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Eleanor Catton on Activism, Macbeth and Birnam Wood

Posted on 6th February 2024 by Mark Skinner

With the epic historical novel of ideas that was The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton attracted huge critical acclaim and a Booker Prize win. Now she returns with Birnam Wood, a similarly lithe and fiercely intelligent eco-thriller that speaks powerfully to our times. In this exclusive piece, Eleanor muses on the novel's gestation, the influence of Macbeth and the tumultuous modern times that formed the backdrop to the book.   

In the spring of 2015, I arrived in Amsterdam for a six-week writers’ residency, hoping to find the inspiration to begin writing my next book. My ideas were still embryonic: the story would have something to do with survivalism and the death of Socrates, I thought; it would be set in New Zealand in the very near future; and it would have a plot. This was the period when auto-fiction reigned supreme, and I was growing increasingly suspicious of the kind of temporally fragmented, culturally allusive, highly self-referential novel then in vogue. I didn’t want to serve the logic and imperatives of social media, as many of these novels seemed to me to do; in fact, I was coming more and more to see the plotted novel as antithetical to the manipulations of the internet, a critique, in itself, of social media’s denaturing effects. ‘Hypocrisy is easy,’ I remember thinking around this time, ‘but irony is hard.’ I wanted to write a book of real moral ambivalence, a book where things really happened and people really changed, a book that delivered on the old-fashioned, emphatically temporal pleasures of misapprehension, tension, and surprise.

The apartment where I was to be living overlooked a square in the centre of the city, where a busker played Dave Brubeck’s Take Five on an endless loop, drowned out intermittently by the sound of jackhammers tearing up the cobblestones nearby. My hosts apologised for all the construction, explaining that earlier that year, students at the University of Amsterdam had occupied another building on the square, formerly the humanities faculty, that was destined to be converted into a luxury hotel and spa. The protest, which demanded complete reform of the university’s financial practices and the end of property speculation with public funds, had won a great deal of international attention and support, and in the wake of this, mysterious construction projects had started springing up in public squares around the city. Evidently, the city council had sided with the university; their intention—at least, this was what I was told—was to create such a racket, and to restrict the movement of crowds to such an extent, as to make further protests impossible.

My curiosity was piqued.

Directly below my apartment was an English-language bookstore where the stock buyers, in solidarity with the protestors, had ordered seemingly every left-wing title currently in print: manifestos, obfuscation manuals, activist biographies, books of political and economic theory, legal advice for protestors, and histories of social change. I bought a tottering stack and hauled them upstairs to read, always leaving the attic window open in the hope of attracting the bony ginger cat who lived next door. I was missing feline company. My husband had carefully recorded the meow and the purr of each our cats before we left New Zealand, and we played these recordings every night, but it wasn’t enough; Amster-Jack, as we’d christened the ginger cat, seemed to have intuited that he was needed. (The most embarrassing moment of the residency was when Amster-Jack’s owner knocked on our door to ask if he could please come home because it was time for him to take his medicine, and, insanely, I denied that he was there. Unfortunately, he was lying in full view on the sofa, the back of his paw against his forehead in a dreamy pose that called to mind Kate Winslet in Titanic. ‘He is right there on the sofa,’ said his owner, pointing at him, and even more insanely, I then pretended to see him for the very first time.)

By the end of the residency, I had two new suitcases full of books, and I was cooling on the death-of-Socrates idea. I kept reading, feeling sure that the form of the novel would present itself somehow, and not wanting to begin writing until I had both a title and a sense of an ending. 2016 was a watershed year in global politics, of course, and both Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum kept social media firmly in the news. I was thinking more and more about the unforeseen—both those elections had come as a shock to almost everyone—and about the future, which all of a sudden seemed very present, and very dark; every day, something wholly unprecedented was taking place. The mood was feral. I decided to reread Macbeth.

I had studied the play in high school, and I had been taught that it was a story of ambition. Coming back to it in early 2017, I saw it differently. I saw it as a play about the seduction of certainty. At the beginning of the play, Macbeth receives a prophecy about his future. It’s by believing in that prophecy that he makes it come true.

All at once, I had my title: Birnam Wood, the thing we never saw coming, the blindness that arises out of certainty, the future we thought we could control. My Birnam Wood would be an activist collective, guerrilla gardeners who plant gardens in neglected spaces and dream of social change; but the book wouldn’t be a straight-up adaptation of the play. Instead, every one of the characters would be a contender for the title role; every one of them, when asked, ‘who is the Macbeth of this story?’ would point to someone else.

I also had my ending. But I won’t tell you what that is.

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