One Question Quiz
Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksMay 13, 2023

‘I wanted everybody to feel uncomfortable’: An interview with Eleanor Catton

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Books editor Claire Mabey speaks with the author of Birnam Wood about the influences behind her bestselling novel.

Eleanor Catton warns me that after about 45 minutes the conversation might start to go downhill. It’s early here in Wellington and late where she is, in Cambridge, England. So when I glance at the time and see we’ve been talking for an hour, I worry I’m stealing her sleep. But the author of Birnam Wood is, apart from a persistent frog in the throat, still chirpy.

“I did have this one really funny interaction with my American editor,” she says with a grin. “She called me and said ‘I’m really sorry I’m hung up on this, but I find it disgusting that the Darvishes share bathwater. To an American that’s super disgusting, even though I know it’s ecologically mindful’.”

“Well, that’s very strange,” replied Catton, “because my husband’s American and I’ve been sharing bathwater with him for 15 years, and he’s never had a problem with it.” Catton then hung up the call and told her partner all about it, “and he got this funny look on his face and said, ‘I actually do find it disgusting, I just never wanted to offend you’.”

Catton then asks me, suddenly a little serious, if I share bathwater with my partner. It’s a brilliantly disarming end to a conversation about crafting a story intended to make readers uncomfortable. Birnam Wood – a novel that draws on the themes and plot turns of Macbeth to create a page-turning eco-thriller set in a familiar but fictional Aotearoa – has only been out for a few months but has already been widely applauded here and internationally. 

A few days before we speak, Catton was announced as one of Granta’s Best of British Novelists under 40. She’s excited to be on the list, particularly because it places her among peers, and generational thinking was central to her approach to the novel.

“I feel bonded to my generation kind of in an economic way,” she says.

“I consciously structured the book generationally. I wanted to think about different perspectives. There’s this kind of gulf that exists between me and my parents’ generation: when my parents talk about their early adulthood, I just don’t recognise it. I feel so envious of the kinds of things that they describe. Sometimes I look at the music and books that baby boomers made in their 20s and 30s and I just feel like there was a kind of a relative equality, in a purely economic sense, that allowed people to educate themselves at very little cost.”

Dreams, or rather ambition, are central to Birnam Wood. Every character operates from a place of desire which drives their decision-making for better and worse; mostly worse. Mira Bunting wants her guerrilla gardening collective to stabilise, which leads her into a Faustian pact with an American billionaire called Lemoine who couldn’t give less of a shit about the environment. He’s a suave villain; chillingly adept at deception and, most disturbingly, the art of wooing.

“It’s funny,” says Catton, “I kind of went through an evolution when I was crafting [Lemoine] because I was worried early on that he was going to be too much of a caricature. Then about halfway through the book, I read a couple of biographies, including The Contrarian, the biography of Peter Thiel written by Max Chafkins, and I suddenly just totally relaxed. [Lemoine] wasn’t at all this unrealistic character. If anything I hadn’t gone far enough and had made him too appealing.”

A photograph of a book cover. The book cover is read with white and black text and a black and white photo of Peter Thiel who is the subject of the book.
The Max Chafkin biography of billionaire Peter Thiel that reassured Catton that her own billionaire character was right on track.

Lemoine’s psychotic forward-momentum is intimately tied to communication technology. In the novel, he uses drones with an almost sci-fi efficiency, and has the skill and the means to spy on phones and intercept messages. This is all in aid of his project to mine the National Park for inconceivably valuable materials used in the manufacturing of cellphones. 

Modern modes of communication are central to the machinations of Birnam Wood, if stealthily so. A minor character turns out to play a significant part when her texts are intercepted; and a lack of direct communication in general nourishes the misunderstandings and the catastrophes. “We have to contend in writing about a world that is totally saturated by social media,” says Catton, “which is this terrible challenge for a novelist because it’s so undramatic, and it’s so temporal, and kind of inhuman. Most writers who started writing prior to the advent of social media, are dealing with it by going back into the past. Whereas we have to, in some way, write about our lives. And then there’s the kind of lunatics who are in charge of politics. They are so cartoonishly incompetent and mendacious. That poses another challenge.”

