Eleanor Catton reflects on the path to the publication of her debut novel, The Rehearsal.
When I first met with Fergus Barrowman of Victoria University Press to talk about the possibility of publishing The Rehearsal, he came to meet me in the studio space in Tennyson St that I shared with a small collective of Wellington-based writers and artists. Most of us had been students together at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML), and after the programme ended we continued to meet for workshops every fortnight to discuss each other’s work. We found a space in a building that was scheduled for demolition and furnished it with couches and desks salvaged from the dump. We had a piano, ridden at speed down from Mt Victoria (through traffic), splintered at its base where the ancient castors had glowed red-hot against the road. On top of the piano, the home-made “Too-Hard Basket”, our centrepiece, the repository of all our collective confessions, shared jokes, and prayers – MY NOVEL read one slip of paper. STAYING SOBER – this slip in duplicate. FALLING IN LOVE.
I made Fergus a poor cup of tea in the dark kitchenette that we shared with the business upstairs and tried not to let my nervousness show. I had handed in the first draft of The Rehearsal nearly a month prior, in November, and Fergus had read the manuscript in his capacity as an external marker for the MA thesis. On mismatched couches under fluorescent lights, he chatted kindly about the book (I couldn’t say “book” – “novel” was not any easier, and “manuscript” was impossible for some reason – I stuck with “thesis”), but whenever he provided an opening for me to speak, I became inarticulate and strange. It was new to me – to talk about the work as something whole, something finished, something that existed and did not just hope to exist. (In my undergraduate essays at university I would often use the phrase “In this essay I hope to show …”, and my tutors would invariably strike out “hope to” and replace it with “will”.) I discovered, that afternoon, that I was not yet equipped to speak about my relationship with the novel out loud. In fact it was only much later that I would characterise the bond as a relationship, finally understanding that my claim to the book was not really proprietary or even causal, but, instead, that we had a kind of shared history together, a shared obsession, a symbiosis of feeling and time.
Literary agent Caroline Dawnay emailed me a week before The Rehearsal was to be launched at Unity Books in Wellington to say that she’d read my book and enjoyed it. She offered to represent me in the world beyond New Zealand. I was a little startled by her email (there’s a world beyond New Zealand?) and also, weirdly, a little frightened. The feeling registered somewhere between dread and weightlessness, and I recognised it: one year before, as I forced the budding manuscript beyond 6000 words (this particular word count was a kind of valve for me, a membrane between short and long), I realised that the draft had now become too big for me to hold in my head in its entirety. It was no longer a story, clean and honed and defensible; it had become a novel, indefinable, muscular, dark. Accepting that transition had been my most important milestone in the course of writing the book: it was an act of severance, of letting go, a relinquishing of control that was not compromising but liberating, as if I had just slid over to the passenger’s side and let The Rehearsal take its own wheel.
On the morning of the launch, Caroline emailed me to suggest, very tentatively and politely, that I might want to be open to the idea of changing the book’s ending for an overseas market. She explained that the book simply left too much unresolved, and that lack of closure might very well alienate my readers and make it difficult to find a publisher in the UK or the USA.
I didn’t respond to her email immediately, but I thought about it a great deal. The more I thought about compromising my idea for the book, the more perverse I became. I began to draft a reply in my head, defending the ending that I had chosen and outlining the reasons why I felt so unshakeable about it. The defence grew into a kind of manifesto, a statement of intent that lay behind the whole novel – not an impetus, not the reason why I began to write in the first place, but a statement of the novel’s agency, its purpose now that it was completed, now that it was whole. It was only then that I understood what I really wanted for the book. I understood that the novel’s intended effect – the book’s conscience – was not merely a hoped-for byproduct but a thing that was crucial, insistent, and active.
My eventual reply (which was many pages long, and embarrassingly ardent when I read back over it now) was a formal defence of the structural and thematic choices that I had made as a writer. As such, it was unlike anything I had ever written before:
I wanted every scene in the last chapter to exist in a kind of dubious reality, to show that neither one had the upper hand; neither the Institute nor the high school was “more real” than the other, but ultimately to show that even Victoria – who is the most shadowy of all the characters, the least “real”, the most like a mere character to be performed, and used, and discussed – even she is not exempt from the yearning that characterises all the young adults in this universe, the desire to put on someone else, to perform someone else, to become someone else, and therefore be able to escape oneself.
As a student at the IIML and later at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I have learned to flinch when I hear an author defending their own work. “Letting the work speak for itself” is a touted phrase in workshop, as is the idea of privileging (and sometimes even anthropomorphising) “the page” as the sole authority in the room. “Let’s stick to what’s on the page” comes the reminder if the discussion strays too far from what’s written. The writer must of course stay silent for the duration of the workshop – they are unsilenced at the very end, and asked if they have comments or questions, but this is to help clarify the writer’s understanding of the discussion, rather than to reform or judge the impressions of the readers. The writer never offers up “what I meant to say” – this phrase, or variations of it, is worse than cringeworthy, unspeakably gauche, taboo.
This method does make sense to me – defence can turn so easily into defensiveness, an attitude which is deadly to any workshop, and even deadlier if it creeps, insidious, into the posture of a creative piece. All the same, in actively having to defend my choices to Caroline, I realised that there was something that the workshop process had not taught me. It was possible, and wholly necessary, to speak about the novel without speaking for it: we both had agency, The Rehearsal and I.
Caroline’s response to my email was warm, although I think she was a little startled to have received such an ardent manifesto in response to such a tentative question. In the event, the ending did not bother the publishers in the wider world at all, and Granta was quite happy to buy the book as it was – weirdness and all.
It’s still a little strange to me that I only came to fully understand The Rehearsal after it went to print. Now, a year after publication, opening the book feels a little like running into an old school friend on the street. Although nothing about her has really altered, she is infused with a kind of newness, as if she is wearing every moment of our time apart like a mantle. I can see the distance between us now, and when she looks at me, I can tell that she can see it, too.
The Rehearsal won Best First Book of Fiction at this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards.