an interview with
Connie Willis is one of American SF's most
popular and critically lauded writers, the winner of numerous awards.
Her sparkling lightness
of style (masking considerable depth of implication), her finely choreographed
descriptions of humorous misadventure and incomprehension, her mastery
of complex plotting, her impressive technical versatility: all make
her oeuvre one to savour.
Her major novels are: Lincoln's Dreams
(1987); Doomsday Book (1992); the latter's very loose sequel
in the Oxford/Dunworthy series, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1997);
and Passage (2001, recently published in the UK by Voyager).
Intensely realised time travel, objective or subjective, dominates all
of these books, to beguiling yet disturbing tragicomic effect. Book-length
novellas are Remake (1994), Uncharted Territory (1994),
and Bellwether (1996); and Willis's acclaimed short fiction,
characterised by a very distinctive frothy profundity, is collected
in Fire Watch (1984), Impossible Things (1993), and Miracle
and Other Christmas Stories (1999). In addition, in collaboration
with Cynthia Felice, she has written three relatively unambitious SF
novels, Water Witch (1982), Light Raid (1989), and Promised
Willis's big new novel, Passage, is
a long, extremely busy, intricately through-composed examination
of Near Death Experiences and their basis in imagination and memory,
all against the backdrop of a wittily depicted and highly chaotic contemporary
American hospital. This book, and her abiding literary influences and
concerns, were the subjects of my e-mail interview with Connie Willis,
conducted in July-August 2001.
NG: By the evidence
of the numerous awards you've won and the great affection in which you're
held in the SF field, you are the definitive contemporary American SF
author, or certainly something approaching that. How would you react
to such a contention?
CW: The definitive contemporary American
SF writer? Are you sure? I don't see how that's possible when everyone
I meet either A) has never heard of me, or B) thinks what I write isn't
science fiction. I met one guy so incensed about Bellwether that
he told me I should give back all my Nebulas and Hugos, and a reviewer
just said Passage wasn't science fiction either. It isn't? How
can it not be? We don't actually have people crossing over to the Other
Side, do we?
Anyway, I don't believe there is such a thing as a definitive SF writer,
and if there was, who would it be? Isaac Asimov? Ursula Le Guin? Philip
K. Dick? Ray Bradbury? None of those people wrote anything like each
other--and none of them wrote like Robert A. Heinlein (my vote for definitive
if there was such a thing, which there isn't) or William Tenn or Howard
Waldrop or Ben Bova or John Wyndham or Zenna Henderson. Oh, and I forgot
Harlan Ellison. And Shirley Jackson. And...
The thing I have always liked best about science fiction is that it
defies definition. It keeps constantly reinventing itself--and just
when you thought stories about robots or time travel or first contact
had been done to death, it thinks of some brand-new way to tell an old
story, or some brand-new story to tell. And there seems to be no end
in sight. This is, after all, the field that gave us "Flowers for Algernon"
and Neuromancer and "The Cold Equations" and Bring The Jubilee.
And who knows what next?
NG: In most of your
work, there's a texture of screwball comedy -- helter-skelter activity
on the part of your characters, often misguided; misunderstandings;
clashing perceptions; absurd coincidences. What motivates this humorous
textual surface? What has inspired it?
CW: Helter-skelter, misguided activity,
misunderstandings, absurd coincidences. That doesn't sound like screwball
comedy to me. It sounds like the human condition. We poor homo sapiens
are always trying to make desperately important decisions with too little
information and too little time. And in spite of our best attempts at
controlling our own destinies, we are constantly the victims of fate,
chance, mortality, and our own very faulty hardwiring. Which is why
my characters always seem so muddled--that's how I see the species.
We'd love to be heroes, but it actually takes all our effort to just
keep our feet and figure out what's going on.
It's also why I love screwball comedies (well, that and the fact that
Cary Grant is in so many of them.) To name a few favorites: Walk,
Don't Run (the very good remake of the very good The More the
Merrier), His Girl Friday, Father Goose, Six Days,
Seven Nights (which doesn't have Cary in it but does have Harrison
Ford), French Kiss, and The Sure Thing (a lovely remake
of the granddaddy of them all, It Happened One Night), and While
You Were Sleeping. I consider myself a connoisseur of the genre,
which means I'm death on movies that I don't think follow the rules
(or break the rules in interesting and intelligent ways). I hate comedies
that are too sophisticated--the heart of the screwball comedy is actually
a very old-fashioned love story, and you are allowed to laugh at anything
and anyone except the love the main characters feel for each other.
