Pip Williams has a PhD in Public Health. At eighteen she wanted to be a fashion designer. She loves to belly dance, calling it ‘unbridled joy’. She is dyslexic. As a teenager she dressed up as a rainforest for costume parties, earning herself the nickname ‘Pippy the Hippy’. She could never have imagined that her novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, would become one of Australia’s most successful debuts.
It has sold over 300,000 copies in Australia, been published overseas in many languages, won several major Australian literary awards, and was shortlisted for the prestigious international Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. It was a New York Times bestseller and the first Australian novel to be selected for Reese Witherspoon’s popular Book Club. All this is especially remarkable because The Dictionary of Lost Words was published in March 2020 just as Covid hit, so Williams had no book launch, writers’ festivals or other speaking gigs.
I meet her just as she is about to launch her second novel, The Bookbinder of Jericho, described as a companion to Dictionary. Both are about books, words and knowledge. Both are historical novels set in Oxford. What gives them their narrative drive is that they are about who gets access to books and knowledge. She is excited about ‘experiencing the joy’ of live events this time around.
The venue Williams suggests for our interview, not far from where she lives with her family in the Adelaide Hills, could not be more perfect: the mid-nineteenth century, book-lined Circulating Library within the State Library of South Australia. Williams has a great fondness for public libraries — she wrote much of Dictionary here because it has a beautiful first edition set of the Oxford English Dictionary. When she was in Sydney, she worked in the Mitchell Reading Room of the State Library. ‘These public institutions are so important for storytellers, of fiction as well as non-fiction,’ she says. ‘I’m so grateful to them.’
Williams relaxes easily into a comfortable red velvet armchair as we speak, answering questions thoughtfully and directly. She was born in London in 1969 to a Brazilian mother who worked part-time as a hairdresser and a Welsh father, a computer analyst. The family moved to Australia in 1972. She has a younger sister who is now a social worker. Her father was a big reader who wrote children’s stories and joke books. He was also, she says, a feminist, who had ‘no limitations on what he expected of my sister and me’.
Williams grew up on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and went to Mackellar Girls High School. She started writing — ‘terrible poems’ — when she was eight. She started to keep diaries as a teenager and writing became an outlet for her emotions. ‘Every time I was emotionally frustrated, I would just write it out.’ She also liked to write different ideas down on pieces of paper and still has the old Indian kettle in which she used to keep them.
Her first piece of published work was a poem, ‘Fifteen’, written at age 15 after a fight with her parents who wouldn’t let her go out. She fled to her room in tears, wrote the poem and sent it to her favourite magazine, Dolly¸ which paid her 15 dollars for it. She muses that this may have been a turning point in her writing career.
At 17, Williams learned that she was dyslexic. The diagnosis explained a lot. For years, teachers had been saying that she was bright and verbal in class but these qualities were not reflected in her written work. She was often put on detention for her poor spelling and forced to write out words she had misspelt 10 times, all to no avail because she would spell the same word differently. She was a slow but enthusiastic reader — she loved the then-popular Trixie Belden books and read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe 25 times. She says she is still a slow reader, but a voracious one.
Williams also had dysgraphia, which makes it physically difficult to hold a pen. Both these conditions have made her reflect on the connection between words and creativity. ‘I’ve come to realise words are just tools which enable you to create. They’re not necessarily part of creation.’
She agrees there may be a connection between her dyslexia and the subject matter of her novels — books and words. ‘I was like one of those Olympic swimmers who started swimming because he had asthma. My dad knew I had difficulties spelling, so he gave me three dictionaries.’ She is at pains to emphasise that her parents never corrected her spelling and says, ‘That is the worst thing you can do with a creative child; it’s so discouraging.’
After finishing school, Williams took a gap year in Europe. In 1988 she returned to Australia and enrolled in a Bachelor of Science, Psychology and Sociology at what was then Mitchell College of Advanced Education in Bathurst (now part of Charles Sturt University). ‘I chose to do something which really interested me, psychology, because I’m very interested in human nature’, a fascination that is evident in her novels, which explore relationships as much as they do ideas.
