Beyond the Paper Principle: Interactive Fictions

Tom Ue in conversation with Novelist, short story writer and digital fiction author, Kate Pullinger.


Kate Pullinger writes for both print and digital platforms. In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes. Her prize-winning digital fiction projects Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel have reached audiences around the world. She is Reader in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University where she co-founded TRG, the Transliteracy Research Group. She lives in the UK.

Tom Ue: Let us start by talking about mining. According to your Web site, you “spent a year working in a copper mine in the Yukon, northern Canada, where [you] crushed rocks and saved money.” I confess that I do not know anything about mining. Can you elaborate?

Kate Pullinger: I worked at Whitehorse Copper, in the lab, where I really did crush rocks. My job was to take mineral samples – big rocks – and to put them through a series of grinding machines until they wound up as dust that could be analysed. It was very noisy and dirty work – I used to have to wear a hardhat, a face shield, earplugs, facemask, coverall, steel-toed boots and heavy-duty gloves. It was phenomenally boring. I was by myself most of the time. I used to add up the money I was making by the minute to keep myself entertained. I loved the Yukon though, and Whitehorse was a hugely social town with a great cast of characters – full of drop-outs and runaways and fortune-seekers.

T.U.: Have these experiences inspired you in your writing? How so?

K.P.: When I was in my late teens and twenties I was certainly more than willing to do very boring jobs in order to finance my writing. I was also willing to be rather poor if that meant I had time to write. I think the main thing for me was keeping my goal of writing in view at all times, even when I wasn’t writing. So when I was crushing rocks, I was doing it in order to find a way to write. I’ve written very little about that time – a section in a short piece of memoir I wrote a number of years ago, just a few pages – and I very much hope to go back to the Yukon again before too long, as I would love to write about it.

T.U.: You co-wrote a novelization of Jane Campion’s film The Piano with the director, in which you have successfully translated the poetry of Campion’s film. What are some of the challenges of translating a film into a novel in comparison with the more traditional novel-to-film process?

K.P.: There are huge challenges, and innate contradictions, when it comes to translating a film to a novel. The film of ‘The Piano’ is a story full of gaps and mysteries, and Campion felt that a novel could illuminate some of these things for readers and fans.

T.U.: How does this adaptation process differ from your writing for the screen?

K.P.: They are two completely different things. With ‘The Piano’ the material did not belong to me, the story was not ‘my story’ in any way, from the ideas to the copyright. When I write for digital media, in effect for the computer screen, I’m attempting to create text and structure it so that it will work with the other media present – images, sound, music, video, etc. Whereas writing ‘The Piano’ was the opposite of that – taking all those sounds and images and creating a text to tell what is a highly visual story.

T.U.: You are Reader in Creative Writing and New Media at De Montfort University in Leicester, where you teach an online MA program in Creative Writing and New Media. How has your teaching impacted your writing?

K.P.: I like teaching and I always learn a lot from my students, as people and as writers. Teaching takes me away from the solitude of writing, and that’s a good thing. But it can also be hard to find the right balance. Financially speaking, teaching supports my writing in a way that is absolutely necessary. I’ve worked in other fields, including journalism and film and TV scriptwriting, but I find teaching a more natural fit with writing fiction, whether that’s digital or print.

T.U.: What are some of the challenges of teaching Creative Writing?

K.P.: One of the biggest challenges is finding ways to help people achieve their goals while giving them a realistic view of the publishing industry. At the MA level it can be tricky to find ways to help students manage their expectations. Even the most talented and ambitious of students can find it very tough to break through. Another big challenge is balancing one’s own subjective opinion against the reality of what works in the market. What I understand to be ‘good writing’ is not the same as writing that might sell, especially in the current publishing climate. The market for ‘good writing’ – literary fiction and all-genre fiction that cares about language and style – can be very strong but publishing a book these days is like buying a ticket in a lottery; the success of your book depends on many external factors beyond your control.

T.U.: Your ten-episode Inanimate Alice project ( ) traces the story of eight-year-old Alice as she grows up and develops into a game animator and designer in her mid-twenties. How does the connection between form and content impact this project?

K.P.: Part of the reason for the success of Inanimate Alice is that the form is married to the content from the outset. Because Alice is a games designer, it makes sense to have games and interactivity in the story. I think this is one of the key elements when it comes to augmenting and enhancing old material, or creating new stories for the new technologies – does it make sense? Does it add to the story? Say for example you want to create a project to tell stories using cellphones. It makes sense to me to come up with a story that has a narrative-based reason for involving phones, rather than simply placing what would otherwise be book content on to a phone. This is partly why I find e-books frustrating; I’m much more interested in creating content for digital platforms that takes full advantage of the differences between long-form prose and rich media narrative.

T.U.: Through Alice, you invite new kinds of engagement with the reader through the integration of carefully-selected sounds and images. What are some of the different ways in which new media speaks to a reader?

K.P.: There are many ways! Too many to list here! However, for me one of the key developments currently is reader-writer interaction and finding ways to connect directly with readers. I find Twitter especially fascinating for this. I follow William Gibson and Douglas Coupland and Margaret Atwood, for instance, and never fail to be amused by the snippets they send out into the twittersphere, and sometimes I even come across useful or enlightening information because of what they tweet. And I know that some of my readers follow me. This makes for a profoundly different type of writer-reader interaction than we have ever seen before. No idea what it means but it is very interesting!

