In Conversation with Pip Williams

I just thought: “What would happen if you were the kind of woman who just was so curious to learn, but you were told that your job was to bind the books, not read them?” That’s how my book started.

The Bookbinder of Jericho is a tale of knowledge and power: a story that follows two young sisters as they work as bookbinders at the Oxford University Press and struggle to reconcile their desire to read and learn with the limitations of the social world they find themselves in. What is more, it is a wondrous exploration of the implications that illness and social upheaval place on an individual’s dreams, along with the inhibiting reality of being a woman in the early 1900s before World War I in Britain. 

Pip Williams is a world-renowned Australian social researcher turned writer of three books, who spent over two decades conducting research on what makes life enjoyable. Williams left her career in academia and uprooted her and her family’s lives to explore farm-life and travel to Italy, among other things. She first gained widespread attention for her first nonfiction book The Dictionary of Lost Words, and has now released her second.

I was delighted to speak with Pip about her history in academia, and the inspirations for fiction novels in the lead-up to her appearances at the Sydney Writers’ Festival on May 17 and 26.

Simar Batra: Hi Pip, thanks for joining me today. We know that you were born in London and grew up in Sydney but now live in the Adelaide Hills. What attracted you to this part of the country?

Pip Williams: I was born in London, but actually we’re [the family] from Wales. My first three years were in Wales. I lived in Sydney from the age of three to thirty-two and I had my two children there. My partner and I wanted to do a “tree-change”. We lived in Manly, not too far from the beach, but we were really keen to grow our own food and be a bit more self-sufficient. So we moved to the Adelaide Hills and bought five acres and planted fruit trees and got chooks and tried to do that tree-change thing, which we were pretty useless at. So my first creative writing project/book was a book called One Italian Summer, which is all about our attempt to get better at being self-sufficient. We took the kids out of school and travelled around Italy for six months as WWOOF workers. It was on that trip that I realised I didn’t want to be a farmer, and that I wanted to be a writer. But we moved from Sydney to the Adelaide Hills so we could grow food.

SB: You spent quite a bit of time working as a social researcher before authoring your first book One Italian Summer, about your family’s endeavour for holistic wellbeing. How were you drawn to social research, and how did you develop a desire to understand good health? 

PW: I always wrote as a kid, but I never — ever, for a second — thought that for a second being a writer was a career that I could have. When I left school I travelled for a bit but then went to university and studied Psychology, so my first undergraduate degree was in that and social science (Sociology). I wanted to be a Psychologist and started my Honours year in Psychology; I never finished that. But I went on and did Public Health, so I have a PhD in Public Health. I was always interested in the human experience and even though I studied Public Health, all of my research in Public Health was about psychosocial determinants of health: so, how our social and psychological contexts contribute to our wellbeing. I was a researcher for over twenty years and was interested in how communities support people to live, care and work, and what developers and governments can do to increase the wellbeing of communities — through the way they build those communities, and provide access to all sorts of things like education and recreation and jobs, particularly for women. 

SB: Both your books, The Bookbinder of Jericho and The Dictionary of Lost Words, explore stories at the intersection of class, gender and geography. What sparked your interest in this particular pocket of our society? 

PW: I don’t know that I could have ever written these books without my research background and my work background. I always wrote, but if someone had said “you can be a writer,” and I tried to do it in my twenties, I don’t think I ever would’ve written these books. I needed to be deeply interested and work in social sciences to have the research curiosity that led me to these stories, and that’s how I came to these stories, especially The Dictionary of Lost Words. I’d read another book by Simon Winchester called The Surgeon of Crowthorne, which is nonfiction and is all about the dictionary, and by the end of it, I realised the dictionary actually was a really gender-biassed project. If it had been a research project and I had been a researcher at the time and I’d read it, I would’ve criticised it — if it had gone to publication (the data) and said that the data was completely biassed and flawed. And because the data was flawed, we can’t trust the findings. When I had this thought, this idea about the dictionary, it was a total shock to me, because I had never thought of dictionaries as anything other than objective and arbiters of truth, and I suddenly realised they were as flawed as the humans who had made them. And that’s what set me on the path of writing fiction, because I was curious about [how] the words [meant] different things to men and women, and of course they must —then the dictionary must leave out women’s experience and women’s understanding of language because it was made by men, and it was based on words that had been written by men. 

With The Bookbinder of Jericho, it was similar: I was in the archives looking for information about the women who worked at Oxford University Press, just for a really small scene I was writing in The Dictionary of Lost Words. I just wanted to know a little bit more about the people who might’ve been working with the books, and I could hardly find anything. I knew that there were nearly a hundred women working at Oxford University Press before World War I, and whilst there was lots of stuff about the men’s jobs, there was almost nothing about theirs. But I did come across the photographs and a little bit of film footage. The film footage was just beautiful, and you can see it online — it goes for about twenty minutes — and it’s about the making of a book at Oxford University Press, and the women don’t feature very long, but what I did see was some women folding pages, but in particular a woman gathering sections onto her arm. She’s so elegant and so efficient and so quick and I wondered if she ever stopped to read what she was gathering. Then, I realised if that was me, I would be so tempted to stop and read some of the books which they were helping to bind, [some of which] no-one had ever read before. They would’ve been the curiosity of being the first person to read something, or they would’ve been the books that were published by Oxford University Press. They were works of Theology and Philosophy and Psychology, and all sorts of topics that would’ve been interesting at the time and I just thought: “What would happen if you were the kind of woman who just was so curious to learn, but you were told that your job was to bind the books, not read them?” That’s how my book started. 

SB: Did you have any real life inspirations for Peggy and Maude, and do you have a specific ritual for how you develop your characters given they were women from an older historical era?

PW: It’s mostly based on research, but humans haven’t changed very much across millennia, in terms of how we feel and how we react: our emotions, our desires, our fears, those things are the same today as they were a hundred years ago or five-hundred years ago or a thousand years ago. Women in particular, throughout history, have always felt the unfairness of being second-class citizens — there’s no doubt about it. The reason I know that to be true is that we wouldn’t have near equality now if it wasn’t true — because for us to be able to vote now, for us to be able to work, for us to be able to have more (or less) equality with men, [show that] women before us had to fight before it, and women before them had to fight for whatever those women had. 

We’re part of a continuum of desire and agitation to get where we are today, and women today — we see it on the news almost every night — are still agitating so that women and girls in ten, twenty, thirty or a hundred years’ time will have even more equality than we have today because of what we’re fighting for today. So, I’m very confident — 100% confident — that who we are as humans hasn’t changed; our context has changed enormously, but our emotions, our desires, our fears, our regrets, our anger at not being given access to something that we know we could thrive with, that’s always been there. So, it wasn’t so hard for me to write about a working-class woman who is denied access to education, because in fact that’s still happening. The Taliban has denied girls and women access to education and at various times I’ve been — in a really, really small way — denied the kind of access that young women who’ve gone to a private school and whose parents have gone to university. They have a different experience to the experience I had. The barriers to education might be slightly different now, but there are still barriers depending on your class and your gender. So, I didn’t have to look too far [for inspiration]. I understood the context through my research and through my reading, but I’m hoping that if there’s an emotional authenticity in the characters it comes from an understanding of human nature.

Pip will be speaking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Carriageworks in Eveleigh. She will be in panel at Bringing the Past to Life, at 10am on Friday 26 May; in panel at Beginnings: The Art of the Novel, at 12pm on Friday 26 May; and in conversation at Pip Williams: The Bookbinder of Jericho, at 4pm on Saturday 17 May.