Williams had always been attracted to social justice and wanted to work to improve equality, particularly for those living with a disability and for women, especially older women. She did her PhD in Public Health at Adelaide University and worked for many years as an academic researcher at the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia. Her boss there was the now Greens Senator Barbara Pocock, with whom she co-authored her first book, Time Bomb: Work, rest and play in Australia today.
Williams has been with her partner, Shannon, for over three decades, since they were both 19. In 2003 with their two sons, they moved from Sydney to the Adelaide Hills in pursuit of ‘the good life’, buying a 5-acre hobby farm. Shannon planted an orchard, and they kept chooks, ducks, an alpaca and a goat. Williams worked in the city while Shannon worked on the farm. Williams says, disarmingly, ‘We were useless at it. We had no experience; we were city kids. Suddenly everything was dying and rotting.’
So, in 2011 the family decided to take a timeout. Williams resigned from her research job, and they took the boys, then 12 and 9, out of school and headed to Italy for six months to work as WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). They worked in Tuscany, Calabria and Piedmont, gardening and learning how to make everything from bread and pasta to soap.
Hands deep in soil and supposedly living the dream, Williams had an epiphany. ‘I realised I didn’t have an aptitude for it. Shannon really does, but I don’t. I also realised that I had subjugated my own dreams to his, because his were so appealing. I had a dream of my own, that had been waiting for me to see it — to be a writer. No one ever told me not to write, but I was too busy doing ‘acceptable’ things. But over time, creativity comes knocking. At first, it’s quiet, so it’s easy to ignore. But it gets louder, until it insists you open the door to it.’
When the family returned home, Williams got a job as a community planner at Adelaide City Council. One of her main tasks was to persuade the Council to create the Adelaide City Library. She was successful, an achievement she is proud of. But she wasn’t happy, and admits it was a tricky time. ‘Suddenly I had to admit that this joint dream wasn’t what I wanted. We’d invested a lot of time and emotions in it — moving states, raising the kids on the farm — and I wasn’t sure I cared that much about it. But he did, so it was a real reckoning for us, something we had to negotiate.’
It was Shannon who urged her to write a book about their experience in Italy. He built her a special writing room at the back of the farmhouse, with wall-to-wall bookcases made from recycled timber. Calling it ‘a thing of beauty’, she says it was everything you could want in a writing space. But somehow it was too perfect, and she found it hard to write there, buckling under the pressure of expectations that the room should inspire her. Writing One Italian Summer was a struggle. ‘If your expectations are unreasonable, you set yourself up to fail. One Italian Summer was so excruciating because I was constantly failing by my own standards.’ She got there in the end, and the book was published in 2017.
Soon after, inspired by Simon Winchester’s novel The Surgeon of Crowthorne about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Williams began writing The Dictionary of Lost Words, broadly the same topic, but from a female perspective. She says she always starts writing with big questions. Did it matter that the English language was being defined by men, from sources written by men? Might words have disappeared because they were used only by women?
This time, Williams adopted a different writing routine, one that turned out to be a game-changer. She wrote in cafes. ‘I applied my psychology brain to it — “I’m going to associate writing with the thing I love — coffee”.’ She also lowered her expectations. ‘My word goal per day was one word. If I wrote twenty words or a paragraph, it was a job well done.’
The novel’s story of the motherless Esme, whose father is a lexicographer working on the Dictionary, and how she starts collecting words used only by women for her own ‘Dictionary of Lost Words’ has captivated thousands of readers all over the world. Later this year, many of them will be able to see it on stage: Verity Laughton’s play, based on the book, will be performed in a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company South Australia. Williams, thrilled, says, ‘I love the idea that my piece of art has inspired another piece of art. It’s taken on a life of its own.’
Williams knew that exploring whether the Oxford English Dictionary was infected by bias was a good idea, but she wanted to make sure she did it justice: ‘I didn’t want to be the one who fucks that up.’ She was not prepared for the book’s extraordinary success and is characteristically frank about it. ‘Whilst I am absolutely thrilled each time the book is on a shortlist or wins a prize, my overwhelming gut feeling is embarrassment. I wasn’t brought up to be successful. We were lower middle class. I went to a school where there were no expectations of us — not a private girls’ school where girls are told they can do anything.’
