Hello book lovers!
For our May Book Club we read and discussed The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams.
Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I personally loved it. It was brilliant and well written the entire way through and the story completely captured my attention.
This novel will stay with me for a long time and I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t.
There was so much packed into this one book and it gave us great material to discuss.
Once again we held book club via Zoom and it was lovely to catch up with everyone again.
Hopefully we will be able to go back to in person meet ups soon but for now we think it is still safest to host them online.
I was lucky enough to be able to interview Pip Williams and ask a few questions about The Dictionary of Lost Words.
with Pip Williams
Where did your inspiration for The Dictionary of Lost Words come from?
I had read and enjoyed Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne, a book about the relationship between the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, and one of the volunteers who supplied examples of how words had been used in literature. I became fascinated by the process of compiling the Dictionary, but when I’d finished reading, there were niggling questions I could find no answers for. For example, if everyone involved in defining the words were men, then how well did that first edition of the OED represent the way women used words? If all the words in the OED had to have a textual source (which they did), then what words might have been lost because they were never written down – words spoken by the illiterate, the poor or women doing women’s work. I read a bit more and looked things up on line, but I couldn’t find answers to these questions. What I did find, though, was a curious little story about a lost word.
The word ‘bondmaid’ was discovered missing from the first volume of words in 1901. It should have been between bondly and bondman, but it wasn’t. The word means slave girl, and no one knows how it went missing. It is a mystery ripe for solving, I thought, and that is when the seed of an idea for a story began to grow.
What made you choose to write about the history of the Oxford English Dictionary?
I wanted to understand if it mattered that the Oxford English Dictionary was put together without much input from women. I wanted to explore two questions in particular. First, do words mean different things to men and women? If they do, is it possible that women’s words might have been left out of the Oxford English Dictionary? The best way for me to answer these questions was to throw a woman among the lexicographers and see what would happen.
There are a lot of different themes in this novel. It discusses the importance of words, the women’s suffrage movement, the horror and tragic reality of war, and many other important issues. Did you always plan to include so much in this one story? Was it hard to decide what to focus on or areas that you wish you could have delved into deeper?
I started writing because I was interested in the Oxford English Dictionary. I planned the story around the true events of that incredible enterprise and I began to write. As I wrote the fiction I would stop every now and then to check the history, not just of the OED, but of Oxford and the UK. It was clear that to tell the story well, I had to nestle it into the times, and the times included the women’s suffrage movement and WWI. The dictionary and all the characters, real and imagined, are products of these times and the extraordinary events that took place. They can’t be uncoupled and so I wove them together. But the main thread was always words and how they are used and defined. How they are valued by different people. My inclusion of the suffrage movement and WWI reflects this, I hope. The details I chose to include hopefully strengthen the story that is being built around Esme and her words.
What kind of research did you have to do for this book?
The problem with having an idea for a story that is based on real events and real people and is set on the other side of the world, is the research. There are plenty of excellent books to consult about the history of the OED, and no shortage of information about its most beloved editor, James Murray, but the story I wanted to tell was not part of the historical record. I could not find it online or order it through Book Depository. I had to go to Oxford if I wanted to tell it well. So, I did; once at the very start of the writing, and then at the end, when I had a draft and knew what information I needed to make the story authentic and ‘true’.
On both occasions I stayed in a student room at one of the Oxford University colleges, first Magdalen and then Brasenose. They are among the oldest colleges in England and they put me in the right frame of mind for the research. Each day I would walk the streets of Oxford, imagining where Esme might go and what she would see. I was welcomed into the archives at the Oxford University Press and given access to original slips containing words and quotations, to the proof pages of dictionary volumes, to photographs, and letters between people I was writing about. It was an incredibly intimate process, and I feel I got to know the words and the people in a way that was impossible reading an academic history. I came to understand that the words, like the people, have back stories and personalities. I hope I have captured something of that in my novel.
How long did it take you to write The Dictionary of Lost Words?
I had the idea for a couple of years, but did nothing with it. To be honest, I thought it was a bigger more complicated story than I was capable of telling. I had never written fiction and I thought I should perhaps start with a simpler story; one that didn’t require so much research. I began that simpler story, but The Dictionary of Lost Words (and yes, the title was there from the start) started to demand my attention.
I gave in. Two years later I had the first draft finished and someone who wanted to publish it. I’m still surprised it took only two years. I think it’s because I enjoyed it so much. I also wrote the whole manuscript in a café so I associate writing with good coffee and cake – a bit of classical conditioning never hurts if you want to train yourself to do something on a regular basis.
Was there anything you found particularly challenging when writing this story?
Writing this story was joyful, on the whole. I loved the characters and the setting and I was fascinated by the real and imagined experiences of the times. The most challenging aspect of writing this book, was weaving the fact and the fiction. This story is like a plait – there’s a fictional strand, a factual strand and then there’s Ditte in the middle.
