Pip Williams on writing commercial historical fiction
Pip Williams was born in London, grew up in Sydney, and now lives in the Adelaide Hills.
Her debut novel was the wildly successful The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020), which was based on her original research in the Oxford English Dictionary archives. The Bookbinder of Jericho (2023) is her second work of historical fiction, and exists in the same world as The Dictionary of Lost Words.
Her first work was One Italian Summer, a memoir of her family’s travels in search of the good life.
ASTRID: Pip, your first novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, came out in 2020. I think it's safe to say it sold very, very well. Your second work came out in March 2023, The Bookbinder of Jericho. It exists in the same fictional world at the same time that you have created. It is not a sequel, but, nevertheless, there are very clear similarities and linkages. Can you introduce the listeners to The Bookbinder of Jericho?
PIP: I'd love to, Astrid. The Bookbinder of Jericho, I would describe it as a companion to The Dictionary of Lost Words in that it's kind of like a sister or a friend. If you read one, it will enhance the other. But you really don't need to read The Dictionary of Lost Words to read The Bookbinder, or vice-versa. They exist alone, but there are some characters that crossover.
But this story is set ... It begins at the beginning of World War I, and it is bound really by the years of that war. It is all about a woman who works in the bindery of Oxford University Press. She has been told that her job is to bind the books, not read them. But all she desires, her greatest dream is to study and to learn. She would like nothing more than to be a student at Somerville College, which is directly across the road from Oxford University Press.
ASTRID: To be told that you had to bind the books and not read them, that would be a form of torture for me. As I was reading this work, I realised I have no idea how books were bound in the past and how they are currently bound. And so, a potentially odd question for you, but I know you have researched this, how were books bound? Because it was so labour-intensive.
PIP: It really was. I didn't know how books were bound either. A lot of people will tell you to write what you know, but I'm much more interested in writing what I'm curious about and what I have no idea about. This is one of those examples.
When I started writing this book, I was interested in the work of the women who worked in the bindery of Oxford University Press, because I'd come across them in the research that I'd been doing for Dictionary. But I'd come across them, but couldn't find very much about them at all in the archives. I could find a lot about the men and the men's work in the press, but not the women's work.
What I did find was tantalising. I found a couple of photographs and I found some black and white footage of a woman gathering sections into her arm. That's when I had that question, it just popped into my head, I wonder if she ever reads what she's gathering, what she's binding, what she's folding. I realised she probably couldn't because it would slow work down.
Then I had this image of water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink, and being thirsty for knowledge and being in a situation, a rare situation, where you actually have access, literally you can put your fingertips on all of the knowledge that that university, the most prestigious university in the country, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. At your fingertips was that knowledge, and yet you were told not to read it. It was just such an overwhelming idea that I had to write about it. I've now forgotten your question.
ASTRID: It was a strange question. I was wondering-
PIP: Bookbinding, how the books were bound. And so, that's how I first saw how the books were bound, through this black and white film that you can still see online. I think it's called The Binding of a Book at Oxford University Press. It takes you right through from being in the forge, where they're forging the metal type that the typesetters used right through to the typesetting, the printing, the folding of the pages, the gathering of the sections, the sewing of the book, the making of the covers, and then covering those boards in leather or cloth, and embossing them and gilding them, and everything to wrapping those books in paper and putting them in a truck and sending them out.
I've sort of just described it in brief, but that film really told me everything I needed to know. But what it didn't do is let me feel those processes. So that was a different ... I had to find someone that could teach me how to bind a book so that I understood exactly what it might have felt like.
ASTRID: As I read your latest novel, I kept flashing back to this long-form piece of nonfiction that was in the New York Times a few years ago, showing in short videos, almost GIFs, and still photographs Marlon James's latest book being printed. The whole thing now is ... I mean it's extraordinary and fascinating to watch, but also so mechanised and impersonal. There are very few individuals touching those books until basically they get to the bookseller at the very end.
The scenes in this work was so lovely, the idea of people staying back late at night to fix books and rebind them, because books were so precious. It's a part of reading and writing that I often don't reflect on, and it is a beautiful part.
PIP: Yeah. It's something that, like I said, I came across and became then enamoured with the process, but also with the people who must have been part of that process, because the people who bound the books were not the people who necessarily would read them.