I also hate comedies that don't lavish as much care and attention on
their minor characters as they do on the leads, and those that rely
on so-called "funny situations" (i.e., wearing a woman's negligee--except
when Cary Grant does it in Bringing Up Baby) instead of on the
script. Wit is the key to comedy. Writing.
NG: The plots of your
major novels, in line with this screwball spirit, are fast-moving yet
enormously complicated. How easy is it to juggle so many intricately
interlocked elements, at such length?
CW: How easy is it to juggle all the
elements of my plots? Hard. Real hard. Lie-awake-at-night hard. And
then when you do get to sleep, waking up in a cold sweat because you've
forgotten something hard. I love complicated plots, with gobs of foreshadowing
and red herrings and seemingly irrelevant subplots that come together
at the end with a bang, but they're a huge pain to write. People often
ask me if I know the ending when I start writing, and I stare at them
in blank dismay. Of course I know the ending. How could I possibly write
without knowing where it was going? I hear about writers who just get
an idea or an image and then take off, but to me this sounds as smart
as starting off across the Gobi Desert with no map and no canteen, although
to give these other writers credit, they seem to do fine. I, on the
other hand, would sink in the sand and never be heard from again.
I work a lot like Agatha Christie (I try to write, actually, a lot
like Agatha Christie) who used to plot out her entire novel while doing
housewifish things like doing the dishes, taking six months or so to
put it all together (though with me it's sometimes years and years--I
worked on the plot of Passage for nearly two years before I was
able to overcome all the construction problems--and that was several
years after I'd had the original idea) and only starting the actual
writing when the plot was all in place. During the plotting period I
take endless notes, most of them beginning with "maybe he could..."
or "maybe when they first meet, she could say..." Most of these are
terrible ideas, which I don't end up using, but they help me get to
the ideas I want.
The writing itself is just a big pain--lots of lists. Lists of what
has to happen in this scene, lists of how much time has elapsed, lists
of things to do in the next chapter. Without lists (and waking up in
the middle of the night) I could never write the book. I felt immensely
better after I found out that Fitzgerald made lists, too.
NG: You seem to have
a jaundiced view of large institutions -- universities and hospitals
certainly (as featured in your longer novels.) However well-intentioned
they are at root, you depict them as chaos incarnate. Again, flawed
humanity at work?
CW: I have a jaundiced view of pretty
much everything, especially anything involving people in groups--churches,
government, business, refreshments committees, you name it. Nobody can
be trusted to be in charge, as far as I'm concerned, and once people
organise themselves into groups, no matter how well-intentioned, (and
I mean everything from corporations to church choirs to antique car
clubs) they make a mess of everything and can only be saved by the actions
of the individual (look at Watergate, for instance.) I don't know why
this is exactly, something wrong in our hardwiring maybe, and it doesn't
mean I'm an anarchist, it just means I think a little healthy skepticism
is in order. Somebody after reading Bellwether said, very incensed,
"It seems like the whole point of your book is that people need to think
for themselves!" Yes, as a matter of fact, that's what I do think.
NG: Another consistent
thread in your major solo novels is the contemplation of the past, whether
through the medium of dreams, time travel, or psychiatric metaphor.
Your characters are voluntary or involuntary historians; why so much
CW: I love the past. For one thing, I
think I was born in the wrong century--and no, I do not believe in reincarnation!
I came of age in the sixties and thought they were possibly the stupidest
decade of all time--for examples of sheep-like behaviour, the Summer
of Love simply cannot be beat--and I despise most of twentieth-century
literature (I like Fitzgerald. And Sigrid Undset), lots of the clothes,
and nearly everything that passes for thought. EST, for instance, and
the Contract with America, and the inner child. As Humphrey Bogart says
in the original Sabrina (the remake doesn't have Audrey Hepburn
in it, but it does have Harrison Ford), "You could come up with a better
century by pulling one out of a hat." So of course I like the past.
