Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Kate Pullinger: Ghosts, yes. Muses, not so much.

The author of The Mistress of Nothing answers eight questions submitted by eight other authors.
Kate Pullinger is the author of the novel The Mistress of Nothing. (

A Governor General's Literary Award winner for her 2009 novel The Mistress of Nothing, Kate Pullinger is also a contributor to CBC Books' "Heroes and Antiheroes" literary series, with support from the Canada Council for the Arts. Read her original story, "The Trees."

Below, Kate Pullinger answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.

1. Karen Solie asks, "What is your day (or night) job?"

I'm lucky enough to possess the fabulous job title of Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University. I'm what is euphemistically known as a "non-standard entrant" to academia — I dropped out of McGill when I was 19 and my first degree was a PhD, which I finished four years ago. So I'm a doctor and a professor and I work for a university in England that is not only a bath but a spa as well. As you can imagine, imposter syndrome features prominently in my CV. However, I work with an amazing faculty of writers and I have terrific students. So, until they rumble me, I'm happy. 

2. Alexi Zentner asks, "What's your favourite thing a reader has ever said to you?"

This is going to sound like boasting but it is my favourite thing: my novel The Mistress of Nothing was based on a true story. Because no one (by no one I mean no historian) knows what became of the maid Sally Naldrett once she was cast out of Lady Duff Gordon's household, I concocted what I thought was a believable fate for a penniless serving class Englishwoman on her own with a child in 19th century Cairo. After the book came out, a descendant of the sister of Sally Naldrett — Ellen, who also lived in Egypt and is a minor character in my novel — wrote to me. The family did go into the hotel trade. They never found out what happened to their long-lost great-great-auntie. And my book had made them happy because it imagined a gentler fate for Sally. 

3. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks: "How do you know when your book is finished?" 

This is something I am VERY bad at. I'm forever tricking myself into thinking, there, I'm done, when I'm nowhere near done. Nine novels later, I still do it. Waking up to the reality that, no, I'm not done, is always horrifying. 

4. Todd Babiak asks, "Do you ever feel so scared in the dark, when you're alone, that you have to turn on a light? If so, what are you afraid of?" 

Yes. Ghosts. Malevolent spirits. Tiny men with spears who live under the bed, like in that Karen Black TV movie I saw when I was a kid. 

5. Cordelia Strube asks, "Does everything you write have a vaguely identifiable purpose (i.e. a theme)?" 

Definitely not. 

6. Tomson Highway asks, "If you were a musician, which instrument would you play? That is to say, which instrument would you choose to tell your story with?" 

A theremin. So cool. And I'd be able to write science fiction at last. 

7. Nazneen Sheikh asks, "Are you totally neurotic about your writing environment?" 

I try to discourage myself from this, and make myself write in all kinds of environments from my lovely office to cafés, trains and airplanes. But I'm not good if there is music playing. Can't write if there's music playing. Does something to my brain. Except perhaps the theremin...

8. Sharon Butala asks, "As a woman writer I am fascinated by the concept of the muse. But what is a woman artist to take as her muse?" 

The whole thing about '"the muse" makes me guffaw into my sleeve with embarrassment. Really? Hard work, stamina, persistence, joy, excitement, disappointment and luck — that's what writing is to me. The muse doesn't exist — she belongs under the bed with the tiny men and their spears.