Booker-winning alumna Eleanor Catton releases third novel

Award-winning author and Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington honorary doctorate holder Eleanor Catton released her third novel Birnam Wood, published in Aotearoa New Zealand by Te Herenga Waka University Press, earlier this month.

Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton. Photo credit Murdo MacLeod.

Birnam Wood is a thriller about a guerrilla gardening collective of the same name who take the opportunity offered by a landslide to plant crops in an abandoned farm where no one will notice. But they haven’t figured on the actions of American billionaire Robert Lemoine, who also has an interest in the farm. The book brings a Shakespearean approach to activism, conservation, class, and politics in Aotearoa New Zealand, exploring our inability to imagine the worst and our ignorance of warning signs from the environment (and other places) we encounter every day.

Eleanor’s first novel, The Rehearsal, was written for her Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) in 2008. She won the Adam Foundation Prize in Creative Writing, which recognises the best folio in the Master’s degree, for this work. The Rehearsal also received the New Zealand Best First Book of Fiction Award and the Betty Trask Prize, and was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize and longlisted for the Orange Prize.

“The IIML experience was absolutely invaluable,” Eleanor says. “The programme equipped me with the tools, vocabulary, and confidence to take myself seriously as a writer.”

Eleanor also received the Glenn Schaeffer Fellowship to study at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, considered one of the most respected creative writing schools in the world.

Eleanor was awarded the 2012 University of Auckland Residency at the Michael King Writers' Centre, and she has also taught creative writing in Auckland, at the Manukau Institute of Technology.

Her second novel, The Luminaries (Victoria University Press, 2013),which she started during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, won the Booker Prize, as well as the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award, and the Fiction category of the New Zealand Book Awards. She was the youngest author ever to win the Booker Prize.

In her acceptance speech for the Booker Prize, Eleanor talked about the pressures of making a living from your art.

“Thank you. When I began writing The Luminaries, I was very much in the thrall of Lewis Hyde's wonderful book, The Gift, as I still am.

“An economy based on value, in Lewis Hyde's conception, is not necessarily inferior to an economy based on worth, but the two must somehow be reconciled in the life of an artist who wishes to make a living by his or her gift, by his or her art.”

In 2014, Eleanor received an honorary doctorate from the University. Vice-Chancellor at the time, Professor Pat Walsh, said, “We are extremely proud to count Eleanor among our illustrious alumni.”

She was also made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to literature in the New Year’s Honours in 2014.

Since then, Eleanor has been involved in several TV projects, including writing the script for the BBC television adaption of The Luminaries, which aired in 2020. In another connection to the University, the soundtrack to The Luminaries was created almost entirely by staff and alumni of the New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī (NZSM).

She also wrote the script for Emma (2020), a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

The publication of Birnam Wood was first announced in 2017.

In an interview with The Bookseller, Eleanor says:

“I wanted it to be a corrective, not a symptom, of the things that really annoy me about the contemporary malaise. That’s my formal answer to the climate crisis: because human beings are so innovative, we can do it, but whether we will... I’m very worried.”

“New Zealanders are so used to occupying a position globally where they are not morally culpable. If this book provokes anything, I want it to provoke that conversation.”

Eleanor now lives in Britain with her husband, fellow writer Stephen Touissant, and their daughter. Birnam Wood is available from Te Herenga Waka University Press.