She found London was a place she could sink deep into, sink everything, and yet not drown. -from The Last Time I Saw Jane
Best known in Canada for winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2009 for The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger is also leading the way in digital fiction. In 2002 she worked with trAce Online Writing Centre. Her digital story, Inanimate Alice, won prizes in 2006 (four episodes of ten are available so far). The collaborative work combines her text with graphics, sound, and media games, and comes with material for teachers. In addition to her networked novel Flight Paths, she is working on the collaborative digital thriller Duel. Her novel in progress, Landing Gear, ties in with characters in Flight Paths. All very edgy.
Born in Cranbrook B.C., Pullinger left her Vancouver Island home for McGill University. Before finishing her degree, she travelled and then settled in London, where she lives with her family. She returned to university as a Reader in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University, where she completed a PhD by published works in 2007. She is now Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media in the School of Humanities and Cultural Industries at Bath Spa University. Debra Martens spoke with Kate Pullinger via Skype on December 7, 2012.
Q: When did you leave Canada and why?
Pullinger: I left in 1982 when I was 20. I left not so much because I wanted to leave Canada but because I wanted to come and live in London. I had been to London twice prior to coming to live here, but only for a week at a time. My idea about coming to live in London was tied up with my adolescent idea about where you needed to be in order to be a proper writer. That was also tied up with my interest in music, British music in particular. And also the cultural scene that I knew that I would find in London.
Q: British music 1982? That was punk?
Pullinger: I was too young for punk. Punk came to British Columbia about two years after it ended here. Just the general English pop scene really, punk, David Bowie, Joy Division, those kinds of bands that seemed really extraordinary to me at the time.
Q: That’s very brave of you to come just like that. You didn’t come straight from B.C., did you?
Pullinger: I went to McGill University when I was 17, which seems extremely young now, and I dropped out after a year and a half. Then I went to live in the Yukon for a year. My eldest sister was living in the Yukon, so I went to the Yukon and worked in a mine. My brother-in-law worked in a mine outside Whitehorse. I got a job crushing rocks. I made a ton of money; even by today’s standards it was extremely well paid. So I did that and then I travelled in Europe and North Africa for six months before coming to live in London.
Q: Were you already writing when you left?
Pullinger: Yes, it had always had been a … I guess I had started writing seriously … well when you’re a teenager these things all seem so serious … from the age of 12 or 13. It was what I knew I wanted to do. University sort of deviated from that and that’s partly why I left McGill. I had this clear idea of what I wanted to do. It’s not a thing I’ve ever regretted and of course bizarrely I’ve ended up working in academia, despite being a drop out.
Q: You earned it, I think. How did you come to be working in academia?
Pullinger: I’ve always done bits and pieces of teaching, writing. Just gradually through a series of opportunities, really, over the last decade. I’m now professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University. I’ve been there since the middle of September.
Q: Do you like teaching in Bath?
Pullinger: I’m really enjoying it. Really lovely. The physical environment at the university is absolutely beautiful. The two campuses I work on are fantastically beautiful, both of them. It’s very friendly, very open, an interesting set of colleagues and working environment so I’m really pleased.
Q: To go back to when you arrived in London – how did you earn a living?
Pullinger: I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t have any money. I was 20 and I thought that was fine, as you do when you’re young. I was just very lucky. I met great people very quickly. I moved into a left wing community of people who were involved in squatting houses, which was a big thing certainly in the 1970s and still in the 80s. So the first few years I lived in that community and had part-time jobs and just kept writing.
Q: When was your first publication?
Pullinger: I started having stories accepted in magazines from around 1986. My first book of short stories came out in 1989.
Q: I was reading “The Future of Fiction: from Historical to Digital,” the Hugh MacLennan Memorial Lecture that you gave in 2011. You were talking about how Canadian writers felt that they had to leave. You mentioned Mavis Gallant and Leonard Cohen, but they were a generation before you.
Pullinger: They were a couple of generations before me. Atwood was the first person who talked about that and who talked about how it was possible to be a writer in Canada. I think those writers earlier than Mavis Gallant – that generation of writers who during my brief tenure at McGill were presented as The Canadian Writers in my Canadian Literature course, that’s the generation I’m referring to. Then by the time Atwood came along it had already shifted and by the time I came along it had shifted completely.
Q: If writers generations before you felt they had to leave in order to succeed, as Atwood has said several times, did you feel the same, that you had to leave in order to succeed?
Pullinger: No I think it was more personal than that. It was more to do with me and my particular circumstances. It wasn’t anything to do with a feeling that you couldn’t do it in Canada. Not at all. It was much more to do with me and this feeling I had that London was the place I would feel most at home.
