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Ages and stages — Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal (Interview)

By Jade Colbert
Published: 10:23 pm, 8 November 2010
Modified: 4 pm, 15 January 2012
under
DAVID PIKE/THE VARSITY
UPDATED

The Rehearsal, which details the reverberations of a sex scandal at a girls’ school, was published in New Zealand, where Catton grew up, in 2008, though not in Canada until this year. Originally written as a dramatic monologue in which the actor would play both the perpetrator and the victim in a student-teacher relationship, Catton shelved the manuscript after it failed to receive a grant, only picking it up again when she realized its devices might be more interesting in novel format.

The novel, which became her Master’s thesis in the creative writing program at Victoria University of Wellington, has three main settings: the high school; the private studio of a saxophone teacher who acts as both confessor and manipulator to her students; and the nearby drama institute, a kind of National Theatre School, where the first years write and perform a play based on the scandal. The plot follows two interwoven storylines: that of the girls who take saxophone lessons, and Stanley, a student at the Institute.

Though a novel, the style is highly theatrical (characters often speak in a declamatory fashion, they are sometimes referred to as actors, and lighting and stage directions are written into the narrative) to the point where it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is real and what is staged. Which, says Catton, was entirely her point.

The experimentation has not won over everyone — early reviews were especially polarized — but in the two years since its initial publication The Rehearsal has increasingly garnered acclaim. Winner of the UK Society of Authors Betty Trask Award, as well as a finalist for the Guardian First Book Award and longlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize, The Rehearsal has been translated into several languages. Catton, now 25, is currently in the running for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the world’s largest monetary award for young writers.

Eleanor Catton lives in Iowa City, where she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches creative writing. She is at work on her second novel.

 

THE VARSITY

I’m interested in the kind of reality you were trying to represent in this book. The Rehearsal is a very psychological novel, almost fantastical —

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah.

THE VARSITY

— in that each of these characters is almost speaking directly from their conscious, even within these shifting identities of the teenagers. What were you aiming at?

ELEANOR CATTON

When I started writing it, I was 20 and I was doing an honours year in English that was mostly concentrated on drama. I was reading a lot of theatre manifestos, reading a lot of plays in text form — I wasn’t a theatre student — and I got really interested in gender theory and performance theory. Particularly gender theory: the idea that selfhood is a performative space, it’s a form of act, and the way we accept power in the world has to do with the way we wield our bodies. I was always interested in this theoretically, and The Rehearsal grew out of those ideas. I started with a kind of obsession or theoretical fascination and everything else kind of came out of that. I didn’t begin with a character or begin with plot or anything.

THE VARSITY

It’s an interesting way to start writing a novel, with theory as opposed to a specific character or setting.

ELEANOR CATTON

That’s just the way I think, though. I feel the most passionate about the context. There’s something about abstraction that really grabs me, and then filtering that down through the physical — that’s just the way I do it. When the book first came out in New Zealand, it was criticized pretty unanimously for being what they called “all head and no heart.” It annoyed me a little bit, because the way I approach my heart is through my head, and the way that I approach my head is through my heart, so I thought that was a duality that didn’t really apply to my way of thinking.

I think people forget about that sometimes: Teenagers’ despair is actual despair. They can’t see the disproportion. That is as extreme to them as anything has ever been. 

THE VARSITY

It’s a strange criticism because your characters seem to feel very deeply. They seem to almost be seeking this emotional bruising.

ELEANOR CATTON

Well, even from my experience, the difference between me being an undergraduate student at 19 and reading Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, and just being like My heart is broken in two. You know? Like, I would go outside and weep. [laughs] Every student has the excesses of being young, and young people have this longing, I think, that does change as you mature. Even just now, five or six years on, the way I approach the whole world is different. That longing is kind of muted because, I don’t know, I’m more sensible now. I have more of a filter, and I know how to make sense of these excesses. So much of growing up is making sense of this trauma that happens to you. All of a sudden your body starts doing these crazy things. I think people forget about that sometimes: their despair is actual despair. I mean, it’s ridiculous because it’s disproportionate, but they can’t see the disproportion. That is as extreme to them as anything has ever been.