She says she manages this embarrassment by ‘being grateful. I’m embarrassed about being embarrassed. I know I’m no more worthy than all these other people who’ve written amazing books. I’m an introvert — I’m not married, I never have birthday parties and I’m not on social media because I’ve never liked being the centre of attention.’ Williams describes her relationship with Dictionary as being like that of a parent with a talented child – ‘it’s meeting people, influencing things, making its way in the world. My role is to protect it from exploitation — just like a parent.’
For both novels she had writing mentors who are novelists themselves — Toni Jordan for Dictionary and Tegan Bennett Daylight for Bookbinder. ‘You learn so much by engaging with people who’ve been at it for longer or have a different perspective.’ She also likes working with editors, and pays credit to her editor for both novels, Ruby Ashby-Orr. ‘I don’t have a qualification in creative writing, so I don’t really know what I’m doing. It feels good. It sounds good … having an editor cast an expert eye over my writing, to polish and sharpen it, is important.’
She started The Bookbinder of Jericho in 2020, just before Dictionary was published. This latest novel is about Peggy, a young working-class woman, who works with her twin sister Maude in the Oxford University Press bindery in Jericho, a neighbourhood of Oxford, during World War I. Peggy also volunteers at a nearby hospital for wounded soldiers. She is smart and ambitious, and dreams of attending the nearby women-only Oxford college, Somerville, but her gender and class stand in the way.
Bookbinder is also meticulously researched and rich in historical detail, not only about bookbinding, but also about women’s wartime experience. Peggy’s life is changed by the arrival in Oxford of war refugees from Belgium. Her friend Tilda, who featured in Dictionary, works as a nurse at a military hospital in the army base camp at Étaples in France.
During her research Williams was surprised to find so little information about what the women working in the bindery actually did. She did find, however, a few 1920s photos of women and a film about the making of a book, which contained shots of a woman moving gracefully around with printed sections, known as signatures. That got her thinking about whether the women read the books they were binding and what impact that might have had.
She makes the point, well understood by historians, that archives reveal just as much by what they do not contain as by what they do. ‘Archives hold what the people in power at the time think is worth holding on to. The gatekeepers for archives were men.’
In Bookbinder she asks, ‘Who gets to make knowledge? Who gets access to it?’ As she explains, ‘Peggy is bright and ambitious; she desperately wants access to knowledge. But she is a working-class woman, with care responsibilities. She was not born into a class that is given access to knowledge.’
Williams says she could not have written her novels without her 20 years of research experience. ‘The biggest skill I brought to my creative writing is knowing how to corral the research, and when to stop.’ She starts with general preliminary research, ‘to get a birds’-eye view of what to look out for’, then does a lot of reading to get the story in her head. ‘I feel like it makes sense when the story arc has authenticity, it has a truth.’ She writes a draft, then returns to the archives to deep dive into whatever more she needs to know.
She made three research trips to Oxford, where she immersed herself in the Oxford University Press archives, which added to historical detail about the making of the Dictionary, bookbinding, the movement for women’s suffrage and the impact of the Great War. She says, ‘I couldn’t have written either of those books without these public institutions that hold this archival material, and the people who work there.’
Asked about writing books with feminist themes, Williams says, ‘I am a proud feminist, but I didn’t write these books with a feminist agenda. I wanted to understand something about history and noticing that history has excluded certain people isn’t a feminist act. It’s just observant.’
For her 50th birthday in 2019, just before Dictionary was published, Shannon gave Williams a first edition of the first volume, letters A and B, of the Oxford English Dictionary, published in 1888. Williams was thrilled. When she opened it there was a bookplate on the inside cover saying ‘This book belongs to Dr Williams.’ She describes it as her most treasured object.
Nicole Abadee writes about books and other things for The Good Weekend magazine and appears regularly as a moderator at writers’ festivals.
This story appears in Openbook winter 2023.