Lili Wilkinson is the award-winning author of eleven YA novels including After the Lights Go Out, The Boundless Sublime, Green Valentine and Pink. Lili established the insideadog.com.au website and the Inky Awards at the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria. She has a PhD in Creative Writing, and lives in Melbourne with her partner, son, dog and three chickens. Today, it gives me great pleasure to chat with her for Behind the Pen.
Congratulations on the release of your new novel, The Erasure Initiative. Can you tell me a bit about it, for those who aren’t aware of the book?
It’s a psychological thriller about a girl who wakes up on a self-driving bus, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. The bus is circling a deserted tropical island. It won’t stop. There are six other people on the bus. Nobody has any memory.
What’s the response been like so far?
Great! You just never know, with a new book. There’s always a chance people will say “this is the one where she dropped the ball”. But so far it looks like people are loving it, which is thrilling.
At its core, The Erasure Initiative is about “the intensity and unpredictability of human behaviour under pressure”. Do you believe the content or themes of these novels is especially relevant given the current health crisis?
Absolutely, although it was certainly never intended to be so. But yeah, in a time when some countries are prioritising who gets access to a ventilator if they have covid, or individuals prioritising their right no not wear a mask over other people’s lives – it seems like a good time for us to all examine our own ethical frameworks.
What do you want people to take away from reading your work?
I wrote my PhD thesis on activism in YA novels, and whether or not it encourages young people to engage in activism themselves. What I found was that books with didactic political or ideological messages do not strongly engage young readers. Instead, the books that inspire people to engage in activism are the ones that ask thorny ethical questions, but leave the reader room to make up their own minds. This is something I always try to do in my own work. Young people don’t like being told what to do (nobody does!), and I respect them enough to let them come to their own conclusions.
How did you come up with the idea for the book?
I was struggling to come up with a new idea for a psychological thriller. Then the image of a girl with no memory in a self-driving vehicle came to me in the middle of the night.
Is this something that normally influences or inspires your writing?
No! Bolts of inspiration are pretty rare. But once I had that image, I started to research memory, which led me to ethics, and the shape of the story came from that.
Do you usually plan your book before you start writing, or wait and see what happens?
I’m definitely a plotter, and with this book even more so. Having a locked room – the bus that nobody can escape from – has the potential to get boring very quickly, especially when you can’t do a deep dive into character because the characters have no memory. So I knew the pace had to be fast, and the narrative traction had to be very tight. So this was a meticulously planned book in terms of twists and reveals.
Your work is highly regarded among fans and critics alike. Do you still get nervous when releasing a new book (especially with the current climate)?
Of course! Always, but especially now. It’s a disheartening time to release a book (and I have three out this year!). But the response from the #LoveOzYA community has been so incredible. The support I get from my publisher, from my writer friends, and from all the bloggers and bookstagrammers and booktubers out there just fills my heart. We are a beautiful community, and I am incredibly grateful for everyone who has helped to get the word out.
You released your first book Joan of Arc: The Story of Jehanne Darc through Black Dog Books in 2006. How have you grown as a writer since then?
All the ways! I’m certainly a better writer, because I now have fifteen years of practice under my belt. I’ve developed the thick skin that writers need to make it through the editorial process unscathed, and now I love getting constructive feedback from my editors. I’ve also become much more aware of systems of power and oppression, of my own privilege, and my responsibility as a writer to try and find that sweet spot between representation and appropriation, when it comes to underrepresented and marginalised groups. I’m still learning, and listening, but at least now I know that I need to listen and learn!
Can you talk me through the publication process for this novel, and how it’s changed over the years?
I usually start by having a conversation with my publisher, Jodie Webster at Allen & Unwin. This one was a little different to usual, because I came in to pitch a fantasy novel that I’ve been working on for several years. Jodie was very positive about the novel, but suggested that I write another YA thriller first, as After The Lights Go Out had been so well-received. I was initially a bit resistant, but once I found that image of the girl on the bus with no memory, I was hooked. After that the process is much the same as it always has been. I start with plot, and a synopsis. Then I go much deeper and create the bones of the story – with this one, I made sure all the twists and reveals were in the right place. I figured out all the characters and when I would reveal their backstories. Then I wrote it! That’s followed by maybe six months of editorial work, although it’s in fits and starts due to the schedules of my editors. I’m usually working on multiple projects. Then publication, which this time round has had a lot more focus on social media stuff, for obvious reasons.
This book is a YA thriller, but you’ve written a lot of different YA/children’s books over the course of your career. Do you have a favourite (of your own books, or subgenre of YA)?
I’ve really enjoyed writing illustrated books – my picture books and the new How to Make A Pet Monster series. It’s lovely to share the creative load with another artist. But my heart will always belong to YA. I love reading fantasy – especially low fantasy, where magic bleeds into the real world, and I’d love to write it as well. In terms of my favourite book of my own – probably Pink, because even though it’s more than a decade old, I still get emails from readers telling them that it helped them.
