Based on a newspaper article Kate Pullinger first read more than a decade ago, when the body of an airplane stowaway landed in a southwest London supermarket car park, her new novel, Landing Gear, explores what would happen if the stowaway survived unscathed. From the ash cloud airspace shutdown in 2010, through 2012, and onto 2014, the novel is about the complex texture of modern life—airplanes, the Internet, migrant labour, and the loneliness of the nuclear family.
Pullinger’s previous books include The Mistress of Nothing, which won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction.
She answered our questions about the relationship between literature and the digital world, how immersion in online life changes our stories, and how much of her new novel, with its elements of the fantastic, was so unfathomable after all.
49th Shelf: Parts of Landing Gear were previously published digitally in a series called Flight Paths, the text presented with music and film. And now here is the book in its traditional format, which gives the impression that you think print and digital are complementary (and this is refreshing in a climate that insists on presenting these ideas as necessarily antagonistic).
From Flight Paths, it’s quite clear what digital fiction allows for that the book does not, but what about the other way around? Why are novels still worth writing?
Kate Pullinger: From the beginning of working on Flight Paths, I planned to write a novel as well. The novel is the place for psychological exploration, depth, and insight; no other art form offers the same kind of scope for the interior lives of characters. You are absolutely right—I do think that print and digital are complementary, and that it is not a case of “instead of” but always “as well as.” But I also think that the digital platforms allow for a great range of experimentation in the realm of new literary forms—we’re only just at the very beginning of exploring what is possible.
49th Shelf: Of course, Landing Gear is not so traditional in its format as you’ve taken care to include digital life as a dimension of your fictional reality. Your characters watch YouTube, stalk people on Facebook, post videos to Twitter and communicate with people halfway around the world in gamer communities. This is a long way from the historical period you wrote about in your award-winning The Mistress of Nothing. Have you included online life in your fiction before? How is fiction changed by the online being present?
KP: I haven’t ever written about the way that technology is so thoroughly embedded in our lives before. Occasionally you hear prose writers and screenwriters complain that technology has taken all the good plots away—the power of the stranger who comes to town is removed when you can Google him and find out what he looked like in college. But I disagree—I think that the digital is now such a firm part of most people’s lives that it opens up new ways of thinking about how people relate to one another. On a more fundamental level, I don’t think the Internet has altered what we want from fiction as readers—we all still crave a good story, well-told.
I don’t think the internet has altered what we want from fiction as readers—we all still crave a good story, well-told.
49th Shelf: Your plot is a curious combination of uber-realism with epic themes and motifs. The sense of realness in your fiction is so grounding that it enables the reader to suspend disbelief more than a few times throughout the book. What it is like to create a story in this kind of fictional space?
KP: I knew when I started writing that I was working on a realist novel with magical traces—but this is territory I’m familiar with from my earlier novels, including Weird Sister, which is a psychological thriller about a woman who may—or may not—be a witch, and Where Does Kissing End?, which is a feminist reworking of Dracula (written well before the current vampire-mania gripped the land). With Landing Gear I never questioned any of the decisions I made in that realm—Yacub lands on Harriet’s car and everything before and after leads up to and away from that point. That’s the way it happened, if you see what I mean! I was interested in exploring ideas around the djinnas well as Yacub’s frustration that anyone would see him as an exotic in that way. Most of my work has explored the theme of otherness—that stranger who comes to town; it’s one of my on-going and recurring themes.
49th Shelf: Okay, regarding the suspension of disbelief: maybe I don’t give you enough credit. Did you have anything to do with that American teenager who stowed away in a plane’s landing gear on a five-hour flight from California to Hawaii? The most excellent publicity stunt ever?
KP: Ha! I told a journalist the other day that the boy was my son, and that I had paid him with a bag of chips while omitting to tell him what was really entailed. I’m going to Hawaii to fetch him later this week. BUT THIS IS NOT TRUE! Bizarrely amazing timing though, that’s for sure. And, of course, an extraordinary true story is gradually emerging there.