Pip Williams is a wonderful literary force to be reckoned with – not only is she a fearless advocate for the words that define us, but she is a great role model to budding writers everywhere who might struggle to find their way to a love of literature. She will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming Storyfest Writers’ Festival in March.


Pip Williams hasn’t always loved words. While her latest book, a historical novel titled The Dictionary of Lost Words – winner of Book of the Year at the 2021 Indie Book Awards – is all about the significance of language and who gets to define it, Williams herself is dyslexic, and so it took her years to find common ground with the English language. By her own admission, she still has trouble with words – however, this did not stop her from writing a book exactly about that. And what a book!

The Dictionary of Lost Words is a fierce reimagining of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the words that didn’t make it in. Narrated by Esme, a diligent young girl growing up under the sorting tables of the dictionary, this fictional account connects words and the women’s suffrage movement in a way that will have you questioning the gatekeepers of language. It is a soaring, heartfelt, and inspiring tale, focussed on the women who made their mark on history through the dictionary – and those who couldn’t.

We sat down with Williams to talk about the importance of literature and representation for children, the power of words, and her advice to budding writers.

Storyfest: We are excited to have you on board for our annual Writers’ Festival here on the Gold Coast. What’s your favourite thing about attending or speaking at literary festivals – and what are you most looking forward to at Storyfest?

Pip Williams: The thing I love about these festivals is meeting readers and hearing the diversity of meaning that people get out of my books. I believe that a book is only ever about 80% finished when it goes on the shelf, and the reader finishes it based on their own experiences. I love to hear what my books become to different people.

So I love to connect both with readers and with other writers.

Storyfest in particular is different to most writers’ festivals because of its engagement with young people. I love that Storyfest works with students. It’s the only festival I’ve been to that engages with young people in a purposeful and active way. Some of the nicest encounters I’ve had with readers have been with 15-year-old girls, and I feel it is those young girls who make writing worth it.

S: Here at Storyfest, we place huge significance on children’s literature and literary programmes, and your book The Dictionary of Lost Words also speaks to the importance of words from a young age. What do you hope kids will take away from your book?

PW: The Dictionary of Lost Words is a coming-of-age tale to some extent. Even though it’s set in a different time, it’s the sort of thing that young people can engage with – like some of the things that the main character is concerned with, such as representation. While I’m focussing on the representation of women in particular, I’m hoping that when young people read it, they not only get a sense of women’s place in society and how that’s changed (and also how that hasn’t changed) over the last hundred years, but they might also think about the place of young people in society.

I think this book might resonate today in the way we talk about climate change, and how we talk about young people who talk about climate change. What I find really interesting is that the terminology, the way usually white middle-aged men will talk about young people who are speaking up about climate change, is exactly the way white middle-aged men spoke about the women marching and fighting for suffrage, for the vote. They call them children, they say they’re hysterical, that their parents should be taking better care of them; all these terms that were used to put suffragettes and women down at the time that the book is set in.

I think that’s a really interesting parallel – it’s about voice. I’m really looking forward to those discussions with the kids at the festival. To talk about those things and to see whether they can take the experience of one generation and apply it to their own.

S: Have words always formed a big part of your life?

PW: Because this is a book about words, people assume I’m a word nerd. And I’m not – I’m dyslexic, and I’ve always had trouble with words. I’ll often say the wrong word because it sounds like the right word. [laughs]

When it comes to using words as they were intended – you know, this idea of words being set in stone – I’m not a pedant. I love the idea that young people are changing language to suit their purpose, and I’m fascinated by how language will change in the long term because of it.

If you look at the Oxford English Dictionary, you can see how words have changed their meaning over the centuries because of the way they’ve been used. All they are is tools. Language changes to suit people, and I really don’t think there should be any gatekeepers to language. Who knows, we might be creating better ways of expressing ourselves.

S: How are we as educators and parents best to foster this love of language in future generations?

