Kate Pullinger’s novel, The Mistress of Nothing, won the GG in 2009; it’s a historical fiction, set in Egypt in the 1860s, based on a true story. As well as writing about the past, Pullinger’s work in the realm of digital fiction pushes toward the future of fiction, using new technologies to find new ways to tell stories. Her award-winning projects ‘Inanimate Alice’ and ‘Flight Paths’ demonstrate the potential for a new type of fiction that moves far beyond ebooks.
Join Pullinger on April 28 as she delivers the Hugh MacLennan Memorial Lecture 2011. The event will take place at 5:30 p.m. in Room 232 of the Leacock Building.
You spent some time studying at McGill. How does it feel to be back as a lecturer?
I was surprised by the invitation to return to McGill to do the Hugh MacLennan Memorial Lecture, surprised and pleased. I came to study at McGill when I was seventeen, but I dropped out when I was nineteen, after a year and a half of not studying. Although dropping out of university is not something I’ve regretted – it was definitely the right thing for me to do at that time – it’s quite an odd thing to have on my CV, especially since, five years ago, I took up a part-time post as Reader in Creative Writing and New Media at a university in the UK – this is the equivalent of an Associate Professorship. So while my main work remains that of a fiction writer, I also teach in a university which, at times, given my history, I find rather puzzling!
I haven’t had any contact with McGill since I dropped out, so to be invited back to do this lecture means a huge amount to me. My only real regret is that my parents are no longer with us; they were shocked and appalled by my decision to drop-out and the advent of this lecture would have given them real pleasure.
Like Hugh MacLennan, you also won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2009 for The Mistress of Nothing. Can you tell us a little about this unique experience?
Winning the GG was a tremendous thrill – no one was more surprised than me. It has transformed the fate of The Mistress of Nothing, in Canada as well as in other publishing territories. I have loved every minute of it. The book had been longlisted for the Giller Prize, but it didn’t make the shortlist, so my publishers and I absorbed that disappointment and moved on, as you do.
Getting onto the shortlist for the GG was very unexpected – and then winning, well. I was told in advance and then had to keep it a secret for a few weeks, and that was a kind of exquisite torture. The press announcement for all the winners took place in Montreal, which was great fun, and then the actual awards ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa was like a sparkly gorgeous dream. I hired a dress and had my hair straightened for the occasion, so in the photos I look nothing like myself, which seems kind of fitting to me as I still can’t really believe that I won it, and I half expect to receive a letter or phonecall where I’m informed that there’s been a terrible mistake.
You are currently working on collaborative projects with digital artists and game developers. The lecture you are giving at McGill is entitled The Future of Fiction: Historical to Digital. Can you tell us more about how technology influences your craft?
For the past decade as well as continuing to write novels and short stories, I’ve been involved in creating works of fiction that are ‘born-digital,’ in other words, works of fiction that rely on the computer to exist. Digital Fiction is a hybrid form that combines media, often including images, sound effects, music, video, games, etc. with text; text remains at the heart of all the work I do, online or off. The new technologies bring with them new ways to tell stories, as well as new ways for writers to connect with readers, ways for readers to connect with each other. So, technology has a profound influence on my craft.
I do think it is worth remembering that the book is a technology, but it is a technology that is so familiar to us that we do not think of it as such. Long-form prose narrative is best suited to the book form, and whether you consume that book on paper or electronically is somewhat immaterial; I will continue to write novels because I love the complexity of the novel, with its potential for sustained character development, multiple sub-plots, and psychological insight. But there is a lot of fun to be had out there in the world of digital experimentation, and I think literature needs to claim a place at that table.
Do you have any advice for emerging writers?
My advice for student and emerging writers is simple: read as much as you can, and write as much as you can. The best way to learn to write is by reading, but learn to read like a writer: that is, when you love something you’ve read, spend some time looking at it and thinking about why you love it. Equally, when you really dislike something you’ve read, spend some time thinking about what it is about that book that doesn’t work for you. Try to apply what you’ve learned to your own writing.
My favourite advice for writers comes via Elmore Leonard who once published his Top Ten Tips for Writers: all his tips were great, but the best one was ‘Leave out the bits readers skip.’ In other words, if you are bored by your writing, there is really no hope for your reader.
The thing about writing is that it is very time-consuming; you have to be willing to sit there, putting in the hours that it takes to write a first draft and then the many subsequent drafts it will take to get the story right. I’ve come across lots of emerging writers who, though they have great talent, aren’t willing or able to put in the time required. It really does take practice.