Some of the funniest and most excruciating scenes in Birnam Wood happen when the personal and the political collide. When I reference the scene in which Tony Gallo, the novel’s left-leaning mansplainer, crashes a Birnam Wood meeting and puts everyone offside with his incessant lecturing, Catton tells me it was the hardest scene of the book to write. “It just changed and changed and changed and changed. Tony would become way too much of an unforgivable jerk. Then I’d pull him back and he’d become way too sensible. I wanted him to be the reason why Birnam Wood ends up voting to go with Lemoine. If he hadn’t behaved like such a jerk, there probably would have been more of a discussion. They might have even voted it down. But because everybody was so pissed off, there’s a point at which they were just like, whatever your vote is, we’re voting against this. We hate you.”

The inner workings of Catton’s plotting process begins to emerge. The careful cause and effect of the character’s decision-making, the consequences of which get increasingly dramatic. Did Catton always know how the book would end?

“I wanted it to be morally shocking. And in a way, knowing what my ending was going to be helped with the satire, because I knew that nobody would get away with anything, ultimately.” 

Photo: Ebony Lamb / Design: Archi Banal

It’s certainly true that in Birnam Wood the characters with the most strident moral positions are the ones that fall the hardest. It challenges the concept of survival based on moral grounds and asks us instead to look at who is equipped, who is complicit, who will destroy and for what reasons. In a nutshell the novel suggests that your political leaning is irrelevant if your decisions are grounded in selfish motivations. Catton explains that she had to be “equally hard on everybody. I didn’t want the book to flatter any one political point of view. I didn’t want the book to be the kind where you vote for the nice parties in parliament and feel smug about your opinions. I didn’t want to flatter beliefs. I wanted everybody to feel uncomfortable when they read.”

The third-person narration of Birnam Wood takes us deep into the psyche of most of the main players. But even still, we are several moves behind by the time the action propels us into its final, brutal episodes. “A lot of it happens offstage,” says Catton. “Everybody is slightly out of step with one another. So often when you [the reader] change points of view, you know a little bit more than the character that you’ve just joined. You have an advantage over them. I was kind of borrowing that from Macbeth actually.

“Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are never on the same page at the same time. He’s really gung ho and she’s really not sure. Then they flip and she’s really gung ho, and he’s not sure. Even when she’s flipping out later in the play, and commits suicide, it’s almost like it doesn’t even register with him. It’s his most nihilistic moment right after he finds out that she’s killed herself, and then that’s when he does his big ‘tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech. It’s this weird contemplative moment, which is not how somebody should behave if they’ve just got that news. But I liked that idea about everybody being slightly out of step. And that the reader as well, that they would be out of step with the action. So hopefully you’d go, ‘no, wait, it didn’t happen? I have to go back a couple pages. Oh, my God, it really did happen!’”

We step away from plot to discuss style, which is altogether a lush experience in Catton’s world. From the first sentence of Birnam Wood we are plunged into a fluid, psychologically expansive symphony of sentences. Catton is not afraid of lengthy, multi-parenthetical clauses. Austen came to mind so often while I was reading, and rightly so.

“She was almost as big an influence as Macbeth was,” Catton says. After The Luminaries, she wrote the screenplay for the 2020 film adaptation of Austen’s Emma. She immersed herself in Austen’s brilliance and came to realise that the structure and plot of that novel follows the same turning points as a conventional screenplay. “I was so excited by that. I felt it gave me great permission to borrow from it and be very unapologetic. I wanted Birnam Wood to be a dramatic book where the characters made choices and the drama proceeded from those actions. That made me think, oh, you know, this isn’t something that’s true about screenplays, it’s something that’s true about very well-designed dramas. It’s true of human nature, it’s true of stories.”

Birnam Wood follows the same three-part structure as Emma and emulates Austen’s sparing use of figurative language. “It blew my mind about Jane Austen, when I went back to her. She almost never uses a metaphor or simile. Her books are just all narration, it’s all drama. The clock is always ticking, you’ve always been kind of moved on in your understanding of the characters.”

An insight into one of the leading characters, Mira Bunting, shows the Austenesque style: “None of Mira’s boyfriends had ever lasted more than a couple of months, and because she had never been the kind of girl to claim best-friendships, it had come almost as a shock to recognise, belatedly, that her relationship with Shelley had been the closest and most constant of her adult life. She was ashamed to realise how completely she had taken Shelley’s friendship for granted, all the more because a source of private guilt for her was the fact – never openly acknowledged – that deep down, she preferred the company of men. Her favoured style of conversation was impassioned argument that bordered on seduction, and although it was distasteful, not to mention tactically unwise, to admit that one enjoyed flirtation, she never felt freer, or funnier, or more imaginatively potent than when she was the only woman in the room.”