But the real appeal of the past is that it's the true forbidden country.
Even when you write stories about the Outer Magellanic Cloud or the
star pillars in Orion, there's a chance we can go there, and we know
we'll get to the future eventually, one way or another, but the past
you can never go to, not even to correct your mistakes. It's the place
you can't ever go home to, even to take one last longing look, and yet
it's always with us, every moment. Peggy Sue Got Married is a
pretty terrible movie, but it has one moment of true greatness. Kathleen
Turner, transported through a knock on the head into her own teenaged
past, picks up the phone, and then gasps, "Grandma, oh, Grandma," as
she hears the voice of her dead grandmother, and all the love, the longing,
the sorrow of things past is in that one line. The past is about loss
and love and all the things we didn't appreciate when we had the chance,
all the things we can never get back. Who wouldn't be drawn to it?
My favourite time period (I don't actually like the Middle Ages--the
Black Death just happened to be there, and I love the Black Death) is
the London Blitz, I think because it's such a perfect example of the
human predicament. You're trying to get to work and cook dinner, but
bombs are falling on your head. It's not the only historical instance
of that, of course, but it's the one in which people managed not only
to survive, but to somehow keep their sense of humour. One of my favorite
Blitz stories is about the old woman hauled out of the rubble by the
rescue squad. Uncertain as to who else was in the house, they asked
her if her husband was in there, and she said disgustedly, "No, the
bloody coward's at the front." Exactly. It's life at the front, with
nothing to defend yourself with but a saucepan and a tube ticket, and
Hitler coming anytime to kill the princesses and take over the world.
I've written about the Blitz several times (in "Fire Watch" [available
elsewhere on infinity plus] and "Jack" and To Say Nothing of the
Dog) and I hope to write another Oxford-Dunworthy time travel novel
set in the London Blitz, with rationing and the V-2s and the fake army
down in Kent and evacuated children. And a parrot, I think. And a Christmas
pantomime. I haven't got the plot quite all worked out yet.
NG: Your time-travelling
Oxford academics, the focus of "Fire Watch", Doomsday Book and
To Say Nothing of the Dog, seem balanced on a knife's edge of
frivolity and disaster; comical academic infighting mingles with threats
of pandemic disease, and bumbling courtship interleaves mass destruction
by air raids. Is history, then, an alternation of farce and cataclysm?
CW: My attitude toward comedy vs. tragedy
in life has been influenced pretty much by Shakespeare. He didn't think
of stories as inherently tragic or comic and would frequently use the
same material to do both--he used the same story of doomed star-crossed
lovers to tell a tragedy (Romeo and Juliet), low farce (Pyramus
and Thisbe in Midsummer Night's Dream), high comedy (Much
Ado About Nothing), and bittersweet tragicomedy (A Winter's Tale.)
I have always felt that Doomsday Book tells only one side of
history, and I basically wrote To Say Nothing of the Dog to tell
some of the other side. I don't think any one novel or story (or author)
can embody more than a fraction of the truth, and I frequently write
a story to counterbalance a previous story--my novella "Cat's Paw" was
basically written as a counterpoint to my much earlier story, "Samaritan,"
and many of my stories represent an ongoing argument with myself about
issues that I find troubling or complicated. The only thing I know for
sure is that nothing is simple, that not only are things not black and
white, there are so many shades of gray we can never discover them all.
NG: To Say Nothing
of the Dog is conspicuously a knowing parody of Jerome K. Jerome.
How consistent a technique is parody in your work as a whole?
CW: As I say in the dedication to To
Say Nothing of the Dog, I'm grateful to Robert A. Heinlein for introducing
me to Jerome K. Jerome and Three Men in a Boat. As you may recall,
in the first chapter of Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel,
Kip's father isn't listening to Kip because he's lost in Three Men
in a Boat, in the middle of the episode about the tin of pineapple.
As soon as I had finished reading Have Space Suit, I raced down
to the library and got Three Men in a Boat, and have been a huge
fan ever since.
