An Interview with Lili Wilkinson

Spilled Ink

Congratulations on your latest publication, Deep is the Fen, a young adult fantasy novel. Please tell us a little about your process with this novel, from its initial thought to publication.
It started off as a planned sequel to A Hunger of Thorns, but I pretty soon realised I wanted to start over with brand new characters in the same fantasy world. Merry in Deep is the Fen is such a contrast to Maude in Thorns—she’s confident and bold where Maude is timid and unsure. The idea came from my research into the folklore of the British Isles. The Toadmen were a real secret society—they were a horseman’s fraternity in Scotland in the nineteenth century and spread to Lincolnshire and the fens of East Anglia in the early twentieth century. They practised strange rituals, such as burying toads in anthills, then digging up the bones under a full moon. They believed that one particular bone—the ilium—had magical powers and could be used to control both horses and women. This is exactly the kind of sinister misogyny that gets my writing brain twitching, so I immediately set out to write my own version of the Toadmen with more magic and significantly more creepiness.


With an impressive nineteen books under your belt, we’re curious: is there one that holds a special place in your heart? Perhaps a favourite that you’ve enjoyed writing or that resonates with you on a personal level?

My book Pink is nearly fifteen years old now, but it’s still the one I get the most emails about from readers who resonated with it. It’s about musical theatre, high school, and sexuality, and although it’s quite dated these days (the way we think about and talk about sexuality has changed so much in that time!), I’m still very proud of it. More recently, A Hunger of Thorns was a real labour of love. It was the hardest book I’ve ever written and ended up being unexpectedly personal.


It’s evident that you have a deep connection with young adult fantasy, with most of your novels catering to this genre. What is it about young adult fantasy that continues to inspire you and keep you dedicated to this genre?

I’m actually quite new to writing fantasy—Deep is the Fen is only my second. But I’ve always wanted to be a fantasy writer. As a teen, it was my favourite thing to read—it still is, although I do read pretty widely. Why didn’t I write fantasy earlier? I’m not sure. Partially because I kept getting distracted by other things. But I also think I wanted to be good enough. I’m very picky about the fantasy I read. I need it to be great. I’ll happily inhale a mediocre romance or thriller or contemporary, but fantasy has to be just right. And I wanted to be able to do it justice.


Are there any plans for book two of The Hunger of Thorns?

I’d love to be able to write more books set in the world of Anglyon, but I’m taking a break for now. I have a new high fantasy junior fiction series debuting later this year called Bravepaw, which is about a very brave little mouse on a quest to save the world. And next April, I’m releasing a dark academia fantasy called Unhallowed Halls about an exclusive boarding school for wealthy, gifted, troubled teens that may or may not also feature demons.


What was the journey to authorship like?

Complicated! My mother is Carole Wilkinson, who wrote the Dragonkeeper series, but I started writing before she did, when I was a teenager. I was published in Voiceworks magazine as a teen and worked in my twenties at the Centre for Youth Literature at the State Library of Victoria where I founded the Inky Awards. My first three books were commissioned by Black Dog Books—a small independent Melbourne publisher. They gave me topics and I wrote about them—the first one was a nonfiction book about the life of Joan of Arc. It was a kind of soft entry into publishing, as while I was proud of those books, they didn’t feel entirely like my stories. After that, I moved to Allen and Unwin, where I’ve been for the last sixteen years.


Was selling your young adult fantasy manuscripts harder than selling your others due to Australian publishing houses not supporting fantasy works?

Not at all! Allen & Unwin is a huge supporter of Australian fantasy, also publishing superstars like Garth Nix, Amie Kaufman, Jay Kristoff, CS Pacat and many others. I’ve had nothing but enthusiasm from them.


Talk us through your writing process, from brainstorming to tips and tricks and maintaining a flow state.

I love to plan. I start with a vague idea or premise, and then build it out into a solid foundation. I do a lot of brainstorming—I make Pinterest boards and pull tarot cards and write many, many lists. Then I talk over my ideas with my partner or with writing friends, adding more character and texture as I go. I usually have a pretty thorough plan before I start the actual writing. When it comes to drafting, I usually put on some music (no words) or appropriate nature sounds. If I’m feeling particularly disciplined, I’ll turn the internet off so I don’t get distracted. Whenever I feel stuck, I go back to planning, getting more and more granular. I find it helps to plan out each scene in bullet points before I write it—so then I can just concentrate on making the story flow. I skip over all the bits that feel too hard, and then go back and fill them in when the mood strikes. At the end of the process there are usually a few scenes I’ve avoided writing entirely, so then it’s time to ask myself some hard questions. Do I really need those scenes? Is there a way I can make them more interesting, so I want to write them and a reader will want to read them?


For all the students wanting to pursue further study after their bachelor’s, what was it like pursuing your PhD, and how did this translate to your works?

I went back to do my PhD in my thirties after I’d written several YA novels. I was a much more confident writer then than I had been as an undergraduate. I was also much better at managing my own time and working to deadlines. I supervise the occasional postgraduate student these days, and time management is always the biggest challenge.

My PhD research looked into the ways in which young adult literature inspires teens to engage in activism. I found that explicitly political books didn’t have much of an effect at all, but that books that spawned online communities did. As a writer, I want to encourage young people to be curious and engage in critical thinking, but I try not to make my books too didactic. That doesn’t resonate with teenagers.


Lili Wilkinson

Lili Winkinson is the award-winning author of nineteen books for young people, including The Erasure Initiative and A Hunger of Thorns. Lili has a PhD from the University of Melbourne, and is a passionate advocate for YA and the young people who read it, establishing the Inky Awards at the Centre for Youth Literature, State Library of Victoria. Her latest book is Deep is the Fen.


Interview conducted by the Spilled Ink Newsletter Team.

Art created by E. L. Maloney