Kate Pullinger, on her novel Forest Green
Novelist uses personal connection to weave a wonderful fictional tale
I really appreciated the way the writing of this novel took me completely away from the work I do with digital technology. (There was) a welcome contrast in the solitary nature of writing a novel and all that entails.
Kate Pullinger Doubleday
Maybe it was a compulsion to evoke the shifting landscape and culture of British Columbia, a province she loves.
Or perhaps it was the attraction of writing an old-fashioned piece of narrative fiction far removed from the digital world that occupies such a large part of her working life.
But again, Kate Pullinger may have been driven most by personal concerns when she set out to write a novel such as Forest Green. She was succumbing to the lure of a family mystery — the mystery of her Uncle Art.
Forest Green begins in 1995, in the West Coast city of New Westminster, with a drunken derelict lying injured in the street. It then takes us back to 1934, to the child Arthur Lunn once was, and to the origins of his downward spiral.
Forest Green is a work of fiction. That’s something that Pullinger, on the phone from her home in England, wants to emphasize. But it is anchored in truth.
“My mother and her family grew up in Penticton and the Okanagan, and her brother Arthur was a logger and a kind of family legend,” the 59-year-old novelist says. “He disappeared for the last 15 years of his life, and my mother could not track him down.”
For the young Kate, her Uncle Art was “a larger-than-life character who used to make appearances from time to time and charm everyone and disappear again. So this novel grew out of family stories about Art and also from research I did into his life.”
But there are significant differences in the story she ended up telling — including its note of hope at the end.
“My mother only discovered what had happened to him after he died. She attended this really extraordinary wake that was held in this New Westminster hotel where he’d been living for many years. The novel grew out of these stories, but of course when I was writing it, I realized I needed to move away from the true story and into the realm of fiction.”
Forest Green powerfully evokes both time and place. It draws the reader back to B.C.’S Okanagan Valley during the Depression years and to the early life of Arthur Lunn, whose idyllic childhood is ruptured by a cataclysmic event that leaves him consumed with a guilt that pursues him into adulthood — and into a purposeless, booze-fuelled life in the province’s remote logging camps and later in the waterways off the B.C. Coast.
“I think he was damaged by that childhood event in some fundamental way and blames himself for it — as children often do,” Pullinger says.
“He never manages to get away from it. He also grew up in a time when people didn’t talk about feelings or the impact that an event like this might have had. And he allows that trauma to be reinforced by what happens later in life, compounding his feelings about being at fault, about not being good enough.”
Pullinger has lived in England for many years and is currently professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University. But she still yearns for her home province. “I miss it terribly — especially in the summer,” she says. So conveying a powerful sense of place in Forest Green was “a huge part of why I wanted to write this book.” She was writing about “places I know and really love — that was one of the pleasures of this book.”
But the novel also needed to be character-driven if she was to write convincingly about how one life can go wrong while others remain secure and anchored. She needed to bring focus to Arthur’s relationships — with his one true love, Rose, and with Peg, the sturdily resilient sister he adores.
“One of the things that intrigued me was how the trajectories of siblings can be so entirely different,” Pullinger says. But she says the fictional Peg was difficult to get right.
“She’s partly based on my mother, but again she’s also where I really went into the realm of fiction. I was trying to write about the nature of sibling bonds, which can be very very different from any other kind of relationship or friendship.”
Forest Green is a very much a traditional novel that owes nothing to the digital universe that consumes much of Pullinger’s life. An earlier novel, Landing Gear, provided readers with an application-programming interface that would allow them to play around with 30 pages of text. She told Postmedia on that occasion that she occupied “two parallel worlds — the world of digital media and collaborative work, and the world of literary fiction.”
She may have won a Governor General’s Award for her 2009 historical novel, The Mistress of Nothing, but she has never been predictable. “I think it must be very annoying if you’re my publisher, but I’m never going to change,” she laughs. She has written vampire fiction (Where Does Kissing End) collaborated with director Jane Campion in a novelization of the film The Piano and recently wrote Breathe, a ghost story for smartphones that is her most recent excursion into digital fiction.
Pullinger still wonders about the future of the traditional literary novel as the digital revolution continues. But that hasn’t stopped her from writing Forest Green — and the experience was good for her.
“I really appreciated the way the writing of this novel took me completely away from the work I do with digital technology,” she says. “I was back into traditional mainstream fiction. When I do work with digital technology, it’s always highly collaborative — so there was a welcome contrast in the solitary nature of writing a novel and all that entails.”
Still, she wonders about the future of “storytelling” over the coming decades. She cites the rise of high-quality television in recent years — “television that is very literary, in a way” — and the potential for rich storytelling in a “digitally mediated” culture.
“It’s human nature to be drawn to the visual, so sometimes I find myself worrying about the future of reading,” she says.
Personally, she wants the traditional novel to survive. “But who knows?”
I was trying to write about the nature of sibling bonds, which can be very very different from any other kind of relationship or friendship.”
— Kate Pullinger, on her novel Forest Green