Award-winning writer and digital pioneer Kate Pullinger shares her secrets in collaboration with if:book Australia and QWC.  

Remember the Internet in 2002? Most of us have forgotten the boing-boing of a modem dialling in before a growl of static confirmed the connection. Kate Pullinger hasn’t. The award-winning author remembers it clearly.

While hybrid, interactive, enriched or multimedia writing (whichever you want to call it), seems a recent phenomenon, Pullinger has been working on it for over a decade. In 2002 she was invited to do a yearlong research fellowship to look at new forms of narrative that were emerging online at time.

While the age of the modem was ‘primitive and slow’, Pullinger could see the potential the Internet offered writers. ‘I realised there was extraordinary opportunities for writers there,’ she told us. ‘I’m not a techy person, I’m not a web designer or coder or anything like that, but I could see the potential was huge for new forms as well as new ways of connecting with readers.’

The Canadian-born, London-based author has certainly explored that potential. Apart from producing literary works, including The Mistress of Nothing, which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2009, and co-penning The Piano novelisation, Pullinger has been at the forefront of digital narratives.

Her transmedia story Inanimate Alice, a digital novel about a young woman navigating the globe in a technology-augmented future, is not only enjoyed in as many countries as it’s set, but also acts as an educational aid. Told in episodes, the series combines text, video, audio and images, knitted together with Flash technology to create an interactive experience.

Creating Inanimate Alice back in 2002 would’ve been quite different. One of the main changes Pullinger believes has contributed to the prevalence and sophistication of digital narratives is the advent of cable and DSL Internet connections. ‘The ease with which we can now upload video, audio and all types of multimedia to the Internet is a big change.’

That change hasn’t just appeased our impatience. It’s assisted the development of a ‘new visual language’, which gives voice to the kind of transmedia storytelling Pullinger creates. ‘People are so much more accustomed to communicating via photographs, videos and audio files etc, and that’s a big change,’ she said.

Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: a networked novel, her second transmedia series, both speak in that language, which she believes is ‘hybrid’ and has ‘things in common with the novel and the language of film’, yet is a ‘newer, emerging form’.

When we propose that this development might be a reaction to dwindling attention spans, Pullinger offered an interesting answer. ‘It definitely was when we started working on Inanimate Alice, we strongly felt that people would not read on a screen for very long, so that determined the length of episodes, but I think that’s changing now. We all spend so much time on phones or tablets or laptops without thinking about it, I think people’s tolerance has really shifted over the last couple of years.’

While she’s interested in future digital works that could incorporate longer text, and believes ‘forms will continue to evolve’, she admitted that she’s still ‘really fond of the form developed through’ Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths. ‘The way it combines text with video, sound, image and music is an effective way of telling certain kinds of stories.’

Another aspect of her digital work, which she juggles with traditional novel writing, is not only the collaboration with technical gurus, but submissions from readers and outside people. With Flight Paths, Pullinger and project partner Chris Joseph invited people to share their ideas.

‘The first stage of the project was open to participation, we had over 100 people submit as well as contribute to the discussion that took place before we created the episodes and that fed right into the story.’

If you look at Flight Paths today, it’s credited to Pullinger, Joseph ‘and participants’. This isn’t her only experience with outside parties contributing to narratives she’s created. One of the most interesting and rewarding enagements with her audience came when she discovered a whole new series of Inanimate Alice episodes on the Internet – which she didn’t create.

‘I followed the links and discovered a teacher in the US who was using Inanimate Alice with a group of teenagers, that in her terminology called “heard to reach”, and they were 17 year olds and they made a whole lot of episodes using Powerpoint. For me that redfined how I thought about interactivity and how readers can engage with text and we began to see the classroom potential.’

This was in 2009, and since then Inanimate Alice has incorporated lesson plans and teaching guides that can be used to assist educators in using the story to teach literacy and expose students to literature. A cynical person might think this was a commercial opportunity, but Inanimate Alice is free online, as are the educational resources.