Other influences included mid-century writers like Mary McCarthy, who wrote The Group, a book about the lives of eight women post-graduation which through them lays out the social and political climate of 1930s America. Norman Mailer criticised it, saying: “Her book fails as a novel by being good but not nearly good enough … she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” Mailer’s dismissal brings to mind the tonal qualities of the kind of flack Catton endured from mostly men in right-wing media and politics after she publicly criticised the Key government’s anti-intellectualism. McCarthy’s The Group later inspired Candace Bushnell to write Sex and the City. For Catton, the novel was invigoratingly intellectual: “The Group does something with character. It’s Austenian, funny and waspish. She can psychologise the intellect in such a cool way.”

A black and white photo of the writer Mary McCarthy. She is smiling and standing in front of a bookshelf. Beside the photo is the cover of McCarthy's book called The Group.
Mary McCarthy and her novel The Group, which influenced Catton’s Birnam Wood.

In Birnam Wood the seeds of all drama are found in the minutiae of personality. Catton too psychologises the intellect in a cool way and leaves us, ultimately, with the consequences of one epic decision made by Tony. “I’ve been really surprised when I talk to people, how many think that he was right to do what he did,” says Catton. The lingering debate in the book is whether destruction is justified in the attempt to call attention to something terrible. 

We discuss climate change protests, including the recent Just Stop Oil tomato-soup-to-the-Van-Gogh incident. “I felt very weird about that protest, because they also didn’t hurt the painting. It was just a very strange stunt. I mean, this has always been a problem for protests, hasn’t it. Do you risk turning off people who are yet to be converted to your cause by taking extreme action? Or is there a point where extreme action is justified? I suppose what bothers me sometimes about some forms of environmental protest, at the Extinction Rebellion end, is that there’s this assumption that the future’s already fixed. That they are telling us what is definitely going to happen anyway. And I just can’t accept that. I think that if that were true, then the protest is meaningless.

“What I was hoping to do at the end of Birnam Wood is that by having an ending that’s irrecoverable, there’s a kind of completion about it. I wanted to put your attention back to everything that had led up to that. That you would see that if any of the characters’ choices along the way had been different choices, that ending would have been averted.”

After we finish talking I go back to the novel and retrace the characters’ steps as she suggests. It’s all there. If only Tony hadn’t behaved like such a dick. If only Mira and Shelly had been more communicative. If only the Darvishes hadn’t signed the NDA. In this novel, individual decisions matter. It’s hard to shake Tony from the mind, even long after the final page: so familiar is the archetype. How did Catton prepare for such a person?

“He’s very unlike me. I had to do a lot of research for Tony, because I was not at all well schooled in political philosophy or any of the thinkers that he would have read. I once heard the historian Margaret MacMillan talking about risk. And she said that researching a book is like cooking spinach. And when you first look at the big pile of spinach, you’re like, ‘This is a mountain of spinach, this is way too much spinach for the amount that I need’. And then you put it all in the pot, and you cook it, and then it turns into this tiny little parcel. So for example, with Tony, just getting what his master’s degree – critiquing the anti-humanism of post structuralist thought – just even half a sentence took me like a week of research, just to have read enough to know what would have been interesting to him as a lapsed Catholic who’s a romantic in a way that he would probably deny, you know, he would think that he’s a man of the head when he’s actually far more of a man of the heart.”

All of Catton’s novels are, so far, set in New Zealand. But with muntjac deer appearing in her English garden, and foxes and rabbits delighting her young daughter, I’m curious about whether this may change. Catton thinks there may come a time when she can stray into other settings, but it would take a long time to feel she has the authority to write about anywhere else. Some things, however, appear unique to Catton alone.

When she asks, suddenly serious, if I share bathwater with my partner, I skirt around it awkwardly by saying he’s more of a shower guy. That’s not the real reason, but I really don’t want to offend her.

Eleanor Catton is appearing in events at Auckland Writers Festival next week, as well as events in Wellington and Christchurch. Birnam Wood (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $38) can be purchased from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

Keep going!