes — you know, my relationships with my family and my friends and my work. I hope that that stays the same or develops in its own way, according to its own speed.
"One thing I don't want is for this to get in the way of my relationship with myself."
To hear Catton's plans for the immediate future, at least, there doesn't seem to be much danger of that, despite an expected rise in her fortunes.
While the Booker comes with a cheque for 50,000 pounds (C$80,000), an upsurge in sales — "The Luminaries" (McClelland & Stewart) is topping bestseller lists — and subsequent royalties will make the prize worth considerably more.
Catton, who lives in an apartment in Auckland with her partner, American-born poet Steven Toussaint, and two cats, mused that it might be time to trade up for a house, where she can finally put down some roots.
"It would be the sensible thing to do, probably," she said, sounding somewhat unsure. "I'm on the road until January, so I'll probably think about that when I get back."
Once home in New Zealand, she will return to teaching creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology, a job she secured after finishing "The Luminaries" early this year and one that required a move from her hometown of Christchurch to Auckland.
She had lived in Auckland previously thanks to a 2012 writer-in-residence award — following one in Christchurch a year earlier — that gave her just what she needed to work on the novel, which took two years of research and another three to write.
"These residencies really helped so much because it meant that I had a salary and a quiet place to write and I could really live inside the book in the way that you need to."
Even so, Catton said she's not comfortable with the stereotype of the artist working alone, like "a kind of lone master. I don't really like that idea."
Unlike many authors who closet themselves in a room designated for writing, Catton takes a far more casual approach to her art.
"I just write where I can really, you know, usually on the couch, my laptop on my lap. I've got cats now and that's always a problem because they always try to get between the laptop and me," she said, laughing.
"I don't really have a routine that disciplines me. I find that when the writing's working it's because there's something I'm trying to figure out or there's a puzzle that I'm trying to solve. That's enough to focus my mind for hours and hours, just because it's fun to be in that state."
Writing "The Luminaries" was indeed like putting a puzzle together. The characters and structure of the novel revolve around astrological charts cast for the story's period in 1866.
The novel begins with Edinburgh-born Walter Moody, who having escaped a shipwreck arrives at a hotel in Hokitika near the gold fields of New Zealand, where he interrupts a private — and secret — meeting of 12 men. Their intertwined roles in the solving of a murdered gold prospector evolve from there.
Each character is given a personality stereotypical of an astrological sign, and the book is divided into 12 parts like the signs of the Zodiac. The title, "The Luminaries," refers to the light-casting sun and light-reflecting moon.
"The other reason I like it as a title is the second half of the word is 'aries,' which is the first sign of the Zodiac," said Catton.
While astrology doesn't play a role in her day-to-day life, Catton said she finds its concepts intriguing.
"I think that it's so much more interesting than as a predictive tool. I think a lot of people get stuck on that, this idea that astrology is an occultist practice that is basically people feeling around in the dark and telling you you're going to meet a dark-haired stranger tomorrow and all this kind of stuff.
"That seems to be pretty silly. But as a system kind of engaged in self-commentary in a really interesting way and capable of producing some pretty complex internal harmonies and patterns, I think it's a really interesting thing to spend a lot of time with.
"My experience has been the more I read about it, the more respect I have for it."
Whether astrology will have any influence on her next novel, only Catton knows — and she isn't saying.
"I have a couple of ideas, but they're so small. It's like having a crush on somebody that you can't talk about because if you even talk about it, then it might never come to pass," she said, superstitiously.
"When I was inside 'The Luminaries,' that was all I thought about for three years. But now I haven't written anything since January and I don't think I will for a while, actually."
In any case, the next few weeks will be taken up with events in Canada, including potentially the Governor General's Literary Awards, which will be announced Nov. 13 in Toronto. Catton's novel has been short-listed for the $25,000 English-language fiction prize, an honour she said she is delighted about.
Catton doesn't return to New Zealand until year's end. She plans to spend December visiting family in the U.S. Pacific northwest, where she will be joined by Toussaint.
That may be a period when she can get back to reading, a pursuit she misses even more than writing.
"I'm going to kind of check out from the world for a while and go off the grid."
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