PW: Let them use the language that appeals to them. Often, kids are not allowed to use the language that appeals to them, and if they do, they’re immediately corrected. To me, it doesn’t matter how you spell a word, what matters is how you understand it.

Words were the only way I wanted to express myself, even though I didn’t know how to use them very well. I couldn't play music, I couldn't draw – what I wanted to do was write. If someone had stood over me and corrected me every time I misspelt a word or used it incorrectly, then I might have been discouraged from expressing myself through language. I strongly believe that what’s important is how children are using the words to express themselves, not how well they can spell.

My advice is, make reading a positive experience, even if you need to resort to bribery! We used to bribe our kids to read. For example, if they were to read a particular book, I’d then play their favourite computer game for two hours. It made the whole thing a positive experience – there was some payoff for everyone. I’m all for bribing kids to read – if that’s what gets them interested, or even just exposed to books, then we all win.

S: Is there a book that had a significant influence on you as a young reader?

PW: I can’t pinpoint a single book or a particular writer that influenced me as a young person. Even though I had trouble with words as a kid, I was still a voracious reader. I absolutely adored Trixie Belden books – the thing I loved about Trixie Belden (and I can only say this in retrospect) was that the ringleaders were all girls, and I could identify with the main characters so well. Quite naturally, as girls tend to, I gravitated towards books with girl leads, just like boys often gravitate to books with boy leads.

Although I think that’s changing now. More and more it doesn’t matter who the lead is, what matters is the story. Because if you’ve written it well, then kids will read it and love it.

So there isn’t one particular book from my childhood – although I did read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about 25 times. I suppose I can say that book definitely stands out.

S: In that vein Esme, the protagonist of The Dictionary of Lost Words, is the perfect lead for girls. 

PW: She really is! It mattered to me that Esme was ordinary, that she wasn’t the kind of person who was brave enough to get out there and scream and shout and break the law for the things she believed in – because they’re the usual heroes and heroines. I wanted Esme to be the sort of person most of the women reading could imagine themselves being. Quieter, more reserved. We don’t all have to be on the stage to fight for things important to us – everyone has their own gifts and skills, and bringing those to the table is enough.

S: Do you have any advice for aspiring young writers?

PW: Just write. It doesn’t matter what you write – I think if you’re a budding writer, the thing you have to stop thinking about is becoming famous, or even getting published. Don’t think about the end result – think about the beginning. And the beginning of writing is actually writing. [laughs] Whether that’s letters, a journal, or simply notes in your phone – if a sentence pops into your head, write it down!

My first creative work, a travel memoir titled One Italian Summer, was a nightmare to write. I had no particular routine; I avoided writing it. I hated the idea of writing actually, but I loved having written. So it could take me hours or days or weeks to sit down and start writing something, and I might only write 500 words, but at the end of those 500 words I’d feel so good about myself. When I started writing The Dictionary of Lost Words, I decided I needed a much better routine – I needed to love it more. So I did some Pavlovian conditioning on myself. [laughs] I love coffee, so what I’d do is go to a cafe, order my coffee, and I wasn’t allowed to start drinking it until I opened my laptop and wrote one word. One word was enough to get me going.

Don’t set an unachievable daily word count for yourself – my word count per writing session was one word. That’s all I had to write, and if I wrote one word, I'd have a successful day. And I challenge anyone to stop at one word – you simply can’t! So that’s what I did: I set my goal as low as possible, one word a day, and I coupled it with something I loved, which was coffee. It only took a couple of sessions for me to think about writing, and instantly start salivating. [laughs]

I truly believe that you are a writer if you think about writing. I don’t think you have to wait until you’ve finished a story to call yourself a writer. Whether you then write, is different. Whether you then produce anything, is completely up to you.

Pip Williams will be leading two sessions for young readers as well as our Literary Long Table Dinner at the Storyfest Writers’ Festival. To find out more about the festival programme, click here.