T.U.: What are some of the challenges of writing in new media?

K.P.: New media is not at all future-proof and is much more difficult to archive and/or save and store than books (even though it seems like every other paperback I buy these days falls apart while I am reading it).

T.U.: How has living and working abroad impacted your writing?

K.P.: For me it was an adolescent dream to come to London and become ‘a writer’; I decided that what was I was going to do when I was about 15, and so I did it. I’ve been in London since I was twenty, and my first book, Tiny Lies, a book of short stories, came out when I was twenty-seven. So clearly living and working here has had a huge impact on my entire writing life. In a way, the question could be turned around: How has being a Canadian living in London impacted your writing? The answer to that is - it’s had a huge impact. The landscapes of my childhood, and the relationship Canada has with the rest of the world, and the spiky questions around what it means to be Canadian, continue to absorb and interest me.

T.U.: The tensions between national and cultural identities are central to your Governor General Award-winning novel The Mistress of Nothing. Can you elaborate on how these questions of identity manifest in your previous works?

K.P.: These questions inform most of my work, if not all of it. Even Weird Sister, my novel about witches set in the Fens in eastern England, has cultural identity at its heart. I think it is one of my inescapable themes, part of what makes me a writer, in fact. My new project again explores this territory. In my defence (!) I believe that this is one of the great themes of modernity, and that it is fundamental to how many of us experience the world, and how we struggle to find our place in it.

T.U.: How have your views about transnationalism changed as you mature as a writer?

K.P.: I don’t know if my views have changed a lot as I get older, but I do envy writers who bear the label ‘regional’ as I think that some of our greatest writers are those who return to the same territory – literally the same piece of earth – repeatedly in their work. Alistair McLeod and Alice Munro come to mind and of course there are many others whose initials aren’t A.M. I’ve written repeatedly about London now, but London is one of those places that is very hard to pin down, a city that means many things to many people, and it is a place of transition and change.

T.U.: What are your views about transliteracy, and how do they affect your work as an artist?

K.P.: ‘Transliteracy’ is an academic theory developed by my colleague at DMU, Prof Sue Thomas; it is a very useful way of looking at how writing and reading is changing with the advance of the new technologies. I’m an optimist – I think the new technologies are going to enable more people to read, more people to write, and more fluidity between what it means to be a reader or a writer.

T.U.: Let us talk more about The Mistress of Nothing. Your novel tells the story of the maid Sally Naldrett who follows her mistress, Lady Duff Gordon, to Egypt when she suffers tuberculosis. You worked on this novel for many years. Tell us about the research and writing processes.

K.P.: Well, it took me a very long time to find the right voice for the story – it wasn’t until very late in the process that I figured out the story needed to be told solely from Sally’s point of view. I did a huge amount of research – I knew very little about domestic servants in the Victorian era, very little about Egypt and its more contemporary history, very little about Islam in daily life… I even tried to learn Egyptian Arabic! I abandoned the novel several times, and wrote other books, other things, but the story kept drawing me back.

T.U.: You organize your novel very clearly, with the section headings “Life,” “Death,” and “Afterlife.” These titles give Sally’s story a kind of universal importance. Can you comment on these headings?

K.P.: For me those section headings connect the novel to Ancient Egypt in a way that isn’t particularly explicit in itself. If we know one thing about Ancient Egypt it is that they were obsessed by the Afterlife and much of their art that remains with us is devoted to explaining what comes next. As well as that, the section headings are a reflection of what the two main female characters go through in the story: for Lucie, who would have died if she had stayed in England, Egypt really did provide a kind of Afterlife, and the divide between her life as it had been in England and her life as it was in Egypt could hardly have been greater. For Sally, Egypt gives her a whole new life, but she too suffers a kind of death when she is forced to give up her child. For her the Afterlife is the way she finds to live once she has given up Abdullah.

T.U.: Near the opening of the novel, the narrator Sally tells us: “So. I am a plain-speaking woman, and I’ll tell my story plainly” (5). Sally’s story is anything but a plain one, and you never reduce Lady Duff Gordon to a simple character. For example, you repeatedly juxtapose her generosity and charity with her ignoble treatment of Sally. Indeed, by the end of the novel, Sally watches the funeral of Lady Duff Gordon, and tells us: “I slip away. Back into Cairo. But as I leave the vast cemetery with the dead in their multitude, I see Omar’s father, making his way through the graves. And with him, Abdullah. Before I can call out, my boy sees me. And he runs towards me, his arms open, smiling” (248). How does your choice of language and your juxtaposition of stories affect your writing and your subjects?

K.P.: Ah, I think that’s an unanswerable question, at least for me! I think that this is something innate, part of what defines my ‘voice’ as a writer. I opt for minimalism and understatement – I have to work against being too understated in fact – and I like to leave gaps and mysteries in the text for the reader. I hope to beguile readers that way.

T.U.: Thank you for taking time off your busy schedule, and best of luck in your work!

K.P.: Thanks Tom, good questions!

About the Interviewer


Tom Ue is a graduate student in the Department of English at McGill University, where he holds a Joseph-Amand Bombardier CGS Master’s Scholarship and a Provost’s Graduate Fellowship. He researches in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British literature. His Master’s thesis focuses on the influence Charles Dickens had on Alphonse Daudet and George Gissing’s fiction.


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