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To Say Nothing of the Dog
Connie Willis
interviewed by
Cristopher Hennessey-DeRose
and Michael McCarty
 
  
"I have always thought a lot about death and what,
if anything, might happen afterwards."

"I feel your name is a brand... that you have an
obligation when people see your name on a book,
that you really wrote that book."
 
  
Connie Willis
Connie Willis
In a world where pigeonholing has become the norm, Connie Willis has done well to evade such a thing. Equally humorous, thought-provoking and, or, utterly serious in whatever world she decides to create and walk around in, Willis' work is known for running the gamut of emotional response as she effortlessly turns her own brand of mirror upon us and allows us to conceive of the answer ourselves while supplying her own.
   She refuses to back down from the very concept of what awaits us past the brink of death, or to show translucent we all can become, and often are. Willis is methodical in her research but knows not to overwhelm her readers with how much she has learned about a given topic. Instead, she makes sure she understands it well enough to tell the tale she wishes to tell.
   While perhaps known for her more historical fiction, Connie has proven herself comfortable in whichever kind of speculative fiction she chooses to write, spotting her stories likeable characters (or, if un-likeable, at least in the realm of the interesting) and letting the reader wade their way in instead of being qualified at the door... with over ten compelling novels and collections and counting, she must be doing something right.
   And that something has made her one of the most popular and critically acclaimed genre writers. She has collected six Nebula awards (Fire Watch, 1983 novel; A Letter For The Clearys, 1982 short story; The Last Of The Winnebagos, 1988 novella; At The Rialto, 1989 novelette, Even The Queen, 1989 short story; Doomsday Book, 1992 novel), five Hugo awards (for Fire Watch, The Last Of The Winnebagos, Doomsday Book, Even The Queen and Death On The Nile), and the John W. Campbell Award.
   Willis is the first person to win Nebulas in all four categories of fiction. She is a Colorado native, is the mother of one daughter, Cordelia, and the wife of Courtney Willis, a university physics professor. Her book Passage is currently out, and A Woman's Liberation: A Choice Of Futures By And About Women, co-edited with Sheila Williams, is due out in November. Willis wrote the introduction and one of the stories. She has a Christmas short story called deck.halls@boughs/holly coming out in the December issue of Asimov's SF Magazine.
   Did the inspiration for Remake come from a love of classic film or several ideas for a science fiction book that led to detailed research?

The inspiration for Remake came from lots of places - my boundless admiration for Fred Astaire, who's my hero - he works so hard to make it all look so easy, which should be the goal of art, and he seems to have been a completely humble person, I suppose the result of working all those years with a sister who everyone said was the real talent of the group - and my love of movie musicals - you can probably tell which ones from the book. I actually had the idea (not quite in its finished form) years and years ago and kept lists of musical numbers that might work as I watched movies over the years. Unfortunately, I didn't get around to actually writing it until the computer graphics revolution was practically upon us - when I started the book, they'd just come out with that Coke commercial starring James Cagney and by the time I finished, Toy Story was coming out - and I had the problem of having the technology change constantly on me as I was writing the book and practically overtaking me, which it has done now. It actually seemed much more prophetic when it came out than it does to someone reading it now.

Do the things that motivated you to write in the first place continue to drive you today?

There's a scene in a Fred Astaire movie (how appropriate!), in which Ginger Rogers comes up to complain that Fred's dancing in the room above her is keeping her awake, and he leans against the door and grins at her and says, "Sometimes I just find myself dancing," and she says, "I suppose it's an affliction." That's how I think of my writing - as an affliction rather than a career choice. I have always wanted to write, never thought I would actually be able to sell anything, but had to do it, in spite of the fact that the actual job - contracts, correspondence, business deals, deadlines - drives me absolutely nuts. It cheered me up to read recently that it drove Agatha Christie crazy, too. But, no, I guess my motivation compulsion hasn't changed at all.

Did you come away with a different opinion about death and what may or may not wait us on the other side after you completed Passage?

I have always thought a lot about death and what, if anything, might happen afterwards. Most of the time those thoughts have been forced on me by terrible things like the loss of loved ones or threats of illness, so it was actually kind of fun to have an excuse to think about death and its implications all day long for several years in an impersonal and logical way. Well, semi-logical. There's no way to be completely detached when it comes to death. As to what I believe about it, I don't know if that's changed or not. Whenever I try to think about possible after-existences, I always come up smack against the cold equations of brain death - and I have absolutely no interest in any survival of molecules or life forces or whatever - if I'm not there in some recognisable way, what good would it be?
   On the other hand, I believe very strongly that the people who have loved us (and sometimes, unfortunately, the other ones) are with us every day, surviving in our hearts and our feelings and our actions, affecting everything, which is certainly a form of immortality, and I definitely believe that "just because you want something to be true, doesn't mean it isn't." Mostly, though, I believe what Thornton Wilder said at the end of The Bridge Of San Luis Rey: "There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

You've collaborated with Cynthia Felice on Water Witch, Light Raid and Promised Land. Can we expect more from the two of you or from you and another author?

