Working with Words: Lili Wilkinson

Lili Wilkinson is a reader and writer of young adult literature; she has written five books for teenagers. The most recent is Love Shy (Allen & Unwin). Lili worked at the State Library of Victoria’s Centre for Youth Literature for seven years, where her tasks included creating and managing the Inside a Dog blog.

We talked to her about why it’s nonsense that you need a miserable childhood to be truly creative, the honour of her work being compared to Playing Beatie Bow, and why she’d like to eat dinner with the BFG (no snozzcumbers allowed!).

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The very first was a very short letter in the Age – I was about seven, I think. It was about the environment. But the first creative piece I had published was a poem in Voiceworks magazine. I was thirteen. You can read it in the Words We Found anthology, but it’s pretty dreadful.

What’s the worst part of your job?

There aren’t many bad parts. Tax time is pretty boring - part of being a writer is also running a small business, which my creative brain struggles with a bit. Also I’ve just finished the final proofread of my upcoming novel. Generally by the time you get to proofing, you’ve read the book so many times that you’re utterly sick of it.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

How to choose! Speaking at the Edinburgh Festival was pretty amazing. And winning the Ena Noel IBBY Award for Scatterheart. Ooh, and Pink being honored in the American Library Association’s Stonewall Prize, which is an award for books about LGBT teens.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

My Year 9 English teacher started her first class by writing the word ‘succinct’ on the whiteboard. That definitely stuck with me. The worst advice I got was from an author who will go unnamed, who said to be truly creative, you have to have had a miserable childhood. What nonsense.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I went to a school recently where I kept getting introduced as a poet - surprising as I haven’t written poetry since the aforementioned Voiceworks days. The best surprising thing was a review that compared Scatterheart to Playing Beatie Bow – the greatest honour.

If you weren’t making your living by writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Either teaching, or back at my old job at the State Library, working with amazing people to bring YA literature to teens, teachers and librarians.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

All of the creative arts are crafts - maybe there is a certain amount of natural talent, but that talent has to be honed and shaped. Nobody writes in isolation, we are all part of a long tradition of storytelling, and to fully participate you have to know what’s come before, and how your work exists in relation to others. Like drawing, learning to play an instrument or dance, you look at how other people have done it, and then you practice until you find your own style.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read. As much and as often as possible. Then write. Get really, really good at it. Show it to a trusted friend and learn how to take criticism. Your first draft is not perfect. Ever. And don’t get too hung up on the idea that your first published work will be this amazing novel that speaks directly from your soul. My first book was commissioned – a non-fiction book about Joan of Arc, a topic that I (initially) knew nothing about. Everyone’s path to publication is different, so say ‘yes’ to as many opportunities as you can.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I do a lot of reading on my iPad, so e-books are bought online. Australian stuff I get from a local bookseller, and then more obscure titles or US books that aren’t available I get online.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

The BFG. No snozzcumbers allowed! We’d talk about our dreams.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock. It’s a children’s novel about a girl called Polly who likes to make stuff up – but her imaginings become real in ways she didn’t expect. I read it every year and am always astonished by the depth and complexity of it. The ending means something different to me every time I read it. It’s a good reminder that books for young people don’t have to be compromised or simplified – kids and teens are probably more able to grapple at big ideas than many adults are.

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