Many readers have imaginary relationships with their favourite authors, but few manage to turn fantasy into reality. Madeleine Chapman – who starts as a Spinoff intern in February – tells how she tried to bridge the gap between fandom and friendship with The Luminaries author Eleanor Catton.
This post first appeared on Madeleine Chapman’s blog Mad Happy Sad.
In February of 2014 I received an assignment for my EDUC 316 (Gifted Education) paper that involved profiling a gifted New Zealander. I chose to profile Eleanor Catton, the now widely known Man Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries and nemesis of John Key. I was going to blow the teacher’s mind by interviewing Catton myself. Once I had decided this, I set out to secure the interview. I will freely admit that this was not purely for educational reasons. I somewhat idolise(d) Eleanor Catton.
In June of 2013, my brother Kenneth had given me a book to read. Usually I give him books to read, not the other way around, because it takes Kenneth six minutes to read one page (this is slow), so he doesn’t have many books to recommend that he has actually finished. The book that he gave me was called The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton. He told me that Catton was only 21 when she wrote it. To this day, I do not know if this is true, but it continues to make me feel hugely inadequate. I read the book and was suspicious of how a woman barely older than myself had written such a fantastic novel.
Two months later I found out that her new book, The Luminaries, had been nominated for the Man Booker Prize (which she won, as you now know). As much as I loved Catton’s writing and The Rehearsal, I had yet to read The Luminaries for reasons mostly to do with not having a spare $30 to buy the book.
But back to the interview. Let me say this, it is not hard at all to find the whereabouts of any given person in New Zealand, you just have to be clever about it. Some might say you have to be creepy, I say clever. This is important to remember as we proceed with this story.
I searched Google for an email address, which proved to be fruitless. Next was her Twitter account where I struck gold (great pun). One of her latest tweets was in reference to a class that she had just finished teaching. The tweet was sent on a Thursday afternoon which gave me all the information I needed: if I showed up to her place of work (which I found on Google) on a Thursday afternoon, there was a high probability that she would be there.
I shuffled around my numerous weekly cleaning jobs to accommodate a long drive south. I wrote my letter by hand, a mix of fan letter and professional interview request. I know exactly what I wrote because I typed out a draft first and emailed it to myself. I emailed it to myself because my laptop at the time was so old and virus-ridden that it couldn’t run any applications whatsoever, so I did all my word processing through email drafts.
The letter was not too long but was filled with great lines like “I feel that to interview you would not only be immeasurably helpful for my assignment but a great honour for an avid reader” and “if it counts for anything, I promise not to ask you what your favourite word is”, the latter being a poor attempt at a joke. The email was dated 03/03/2014 and, if I recall correctly, the assignment was due at the end of March. I told myself that if she agreed to the interview, I would buy The Luminaries and read it in one sitting before interviewing her, out of respect.
The following Thursday I set off on my motorbike to the Manukau Institute of Technology, where she taught. I got lost three times and went to two wrong campus buildings but eventually got there, which is what counts. When I got to the reception area I saw that the building was much, much smaller than I expected. I put on my best “I belong here” face and walked straight through reception and down the corridor towards the classrooms. I don’t know what I was hoping to find. Perhaps her office, where I would slip my letter under the door, or perhaps I would just bump into her in the corridor.
Whatever my reasons, it worked. I was walking past the library and there she was, teaching a small class. Right there, in person. The time was 3:15 which meant her class would finish at four o’clock. So I found a seat down the corridor and waited for 45 minutes so that I could accidentally bump into her once the class ended. I got bored and drew a cat on the envelope which I immediately regretted but couldn’t erase. Then it occurred to me that people send letters when they cannot see or talk to someone in person. But here I was, about to talk to her in person. Shouldn’t I just ask her with my mouth? I had worked hard on my letter so I decided to hand her the envelope in person. Sometimes you have to live with the bad choices you make.
At four o’clock the class ended and students filed out, followed by M(i)s(s) Catton. Small problem, she was with another teacher and rolling a whiteboard to god knows where. I was already feeling a bit creepy and didn’t want to interrupt a conversation so I followed them, which I suppose makes everything a lot creepier. I saw them heading down a dead end corridor and stopped, taking a seat on a stairway while I waited for this unknown woman to leave for something else. Instead they both turned around and walked back, giving me polite nods as they passed. I waited some more. The lady finally went to another class and Ms Catton came back down the corridor where I was still sitting on the staircase looking like an idiot. The following interaction took place.
MC: Excuse me.
EC: Oh hello.
MC: Hi, this is really random but I was just wondering if I could give you this letter.
MC: It’s all explained in the letter.
EC: Oh you drew a cat.
MC: Uh, yeah, it’s not very good.
EC: No it’s fine.
MC: Um. OK well yeah, I just wanted to give you that letter.
EC: Thank you.
I went home and waited for an email or a text or a letter in the mail (I had given every form of contact information possible). A week went by, then two, then three. I held out hope right up until the day before the assignment was due before conceding defeat and writing about Steven Adams instead. I got a C- for the assignment, the second worst mark in my whole time at university. I put the failed interaction out of my head and counted myself lucky that I had put the letter in her hand so she must have at least read it, right? Which is a lot more than I can say for that fan letter I sent to Helen Hunt.