Cynthia and I have worked together several times and in fact have talked about doing another book. The biggest problem is with logistics. We used to live very close to each other, within about 30 miles when we worked on the first two books. I think I moved about midway through Light Raid. Now we live a good three hours away from each other. Plus our schedules have gotten much more complicated then they were.
   Water Witch took us three years to write, Light Raid took us six, Promised Land took us close to 12 - we've said we might not live long enough to do a fourth if the time kept doubling like that (laughs).
   We loved working together. That was really fun. We might get that fourth book at some point. We're still thinking about it.

Collaborations have always been a staple in the sci-fi market - any other thoughts on the subject?

I'm happy to have the opportunity to answer the last question. Because a couple of people said "When I saw you wrote with someone else, I just assumed it was one of the franchise things like the other authors have done."
   Especially what the dead authors have done (laughs).
   When the name is on the book like Asimov's Caves Of Steel series or some of the things Anne McCaffrey have done with other people. It's not really collaboration at all.
   But with us, these are true collaborations. We wrote alternating chapters, we brainstormed the plots together, we did the rewrites together, sat side by side going over the manuscripts, had some royal battles over different decisions in the books. True collaborations, I felt bad that anyone would think these were is some kind of franchise - because that is a whole different kind of book.
   I feel your name is a brand, but that you have an obligation when people see your name on a book, that you really wrote that book. I feel it cheapens everything. Not only is that work kind of a deception, I feel it cheapens the previous work. The author only has his vision to offer. It is almost like false advertising in a way. I know it sounds really harsh, and science fiction has done it for years.
   I hate the thought that someone would take my time travel characters after I was gone, and done things with them I would have ever approved off. Somehow diluted the work that I wrote by making it an endless 'adventures of...'
   I feel it hurts the whole thing, including the books that came before too. That's my rant for the day.

Do you sell a book from a proposal or from a finished manuscript?

Lincoln's Dreams and Doomsday Book I sold from a finished manuscript. Since then I have done proposals. That means I'm always in trouble with my publishers because I'm very slow. People ask me why it took me five years to write Doomsday Book - it always takes me that long to write (laughs).
   I was in so much trouble with Passage - I just didn't realise how long it would take - and they went ahead and scheduled it - not realising that I couldn't be relied on (laughs).
   Once it is scheduled and once it is in the catalogue - it sort of caught in the toils of a great machine. Where it doesn't matter that you're not done, it's getting published anyway. I hate that pressure.
   I even have talked to my agent about going back to the original way selling the completed manuscript. That would take some pressure off me.
   I sure don't like working the way I have to work. I just can't tell how long things are going to take.

Why did you fashion To Say Nothing Of The Dog after a Victorian novel?

Because I love Victorian novels. I thought I was only person who did. Then I started talking to people when I was writing the book, and I discovered that there are many, many people who love Victorian novels. They like the style; they like the strange approach of using lots of characters and have lots complications - where plot is supreme.
   The second book I loved after I discovered science fiction was not a science fiction. It was Three Men In A Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. The reason I read it second was because my first science fiction novel was Have Spacesuit - Will Travel by Robert Heinlein. In that book, the very first chapter, the father won't talk to Kip because he's reading Three Men In A Boat, which he has read 1,000 times. So I immediately went and found the book and read it and it has always been one of my favourites.
   That novel was a complete self-indulgence, because that is the book I would have wanted to read when I was a kid.

Do you have any works in progress?

It's called All-Clear after the siren meaning the raid was over, when it is say to come out of the shelters during the Blitz in London during World War II.
   I was working on a novel about aliens and Roswell, that went smash on the 11th of September, along with so many other things. It's just not the right plot, the right time and the right tone for that book. I abandoned it for the time being. I'll come back to some of the same themes later.
   I decided to write some of things we were going through and our circumstances now have a lot in common with the London Blitz. Especially the uncertainty of what is going to happen next - living day from day not knowing what the next blow is. Not seeing our way clear.
   One of my themes in my time travel novels (Fire Watch and Doomsday Book) is how time travellers - although they try very hard to put themselves place in the people living through the time, they really can't because they know how it turns out.
   Even if you went back and experienced the Blitz, and bombs were falling above your head, you were going through a lot of the same emotions. At the same time, you wouldn't be because you know Hitler didn't invade. You know he didn't use poisonous gas. You know that the Allies eventually triumphed. You also know some of the terrible things that happened, they don't know - like the Holocaust. Basically it is a huge advantage to know that it all going to work out.
   The basic story, which I'm just beginning, I have several people working the Blitz, working various parts of World War II in England. One of them is with the evacuated children in the countryside, another is there during the phoney war before the bombs actually fall, and one is actually working the Blitz. One is working with a fake army down in Kent, where they were trying to convince Hitler that we were going to invade across Calais instead of Normandy.
   Suddenly they find themselves stranded and they have no idea why. Have no idea what is going on in their own future. Don't know if something has malfunctioned in the time travel itself, or in fact, or their present life has been attacked in someway or war has broken out or the whole world has been destroyed by a meteor and they don't know what and they can't get back.
   Although they are there together, in the sense, that they are all in the past, they are not in the same place and they are not at the same time.
   They're coping with much of the same uncertainty as those in the Blitz.
   It may sound grim, but it actually has a lot of humour in it. The evacuated children story is very funny in many ways.
   World War II is especially an interesting time because there were parts of it that were absolutely fascinating and exciting and other parts that were terrible and tragic and other parts that were very funny.
   Hopefully I'll put all those in my book.

