Eleanor Catton in Canada

Canadian Adventure

Booked for a three week tour of Canadian literary festivals, I flew to Calgary, a city at the foot of the Rockies. In the restroom at Calgary airport a voice behind me drawled, "No soap." Louise, I thought, looking in the mirror, but actually it was Thelma. I watched as she was ushered through the crowd, Geena Davis, tall and elegant, still a star all these years after she and Susan Sarandon drove their car into the Grand Canyon holding hands.
In winter, Calgary gets to thirty below zero. The city has a network of covered walkways, and I could walk from my hotel to downtown indoors. Jetlagged, I went jogging beside the river, attended parties, performed my quota of readings and panels. I brushed past John Cleese in the foyer (was he here to meet Geena?) and went to an insane reading by Chuck Palahniuk, U.S. author of Fight Club, involving groupies, glow sticks and coloured beach balls. After a week I was driven to Banff, high in the Rocky Mountains. In the hotel there were instructions: now we were deep in the Banff National Park I was advised to beware of wolves, elk, black and grizzly bears, cougars, lynxes and coyotes. Eleanor Catton had arrived in the night and holed up in her room with a bison burger.I woke in the freezing morning to blue skies, extraordinary alpine beauty. Ellie invited me to join her for breakfast, and while we ate, the winner of the Booker Prize gave me a rundown on Canadian wildlife.

If you meet a grizzly, she said, you don't make eye contact or run, you tiptoe quietly away. If it's a black bear you shout, bang things and sing. Cougars will stalk you and leap down on your neck. Elk will charge. And so on. Later that day, she and I gave a reading with two other writers at the Banff Centre, in a room with an alpine backdrop so beautiful I joked to the audience it made me feel like the leader of a cult.

 We flew on, to the Vancouver festival. Invited by Ellie to go shopping with her and our UK agent Caroline Dawnay, I declined (shopping is hell) but later I admired Ellie's purchase: a fabulous coat. She'd never bought anything so flash. Was it fiendish? Fiendish, she said, grinning, and invited me to try it on, which I did, and stood about in it, thinking not so much about the gorgeous coat but about the Booker winner herself, with her poise and clear eyes, her huge enjoyment and high voltage smile. She had described to me her reaction to the Booker media hype – her description involved a comparison with the city of San Francisco and was so subtle and oblique that I considered it from many different angles afterwards. Far too intelligent to take the hype entirely seriously she has, as a writer, been handed an enormous gift – not just the prize and the recognition, but the experience of the circus that goes with it. She just has to survive it, and she seems well equipped to do so, despite the attendant strain. One night I watched her, hollow-eyed, nodding politely at a signing table while a fan talked at her relentlessly, on and on and on. Another night, exhausted, she bowed out of a party, and when I said, 'Yes, you especially need to pace yourself,' she made a funny joke about Britney Spears.

In the hotel, a tiny woman asked about my novel, Soon. "All is political" she said with an elfin laugh, a small fist pressed to her mouth. "Indeed," I said, distracted. We went on talking but a writer approached, trembling, and told her, "You've influenced my whole life's work." Another arrived, practically curtseying, and I realised that the tiny woman was Margaret Attwood, who continued to greet fans while we talked, I towering beside her like her butler, her wry bodyguard.
At the Toronto festival I talked intensely about the Nazis with Justin Cartwright, told Margaret Drabble in a taxi I loved The Radiant Way. On the way to the Niagara Falls with British writers including Rupert Thompson and Nadeem Aslam, we discussed Saturday by Ian McEwan (verdict: a deeply reactionary book). Nadeem Aslam was handsome, a prince in mirror sunglasses. When talk turned to being born with silver spoon in mouth he said, "Mine was plastic." Utterly charming, he asked us all to sign his book.
In a place called Cabbagetown, my Canadian publisher told me about Toronto's ravines. I visited her offices, House of Anansi, with Rupert Thompson, who was heading next to Moscow to research his new book. It was a project he described to me over the days in such compelling detail I wished I could fly to Moscow with him, and watch his Russian novel come to life.

Published in Metro Magazine October 2013