Q: And do you?
Pullinger: Yeah I’ve been here ever since. It’s not an easy place to live, in any way. It has its challenges, doesn’t it, the largest of which is the cost of living. The three things I love most about London are that it’s full of people from all over the world. It’s so diverse — that’s something I really value and I value that for my kids. I think that’s fantastic. Second, I love its proximity to Europe. I like being able to go on holiday in Italy and France, easily and quickly. Third, it’s fantastic culturally. Although the cost of living is so high, the cost of culture is not high at all in London. You have access to an incredible range of culture — a lot of it is free. I really value that.
Q: The other thing I’m interested in hearing about is the digital work that you’re doing. I’ve looked at Inanimate Alice on your website and at the parts of Flight Paths and Duel on your blog, all of which I’ve liked. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about digital story telling — the relationship between literature and digital storytelling today — and where you think that’s going.
Pullinger: Well, I think the new technologies and the new devices are creating room for new forms of literature. Literature is evolving and will continue to evolve. Obviously I write novels and short stories — I love both. I do think that the novel evolved because of various socio economic factors, the most important of which might have been the printing press. So once you move beyond the printing press as a central technology for the delivery of content, that opens the door to a complete revolution in what literature can be. I’m really interested in experimenting and trying new things and seeing what new forms might emerge. I think that when you place text on the screen, as we do now, there is the potential for adding in other forms of media. So why not see what new types of storytelling can emerge. I don’t think it is a case of either or. I don’t think that the long form prose narrative is about to be obliterated. I think that publishing is undergoing enormous changes and that those will play out over the next 20 years in surprising ways. I’m really interested to see what happens. I think there are opportunities for writers who are interested in these things.
Q: Are your students interested in it?
Pullinger: Yes, they are, they are. Absolutely. They’re interested in trying new things and they’re interested in blending their various interests as well. So we’ll see.
Q: Transliteracy. I saw somewhere that you said there must be another name for what you are doing. Have you come up with another name for this kind of multimedia storytelling?
Pullinger: No, not really. The term I use most at the moment is digital fiction. But nobody knows what you mean when you say that. That’s partly because it’s all new and emerging. The naming of it all will, I imagine, become clear over the next decade or so.
Q: I was confused by the difference between a book downloaded for an e-reader and a web novel. Web novel refers to what you are doing, the digital fiction, with Inanimate Alice?
Pullinger: Yeah the thing that’s a little peculiar about e-books is that they use the technology of the web with none of the advantages of the web. They’re contained. So I think that that will change. The things that I do – I guess an important factor is that they cannot be replicated in print.
Q: I guess not, I suppose they could be partially replicated in print, you could do the screen but not any of the sound.
Pullinger: You couldn’t do the video or the interactivity either.
Q: Do you ever go back to Canada?
Pullinger: Oh I go back a lot. I go when I’ve got a book out. When The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2009, that led to many opportunities to do things in Canada, which was great. My family’s in B.C. and also Nova Scotia.
Q: Have you ever considered taking a writer in residence in Canada?
Pullinger: I would love to do that, but I can’t. I haven’t been able to because of my children.
Q: How many kids are keeping you from leaving?
Pullinger: My kids are 16 and 12 now. Maybe in another five or six years there’ll be something that I can look at doing. … I look at the residencies that there are and think I’d love to do that. But there hasn’t been a … that’s one of the problems with the way writers in residencies work, I think, they rule out quite a lot of women in particular.
Q: Have you heard about the Rosalind Prize for Fiction, the new prize for women writers in Canada?
Pullinger: Yes, that’s really interesting, that’s good.
Q: Do you approve?
Pullinger: I do approve. Sexism is alive and well in the publishing industry and media industry as much as anywhere else.
Q: What’s up next, what are you working on now?
Pullinger: I have a new novel that is fairly finished and I have a new digital picture project as well. Hopefully in 2013 at least one of those will find its way out into the world. The novel’s called Landing Gear.
Kate Pullinger’s print fiction includes The Mistress of Nothing (2009), A Little Stranger (2006), Weird Sister (1999), My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison (1997), The Last Time I Saw Jane (1996), The Piano, with Jane Campion (1994), When the Monster Dies (1989) and Tiny Lies (1988). She was involved in one of the first networked novels, the five-week wiki, A Million Penguins, in 2007. In addition to her collaborative digital fiction, she also edits the Asham Award Short Story Collection. For more about her publications, visit the Bath Spa profile, or her own site.