Although we do, I think, have an erroneous idea about the working classes a hundred years ago. In fact, if they were literate, they were well-read, far better read than we would think. They read Shakespeare, they read Dickens, they read all sorts of classics in a way that we don't today. So we underestimate their level of engagement in novels and books. I suppose it makes more sense that they read because they didn't have other competing entertainments. And so, I think even the people in the bindery would've valued the books that they were making.
But, yes, a single book could have 20 people handle it over its lifetime. The handling was sometimes gentle, but also sometimes quite violent. The making of a book, I realise, not only the folding is probably the gentlest part, there's cutting, there's beating of the spine, there's this squeezing all the air out of it in a press.
There are so many processes that I found were quite confronting when you write about them and you realise how violent the life of a book is in terms of bringing it into being, and that when somebody buys a book from a bookshop and they open it for the first time and crack its spine, they really think they're the first person who's handled that book. I loved that they weren't. I loved that that was a fallacy, really, and that there was a whole army of people behind bringing that book to life.
ASTRID: As you were just describing, our preconceptions of who read, that really brings us to one of the themes in The Bookbinder of Jericho, which is class. You explore class in London. This is all set during World War I. But the whole novel, it's about a love of books and reading and that world that a book can take you. But it is World War I, and it is the experience of war and refugees fleeing the war. It is of war trauma and war wounds, the suffragette movement, women entering the workforce. There is so much in there, and this is a historical novel. How did you approach creating that time period and that world?
PIP: Yeah. It's interesting. My initial attraction to writing about that time was not the history and was not the war. It was the dictionary. I was interested in understanding how the dictionary was put together, and then I wrote around that. In writing around the dictionary, I had to obviously engage in the history, in the context within which it sat. That included World War I and the suffrage movement and those things.
When I came to write The Bookbinder of Jericho, I was very keen to focus just on the World War I period. There's an overlap between the two books because they both touch on World War I. That's where they overlap in time. But I was interested, having done so much reading about this era, because I wrote Dictionary.
It was clear to me that this time in history, early 20th century, this time in history was incredibly volatile. It was a time of such enormous social change and upheaval. When there is tragedy and social change and upheaval on the scale that it existed back, then cracks appear in the normal order of things.
I was really interested in trying to understand how those cracks in the normal order of things might affect a young woman like Peggy, who is a working-class woman who left school at 12, who works in the bindery that her mother has worked in, her grandmother has worked in. There was an expectation she'd work in it until her fingers were arthritic and she could no longer fold the pages. Her life was mapped out for her.
Then the war started, and other things had already started to happen, the suffrage movement in particular. But the war accelerated the suffrage movement as well, even though the suffragettes stepped back from their activities. That was quite a deliberate agreement, really, between the suffragettes and the government, to step back and to support the war.
But women's role during World War I, women's stepping up into men's jobs, women taking on basically the role of keeping the country running really did, most people would say, accelerate the women's cause. However, having said that, when women finally got the vote in 1918, it was only some women, and it was divided down class lines.
Working-class women did not get the right to vote in 1918, despite the fact that working class women stepped up and worked in munitions factories and drove buses and did all of those things that kept the country running. It was their middle and upper-class counterparts who finally got the vote. They had to wait another 10 years before they had that privilege.
And so, class is important. The war did break down many class, I wouldn't say ... It broke down class barriers in that before the war, in Oxford in particular, they had this notion of town and gown. Town were the working-class people, the people who had lived in Oxford for generations and worked there. Gown was everyone associated with the university. The two usually only crossed paths in a servant-master relationship. But the war changed that. The war brought people together. It changed the way they thought about each other.
ASTRID: What is your research process like? I know you've done obviously research in London itself. How do you get it all accurately into this world that you create?
PIP: I am interested in being accurate to the extent that I can be. I think I have a social science background, so I have a research background. It's probably a leftover from that, that it's important for me to be as accurate as I can be with the known facts, and facts for me are things like dates, when things happened. Those are the sorts of things that I consider facts that I can't change. And so, for me that history is the scaffold on which I hang my fiction. It doesn't shift.
In terms of writing the truth of history, which is something completely different, that's not about facts. That's about experience and thought and emotion and all of those sorts of things. Often it's the things that are missing from the historical record. They're the things I'm interested in exploring in fiction.
