Connie Willis is currently nominated for what would be her eleventh Hugo Award and her seventh Nebula Award for her two-volume World War II time-travel novel, Blackout and All Clear. The Nebulas will be awarded later this month and the Hugos in August. In the mean time, I thought I’d share an interview I conducted with Ms. Willis five years ago, when she was still hard at work writing the books. It should be noted that at the time of this interview, the decision had not yet been made to split the novel into two volumes; it was her intention to publish it as a single novel called All Clear. In addition to discussing the book, Connie provided a fascinating window into her writing and her fondness for both history and science fiction. To say nothing of Liberace and the Rockettes…
It’s clear from much of your writing that you love history. What developed first—a love of history or a love of creative writing? How did the earlier help shape the later?
I wanted to be a writer from birth, I think, but I read very little history as a kid (though I was in love with “long-dress” novels, books like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess and Little Women and Anne of Green Gables, which are, of course, historical novels, though I didn’t think of them that way.) I didn’t particularly like history in school, mostly, I think, because of the way it was taught—timelines and battles and dates. History needs to be taught as a particularly juicy form of gossip, with all those great details—Lord Nelson’s affair with Emma Hamilton and his saying, “Kiss me, Hardy,” as he lay dying, and being sent back to England pickled in brandy and how wretchedly the British government treated Emma after promising it would take care of her. All the good stuff.
I became fascinated with history as I started to read all that good stuff and then became a total addict during the Watergate hearings (history in the making). I devoured every detail, from Ehrlichman’s lawyer calling Senator Inouye “a little Jap” to Nixon announcing he was not a crook to John Dean’s wife’s earrings to Martha Mitchell’s late-night drunken calls and was astonished, appalled, and mesmerized about how all history is personal and how earth-shattering events with enormous complications can be affected by things as minor as a strip of duct tape and a missing audiotape.
Note: I am not always or by nature a political person. I’m too interested in irony, which has no place in politics. I have only been intensely political twice in my life, once during Watergate, when I feared for the future of our country, and now, when I fear for the future of everything. The rest of the time, I am far more interested in movies, Barbies, crime, psychics, aliens, cell phones, and other manifestations of silliness.)
In the course of Watergate, I realized that all history was exactly like this, full of hilarious and heartbreaking and horrifying moments, and have been entranced ever since.
You seem equally fascinated by the comedic and the tragic moments of life and history. And while there are elements of comedy and tragedy in both, Doomsday Book has a very dark overall tone while To Say Nothing Of The Dog feels more like farce and is certainly more light-hearted. Was it difficult for you to switch stylistic gears in this manner given that the two novels are set in the same universe of time-traveling Oxford academics?
I have said only half in jest that the impetus for To Say Nothing of the Dog was that readers kept complaining that the body count in Doomsday Book was too high, so I resolved to write a book in which no one dies, not even the cat, who clearly deserves to at several points in the plot. (Princess Arjumand is based on my cats, whom I love but have no illusions about.)
Actually, though, I considered Doomsday Book to be one aspect of history and To Say Nothing of the Dog to be another, and I am currently exploring others in the book I’m working on now, All Clear. I feel like I’m writing about the same thing in all my books, which is trying to capture the nature of history.
To be honest, I never really understand questions like this. Shakespeare wrote comedies and tragedies, and he never seemed to have any trouble switching gears, or to even think of it as switching gears. Not that I am comparing myself to Shakespeare, who writes way better than I do and way better than any author does. It is so unfair. You’d think he’d be bad at something, but no, even his poems are great. If we find his grocery lists at some future point, I’m sure they’ll be wonderful too.
When you first decided to write a time travel story, were you concerned about falling into the oft-repeated patterns of this sub-genre? Were you attempting to add something new to the time-travel milieu, or was time travel more of a device to allow you to explore other themes, settings, and situations?
I have always loved time-travel stories, from Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer to C.L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, and I read all the time travel I could get my hands on.