THE VARSITY

So when the saxophone teacher says, “This is just a rehearsal for your real life —”

“Mrs Bly,” she says, “remember that these years of your daughter’s life are only the rehearsal for everything that comes after.”

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah, but I think she’s being disingenuous when she’s saying that. She’s just trying to say something punchy. I don’t know if I really believe that. What’s really interesting about that is — teenagers in the world today share a lot in common with my teenage experience. I grew up alongside the Internet. By the time I was 15, 16, everybody had email, but when I was still 12, it was like one email address for the family — nobody had cell phones until I was moving out of high school. But the idea is: every possible identity is available — at least in the form of it’s visible — to teenagers growing up. They know what these roles look like. You can watch any relatively crappy high school movie and you’ll see these roles being enacted — the goth one, the jock or whatever. They can see how to perform these roles, and all they need to do is take the image and apply it to themselves. But in this way it’s not really like a rehearsal at all, it’s more like what they’re doing is accepting that an image of something is the truth, that it is possible to become the arty one just by dressing and acting right. The idea of the indie is perfect for this, because to become an indie — I don’t know how you say that —

The main reason I had for using teenagers was that when you hit 12 or 13, that’s the age when your self-consciousness sets in. Self-consciousness is so brilliant because it makes you an audience to yourself. 

THE VARSITY

A hipster?

ELEANOR CATTON

A hipster, there we go. To become a hipster, you need to buy the right clothes, you have to have the arcane knowledge of all of these obscure facts that nobody knows, and as soon as they start knowing them, you have to go obscurer. But it’s a role presented to you almost perfectly packaged. You can just reach out and choose if you would like to. In that way, peoples’ personalities are being decided for them by an image. I think the idea of a rehearsal is that the truth is still waiting. High school — well, school in general — is this kind of safe, closed environment where you can try on these particular selves, and if they don’t work for you, you can shift them and go on to the world. But I feel like it’s weirdly the other way around nowadays. Or maybe it’s not just the other way around, but it’s like an echo chamber or hall of mirrors or something.

THE VARSITY

But it can also be a disguise.

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah, but that’s funny, though, because I do feel that there is a shift into disguise, but our collective understanding is that sometime between the age of 15 and 23, a person is going to find themselves. Or maybe later: 15 and 30. It’s a sliding scale. But it’s like, if they choose to align themselves with a group in an unthinking way later on in life, then we don’t forgive that unthinkingness. There is a sense that when we look at teenagers, we see them as unformed or there are still a number of possibilities available to them, which was really cool for my purposes, because that makes them immanently theatrical: they’re able to become anything, they’re still not fixed in their role. The main reason I had for using teenagers at all was that I feel like when you hit 12 or 13, that’s the age when your self-consciousness sets in. Self-consciousness is so brilliant because it makes you an audience of yourself, it makes you a critic of yourself. Teenagers are so amazingly hyperaware of social situations. It’s not just “Ok, I’m sitting here with my mother,” it’s like, “I’m sitting here with my mother — what are these people thinking of me? Of her? Of her with me?” They’re aware of so many connections.

I was interested in revisiting this one moment. The sex scandal is given life again and again because these people’s thoughts keep returning to it.

THE VARSITY

They’re almost outside their own bodies.

ELEANOR CATTON

Right. Which is theatrical again, which I enjoy. [laughs] Enjoyed.

THE VARSITY

Was it hard maintaining some sort of balance between that self-consciousness of the teenagers and a more mature perspective in your narrative voice?

ELEANOR CATTON

I think that teenagers are actually incredibly wise. People often — particularly the film industry is responsible of dumbing down just what people are capable of. Teenagers are wonderfully smart, they’re very perceptive, especially about group dynamics. Particularly teenage girls. Teenage boys are a little bit of a different story.

