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Farce Retrospective

an interview with Connie Willis

by Nick Gevers


Connie Willis is one of American SF's most popular and critically lauded writers, the winner of numerous awards. Her sparkling Passage - US editionlightness 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 Land (1997).

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 retrospection?

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.

NG: Passage is another book about the Titanic, but one aimed primarily at analysing the ship's status as an icon. Passage - UK editionFrom 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 death.

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 brains.

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, November 2001.

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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