It was such a pleasure to speak with Lili for the launch of her new YA novel, The Erasure Initiative (Allen & Unwin) at Readings Bookstore, Melbourne.
I’ve enthusiastically read Lili’s books since the start of her career, beginning with Joan of Arc (on which I wrote the teacher notes for the publisher) and Scatterheart, and particularly loving Green Valentine along the way.
I was asked to be in conversation with Lili because I am so intrigued by her new YA thriller.
The Erasure Initiative is both clever and assured. Its storytelling is very confident and fast-paced, and depth is included through deep ethical layers. It is so original I simply couldn’t predict where it would take me.
Thanks for speaking with PaperbarkWords, Lili.
Your work seems to be moving into the thriller genre. Why are you going in this direction?
It kind of happened by accident. I wrote six romantic comedies in a row and wanted a change. At the same time I got really obsessed with cults and new religious movements, and wanted to write a thriller about a girl getting sucked into a cult. That became The Boundless Sublime. My interest in cults led me to doomsday preppers, which is how After the Lights Go Out happened. Then my wonderful editor Jodie suggested I do another thriller, which became The Erasure Initiative.
The Erasure Initiative is described as a psychological thriller. What are some of the hallmarks or characteristics of a thriller that you have used in your writing?
It’s all about tension. Creating tension and narrative traction, and keeping it tight throughout the whole story. Never letting the characters feel safe. Throwing in lots of unexpected twists.
The narrative is consummately plotted. Many thrillers can’t sustain the intrigue or have disappointing resolutions but The Erasure Initiative maintains its plotting, pace and tension perfectly. How did you prevent it from lagging and achieve such great storytelling?
I set up a series of questions at the beginning of the book – who are they? Where are they? Why are they there? – and every time I revealed an answer to one of those questions, I’d add a twist which opened up MORE questions. I had the book intricately plotted on notecards up on the wall, and kept a spreadsheet of who knew what, and when.
Being careful not to give too much away so as not to spoil the experience for readers … could you introduce the book to us?
It’s a psychological thriller about a girl who wakes up on a self-driving bus, with no memory of who she is or how she got there. The bus is circling a deserted tropical island. It won’t stop. There are six other people on the bus. Nobody has any memory.
The Erasure Initiative is a gripping title. Is there anything you can tell us about what the title means?
I hate titles. I’m notoriously bad at finding them. My publishers and I spent ages coming up with endless lists of possibilities, like: The Blue Fairy, Blank Slate, The Last Thing You Remember, Erase Me, Terminal Loop, Living Memory, Blood Red Road, Road to Justice, The Justice Machine, The Eleos Initiative etc etc etc. We had literally hundreds. But the Erasure Initiative is the reason why everyone is on that bus.
During the story we live the experience of being trapped on a bus on an island with Cecily. What can you tell us about Cecily? Which other characters is she drawn to? Who does she initially disregard or reject? Why?
With Cecily, I wanted to create a character who had everything. She is hugely privileged – young, white, wealthy, beautiful, intelligent. Although she has no memory, she can guess these things about herself, and she makes assumptions about what kind of a person she is based on these assumptions. I wanted to explore this idea – and what happens when you realise your assumptions are incorrect.
Cecily is initially drawn to Paxton – a young, hot alpha male brimming with self-confidence. She believes they are cut from the same cloth, and as such they must stick together. She ignores the people who aren’t like her – Edwin who is young and shy, Riley who she assumes is a criminal, and Catherine who Cecily dismisses as a boring old person. She is, however, drawn to Nia. Nia is her age. She’s a person of colour, with a shaved head and a prosthetic leg. She’s feisty and angry and anti-authoritarian. She and Cecily immediately dislike each other, but there’s an attraction there too, even if neither of them will admit it.
Is there a quality in one of your characters you aspire to emulate? Or a quality you detest?
All of the characters make assumptions about each other, and themselves, based on the way they look. I do that too, and I wish I could turn it off! I try to question those assumptions as much as I can, but it’s hard.
Nia’s prosthetic leg is beautiful with its willow pattern and glowing gold crack. Why have you included a prosthesis?
