Video transcript
NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2023 - SWF author interview (secondary) - 02. Lili Wilkinson

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[intro music]

ARISHA: Hello. My name is Arisha, and I'm here from North Sydney Girls High School. We are here on Cammeraygal land at Chatswood, at The Concourse, and I am here to interview the lovely Lili Wilkinson. Lili, how are you?

LILI WILKINSON: I am great. I'm so excited to be here in Sydney. I love coming to Sydney, and love being part of the Sydney Writers' Festival.

ARISHA: OK. For this interview, I'd like to ask a few questions, starting off with, when did you start writing?

LILI WILKINSON: So I have been-- I've wanted to be a writer my whole life. When I was 5 years old, my grandmother asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I said, 'I want to be an author,' and my grandma was a bit deaf, and she thought I said 'a wharfie'. Like someone who works on the docks. Which-- a very legitimate career choice, but a strange one for a 5-year-old girl to choose. So yeah, I've always wanted to be a writer, and I think it's the only thing I've ever been really good at.

ARISHA: What inspired you to be a writer?

LILI WILKINSON: I think the thing that really inspired me to be a writer was being a reader. I used to go to events, like the Sydney Writers' Festival that we're at today, and see other authors talk-- authors like Isobelle Carmody or Maureen McCarthy, who are both still writing today. And I would see them talk on the stage about their books, and I would read and love their books and just think, 'I want that to be me one day,' and the idea that someday someone might love one of my books the way that I love other people's books, that I did love other people's books as a teenager, is very inspiring.

ARISHA: A lot of authors usually have a specific genre that they prefer to write in. But after reading a few of your books, I've noticed that you really don't fit into that. You write about a lot of genres. So my question is, how do you do it?

LILI WILKINSON: I think one of the really great things about writing for young adults is that if you're an adult writer, your publisher is really going to pressure you to write books that all sit in the same part of the bookshop. If you're a crime writer, they will want you to be on the crime shelf and all of your books are all lined up together. Or in the romance section, or in the science fiction section.

But when you write young adult fiction, it's all in the young adult section. So within that, you can write whatever you like, and so, I write whatever I'm really passionate about at that moment, anything that feels really exciting to me. And because it all exists in YA, and it has, I think, a certain tone because it's young adult fiction, I think they still are all Lili Wilkinson books, whilst existing in different genres, and sometimes sort of mash-ups between genres, as well.

ARISHA: Are you the one who decides what you want to write next? Or is there other deciding factors on that?

LILI WILKINSON: What happens is I will go to my publisher, and I will pitch them a book, and I will say, 'I really want to write this book,' and sometimes I will have a little sample, or I'll have a cute little presentation to show them with some cool pictures. But I will then say, 'This is the book I want to write next.'

And very early in my career, I didn't do that. Early in my career, my stories were commissioned. I would have stories where my publisher would say, 'We want you to write a book about convicts coming to Australia. We want you to write a book about Joan of Arc. We want you to write a book about the Children's Crusade,' and I would go off and figure out what they were. I'd look them up on Google, and then I would write those books.

But now I pitch for my own books, and so most of the time I do get to write what I want to write. But certainly, with this most recent book, 'Hunger of Thorns', I have been wanting to write this book for a while. And so about 6 years ago, I guess, I went to my publisher, and I said, 'I want to write this fantasy novel. I've been burning to write it for a decade,' and my publisher said, 'Great, we love it, but you've just written 2 thrillers, and they've done really well. Could you write another thriller first?,' and I did not want to do that. But I love my publisher. So I said, 'OK.'

And I went home and I tried to think of an idea, and I was very mean to my family for a few days, just because I was cranky, and I really, really struggled to come up with an idea for a thriller. But then it sort of came to me fortuitously in the middle of the night. I woke up and thought, 'A girl is on a self-driving bus, and she has no memory of who she is or how she got there,' and that became 'The Erasure Initiative'. So that was not a book that I really wanted to write. But once I had the idea, then I was in, and I was excited about writing it.

ARISHA: Yeah. So when you write a book, how much research do you have to do for the book?

LILI WILKINSON: I think it really depends on what the book is. If it's a historical fiction, you need to do a massive amount of research. But I think all books require some research, and I really like to have books that have information about particular things that I'm interested in. For example, I wrote a book called 'Green Valentine', which is a romantic comedy about guerrilla gardening. But I did a massive amount of research into gardening and plants and activism, and how all those things work, to really bring the story alive.

For this most recent book 'A Hunger of Thorns', even though it's set in a totally different fantasy world, I still did a truckload of research into witches and witchcraft, into folk magic and different folk magic traditions from around the world, into botany and plants and plant science, into abandoned power plants and all sorts of other different things.