How do you think YA has evolved over the years? Do you see these changes as advantages or disadvantages and are there any emerging trends we should look out for?
When I started writing, YA was a very small part of the publishing world. Now it’s massive, with blockbuster movies and huge associated franchises. The focus on fantasy and paranormal has been massive. The advantages of this are that heaps more YA books are being published, and there is a lot more cultural attention being paid. The disadvantage is that the vast majority of this attention is focussed on books coming from the US. I’d love to see more books from other parts of the world, more translated books.
You’re an advocate for helping others with their writing and you’ve established Inside A Dog and The Inky Awards. What does running the website and the awards entail?
I haven’t been involved in Inside a Dog or the Inkys for nearly a decade, so I don’t know! It’s been amazing watching something that I started grow and develop without me. Currently, the future of the Inky Awards is uncertain, and I really hope the awards can continue, because recognising and celebrating the books that our teenagers read is so important.
Who’s the first person to read your writing, and how did they make The Erasure Initiative what it is today?
It varies! I have a bunch of writer friends – some from the YA world, some screenwriters, and I always ask a few of them to read an early draft. My mum usually reads a draft as well, as does my partner. I love getting early feedback – learning what works and what doesn’t, and how I can improve the book.
What was your research process for this book (if you had one)?
I read a lot of books about memory, and memory loss. How it feels, the neuroscience of it etc. Then I read about ethics, about the Trolley Problem and different ethical frameworks. I also read about self-driving vehicles, the prison industrial complex, hacking, the lives of the uber-rich, and a few other things that would be too spoilery to list!
What’s your average writing day look like?
In covid-times, it starts at 6am. I work until 9:30, then head downstairs to help my 5 year old with his remote learning. Prep schooling is unavoidably hands-on, so he needs constant engagement. I try and sneak another hour or so in the afternoon, but by the evening I am totally shattered and good for nothing save Netflix and Animal Crossing.
Who are your idols, both professionally and personally?
Diana Wynne Jones, who is my absolute favourite writer.
Jim Henson, who believed you could change the world with singing and dancing and making people happy.
What books did you read growing up? How does that differ to what appeals to you now?
I read a lot of YA fantasy – especially Isobelle Carmody, Garth Nix, Victor Kelleher and Tamora Pierce. And I still read a lot of YA fantasy! I try to be a little more conscious in my reading choices nowadays and read books outside my comfort zone, or books by people from diverse backgrounds. Recently I’ve loved books by NK Jemisin, Lisa Fuller, Nikita Gill and Tade Thompson.
Do you have any writing rituals you like to adhere to?
I like tea and silence.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received in regard to your writing, and what advice would you give to aspiring authors?
My Year 9 English teacher once wrote the word “succinct” on the whiteboard, and that made a significant impression on me. The advice I always give is that being a good writer takes a lot of practice. But every word you write makes you a better writer. And read. Reading is breathing in, writing is breathing out.
If you could invite three people from history (living or dead) to dinner, who would you invite and why?
Could it be a movie night instead of dinner? Then I’d like to invite:
JRR Tolkien and show him the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Jane Austen and show her the Colin Firth/Jennifer Ehle Pride and Prejudice.
And invite Octavia Butler, show her the news and commiserate that her Parable of the Sower basically predicted the future. We’ll probably need a few glasses of wine.
With the current health crisis, you’ve lost the opportunity to promote your books through readings and other events. How are you dealing with this? Are there any virtual events you would like to mention?
Lots of social media! I’ve also put together an virtual creative writing masterclass which can be purchased by individuals or schools:
I’ve got a few online events coming up – anyone who wants to come should keep an eye on my Twitter or Instagram, or sign up to my newsletter on my website.
Do you have another project on the go? What’s next for you?
Lots! I’m still working on the fantasy novel that I mentioned earlier. I also have books 2 and 3 of the How To Make A Pet Monster series on the go.
The Erasure Initiative
A brilliant psychological thriller from one of Australia’s finest YA authors.
I wake up, and for a few precious seconds I don’t realise there’s anything wrong.
The rumble of tyres on bitumen, and the hiss of air conditioning. The murmur of voices. The smell of air freshener. The cool vibration of glass against my forehead.
A girl wakes up on a self-driving bus. She has no memory of how she got there or who she is. Her nametag reads CECILY. The six other people on the bus are just like her: no memories, only nametags. There’s a screen on each seatback that gives them instructions. A series of tests begin, with simulations projected onto the front window of the bus. The passengers must each choose an outcome; majority wins. But as the testing progresses, deadly secrets are revealed, and the stakes get higher and higher. Soon Cecily is no longer just fighting for her freedom – she’s fighting for her life.
The acclaimed author of After the Lights Go Out returns with another compelling YA thriller – a timely novel about the intensity and unpredictability of human behaviour under pressure.
Published by Allen & Unwin
Released August 2020