But influence is a funny thing, and I never think writers are in any
position to say who and what has influenced their work. After I finished
To Say Nothing of the Dog, it occurred to me how much like Have
Space Suit it is. There the hero literally has adventure and responsibility
(in the form of smart-mouthed ten-year-old Peewee Reisfield) land on
him and spends the rest of the book trying to keep up and figure out
what's going on. I gave my hero the added complication of severe time
lag, and he doesn't sit down with his slide rule at any point to figure
out where he is, but otherwise, the similarities (I assure you, unintentional)
are striking. When I was a kid, one of my fantasies was to write a sequel
to Have Space Suit in which ten-year-old Peewee is all grown
up and has turned into the "dish" that she told Kip she would. I wanted
to have them have another adventure, one during which they would fall
in love and fulfill the promise I felt was there in the book. I won't
say Peewee would have grown up to be exactly like Verity, but I think
she's pretty close, and Ned is certainly as romantically clueless as
Kip ever was. I wonder...
NG: Although your output
of short fiction seems to have slackened, you remain one of SF's acknowledged
masters of the form. What would you say are the particular demands and
rewards of SF short-story writing? And will you continue to produce
much work at shorter lengths?
CW: I wrote short stories exclusively
for over ten years before writing a novel, and one of the things I promised
myself after surviving Passage (a near-death experience in itself)
was that I would write more short stories. I consider the short story
the heart of the field and the present tendency to novels to be a bad
thing. I know, you can't make a living except with novels, etc., etc.,
and I don't blame people for trying to keep body and soul together,
but all I know is that if you ask me to make a list of my favorite ten
sf novels, I have to think about it. If you ask me to make a list of
my favorite ten sf short stories, I can think of a hundred without even
trying. Like Theodore Sturgeon's "The Man Who Lost the Sea" and Ward
Moore's "Lot" and Bob Shaw's "The Light of Other Days" and Kit Reed's
"The Wait" and "Songs of War," and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Her Smoke Rose
Up Forever" and Philip K. Dick's "A Little Something for us Temponauts,"
to say nothing of "Flowers for Algernon" and "Nightfall" and "The Quest
for St. Aquin." I think this is because in the short forms, you are
glimpsing worlds through a keyhole (or maybe a better analogy is that
you're seeing the landscape lit up for just a second during a lightning
flash) and you don't get bogged down with world-building and world-explaining
and world-saving, none of which are as dazzling as the short, sharp
vision you see in Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," or Bradbury's "The
Golden Apples of the Sun" or Sonya Dorman's "When I Was Miss Dow."
NG: Coming now to your
big new novel, Passage: how did the idea arise to explore the
matter of Near Death Experiences?
CW: I got the idea for Passage
from a friend who had asked me to, no, demanded that I read one of those
near-death books. You know the kind, there's a picture of somebody floating
toward a light on the cover, and they talk about tunnels and light and
your dead relatives welcoming you to the Other Side. My friend swore
I would love the book--I loathed and despised it. I thought it was not
only pseudoscience, but absolutely wicked in the way it preyed on people's
hopes and fears of death, telling them comforting fictions just like
the spiritualists of the Victorian days. (Spiritualism is back, by the
way. The New York Times Book Review did a front-page article
on it not too long ago. I guess people are tired of being duped by channelers
and psychic surgeons and have decided to go back to being duped by table-rapping.)
Well, so anyway, it made me furious (fury is usually the starting places
for my stories--my husband claims that if I couldn't write I would be
a serial killer; I consider this a real possibility) and it also set
me to thinking about what I thought the near-death experience was and
what might really be at the end of that tunnel.
NG: One of the most
impressive aspects of Passage is its novelistic density, the
extreme thoroughness with which you link elements of psychology, history,
architecture, literary allusion, and intellectual inquiry together into
a great edifice of implication, a kind of literary Memory Palace. How
successfully, would you say, does Passage, the novel, model the
human mind itself?
CW: The human mind is one of those things
that we're only beginning to realize we know virtually nothing about.
It's so amazing the way it works--did you know if you have a false memory
implanted, it shows up in the brain? Scientists read people a list of
words like pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, French toast, butter, and
then a couple of hours later read them another list and asked them if
they'd heard the words. The subjects would say they'd heard a related
word, like syrup, even though they hadn't, and the memory area of that
word would light up, just like it had with the words they had heard,
but the auditory section of the brain (which had heard the list) didn't.
