(February 2010): My first novel, WMD, came out in 1989. The previous year I had published my first book, a collection of short stories called Tiny Lies. That book was greeted with almost universal joy – rave reviews, acres of press coverage, multiple reprints, foreign rights sales, film deals, and a whole raft of the stories were broadcast on BBC radio. I was twenty-six years old and I thought that was what publishing a book was like – everyone loved you, you got invited to all the best parties, people introduced you to Angelica Huston and David Cronenberg and Margaret Atwood.
The publication of WMD was a rather different experience. I wanted to write a book that was about the London I knew. I felt that the world I inhabited in the 1980s – living in squatted houses, involved in radical politics, having a fabulous time – had never been written about before. It took me a year to write; I researched the history of Vauxhall, the area of London, near the river Thames, where I was living, and wrote about people I might have known.
Cape published the novel as part of a very glossy publicity campaign alongside three other first novels. The campaign backfired somewhat; its lavishness seemed to annoy everyone. My book was treated savagely by certain sections of the press. There was one review in particular that was potentially career-destroying – in fact that book reviewer took two opportunities to slap me up and down, one in a major broadsheet newspaper, the other in a glossy women’s monthly.
Not everyone hated it; Ruth Rendell liked it, in the Sunday Times, and said, ‘Pullinger writes with a curious raw sophistication… this book is very much the stuff of the late 1980s.’ And when I met Jake Arnott for the first time in 2009, twenty years later, he told me that the book had meant a lot to him when it came out. Although we didn’t know it at the time, he’d been living in, and trying to write about, the same part of London as me.
The title of the novel has always been problematic; I was never happy with it and, with time, I’ve grown to loathe it. It makes me cringe – no other titles, in fact, nothing else I’ve written, makes me cringe in this way. The novel does has a kind of raw power, like Rendell says, but it also has lots of problems.
There’s a long tradition of writers re-writing, revising, re-visiting their work, and ‘WMD – a revision’ is very much in keeping with that. However, my plan here is to not to rewrite but to comment on and annotate and explain. This project is partly driven by nostalgia for, or rather curiosity about, that period of my life, but I see it also as a small act of social memoir, a way of re-engaging with the past. The original novel has links with my digital project ‘Flight Paths’; the new novel I’m planning to write has its feet in both these camps: the character Harriet from ‘Flight Paths’ is Mary from WMD, more grown-up, a little wiser, and, hopefully, better written.
If you lived in Bonnington Square or Vauxhall Gardens in the 1980s and have photos or other scannable mementos that you would like to share with me and this project, please do get in touch. I’d love to be able to include photos from that period; I didn’t own a camera then. We didn’t have a tv either. No computers, of course. A typewriter was the extent of the technology to which I had access. No wonder we spent so much time in the pub. E-mail me: hello (at) katepullinger (dot) com.
Post script: (27 May 2010) To date I’ve republished and annotated 14 sections of WMD. However, I’ve decided to stop working on this now. Whether this is a temporary or permanent hiatus, I’m not entirely sure. We’ll see.