THE VARSITY

The plot in The Rehearsal is pretty barebones: there’s the sex scandal — though we never really find out what went on — and then there’s the repercussions of that, but each of these repercussions is so small: on the scale of someone not being allowed to sit with someone else in class, for instance. Within an adult world, that’s really miniscule, but it’s totally epic when you’re 15.

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah, I was interested in this. I didn’t really want that much to happen. [laughs] I mean, not very much really does happen. Even at the drama school, which moves forward in time more actively. Really they’re just doing exercises, and those kind of stand outside of time because you never really get a sense of whether Stanley is getting better or worse as an actor, you don’t really know. But I was interested in that idea of revisiting this one moment again and again, which is the moment of the sex scandal, which doesn’t really happen in the book but is given life again and again because these people’s thoughts keep returning to it, orbiting around it. What I was interested in doing there was bringing it back to this idea of reality. For all of these girls in the high school, the affair wasn’t a reality to them. They weren’t present. They weren’t chosen.

THE VARSITY

They seem almost offended that this experience can’t be their own.

ELEANOR CATTON

But the thing is, on the stage you can make it your own, because the fact of your body is there in front of the audience — you are present. And even if all you’re doing is narrating, your body is still there. What I wanted to do was use these layers of theatricality to bring intimacy closer to the girls, because even if they’re just talking about it, it’s making the reality of that event theirs, in a way.

THE VARSITY

Through enactment comes reality.

ELEANOR CATTON

Right. Yeah.

THE VARSITY

Bridget gets upset that another girl steals her mispronunciation of “misled,” but what she finds more upsetting is that through talking about it, this girl actually forgets that she stole it in the first place.

Bridget is flushed, unable to voice coherently the indignation and even rage she feels toward this liar Willa, the plunderer, the unashamed thief. Bridget is never rich in tales about herself, however unheroic, yet she is now a fraction poorer, her life shaved a fraction thinner, her mind a fraction less unique, because of this girl’s theft.

 

“But now she’s got this memory,” Bridget says, struggling on. “A real memory of it, of every time she’s ever read that word. And she laughs at herself and says, What an idiot, like she can’t believe how silly she is. And she isn’t. Silly. She knew the right way to say it the whole time.”

 

“Maybe she’s just a liar,” the saxophone teacher says.

 

“But if she doesn’t know that she’s lying,” Britdget says, almost desperately now, “and nobody else knows that she’s lying, and she’s got this real memory in her head —”

 

Bridget breaks off, working her mouth like a caught fish.

 

“Then it might as well be true,” she says at last, and in her distraction flaps her hands against her sides, once, twice, and then she is still.

ELEANOR CATTON

That actually happened to a friend of mine, and I remember that in high school vividly. People can feel those kinds of things. It’s a particular kind of robbery.

DAVID PIKE/THE VARSITY

THE VARSITY

Did you know going into it how you were going to interweave the two storylines?

ELEANOR CATTON

Oh no. Not at all. I started off writing exclusively the girls school section, and then I realized a little way in that there wasn’t enough to sustain an entire novel. Like, having this particular level of uncertainty was too uncertain for an entire novel, so I needed another level, which has its own uncertainties: the drama school is not like real life and it kind of collapses into the other narrative a bit later on. I started writing the drama school narrative almost in parallel and then wove them together at the end. A lot of gender theory or performance theory has this deep mistrust of dualities: male and female, truth and fiction, what is put on and what is inherent. So the idea of playing with dualities was really important to me, but I didn’t want to establish one, so what I needed to do at the end was make them intersect in a way that totally didn’t make sense.

THE VARSITY

To undercut that.

