An interview with multi-awardwinning author Connie Willis.
JMW: This is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com reporting from the 2011 Nebula Awards weekend. With me is Ms. Connie Willis, the multi-award winning author of such books as “Belle Weather,” “To Say Nothing of the Dog,” “Lincoln’s Dreams”, and her current Nebula-nominated books “Blackout/All Clear.” Welcome to Washington, Ms. Willis.
Connie Willis: Oh, thank you. I’m excited to be here.
JMW: Great. The scope of your work [inaudible 00:00:40], you managed to write heart-wrenching tragedy and hysterical comedy. How do you manage to get that breadth?
Connie Willis: Well, I have thought a lot about this, and of course, Shakespeare is my hero in all things, and Shakespeare did both and he didn’t seem to see any contradiction in doing both. I think the reason why I didn’t see a contradiction is that there isn’t a contradiction. That tragedy is not actually the opposite of comedy. That tragedy and comedy alike on the same side over here, and it’s nihilism, maybe, or a meaninglessness, or a pointlessness that’s on the other side.
Tragedy says the world is a terrible place that we can have personal victories within, even if they’re little victories within meaninglessness, and comedy says we can have bigger victories. Communication’s possible, love is possible, connection is possible, which is what Forrester says. Only connect. Then the opposite of that is, it’s all meaningless and there’s no point in even trying.
So, I sometimes go for the comic and sometimes the tragic, but I always feel I’m operating in the same area that humans can have, we have – it’s a difficult world. But I guess my favorite quote is, “The world is a terrible place, but shot through with beauty and courage.” I would add to that, and laughter so to me they’re not contradictory, and so sometimes I’m working on one end of that little spectrum and sometimes the other end. Sometimes like in the new book, “Blackout/All Clear,” I try to do kind of both at the same time.
JMW: Yeah. Well, you have so many characters at play in both those novels, and without giving any spoilers – the mere fact of the time travel seems to be one of the things that’s doing it.
Connie Willis: Yeah. Right, it’s a chaotic system and the time traveling is adding a whole other layer of chaos.
JMW: Yeah, and it’s a chaotic environment.
Connie Willis: Right.
JMW: Because you’re back in World War II, as you were in “To Say Nothing of the Dog.”
Connie Willis: Right.
JMW: Though there it was played for laughs, which is kind of hard.
Connie Willis: Yeah. It’s hard to find anything funny in war, although the British did a really good job of it, and that’s one reason I think I was attracted to it. All those contradictions that horrible things were happening and people didn’t know if they would see their friends tomorrow. But at the same time, they were keeping their sense of humor and using their sense of humor to cope with this terrible situation.
So, I think that’s why I love the blitz so much. If you’ll notice all the periods of history that I’m drawn to are periods that have that sort of built-in irony.
JMW: Black Death?
Connie Willis: Yes, Black Death, incredibly ironic, although it was difficult to write. Somebody asked me one time when I was working on “Doomsday Book”, they said, “Is this going to be a comedy or a tragedy?” I was like, “I don’t think I can think of any way to make the Black Death into a comedy.” Maybe somebody can, but not me.
JMW: Well, I have had pieces described as dark, and I say why? I mean, they got out of it with all their body parts intact.
Connie Willis: Right. To me there are happy endings, and then there are happy endings. Some are small happy endings, and some just mean survival and learning something, and other times there are weddings and exciting things happening.
JMW: Even your happy endings, just in real life – well, again, giving away nothing in “To Say Nothing of the Dog” – they go back and visit people who are 100 years dead by the time they’re starting their time travel.
Connie Willis: Right, and become very, very attached to people 100 years dead.
Connie Willis: Yeah.
JMW: Or people who, by the time the book has opened, have lost loved ones who feature in other stories.
Connie Willis: Right. Yeah, and I think that is the tragedy. The sorrow of our lives is that we’re all mortal, and nothing lasts and it’s sometimes very hard to think of triumphs. But I guess I’ve learned – what I learned mostly from Shakespeare is that he started the comedies, and then he moved into the tragedies. But then he moved back to the comedies. I think that no matter how long Shakespeare had lived, that’s where he would’ve stayed because “The Tempest” is his last work, not “Macbeth”, not “Othello”, not “Hamlet”, “The Tempest” that, to me, tells me a lot about his view of the world.
In “Blackout/All Clear,” I have this character saying, “Is this a comedy or a tragedy?”, and they’re not just asking about the war. They’re asking about, is history a comedy or a tragedy? Is our life a comedy or a tragedy? I feel very strongly that it’s kind of both, but erring on the comic side. I think that somehow the dark stuff, the sadness, and the losses, and the partings, and the betrayals, and all those things somehow feel more real to us. I think it’s because they activate that lizard part of the brain where the fear and the anger and stuff is located.
But I don’t really think they’re any more real than the moments of joy and the moments of togetherness and weddings. I love to end all of my books with weddings, if possible, with characters coming together.
JMW: Yeah. It gives one hope.
Connie Willis: Yeah. That’s kind of the way I am, so that’s what I want to see.
JMW: Your science fiction appeals to me, because in many cases it’s grounded in contemporary life. Okay, time travel’s a bit like future.
Connie Willis: Out there, yeah.
JMW: But things like “Belle Weather,” which are also science fiction, are very much based in our contemporary world. How do you marry the concepts of science fiction and contemporary mainstream literature?
Connie Willis: That I didn’t learn from Shakespeare. That I learned from Robert A. Heinlein. He was the first science fiction writer I read when I was a kid, and he’s the one who better than anybody taught us… Before Heinlein, it was all kind of like a metropolis future. It was all high tech. It was all perfect. It was all very mechanical. He basically figured out that when the future arrived, it was going to feel just like the present.
That whether we could go to the moon or not, kids were going to have to do their homework, they wouldn’t get along with their parents. There would be the creepy guy at school who picks on you. He figured out that’s an essential truth, I think, about the world, is that whatever kind of somatic events you’re living through and whatever time you’re in, the ordinariness of everyday life will persist.
That’s why, even though we’re living in an astonishing high tech future right now, it doesn’t feel like the future, because…
JMW: We’re here.
Connie Willis: …we’re here. They couldn’t find our hotel room key. We got stuck in traffic, whatever. All these normal things happened to us. So I think he more than anybody else figured that out and as a way to write science fiction. So, I’m always copying Heinlein when I write things like “Belle Weather”. My characters are always living through the ordinariness of the things that frustrate and annoy them that we all have to put up with. Then you can introduce the strange, new thing, and it feels like it belongs a little bit more.
JMW: Feels like it’s always been here.
Connie Willis: Feels like it’s always been here, yes.
JMW: What’s your starting point for a novel or a short story?
Connie Willis: The starting point is always the plot or the basic situation. Let’s take, suppose you were a total skeptic, and you were abducted by aliens, something like that, just a situation. Then, I construct the plot first, and then I bring the characters in, whoever I happen to need for that particular story. I know a lot of other writers work a different way. They start with their characters and then move to the plot, but I can’t work that way.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.