NWF: Unprintable Books: Writing for the Digital Era: Kate Pullinger

pp_katepullingerKate Pullinger’s session on unprintable books was another highlight of the National Writers Forum for me. Pullinger (right) has been involved in a diverse array of projects that have traversed that sometimes impossible-looking gap between digital and print media – a gap that could well be a matter of perception over truth. In fact, Pullinger made the point that the perceived boundary between digital and print publishing is much more porous than we might think.

Pullinger’s first book was published traditionally when she was in her mid-20s. Since then she’s published a number of books and short stories –The Mistress of Nothing won the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Award in 2009. Yet she’s also diversified and carved out a space for herself, and other readers, writers and learners, in the digital space. Her project Inanimate Alice, which started out in 2005, has become exceptionally popular as an educational resource, as it’s an excellent example of how learning can be ‘gamified’ – combining text, animation, video, sound effects, music, and games with virtual participation. It’s still happening; episode six of Inanimate Alice was released in February this year.

For Pullinger, online collaboration has worked well as a contrast to the solitary process of producing long-form work offline. Landing Gear, a novel that explores the relationship between a suburban housewife and a stowaway who falls from the sky, started its life online, with Pullinger’s participatory research phase involving around 100 people. Opening up the writing process to participation has a few notable advocates now – with scientific peer review attributed as a major factor in the success of breakout hit, The Martian, by Andy Weir.cv_letters_to_an_unknown_soldier

Next Pullinger talked about Letter to an Unknown Soldier, a commissioned online project to mark the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of World War One. Participants were encouraged to write a letter to the Paddington Station’s statue of an unknown soldier. The concept blossomed into an online work that involved 21,439 letters and 8 editorial moderators. When you have a spare moment, I thoroughly recommend perusing through this memorial, or perhaps buying the resulting print book, Letter to an Unknown Soldier: A New Kind of War Memorial, published by HarperCollins in 2014.

But what of smartphones, those pesky pocket-sized computers that loom ominously over publishing? It’s all about finding a way to make the reading experience native to the medium; and Pullinger’s currently exploring how to do just that. Together with start-up oolipo, Pullinger has been working on a way to serialise fiction for smartphones – and there’s a lot more to this process than you might think. Our perceptions of reading in print can limit the way we work in digital space, as ‘the screen as a page’ metaphor persists in the digital reading space. I’m disappointed that I own a Samsung, as I do a lot of reading on my phone, and this project and the release of Pullinger’s serialised Jellybone is potentially industry-changing (though only available for iOS).

I’m a huge fan of Pokѐmon Go, so when Pullinger mentioned ambient literature, I was right there alongside her. “Situated literature exploring delivery by pervasive computing platforms that respond to the presence of a reader to deliver story” may sound like a mouthful, but the idea of engaging with location-specific content is one that really excites me. I’d love to see this medium working with narrative non-fiction in an educational space, as it has the potential to bring about learning experiences that are kinetic, empathetic, and educational.

Kate Pullinger spoke very freely of her experiences in publishing, and contributed very meaningfully to panel discussions. Her work in the digital space continues to break new ground, and I’ll certainly be following her upcoming projects with interest.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson


  • Listen to Kate’s interview with Kim Hill here: Kate Pullinger: Digital Fictions
  • The Writing Platform: Pullinger is the Editorial Director for this free resource for writers and poets on digital transformations in reading, writing and publishing.
  • Inanimate Alice: An early digital project of Pullinger’s, that continues to be very popular as a classroom resource.
  • Letter to an Unknown Soldier:A participatory online memorial to commemorate the centenary of WW1.
  • Oolipo: A start-up exploring smartphone reading experiences and serialised work.

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