The Auckland Writers Festival takes place in May each year. In 2014 the headliner, so to speak, was Eleanor Catton. Of course I bought a ticket and went. Her event was an interview with John Campbell (who was great) and included her teaching the audience the difference between ‘envious’ and ‘jealous’. I later tried to pass this lesson on to Kenneth over the phone and ended up confusing both of us. John Campbell announced that Catton would be signing books after the event. Of course I bought a copy of The Rehearsal (I wanted her to sign a book I had actually read) and lined up.
I was the youngest in line by at least ten years which made me feel both sophisticated and like I should have a more exciting life. As I neared the front of the line, I knew something great was about to happen. This is it, I thought, I’ll ask her to draw a cat on my book (callback joke) and she will laugh and remember me from the corridor, apologise for not getting back to me about the interview, schedule an interview for next week where we will chat over coffee and become fast friends. I looked around at all these ‘fans’ and felt superior because my interaction would be like old pals bumping into each other. This interaction occurred instead.
EC: Hi. Do you want me to write anything in particular?
MC: Hi. Um, I was wondering if you could draw a cat?
MC: Because a couple months ago I gave you a letter and I had drawn a cat on it…
MC: I was asking to interview you for an assignment.
EC: Oh! Sorry, I’ve been busy-
EC: Well, here’s your cat.
I was now 0 for 2 in the not-sounding-like-a-creepy-fan area. I chose to give up on becoming friends with Eleanor Catton and move on with my life.
Two months later, I decided to join a book club. I had a look at the community notices at the local book store and there weren’t any book club availabilities (I didn’t know that was a thing), but there was an advertisement for a poetry night at the bookstore showcasing upcoming talent. I wrote down the information and RSVP’d. I also wrote down the information of a girl who was looking for someone to play Scrabble with. I sent her a message but she took ages to get back to me and by then I had gone off the idea of playing Scrabble with a stranger.
The poetry night drew near. My friend Ottilie was supposed to go with me but was sick on the day and bailed. Luckily I am the queen of doing social activites by myself so I went anyway. To say that the event was intimate is an understatement. It was in the attic of the bookstore where it was standing room only. I talked to a woman who informed me that everyone at the event knew each other or at the very least knew someone who was performing. Suddenly I deeply regretted coming to this event alone. The poetry started and everyone was fantastic. It finished and the MC of the event announced that ‘they’ (I assumed him and his girlfriend/wife) would be having drinks at their place down the road and everyone was invited.
No thank you.
As I was walking down the steps I spotted the partner in the ‘they’ equation. It was Eleanor Catton.
Well I suppose I could stop by for one drink.
There was a small issue: my one sort-of friend wasn’t going so I would have to go alone to what was essentially intimate drinks among a small group of friends, none of whom I knew. I was still debating the creeps and cons of going to Eleanor Catton’s house when I noticed a face I sort-of recognised. It was a girl I had played cricket with for one season in 2005. I don’t think we shared a single conversation in 2005 (or since) but I was grasping at straws. She and her friend also didn’t know anyone so we all went to Eleanor Catton’s house for drinks.
Her house is exactly what you would expect her house to be like. Lots of wood and books. When we arrived, she offered us a drink. I don’t know if I wanted her to recognise me or not but as it turned out, she didn’t. She assumed I was a friend of one of the poets and treated me as such. She complimented me on my Breaking Bad t-shirt (a gift from my cousin) then we had the following conversation.
EC: I can’t imagine anything worse than living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
At this point I felt obliged to defend my cousin who had given me the shirt and also lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
MC: I’ve actually heard it’s quite nice.
EC: Mmmm I doubt that.
I found a new friend at the small party and we discussed how we didn’t know how to act in Eleanor Catton’s house. We finally built up the courage to ask for a tour (mostly of the bookshelves) and she kindly obliged. I got to see a corkboard of early work on The Luminaries mini-series while exchanging the most angst-ridden small-talk of my life. She showed me her huge bookshelf of television box sets and I realised there was sadly very little overlap in our TV preferences. The whole time this was happening I was debating whether to bring up my creepy fan moments but decided that now that we were acquaintances (at best) it would be weird to mention. Acquaintances can’t be fans if they want to be friends. We then had a conversation which sealed the deal:
EC: I can’t wait for the latest season of (insert TV show, maybe Downton Abbey?)
MC: Oh yeah, it’s really good.
EC: You’ve seen it? It hasn’t come out here yet.
MC: Uh, I watched it online.
EC: I make my money from sales so I feel I have to buy the shows to support the creators. I don’t judge people that don’t though.
The party lasted a while longer, during which time I spoke to her fiance and he asked me if I enjoyed poetry. Seeing as we had just been at a poetry event, I had to say yes. He then asked me who my favourite poets were and I couldn’t think of a single name. Luckily he was very kind and gave me a crash course in poetry. Once people started playing piano and singing songs I realised there were only a handful of guests left and I had outstayed my welcome by at least a half hour. You could argue I shouldn’t have been there to begin with, and I would agree.
On the way home I had a sudden realisation that I now knew where Eleanor Catton lived. I also realised that in Eleanor Catton’s mind there was a girl she had met twice who seemed like a huge fan, and a girl she had met in her own kitchen who was a fan of poetry and Albuquerque. She would never know that those two separate weirdos were actually the same one weirdo. After all that had happened, it would be so easy to ask for another interview or force an interaction now that I had knowledge of her home address. But I wouldn’t do that, because that’s not what friends do.
The Spinoff Books is brought to you by the good people at Unity Books
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.