I really love research, because I think story ideas come from research. A lot of the time I will be reading about something and I'll be like, 'That's amazing. I've got to put that in the book. How can I wrap the story around this particular thing to make it work?'

ARISHA: But how do you find out which research is relevant to your story, if it's not set in a modern time setting, or if it's set in a future setting or something like that?

LILI WILKINSON: Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you have to just follow it. I feel like with writing 'Hunger of Thorns', for a long time, I was a bit lost in the woods myself, and I spent-- I'd go down one pathway researching the lost girls of literature because for a while, I thought Alice and Dorothy and Wendy were going to be in the book, and then I decided that they weren't.

But I picked a few mushrooms and flowers on the way and put them in my basket, and went down a different path and learnt about power plants and how they work. Or I learnt about this amazing outsider artist named Henry Darger, and so you do go down a lot of different pathways, and you don't necessarily know what's going to end up in the story.

But I like to think of all of those things as a bit like cooking with bay leaves. Nobody wants to eat a bay leaf, because they have a very strong flavour. But you put them into your soup or your stew or whatever, and they give a lot of flavour, even when you take them out at the end. The flavour is still there. So all of that research still-- I think it still matters, even if it doesn't end up in the story.

ARISHA: Got it. What genre do you think is the hardest to research?

LILI WILKINSON: Historical fiction is definitely the hardest genre, because it has to be true. The very first book I ever wrote was a book about the life of Joan of Arc. It's called 'Joan of Arc'. I'm not good with titles. Anyway, I had to do a lot of research, and my editors would ask me all of these questions. Like, 'When this group was fighting with this group, how did they tell each other apart?,' because they all looked the same. Or, 'How did-- what were the walls of this city made out of?,' and you would have to go and read all of these books, and then half the time that stuff doesn't end up in the story anyway.

But you need to have that real historical detail of, what did they eat for breakfast in the morning? Whereas if you're writing contemporary fiction, they can just eat toast, or if you're writing fantasy or science fiction, you can make it up. But definitely when you're trying to root your story in a real historical time period, that is a massive undertaking.

ARISHA: Understandable. I know you mentioned that you're not really good with making titles. But I'm still wondering, how do you make a title?

LILI WILKINSON: With blood and sweat and tears and pain and suffering. I love coming up with names for things. I love naming places and magic and things and characters. I love coming up with names for characters. I think I'm good at it, too. I really enjoy that process. But for some reason, coming up with a title is the worst.

'Hunger of Thorns' was originally called 'The Wild Kindness', which is a title that I will definitely use for something, because I think it's great. But then for a long time it was called 'Sticklegrass', and the publishers didn't love 'Sticklegrass'. I don't know why. I still think it's great. I think it's because it's too long to fit on a book cover. It's quite a long word. So you'd have to make it quite small.

And so then we went through this period where I would make pages and pages and pages of titles, and then we would look at all of them, and we would argue about them, and I reckon I would have come up with 200 titles for this book, until finally we found-- we originally found-- we called it 'The Hunger of Thorns', but it had an acronym that we didn't love. So now it is 'A Hunger of Thorns'. So that's where we are now.

ARISHA: You said that you-- you mentioned that you liked naming places and characters in your book. I was wondering if you ever get emotionally attached to the storyline or the characters, because I've noticed that that's a really common thing for authors to do.

LILI WILKINSON: Yeah, absolutely. I think I get emotionally attached to all of it, because you spend so much time with a story. And this one in particular, I spent a long time writing this story, and so, I became very emotionally attached to all of it, to the world. Which means when you have to lose something in the editorial process, when there's a part of it that isn't working, it can be really hard, and you have to develop a bit of a thick skin to let some of those things go.

ARISHA: For the editing process, is there any tips that you'd like to mention for future writers?

LILI WILKINSON: Yeah. I think the biggest tip is that taking critical feedback is a muscle that needs to be developed. When you first start out and people give you great, constructive critical feedback on your work, it's really hard not to take it personally. The first time I got an editorial letter on my very first book, when I was a baby author, I cried. Because I was like, 'But I thought it was perfect, and it's not perfect, and you're telling me it's not perfect, which means I'm not perfect, which means you hate me, and I hate everything, and maybe I should just not do this at all.' It can be very, very intimidating.

But it always comes from a good place. Your editors always want to make your work better, or your critique partners or your friends or your family. Everybody always wants to make your story better, and I cannot write a story by myself. I can't. They're not good enough. I'm not good enough. I need that help and that outside perspective.