Esme, her Da and Lizzie are completely fictional, most of the people who work on the dictionary are real, and Ditte is a fictionalised version of a real woman called Edith Thompson. The dilemma I had was whether or not to name Edith Thompson–she was involved in the OED from the letter A to the letter Z and yet so little is written about her in the official history. What I did know about her was interesting and relevant to the story I was telling. As I wrote, she became Esme’s godmother. Of course, this was not a possibility in real life, and everything I’ve written about their relationship is a complete fiction, but I think it rings true to the Edith I came to know during my research.
Right up until the book went to the printers, I was debating whether to give her a pseudonym, just to be safe, just to avoid any criticism. In the end, I decided I wanted people to know about Edith Thompson and her role in the development of the Dictionary. I let her keep her real name because I did not want her overlooked, and I couldn’t bear to excise her from my story. But to acknowledge that the relationship between Esme and Edith is fiction, I let Esme give her the nickname, Ditte.
Did you have a favourite character or scene that you enjoyed writing?
I loved writing about Mabel, the old prostitute with a stall at the Covered Market. She introduces Esme to one of her first (and dare I say, favourite) words. She recites a limerick that begins like this: There once was a harlot from Kew …
You’ll have to read the book to get the rest.
What made you want to be a writer? Was it something you always wanted to do?
Despite being dyslexic, I have always used words to express myself. I wrote a lot of poetry as a child, and started a few novels (mostly Puberty Blues inspired – all really terrible). The first thing I ever published was a poem in Dolly magazine when I was fifteen (imaginatively called ‘Fifteen’). But even then, I never thought I would be a writer when I grew up. Writing for me was just something I did for myself.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I began to feel the frustration of not writing more seriously. Letters and journals and notebooks full of ideas for stories wasn’t enough. I got quite depressed actually. It was the mismatch between creative thinking and creative doing. It took a few years, but eventually I quit my job as an academic, ran away to Italy with my family and then came home and found a new way to live my life that allowed more time and energy for writing – I surprised myself by writing a memoir of our time in Italy, One Italian Summer, that was picked up off the slush pile at Affirm Press and published. It was the validation I needed to keep writing.
What is your writing process? Do you need to stick to a strict schedule, or do you write when inspiration strikes?
I had no recognisable writing routine when I wrote my last book, but for The Dictionary of Lost Words I settled on a routine early and it has served me well. Essentially, I knew I had to overcome my tendency to procrastinate, so I did two things. First, I set a word limit of just one word a day (you read that right). It is not the writing I avoid, it is the sitting down and opening my laptop. Once that one word is written, I always write more. I have never failed to reach my quota (not many writers can say that). Second, I have conditioned myself to associate writing with the pleasure of coffee at my favourite café. It took less than a week of going to the café with only my laptop and now I can’t wait to write – in fact, I’m addicted to it! Needless to say, I have written this whole book in a café. Covid-19 disrupted my writing routine for about a week, then I realised I could park my car outside the café and write for hours. I call, and a familiar face brings coffee to my window.
What are your top five favourite books you’ve read this year?
I read all the time but I read slowly. If I think a book might be too difficult (long, complicated, experimental) I will listen to it as an audio book – I’ve always loved being read to. My top five books over the past year are (in no particular order):
- The Application of Pressure by Rachael Mead (just published by Affirm Press)
- Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles (Text)
- Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams (Picador)
- Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel (Picador)
- The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Fourth Estate)
Do you have any future projects in the works that you can tell us about?
I’ve already started writing my next novel. It taps into stories I found during my research for The Dictionary of Lost Words, but this time it will focus on the bindery girls – women and girls binding books at the Oxford University Press. It’s early days though – I might change my mind and write science fiction.
Is there anything you would like to say to your readers?
Emily Dickinson once wrote, Tell all the truth but tell it slant.
I think that is what novels do. A novel comes at the facts from an angle that is different to history or biography or memoir. It can illuminate what is between the lines, in the shadows or just off stage (to use more metaphors than strictly required). I think the novels we love are those that add dimension to what we already know. We laugh, cry or simmer with rage when we recognise the joy, sadness or injustice in a story well told.
For me, the facts are just a scaffold from which to build the truth.
BOOKS WE ARE LOVING
As you know each month at book club we like to discuss what books we have been loving lately.
Here are the books the Cosy Reading Book Club attendees have been enjoying in the lead up to our May book club:
- Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
- The Soldier’s Curse by Meg and Tom Keneally
- The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
- The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall
- A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
- Sheerwater by Leah Swann
- The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
Keep tuned for the next wrap up as we discuss our June book: In the Time of Foxes by Jo Lennan.