Was Miracle & Other Christmas Stories a fun collection to write?

Oh yes, very much. I wrote the majority of the stories one by one every Christmas for Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, I added two original stories Epiphany and Cat's Paw were both written for the collection. I love Christmas and I love coming up with different Christmas stories.
   The year the book came out, I didn't have a Christmas story in Asimov's, because I was busy working on the stories for the book.
   This year I have another Christmas story in Asimov's called deck.halls@boughs/holly which is about modern Christmas.

Of all your novels, which one is your personal favourite?

My favourite story of all time that I have ever written is Fire Watch. I don't think it is my best story.
   I was very much a beginning writer, when I wrote that one. And beginning writers flay around wildly. One time they'll almost get it perfect, the next time they are clear out in left field. They are like a wild pitcher. One time they'll strike someone else, the next they'll hit the backboard or the catcher (laughs). That's how I felt. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, I had them very clear in my head - but when it came down to putting it down on paper - oh my God - who knew if I was going to get anywhere close to it.
   When we went to England for the first time, I wanted very much wanted to go to St Paul's because I had read all about the fire watch and read how they slept down in the crypts during the day and came up to the roofs at night to look for bombs. I thought that was very romantic.
   I had an idea I was going to write some kind of poem about the contrast between sleeping down there in with the dead bodies of all those people who were killed in other battles and other times and facing their own war up above.
   That is about as far as I had gotten.
   Then we went to St Paul's, I fell in love with it. I think it is the most beautiful place in the world. We went up in the dome, climb up through the gallery and go outside. And I go outside and I look out, expecting to see - some kind of Mary Poppins landscape - chimney pots and things.
   Instead it is the ugliest landscape I have ever seen in my life. It is all concrete, Bauhaus glass block buildings, it is just hideous looking. It doesn't look like London at all. It looks like Cleveland or something.
   I'm standing there thinking, this is a huge disappointment and then it hits me. Oh my God, the reason it looks like this is because everything I'm looking at was built in the 1950s - because everything burned down.
   When I realised that all four sides were burned, I thought - there is no way, that this church survived. This cathedral could not have possibly survived the war.
   Then I got truly fascinated. That day I said to my husband and our friends, "You guys got to go away, I'm taking notes, I have to stand here and take notes. I have this brilliant idea."
   I stood there for three hours taking notes on everything I thought I might need in a story and everything I could think of. Of course, I didn't have the notes I needed when I got back home.
   When I got home, I did all this research on the fire watch, the Blitz, London and everything. I just fell totally in love with the whole story. I actually was able to tell the story I wanted to tell in a way that I thought worked very well.
   It's still my favourite story. I like when they give my stories an award, I think "yeah that was one of my better stories," I'm always surprised at what gets attention and what doesn't.

What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Write what you really care about. Don't ever write what you think the market is looking for, what you think people are interested in reading. Write for yourself.
   I once read C.S. Lewis' essays. In it, he was talking about - you should write what you're interested in and not what you know.
   The first thing Lewis ever said to (J.R.R.) Tolkien was, "Have you ever seen a dragon?" And Tolkien said "Yes," and Lewis said "Where?" and Tolkien said, "on Calvary."
   Lewis went on to write that if dragons are what you are interested in, that is what you should write about. Heck if there is a market for dragons, or if people have written too much about dragons. Only write what you are really passionate about.
   I always try to remind people that when Tolkien wrote The Lord Of The Rings, there was no fantasy market. He had invented that market. People probably thought he was crazy for wasting his time writing about elves and dragons - things that only children cared about.
   I think it is good career advice. I have never written any story for the money or have written any story because I thought it was what people wanted to read. I have written either to amuse my self, or it was something I passionately wanted to talk about.

Books by Connie Willis:
Bellweather (1996),  Doomsday Book (1992),  Even The Queen & Other Short Stories (1992),  Fire Watch (1985),  Futures Imperfect (with William O'Connor, 1996),  Impossible Things (1993),  Light Raid (with Cynthia Felice, 1989),  Lincoln's Dreams (1987),  Miracle & Other Christmas Stories (1999),  Nebula Awards 33 (editor, 1999),  The New Hugo Winners vol.3 (co-edited with Martin H. Greenberg, 1994),  Passage (2001),  Promised Land (with Cynthia Felice, 1997),  Remake (1994),  To Say Nothing Of The Dog (1997),  Uncharted Territory (1994),  Water Witch (with Cynthia Felice, 1982),  A Woman's Liberation : A Choice of Futures by and About Women (co-edited with Sheila Williams, 2001).   
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