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah, because otherwise it totally wouldn’t have been faithful to my own — ideology? I did a lot of shuffling. I had a master document on my computer where I had a shorthand version of each scene — just be a couple of words or a short description. I moved things around a lot, right up until the very end almost. It was fun to do because it’s so interesting how, if you put a scene next to another, the order of events changes the reader’s perspective so totally. It seems obvious, but it’s really interesting how you read something, and it’s like, “Oh, somebody’s not going to have this perception of the character unless I move it someplace forward a little bit.”

THE VARSITY

Any character in particular?

ELEANOR CATTON

Maybe. I noticed that toward the end of the editing, the characters that I gave the most attention to were the Head of Acting and the Head of Movement, because in my original draft they were much too similar — they were almost indistinguishable. So I gave a lot more brushstrokes to the Head of Movement’s character to make him much more of this figure that Stanley really wants to have. In a strange way, Stanley really wants the Head of Movement to worship him, but he wants to do that by worshipping the Head of Movement. What he doesn’t understand is that the Head of Movement just wants really nothing to do him.

THE VARSITY

He’s just —

ELEANOR CATTON

He’s just another face in the crowd.

THE VARSITY

[laughs]

ELEANOR CATTON

I know. Poor Stanley! [laughs]

THE VARSITY

He’s always two steps behind.

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah, but it’s funny because he’s got this kind of innocence that a lot of the characters are actually longing for. They’re longing either to return to it or they’re longing, in the case of the mothers, that other people possess it. And Stanley’s got it, and it doesn’t seem to be doing him any favours.

I think that to be anxious about being influenced is to be unsure whether your style is going to be affected. I don’t know. I love stealing stuff! That’s what you’ve got to do, right?

THE VARSITY

How would you describe your writing process?

ELEANOR CATTON

Oh, blind. I never know what’s going to happen. In The Rehearsal what I did was — especially for the saxophone teacher’s speeches — I would go metaphor hunting. So I would read books that were non-fiction, manifestos, anything that had really nothing to do with what The Rehearsal was all about, and then I would just go until I found a word that I really liked and kind of filled the monologue around that word. I never had an idea of a plot — it doesn’t have a plot, really. I mean, it kind of does. The book I’m working on now is extremely plot-based, so I’ve changed gears a lot. In the interim of working on this novel and The Rehearsal, I’ve been working on a book of fantasy for children, so that’s extremely plot-based as well. It’s fun.

THE VARSITY

Is it very different writing these books, then?

ELEANOR CATTON

They share something with The Rehearsal, both projects — the next literary novel I’m working on, and also the fantasy thing: they have an idea that I feel really strongly about that I’m using as my platform. But not like The Rehearsal in the sense that things actually happen [grins] and affect other things. [laughs]

THE VARSITY

You mentioned that you would read when you went metaphor hunting. Do you do a lot of reading, a lot of research going into a project?

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah. For The Rehearsal I had three different documents that I recorded extensive notes. I write out a lot of passages that I read — I’ll go through a book and underline stuff and then I’ll write it out again. One is for non-fiction, one is for fiction, and one is for drama. The non-fiction one was by far the longest — theatre manifestos and that kind of thing — and then I just keep on going back to these documents and looking over the stuff. Most of it doesn’t end up in at all. Like, for example, when I was writing that ridiculous school counsellor, I read a couple books, like quite terrible books on how to deal with trauma that were kind of smug. Horrible self-help books where people obviously didn’t really know anything about trauma at all.

THE VARSITY

A lot of writers will not do any reading when they’re writing.

ELEANOR CATTON

Oh yeah, I couldn’t do that at all.

THE VARSITY

They have the anxiety of influence. Is that not something you suffer from?

ELEANOR CATTON

No, not at all. I think that to be anxious about being influenced is to be unsure whether your style is going to be affected. The Rehearsal — when I properly started to work on it, I already had that first scene, and I knew what I wanted the style to be like. I knew that. That was never in question. So I never felt like I could pick up stylistic markers from any other author. I could just pick up ideas. I don’t know. I love stealing stuff! That’s what you’ve got to do, right?