Some of it I found massively annoying—time-travellers seemed to me to have far too few problems fitting into wherever they went—including speaking the language—whereas I accidentally ordered raw meat in a Barcelona restaurant and once asked a London bobby how to get to the Tower of London and didn’t understand a word he said, so it was hard for me to believe I could find my way easily around ancient Egypt. To say nothing of the fact that we’re taller, have bigger feet and better teeth, and look different than people in the past.
And think differently. The past truly is a different country, and we would be horrified at the attitudes even of our fellow Americans if we went back to the 1950s, let alone the 1650s. Think Anna and the King of Siam. Time travel stories are actually alien first contact stories.
I’m not interested in how the time machine itself works, but I’m endlessly fascinated with the inherent paradoxes of time travel and how it would be utterly impossible to go to the past without affecting it. That’s what my new novel, All Clear, is about, as a matter of fact. It’s about several Oxford historians who are studying assorted aspects of World War II: the London Blitz, the Ultra decoding project, the evacuation of the children to northern England at the beginning of World War II, the rescue of the British Army from Dunkirk, the V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks, and the intelligence campaign which tried to convince Hitler that D-Day would happen at Calais rather than Normandy. They are at different times and places, and their tours of duty are carefully constructed so that they are observers and have no effect on the events they’re watching. But wars are full of divergence points, in which a tiny action or comment, or even an historian’s presence, could be enough to tip the balance and alter the entire course of history. Which is supposed to be impossible according to the laws of physics. But something’s going on . . .
Your time travel novels flirt with the idea of “alternate history” inasmuch as the characters are very aware that the consequences of their actions—large and small—may be far reaching. Do you have any interest in writing in the alternate history sub-genre? Why would you be either attracted or averse to doing so?
Alternate history has been a part of science fiction since its inception, and all sorts of writers have used it, from Ward Moore in Bring the Jubilee and Robert A. Heinlein in Job to George Alec Effinger, Harry Turtledove, and my favorite practitioner of the art, Howard Waldrop.
And the whole notion of “what would have happened if . . . ?” is one students of history can’t help but think about. What if the telegram warning about Pearl Harbor hadn’t gone astray? What if the departing second officer on the Titanic hadn’t taken the key to the locker containing the binoculars with him, thus making it possible to see the iceberg a few critical seconds earlier? What if Hitler’s aide had wakened him on D-Day? What if . . . ? The list goes on and on, and it’s clear history often hinges on tiny actions and minor characters, which makes the idea of alternative outcomes part and parcel of history, and therefore part and parcel of time travel.
And I do use the idea of time travelers possibly altering history—and the fear that they might do so—in all my Oxford time travel books. But I don’t have any interest in constructing alternate futures—London under German occupation, the U.S. after the South won the Civil War. The history that did happen is infinitely more interesting and complex than anything I could possibly invent.
It’s also full of coincidences that you could never get away with in fiction. If your plot devolved around a Luftwaffe pilot getting lost in the fog and accidentally dropping his bombs on the heart of London, thus changing Hitler’s entire battle plan, bringing about the Blitz, saving the RAF in the very nick of time, and winning the war, your editor would scrawl, “Highly unlikely!” across it. By staying exclusively in the world of what really happened, I get to use all those coincidences (like the one about the pilot getting lost in the fog, which did, in fact, happen), near-misses, lucky shots, and astonishing acts of heroism (and betrayal) history is full of.
Notwithstanding the 14th-century setting of Doomsday Book, I’ve read elsewhere that you don’t actually like the Middle Ages. Could you expand on this comment?
I don’t like the Middle Ages. They were dirty, dangerous, disease-ridden, and nasty to live in except for a very privileged few, and even those few could cut their finger and die from blood poisoning. What is there to like? This doesn’t mean I don’t find it interesting. I just don’t have the romantic notions about it a lot of people seem to, who would love to go live in a time of castles and knights and ladies and swordfights. Personally, I would not want to live in any time that didn’t have indoor plumbing. This attitude comes largely from my grandmother, who, once, when I was rhapsodizing about the good old days when she was a girl, said, “I have three words for you: Kleenex, toilet paper, tampons.”
What in particular drew you to write about the Fourteenth Century and the Black Death?
