Monday, 6 July 2009

Conversation with Kate Pullinger

Another in the occasional series of conversations. This time, I branch out into the world of fiction, and talk with Kate Pullinger about her new novel, The Mistress of Nothing.

Sarah: One of the successes of the book is the tension created between historical fact and your imagination. How did you approach ficitonalising Lady Duff Gordon and her life? And how apprehensive were you in doing this?

Kate: I found writing this book tremendously difficult to write and, in fact, it took me nearly 14 years, and I had to abandon it several times in order to write different books. I once spent a year working on it and at the end of the year had one page. For me there were multiple problems. Lucie Duff Gordon was a writer, and so I found it very hard to figure out what to do about her 'voice' in the book; I did too much research, and if there's one thing I don't like about historical novels it is their tendency to show off the writer's research; Egypt is full of cliches in the western imagination and the idea of Victorian women aristocrats abroad is also very cliche-ridden territory and I wanted to do all I could do avoid charges of 'orientalism'. I wasn't at all apprehensive but I found it very very hard to find the right way to tell the story and wrote many versions of the novel that simply didn't work very well. It was only at quite a late date in the process - after a decade or so! - when I decided to put the book entirely into Sally's voice, that it really began to finally work as a novel. Earlier drafts had Omar and Lucie's points of view, as well as the third person. When I teach writing I go on and on about the importance of figuring out point of view from early on in the process, and with this book point of view caused me as many problems as it can to an absolute beginner (and it's my seventh novel!).

Sarah: What kept you committed to the novel over such a long period of time?

Kate: From the moment I read the few pages in Katherine Frank's wonderful biography 'Lucie Duff Gordon' that describe what happened to Sally Naldrett, who had been Lucie's Lady's maid for many many years, I was gripped by the idea of finding a way to explore this story more fully. I travelled through Egypt for about a month when I was twenty, and I think it is a most beautiful and fascinating country and so all my research into Egypt in the nineteenth century was very pleasurable for me to do. For me the love story with its tragic outcome kept drawing me back - I never considered abandoning this novel completely, despite all my problems with the writing.

Sarah: Without giving too much away, I hope, I was fascinated by the turning point in the book, the point of betrayal, where the emotional relationship overtook the social relationship between the two women, or so it seemed to me. How do you see the interplay between these two relationships?

Kate: For me this moment is key and Sally's tragic mistake is that she believes that her relationship with Lucie is elastic enough to include the new situation. Lucie Duff Gordon really was a great radical; her views on Egyptian politics were entirely at odds with the consensus in Europe and she really was a champion of the ordinary Egyptian people. She is loved in Egypt to this day because of that. However, I was fascinated to learn from Katherine Frank's wonderful biography 'Lucie Duff Gordon' that when it came to Sally, Lucie's politics reverted to type. In a way, the incident with Sally was a very minor part of Lucie's life; but of course for Sally it means everything.

Sarah: I read Ian McKewan once as saying all his novels have a central image. What would you say is the one in the Mistress of Nothing? And what does it represent?

Kate: For me the central image - how can I describe it without giving too much away - the pivotal moment is the scene on the dahabieh on the Nile on Christmas Eve. The whole novel grew out of that moment. Lucie's shock. Sally's joy.

Sarah: Yes, I can see that. The Nile is paramount in the novel, as it is in geography. It creates this no-man's land, where the party travels along a boundary - social as well as geographical. I feel that their relationship changes in all the variousl locations. How intentional was this? You talk about Lucie's importance to the Eygptians now. How much is Eygpt a part of the relationship triangle?

Kate: I like that - I hadn't really thought about that and I'm very glad to hear that the Nile had a presence for you in the novel. I think that what happened with Lucie and Sally and their manservant Omar could not have happened anywhere else but far far far up the Nile. Living in Luxor put them so far away from Europe, from other Europeans, that it meant that relationships could shift and alter in fundamental ways - they could leave their former lives, their former selves, behind. And the locations do have a power of their own, so this was intentional - the mapping of events on locations. This is, in fact, one of the areas where the novel stays close to the known biographical facts - Sally did faint at Philae; these things did take place in Luxor; the scene on the Nile on Christmas Eve really did happen that way.

Thanks Kate. And if you'd like to hear Kate read a short extract from the novel, then click play ...

There's more to read about Kate and the new book on her website
and another interview on book army


Jane E said...

Great interview! The book sounds fascinating and I'll look out for it!

NileCruise said...


I read about your interview with Kate Pullinger in the Observer and wonder if you would allow me to make a reference to it on our Nile Cruise blog at

I'm certain that our clients would find it intersting.