‘It appeals to kids who think they don’t like to read because it’s on a screen and its got games and it’s noisy and wizzy, but it also appeals to more able students who can see the potential for creating those things themselves.’

While she’s chased the digital opportunities first uncovered in 2002, Pullinger doesn’t see hybrid storytelling as a threat to traditional narratives. ‘I don’t think it’s ever a case of either or. There’s room for the solitary long form text, both in terms of writing it and reading it, that’s not going away, it might continue to shift and change as technology makes things more possible.’

It comes as no surprise then that Pullinger’s latest book, Landing Gear, set to be released in April 2014, is an attempt to align her literary fiction with her digital works. ‘Landing Gear develops the story of Flight Paths into a novel form. It tells the story before and after the episodes of Flight Paths.

‘I’ve been trying to draw these two realms that I inhabit – the world of digital multimedia and the world of literary fiction. They’re very different but for me they share a sensibility, my projects have a certain authorial voice and an interest in certain types of stories that draw them together.’

When asked if having Flight Paths as an accompaniment made Landing Gear easier to plot and write, Pullinger laughed, ‘Not really, no! Writing a novel is hard work.’

That’s not going to deter anyone though, and Pullinger is sharing her knowledge with Australian audiences this month in collaboration with if:book Australia and the Queensland Writers Centre (QWC).

On 9 July Pullinger will take part in Memory Makes Us, an ambitious live writing event that explores the role of memory in writing and reading. Members of the public are invited to share their memories in text, image or video via the if:book website. Pullinger will then use these submissions, and her own recollections and ideas, to craft a new work live.

‘Few writers have as successfully worked across traditional narrative and experimental online storytelling,’ said if:book Australia manager, Simon Groth. ‘From her pioneering work with Chris Joseph on Inanimate Alice to extraordinary award-winning novel, The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger proves that the two worlds are not mutually exclusive and her insights into the creative process are both profound and accessible.’

The next night on 10 July, Pullinger will be hosting the Digital Narratives seminar at the QWC. At this event she will share her knowledge of this burgeoning form of storytelling, offering ‘an overview of what’s possible and what’s out there’, as well as touching on programs she’s been involved with. She describes it as a ‘real sort of brainstorm’ with ‘a little bit of creating as well’.

So what digital narratives are out there now that she’s following?

‘There’s lot actually. In the UK Andy Campbell has a website called Dreaming Methods and he does a lot of really interesting atmospheric work and work in the 3D environments, and there’s interesting things emerging from the world of games as well.’

Aside from her own writing, Pullinger is also a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. There she works with another novelist called Naomi Alderman, who Pullinger believes has created one of the most interesting (and fun) digital narratives out there.

‘She’s co-created an app for runners called Zombies Run that is a whole storyworld about being chased by zombies as you go for your daily run,’ she laughed. ‘It’s been hugely successful.’

While the digital realm is full of similar narrative-based projects, ‘It’s not coming from traditional publishing, it’s coming from other directions’. While some publishers are dipping their toe in digital forms, such as Random House in the UK with the Black Crown Project, Pullinger believes publishers ‘need to be careful’.

‘It’s quite far from what they’re used to doing and what their skill set is. Publishers aren’t research and development organisations, so things can end up costing them a lot of money and not really working. So they’re taking their time with experimenting in this field.’

Interestingly, large publishers have had the most success in the digital realm with classic texts. Faber&Faber recently released an interactive version of John Buchan’s espionage thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps in collaboration with software publishers and developers The Story Mechanics.

‘The Story Mechanics have come up with something completely new in the landscape of fiction ebooks. It’s a new way of reading with John Buchan’s story at its heart, presented afresh through a TV and gaming-inspired lens,’ head of Faber Digital Henry Volans said in April.

The success of this project adheres to Pullinger’s idea that publishers are better off collaborating with companies already possessing technical expertise. Volas’ comment also echoes her assertion that the transmedia language borrows from the language of film.

To find out what else is in store for the digital future from one of the industry’s pioneers, head to Pullinger’s website or buy tickets to the Digital Narratives or get involved with Memory Makes Us.