THE VARSITY

As a writer?

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah, the original etymology — you probably know this — the etymology of the word author is from auctor, Latin, “to increase.” It’s this idea that you take what everyone’s already written and build from that. I like that. Yeah, I think that if I didn’t read while I was writing, I would run out of things to say, because my mind wouldn’t be working.

You want to surprise readers in a way that diverts their attention. Whatever questions you had at the beginning aren’t so much satisfied as dwarfed by what the novel is. 

THE VARSITY

So you didn’t have a plot skeleton in place while you were writing, but did you have any idea about the book’s form?

ELEANOR CATTON

There were certain questions that I knew I didn’t want to resolve. The book was written as a Master’s thesis back in New Zealand, so I had people reading it as I was writing. Questions kept coming up and these were the questions I knew I was never going to answer, but it was really nice to know that they had the questions. My belief is that in writing a book, you don’t want to answer the reader’s questions, you want to just show them that the book makes those questions the wrong questions. You want to surprise them in a way that diverts their attention. Whatever questions you had at the beginning aren’t so much satisfied as dwarfed by what the novel is. Anyways, the questions that my colleagues had were, “What are the rules of this universe?” They always asked that. “Who’s directing the play, if it is a play? Who’s in the audience, if it is a play? [sounding badgered] If there are actors and characters and some of the characters are played by more than one actor and some aren’t, what does it all mean?” They wanted concrete answers to all these things.

THE VARSITY

They wanted concreteness.

ELEANOR CATTON

Right. Yeah. That was nice to know, because that meant that was a source of frustration, and what I had to do, the way that I interpreted that was, I have to make sure that this book isn’t frustrating, so I have to put in enough life, and enough, I don’t know, titillation in some places, or enough energy that it’s not frustrating anymore that those questions aren’t answered. And I haven’t achieved that for a lot of people. Like, for a lot of people, the book’s just frustrating.

THE VARSITY

Like it’s take it or leave it?

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah. I mean, I’ve had very mixed reviews, definitely. Either one end or the other.

THE VARSITY

Do you find it different writing now having gone through the Master’s in New Zealand and at Iowa?

ELEANOR CATTON

Has my writing changed, do you mean?

THE VARSITY

Has your writing changed, but also, is it a different experience embarking on the projects that you’re working on right now.

ELEANOR CATTON

Not really. Because at Iowa I write short stories, and I’m not really a short story writer at all. What I was doing at Iowa was really playing with form and the idea of the short story. You know, it actually took me two years to figure out I’m a really rubbish short story writer? And now I’m involved in a new project that I’ve only really fully devoted my attention to since graduation. I don’t think that anything’s really changed. I feel more stubborn now than I did, which is kind of saying something, because I was always quite stubborn I think. But I know now how to hold my own. If somebody says, “Hey, how about in this story you change from past to present tense?” or something, I’ll just be like, “No.”

THE VARSITY

Do you not take criticism well?

ELEANOR CATTON

Oh no, I take criticism fine. It’s not emotional for me. In a workshop environment it’s about what I feel certain about and what I’m affected by. It’s funny. Some workshops are obviously better than others. Some people are really going to strike a chord in you and some workshops are going to be pretty useless, you know? Which is just like anything, really.

THE VARSITY

That’s life.

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah. I feel like the most affecting and valuable conversations I’ve had with colleagues in the creative writing environment have been the kinds of conversations where somebody says, “In your story, I didn’t like this person and I needed to,” or like, “In your story, you tricked me, and I didn’t think that you should have tricked me.” It’s not technical. It’s more about hearing from somebody’s mouth, in somebody’s own words how they responded to what you wrote. That’s interesting. It’s like if you were standing in line in a coffee shop and you bumped into somebody and you didn’t think twice about it, but then they came out afterwards and were like, “You know what? You were really rude back there, and I didn’t like that. And by the way, your jacket makes me think these things about you!”