So the brain knows it's a false memory, even if you don't. And that's
nothing--they're discovering all this amazing stuff about memory and
dreaming and emotion and creativity. The hardest part about doing the
research for the book was that I kept getting sidetracked into these
fascinating things that I wanted to write about, but which had virtually
nothing to do with near-death experiences. Ah, well, the next novel--or
better yet, short stories.
is another book about the Titanic, but one aimed primarily at
analysing the ship's status as an icon. From
what basis did you proceed in your speculative recontextualisation of
the great disaster?
CW: I've been fascinated by the Titanic
ever since I read Walter Lord's A Night To Remember at age fifteen.
(It's still the best book on the Titanic, by the way, in spite
of the hundreds and hundreds published after the movie came out, all
of which I read--or at least it felt like it--when I was researching
Passage.) But I'm not the only one, in spite of the fact that
there are lots of other disasters out there, many with greater loss
of life. I thought a lot about why it was that the Titanic had
a hold on people that other disasters didn't and why its fascination
was still as great nearly a hundred years after it happened and came
to my own conclusions (you have to read the book).
People may conclude that I decided to write the book out of irritation
with the movie, but in fact I had sold the book long before the movie
ever came out--you can imagine how happy I was when not only a movie
but a Broadway musical came out while I was still working on it. That's
what you get for being the world's slowest writer. Luckily, the movie
scarcely mentioned the real heroes of the Titanic (and did you
notice that Jack and Rose never tried to save anybody but each other?)
and didn't touch at all on any of the Titanic issues I think
matter--like the confluence of chance and culpability or humans' amazing
capacity for self-sacrifice and devotion to duty in the face of certain
NG: A major theme of
Passage is the unreliability of human perception. On an everyday
level, this has the comic consequence of misunderstanding; but, as in
the cases of Maurice Mandrake and his spiritualistic acolytes, the result
can be a certain deeper loss of humanity. How serious, how widespread,
is this syndrome among humanity at large?
CW: I'm always fascinated with us as
a species. We believe so much nonsense--pseudoscience, superstitions,
conspiracy theories--and yet think of ourselves as rational beings.
At the same time, we're possessed of enormous common sense and a desire
to learn that makes us very likeable creatures. And we're capable of
incredible heroism and truly staggering evil. We're certainly the most
interesting things around. Lately I've been very intrigued by how much
of our difficulty stems from what we're programmed to do (i.e., gather
food, keep away from snakes, stay warm) versus what we're required to
do in modern society (talk on cell phones while driving, do differential
equations, diet) and how much trouble we can get into when we try to
build bridges and pass legislation and date with our very primitive
NG: How far does a
person's ability to confabulate extend? Is the final chapter of Passage
to be read as confabulation, transcendent actuality, or neither?
CW: What do you think?
NG: What's your next
big project? I don't suppose Passage admits of a sequel ...
CW: I'm currently working on a new novel
about Roswell and alien abduction. It is, of course, a comedy. My husband
and I went to Roswell for our anniversary last year (it seemed appropriate,
somehow) and it was everything I had expected, and more, and since then
I have read all the UFO books--which are even worse than the near-death
experience books and absolutely hilarious in spots. Like when they say
they have actual pieces of alien spacecraft, but they can't let anybody
see them. My favourite is when UFO investigators were interviewing a
guy who'd taken photos of flying saucers and they found a model of one
in his basement.
And then there's the problem of what the aliens are doing here (if
you had faster-than-light travel, would you go visit a backwoods hick
planet like ours?) and why, if they're such an advanced civilization,
they stick things up people's noses and mutilate cows?
I'm also working on several short stories--about truckers, antiques,
and taking out the trash, not necessarily in that order.
© Nick Gevers 2001, 2003
This interview was first published in Interzone,
Passage is published in the UK by HarperCollins Voyager (£11.99,
594 pages, trade paperback, 18 June 2001; £6.99, 780 pages, mass market
paperback, 20 May 2002) and in the US by Bantam ($23.95, 594 pages,
hardback; May 8, 2001.)
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