And so now I am 18 books in, and I love getting that feedback. Whether it's from my critique partners or from my editors, I love getting those editorial letters, getting that feedback. Because I know-- it immediately sparks my brain with, 'Yes, that is exactly what I need to make my story better,' and so, it is just practice. It's hearing that. It's finding people you trust to give you feedback.

And it's learning to know which feedback you want to take on board and which feedback you don't. Because you don't have to take all of it on board. There will be stuff that you will want to fight for, and it can be hard to see some of those things sometimes, because it comes down to, is this something that you want-- hang on a minute. Let me re-answer that question. Is this idea that I want to hold onto-- is it because it's really right, and it belongs in my story, or is it just going to be a lot of very hard work to change it, and I am lazy? And it's usually the second one, because writing is hard and I am lazy.

ARISHA: How long does the writing process for you usually take? And account for the editing process, the research, all of that.

LILI WILKINSON: For me, usually the process is 2 years. I come up with the idea. I pitch it to a publisher. I create a plan. I write the first draft. I send it off to editors and to critique partners and friends. I then revise it. Then it goes into copy edits, which is more granular editing, and then it gets designed and proofread and sent off to the publisher, and then it's a finished book.

But with 'Hunger of Thorns', it took me 10 years. Because as I said, I was lost in the woods with this one, and I've never written a book quite the way that I wrote this book, and I never intend to do it again. I'm going back to very carefully structured stuff. But I learnt a lot about myself as a writer in that process, by being lost in the woods. I found a lot of things that, if I had written the book my usual way, it would not be the book that it is now.

ARISHA: But while you're writing one book, do you write other books at the same time? Or do you dedicate 2 years to that one book?

LILI WILKINSON: Oh god, no. I could never do that. Because firstly, I would get bored. But also there's a lot of waiting. So if I send off edits to my publisher, I might not see them back-- I might see them back in a week, I might see them back in 3 months. Because publishers have other schedules and stuff to do.

So at the moment, I am doing publicity for 'Hunger of Thorns', which has just come out. I have just finished copy edits on my next book, which will be out this time next year. I am just starting to draft the book that will-- the YA novel that will come out after that, which will be out in 2025. But I'm also working on a picture book and a junior fiction series, as well. So I've got a lot of different things to do.

And I like that, because if I get really stuck and bored on one project, I can just swap to another, and if I only had one project at a time, I'm not sure what I would do in those periods where I'm waiting, where it's at the designer, or it's with the editors, or it's off at the printer. I just have no idea what I would do with myself.

ARISHA: Understandable. After having experienced writing so many different genres, do you have a preference to a specific genre, or a writing style?

LILI WILKINSON: I don't know if I have a preference for genre. I'm really enjoying writing fantasy at the moment. I love writing fantasy. I've always wanted to be a fantasy writer, and it's taken me 18 books to get there. But I think that I will stick with it for a little while, but I can't commit to it forever, and I do like being able to swap between genres. I'm also enjoying writing some stuff for younger kids as well, because they're very short, and a lot-- I don't want to say easier, because it's a different kind of writing, but certainly a lot quicker to write.

But I think that the style, if you like, that I like writing about is-- I like writing characters who are relatable, I hope they are relatable, and I like writing characters who feel real. I don't want to write about archetypes. I want to write about real people having adventures. So in fantasy, real, messy people making mistakes and doing the things that normal people in the real world do, but doing it in a fantasy world.

ARISHA: Yeah. Do you ever get writer's block and if you do, how do you deal with it?

LILI WILKINSON: Yeah. I think there's 2 kinds of writer's block. The first kind is a nice way of saying procrastination, because writing is hard and I am lazy, as previously established. I think that, for me, that-- there's no solution to that particular kind of writer's block, other than have a quick emergency dance party and then get on with it. You just have to do it.

The second kind of writer's block is when you have a plot problem, and this one, in some ways, is easier to solve. It's where your character is in jail, and they have to be out of jail in the next scene, but you don't know how to get them out of jail. And that's when I go to my lists, and I write a list of 15 ways to get them out of jail, and I make sure that my list starts with something really silly that I'm definitely not going to use. So they get abducted by aliens.

And by giving myself permission to think of bad ideas, or silly ideas, it means that I open my focus from this, when I'm only trying to think of good ideas, to this, where I'm just trying to think of any ideas. And it means that I allow myself to think of more off-beat, or off the wall, or more original, interesting ideas, and it has never failed me. I have never not found the answer I'm looking for in my list of 15 things.

ARISHA: Got it. Thank you for letting me interview you today, Lili Wilkinson. It's been amazing talking to you, and I hope everyone out there enjoys reading your books as much as I did.

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