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A way with words

Pip Williams was driven to explore the less documented side of war and tell the relatively untold stories of the women who weren’t waiting for men to return.

When Blakiston woman Pip Williams sat alone in a bustling Mt Barker café with her laptop, little did the people around her know that she was tapping away at a companion to an award-winning bestseller novel.
The author of debut novel The Dictionary of Lost Words, published in 2020, has returned with a standalone book, The Bookbinder of Jericho, and, like the first, all words were spilled onto the page among the hustle and bustle of local cafés.
“Both of these books, every creative word was written in a café,” she says.
“I spend most of my time at Sazòn in Mt Barker and also Lady Luck. I tend to split my time between those two places.
“I love the crowd and the buzz of it. It makes me feel like I’m not working and like I’m engaging with the world.
“I find it very easy to just block out the music and conversation and feel the world around me. It’s my happy place.”
Growing up in Sydney, Pip and her family moved to the Adelaide Hills, and her partner built an extension on their home out of strawbale. It was a “gorgeous” writing room, except there has always been one problem.
“I sit there and I can’t write a word,” she says.
“I feel so terrible. I think it’s the pressure of silence, it’s a little overwhelming and there’s also all the household stuff just waiting to be done.”
In The Bookbinder of Jericho, Pip welcomes readers back into the world of her debut novel, exploring the history of WWI through the eyes of the women who kept Britain running.
Set in 1914 at the start of the war, the young men of Britain are drawn away to fight.
Two of the many women left behind are twin sisters Peggy and Maude, who work in the bindery at the Oxford University Press in Jericho.
Peggy is a loyal, intelligent and ambitious young woman who longs for more in life and dreams of attending Oxford University.
But she has one job and one job only – to bind the books she wishes she could read instead.
Her sister Maude wants nothing more than she already has but is extraordinarily vulnerable and Peggy must watch over her.
The shock of war is realised when refugees arrive in the community from devastated Belgium.
Pip was driven to explore the less documented side of war and tell the relatively untold stories of the women who weren’t waiting for men to return or grieving men who never made it home.
“What I was really interested in was telling a WWI story from the perspective of women who actually didn’t have as much skin in the game – they didn’t have a father, a son, a husband or a fiancé who had gone to war,” she says.
“These are working class women who, before the war, had long working days because they needed to earn a living to feed themselves.”


The hardest part was accessing stories, records and archived information about these women.
“I couldn’t find any real accounts of WWI from the perspective of working-class women,” Pip says.
“I was really interested to explore their experiences, but also women who weren’t waiting for someone to come home, women who were just continuing with their lives and adjusting to this new normal that WWI had created.”
In researching the Oxford English Dictionary for her first book, set during the height of the women’s suffrage movement and at the beginning of WWI, Pip had come across records of women who worked in the bindery at the Oxford University Press.
She could find almost nothing more about them, except for a black and white film made in the early 1920s about the making of a book at Oxford.
The film showed the making of the Oxford English Dictionary and included footage of the women folding the pages, giving Pip the idea for The Bookbinder of Jericho’s main character, Peggy.
“Suddenly I actually had vision of women moving around, I could see them folding the pages, I could see a woman dancing along the gathering bench, collecting all of the sections of a book into her arm so that they can be collated. It was just gorgeous,” she says.
“I wondered to myself if she read any of those pages she was flipping onto her arm. That’s where I got the idea for my character.”
In an effort to find out more Pip travelled to Oxford in 2021, accessing rare archival material, as well as touring Étaples in France.
She says one of the most extraordinary aspects of her research for the second novel is the synergy between the early 1900s and now, with many parallels being drawn between the outbreak of Covid-19 and the Spanish Flu, as well as the German invasion of Belgium and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The synergies between then and now, Covid, the war in Ukraine, suddenly I felt like I was writing the experience of people who are fleeing Ukraine,” Pip says.
“It’s this awful kind of history repeating itself.”
Later this year, Pip will see her first novel The Dictionary of Lost Words come to life on stage when it’s transformed into a theatre production by State Theatre Company SA and Sydney Theatre Company.
Premiering at the Dunstan Playhouse in Adelaide in September, the production will then move to the Sydney Opera House.
The Dictionary of Lost Words is an international bestseller and was even championed by Hollywood actor Reese Witherspoon’s highly respected book club.
Pip admits 2023 is shaping up to be a busy year, with her new book’s launch and the stage play adaptation. However, it won’t stop the ideas from coming.
“I probably won’t get to start another novel, but there’s always something in my head swirling around,” she adds.

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