In order to do my research, I read really widely, initially. I read history books, but I also read fiction. I read novels and poetry, memoir particularly, and particularly I read the work of women from the time that I'm interested in. So I don't necessarily read historical fiction. I read fiction written in 1920.
I also look at artwork that was made by women at that time. This is how, I suppose, I try to get a sensibility that is missing from the history books, and that's what I then work with when I'm writing my fiction.
Other people have said this, that they do a lot of research, and they write a lot of notes, and I have so many notebooks, I've written so many notes, but I don't actually go back to them very often. It's not me that said this, but I wholly agree, that you do all of the research, and you do it quite thoroughly and you make the notes, and you post it and all those sorts of things, but then as you're writing the fiction, it's the things that you find interesting that float to the top of that research pile.
In some ways, I only go back to check the facts of what's floated to the top. I don't go back through my notebooks to look for significant bits of information, because I'm hoping they have just stuck in my brain. If they've stuck in my brain because they were interesting, I'm hoping they'll be interesting to a reader.
I'm not a slave to the research in that sense, but I will go back and check my sources when I have included something in the fiction. Then I do research and write at the same time. So I might write something, and I'll write something off ... I'll just bring it out of my head, something quite fictional, and then keep my fingers crossed that it's true to the history or true to the times. Then I might research that just to check. Then I might adjust what I've written to make sure that it fits with the history.
But one of the things that I've found, Astrid, because I do rely on the art of women that was done at the time, that art is done by middle and upper-class women. It's done by women of means, because it was only women who had the time and the money, whereas Virginia Woolf would say they had a room of their own and 700 a year. It was only those women who could afford to make art.
It's not to say that working class women weren't making art, but they weren't publishing it in the same way that women of means were publishing it. And so, I have far little of that to go on when it comes to working class women's experiences. And so, I do have to extrapolate a little bit from the art that I do get to see today.
But, again, it's one of those gaps in the history. It's a gap not because of just gender, but it's a gap because of class. I would say the same obviously for women and men who were immigrants or refugees who were anything other than the white ruling class in Britain at that time, and you could ... In any country that you're writing about, but I was writing about Britain. They are not represented in history and also not in art particularly.
ASTRID: The central characters of The Bookbinder of Jericho are working class. You've mentioned Peggy before, the protagonist. Peggy also has a twin sister, Maude. They both work in the bindery together. I was interested in where you've got the characters from, how you found the story through Peggy and her twin Maude. But also, why the choice of twin sisters? What did that let you do and explore essentially as a narrative device in this world?
PIP: Yeah. The character of Peggy came when I saw that woman gathering sections. She just came immediately. But Maude came very soon after. Like you said, they're identical twins. They look the same. But they're very, very different individuals.
Maude came quickly, I think, because in some ways I was exploring what would get in the way of Peggy achieving her dream of learning and education. There are all sorts of things that you and I could list that would get in the way of a working-class woman at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly structural things. But I felt I needed her to have something else that would hold her back.
For most of us, even today, the thing that holds us back from pursuing our dreams are our caring responsibilities. So it might be children, it might be a partner, it might be a sibling or an elderly parent, or it might be an animal that we love and can't leave. We might want to travel, but we can't leave the dog. But we have these caring responsibilities that are very significant, and they change the trajectory of our lives. And so, I wanted Peggy to have a caring responsibility.
She and her sister have lost their mother three years prior to the book starting. They're about 21 years old. And so, that caring responsibility, in some ways, I wanted to make Maude somebody who Peggy thought she needed to care for. This doesn't mean that Peggy does need to care for Maude, but Peggy needs to think she needs to care for Maude.
Maude is quite different. Maude sees the world differently, the world sees Maude differently. But she's not at all simple. She just exists differently in the world. I try not to define her with any labels that we might use today because I really would like readers to come to get to know her on her own terms. Labels tend to restrict the way we think about people, and she's far more complex than a label could possibly indicate.
And so, that's why Maude's there. She's important because she's almost a foil to Peggy. She's a truth teller throughout the story, though she says very little on the page, because she communicates in echoes. It's what's called echolalia. She has this way of communicating that is quite different to everybody else. But if you understand it, if you know how she does it, you can easily translate what she's saying. And so, that's why she's there. The story is ... It's first person from Peggy's point of view, but there are multiple storylines in this book, and Maude's is one of them.