Everyone was saying, ‘This is the new San Francisco, it’s going to be brilliant!’ Now it’s got a population of, like, 2,000.

THE VARSITY

[laughs]

ELEANOR CATTON

You know? Like, that would be interesting! It might be a bit confronting, but it would be interesting!

[both laugh]

THE VARSITY

So what are you working on right now? You mentioned a fantasy novel.

ELEANOR CATTON

Oh yeah. That’s kind of on hold at the moment. I’m working on another novel. It’s called The Luminaries, and it’s kind of an astrological murder mystery is how I’m describing it right now. It’s set in 1866 in the gold rushes in New Zealand and it’s got a lot to do with the stars and astrology. I’m not very good talking about it. It’s still quite small.

THE VARSITY

Do you not like talking about books while you’re still working on them?

ELEANOR CATTON

I mean, I can. The problem is more I’m going to get overexcited and start talking to you about it for half an hour. But basically, the form of the novel is that I’ve been studying star charts from 1866 and tracking the motions of the planets through the 12 constellations, the signs of the zodiac in that year. The plot of the novel is determined by those movements. So the planets are all characters, the constellations are all characters, and whenever one comes into conjunction with the other, that means something’s going to happen.

THE VARSITY

And this happens — did you say, during the gold rush?

ELEANOR CATTON

The gold rushes in New Zealand. They overlapped a little with the Victorian gold rushes in Australia, but they really properly happened afterwards.

THE VARSITY

I didn’t know there was a gold rush in New Zealand.

ELEANOR CATTON

No, a lot of people don’t. It hasn’t been written about very much, but it’s a really fascinating era of human history because the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand is pretty much this impassable land. Like there’s this beach, there’s the Southern Alps, and in between, there’s this treacherous corridor of jungle and steep ravines and nothing. And there was literally nobody there. Like, the Maori, they ventured in there and out again to get greenstone, which is their precious stone, but they didn’t hang out there or build villages or anything or have any kind of interest in the land, because it was so savage. And then they found gold there and this town called Hokitika just sprung out of nowhere and it started growing like, the papers were saying, faster than San Francisco. Everyone was saying, “This is the new San Francisco, it’s going to be brilliant!” [laughs] Now it’s got a population of, like, 2,000. But these hundreds and hundreds of people just flocked to the coast and many many died because it was so difficult. But the promise of the gold was so enormous.

The way it fits in with astrology, because of course it doesn’t really fit in with astrology at all — but the way it fits in my mind is the idea of boom and bust being locked in this eternal embrace: one is always replacing the other, poverty and wealth, it’s just going around and around. It’s kind of like the spinning of the heavens to me. I like the idea of these patterns that recur.

“The luminaries” is the name given to the sun and the moon, which are counted as planets in the astrological system even though they’re not, but they’re the only ones of the seven planets that give off light.

Yeah, I’m not sure. It’s small. One chapter. But it’s good fun. For this novel I’m trying to write it in the register of a 19th-century novel, so I’ve tried to starve myself of any novel that was written after 1866. Actually, no, I’ve made one — I read Anna Karenina, and Anna Karenina was after.

THE VARSITY

And it was written in Russian.

ELEANOR CATTON

Well, I’ve been doing a lot of the Russian novels and early 19th-century, mid 19th-century novels and taking an enormous amount of notes from them, so I’m trying to write it in that style.

THE VARSITY

Is that hard?

ELEANOR CATTON

Yeah, it takes a lot of gear-shifting. I got to a point at the end of the summer where I’d just been doing these binge reads and I’d go out with my friends and just say ridiculous things like “Shall we quit this place?” Just ridiculous things like that.

THE VARSITY

Do you get ripped apart for that?

ELEANOR CATTON

No. I live in a community of writers, so they’re all very understanding. Everyone’s just as mad as the next person.