Lili Wilkinson is no stranger to sects, death, and the end of the world. Having ditched romantic comedies for apocalyptic futures, Lili’s long list of YA novels includes The Boundless Sublime, a look into the world of cults and misguided beliefs, and her upcoming novel Good Girl, which grapples with dystopian disaster.
In the lead up to EWF’s Masterclass on Young Adult fiction, we chat with Lili about exploring darker topics, how motherhood has changed her writing style, and why YA is a perfect medium to explore a range of themes (and is just so much fun to write).
The themes of your most recent novel, The Boundless Sublime, are much darker than your previous novels. What about cults makes them interesting to write YA about?
My grandparents were Scientologists, so I’ve always been really interested in the idea of belief, and how people can be manipulated under the guise of belief. Cults are interesting because they seem so ridiculous as an outsider, but they are so good at targeting the right vulnerable individuals. I don’t think there’s much difference between cults and religions (it’s like the arbitrary distinction between a weed and a plant).
What spurred the change in tone and interested you in writing something creepier?
I had a baby. Many of my friends have shied away from horror and darkness when they’ve had children – I was the total opposite. The week after Banjo was born, I started watching American Horror Story and The Walking Dead. Being a new parent can be very overwhelming and I loved having this incredibly dark, creepy vessel to channel all my exhaustion and frustration into, leaving me free to be sunny and cheerful when on Mum-duty!
Your upcoming disaster novel, Good Girl, also deals with some bleak themes – what tools do you use to tackle big topics like cults, death and the end of the world within the context of YA?
Everything has to serve the story. There were some pretty horrific things that happened in The Boundless Sublime, and Good Girl isn’t pulling any punches either. But I don’t want it to ever feel gratuitous. It’s all about story and character. What do these events and actions say about my protagonist? How has she changed? How far will she go and how will she deal with the consequences? I do also agree that YA should end with some degree of hope – no matter how small. Really, I’d like all my fiction to end with even a glimmer of hope – I’m not a fan of existential utter bleakness.
What’s the best part of writing YA and what advice would you give an emerging writing trying to make it in the market?
The best part is interacting with everyone else in the community – the fans, the other writers, the editors and publishers and everyone else who loves and promotes YA. And also the freedom – you can write in literally any genre (or mashups of genre) and it’ll always end up on the same shelf in the bookshop. Adult fiction isn’t like that, and if you get pigeonholed as a crime or sci-fi or romance writer, your publisher will resist you switching it up as it means your “brand” will be spread all over the bookshop. It sounds very cynical, but it’s true and sensible. YA means you can write ANYTHING.
As for advice – read everything, the good and the bad. Figure out what makes the good good, and what makes the bad bad. Be involved in the big beautiful online world of YA – whether through BookTube or Bookstagram or Twitter or blogging or Wattpad or whatever other thing I’m too old to know about. And KEEP WRITING. They say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get really good at something, so even if nobody reads what you’re writing, it doesn’t matter. Every word you write is making you a better writer.
See Lili Wilkinson and other masters of YA at our upcoming Masterclass: YA, running on the 15th of June. Tickets are selling out quickly – book now to avoid disappointment!