ASTRID: I'd like to shift our discussion a little bit to the logistics of publishing. Your first novel was published in 2020, and we all know that was not a brilliant year for anyone, including publishing, and how on earth you sell a book and meet readers and just all of that connecting with an audience. Three years later, things have changed and worked themselves out. I'm interested in the difference in your experience from launching a book in 2020 to launching a book in 2023.
PIP: Yeah. It's different. There were all sorts of disappointments, I suppose, at the beginning of 2020, because my book came out, I think it was two days after we all went into lockdown. There were discussions about delaying publication, and we decided not to very quickly. I was a debut author, so there was a lot of concern that it just would fall flat, that no one would read it.
Something beautiful happened. Booksellers really do amazing things. Because my book was published so early in lockdown, it was the focus of those early Zoom book club type things, and lots of people turned up to them because they had nothing else to do on a Friday night. After about three weeks, no one wanted to go on Zoom on a Friday night because they'd been on Zoom all day at work.
I think there was a little bit of serendipity around the timing of my book. Then because that book wasn't about modern times, people could escape into it. I'm sure that all contributed to how well it was received.
But what it meant for me is that the book tour was cancelled, most festivals were cancelled. Those that did go online, for me, it was a one-hour Zoom from my lounge room. There was no travel. There was very little for me to do for that book, and so I just kept writing.
And so, one of the upsides for me is that I did manage to write this second book within three years, which for me, I think that that's a good amount of time. I know some people write a book a year, and I take my hat off to them. I have no idea how they do it. But three years is probably good for me.
It meant I could write the new book. But this time around, honestly, I am shocked at how busy it is. I did a three-week book tour, which was visiting bookshops and signing books, doing interviews and events in most states across Australia. I feel like I have talked to hundreds and hundreds of readers in just a few weeks. I never had that opportunity with the previous book.
And so, this is different. It's wonderful, really tiring, and I have no opportunity to write anything new whatsoever. But I'm loving it.
ASTRID: What have you had to learn or adjust in terms of, I don't know, expectations of the publisher, things that you want to do for your own readers?
PIP: Well, I think it's mostly the time management. My expectations of my publisher are far lower than what they've achieved. They have been incredible. My publicist, Laura McNicol Smith, I'll say her name out loud, because so many people in publishing are not named. But, honestly, our books would not... They would not get to readers if not for these people. My editor and my publicist are two people who... Ruby Ashby-Orr is my editor, she's amazing, and Laura McNicol Smith is my publicist.
All those things that you see out there, that's her work. I said at my book launch I can't imagine there'd be a single person in Australia who hadn't heard of my book by the end of the week. That is the role of a publisher. Obviously, it's a win-win situation. It's good for the author, but it's obviously good for the publisher when they publicise the book so well.
Booksellers, though, have just taken to the challenge of, I suppose, getting the book into readers' hands. I'm incredibly grateful. My expectations are far lower than what's been achieved by everybody.
ASTRID: I expect that makes you a dream to work with. My final question for you, you've now published two works of historical fiction set in the same time, both set in London. Would you ever write in a different time or a different location? I mean would you set something in Australia?
PIP: Absolutely. The book I'm working on now ... I say working on, I'm not working on it now. The book that's in my head is a book that I was working on before I wrote Dictionary. It's far more contemporary and closer to home. That's how I describe it.
I'm a little bit scared about writing it because, like I said, I never set out to write historical fiction. I just want to write. I just want to write fiction and I want to write as well as I possibly can. I'd like to think that I could try my hand at different things, but I'm nervous now because I have this reputation, I suppose.
Also, at every event I've done, everyone has asked, is there a third book in the Oxford context? I do have an idea for a third book, but it's a long way away. It needs time to percolate. So I'm hoping that I get the time to work on this more contemporary novel and that I can pull it off.
ASTRID: Looking forward to reading both. Yeah, a more contemporary work from you and maybe one day potentially the third book in the Oxford companion sister book series. Thank you so much for your time today.
PIP: Oh, Astrid, it's been a huge pleasure. Thank you for having me.