I’m always looking for ways to challenge myself as a storyteller, to tell stories about people who aren’t like me. It’s difficult to find a balance between representing different kinds of people and appropriating their stories, and this is something that I’m always trying to learn more about. I had never written about a character with a disability before, and in talking to some disabled friends, I really wanted to have a character whose disability made her awesome – that was a part of her, but didn’t define her.
Why have you used the iconic figure of the blue fairy?
I wanted a really iconic image. The bus is very generic. The island is generic. The people on the bus begin as quite thinly drawn – almost archetypes. I needed a really strong, iconic image, that evoked mystery, trickery and the idea of granting wishes. The Blue Fairy was perfect.
Could you explain how you’ve incorporated the ethical and psychological thought experiment, the Trolley Problem?
The seven people on the bus are asked to participate in variations on the Trolley Problem. The basic version of the problem is simple: you’re on a trolley. Ahead on the track you see five people. The trolley will not stop, and they will die. You can pull a lever that will make the trolley turn onto a side track, where there is only one person. Do you pull the lever?
This base version of the problem isn’t hugely interesting to me. But the more you mess around with it, the more interesting it becomes. What if the five people on the track are all convicted criminals, and the one is a pregnant woman? What if it’s five strangers or your mum? What if it’s five cats or five dogs? Pretty quickly, we realise that our ethical frameworks are pretty porous, and not nearly as solid as we might like to imagine.
Could you tell us about some of your research and perhaps something that surprised you while researching?
I read a lot of books about memory, and memory loss. How it feels, the neuroscience of it etc. Then I read about ethics, about the Trolley Problem and different ethical frameworks. I also read about self-driving vehicles, the prison industrial complex, hacking, the lives of the uber-rich, and a few other things that would be too spoilery to list!
One piece of research that really stuck with me was a book called The Answer to the Riddle Is Me, about a young man who lost his autobiographical memory for two years, as a side effect of his malaria medication. Once he started to learn about the person he had been – he realised he didn’t like himself very much. There was something very poignant and compelling about that to me.
Why are people so desperate to regain lost memory?
I think memory is a big part of selfhood. Who are we, if we don’t remember ourselves? How do we define ourselves if not by our relationships, our experiences, the ways in which we’ve responded to change?
Your novel explores some big philosophical questions, such as doing bad things for good reasons. When, if ever, do you think this is acceptable?
I don’t think it’s possible to make any hard and fast rules about this, and when we attempt to legislate along hard and fast rules, we get into trouble (see issues like abortion or euthanasia). I think thorny ethical issues must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Human society is hugely complex and nuanced.
Edwin is described as “moral” and “good person”. What is something you would you expect a good, moral person to be doing in today’s society at the moment?
Wearing a mask! But more broadly, always considering how their actions will affect others. That doesn’t mean you should never do anything that has a negative effect on someone else. Accepting an offer for a new job might have a negative effect on the people who didn’t get it, but if it’s the job for you, then you should accept it. But it’s always worth thinking about the consequences of your actions, weighing up who wins and loses, and trying to do the right thing.
How have you used names of real people in the story?
There are a few names scattered through the book that were winners of my Authors for Fireys auction earlier this year (wow this has been a long year). Plus a few other easter eggs for my friends and family.
What else are you reading and keen to recommend at the moment?
I just finished reading NK Jemisin’s The City We Became, which was mind-bendingly fascinating. I loved Lisa Fuller’s Ghost Bird. I’m currently reading Madeline Miller’s Circe, which is giving me very pleasing flashbacks to my Year 7 musical of The Odyssey. And I’m looking forward to Ellie Marney’s None Shall Sleep, coming next month!
How can your readers contact you?
I’m most active on Instagram and Twitter, so those are probably best! I also have a newsletter (http://www.liliwilkinson.com.au).
Thank you for your generous and enlightening responses, Lili. The Erasure Initiative is a gripping, memorable read. It’s a story that young adults (and others) will absolutely love and everyone who reads it will find it impossible to forget !
Link to the Q&A and Readings launch (password I*+jz4@q)