I wrote about 1348, because that’s where the Black Death was, and I was fascinated with the Black Death because it is an end of the world story, and I have been in love with “end of the world” stories since I began reading science fiction as a kid: Stewart’s Earth Abides, Ward Moore’s “Lot,” Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial, Harlan Ellison’s “A Boy and His Dog,” and countless others.
What happens when it all comes tumbling down is a recurrent theme of history (and literature), whether it happens on the Titanic or the 68th floor of the World Trade Center, whether only the children are killed, as at Aberfan in Wales, or the dogs.
The horror of the Black Death roaring down on the helpless people of the Middle Ages brought out the best and worst in them, and everything in between, and was a story that deserved to be told. I have never had much interest in the hero or heroine as problem solver or dragonslayer. We are defined as a species by our utter inability to solve the problem of our own mortality. Some author once said that all literature is about death. Most of the time I agree.
For your next book—All Clear—I know you had a chance to speak with a group of women who are actual survivors of the London Blitz. Could you share some details of that experience? Have you found that this interpersonal form of research informs your writing process in a different manner than traditional library or archaeological research?
I did get to interview some survivors of the Blitz. To quote Heinlein, “how it happened was this way”: My husband and I went to the Imperial War Museum on a trip to London because they had a special exhibit on the London Blitz. I told him to go look at rockets and airplanes and stuff so that I could take notes on the exhibit and that I’d meet him for lunch at noon. Twenty minutes later, he was back, saying, “You’ve got to come with me. I want you to see something.”
“I can’t. I’m taking notes,” I said. “Can’t it wait?”
“No. You’ve got to see this.”
“This had better be good,” I said and went with him. To the museum’s cafeteria. Where he had found eight women, all in their sixties and seventies (it was 1995) who had participated in the Blitz. (It was a special free day at the museum for anyone who’d worked in the Blitz.) These women had been ambulance drivers, rescue workers, Wrens, anti-aircraft gun firers, shelter workers. My husband had bought them all tea and cookies so I could interview them. It was wonderful. He earned so many husband points that day, he’s still living on them.
The women were terrific. They told me all sorts of stories and laughed and joked and were incredibly fun. Only one of them hung back and didn’t say much, and when I turned to her and said, “And what did you do?” leaned forward conspiratorially and said, “Well . . . until this year, I couldn’t tell you.” She had worked on the secret deception war, building fake army camps and setting up fake tanks and airplanes in Kent to fool the German reconnaissance planes. Her story was the most interesting of all and directly inspired one of the stories in All Clear.
The women surprised me in lots of ways. They were much more cheerful about the whole thing than even I, who’d heard for years about how funny and spunky the British had been, expected and more insightful about what they had lived through than most people are. “We were young, we were on our own for the first time, it was all so exciting,” one of them said to me. “Of course they were the best years of our lives.”
What struck me most about them was that, in spite of their gray hair and seventyish figures, they were still those young girls (now that I am old, I understand how this can be.) Listening to them, it was dead-easy to see the cheeky young girls they had been and still were. There’s been a crop of books lately debunking the myth of the Blitz and saying the British were as frightened, crabby, and cowardly as anybody else. I refuse to believe it. They were wonderful. I’ve seen them myself.
Many writers stop writing short stories once they’ve had success as novelists (if indeed they ever wrote short stories to begin with). In contrast, you continue to write both with equal enthusiasm and success. What keeps you in the short form genre?
I love short stories, especially the novelette and novella lengths, and I still write them. (I seem to have lost the knack of writing anything really short, say, 5000 words.) I think the short forms are the true heart of science fiction and always have been. If you ask me to name my favorite SF novels, I have to think about it, but if you ask me for my favorite short works, I can reel dozens off the top of my head: “Lot,” “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts,” “Flowers for Algernon,” “The Man Who Lost the Sea,” “The Ugly Chickens,” “Stable Strategies for Middle Management,” “The Menace from Earth,” “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “The Wedding Album,” “The Wait,” “Puppet Show,” “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts,” “The Way of Cross and Dragon,” “Shark,” “A Miracle of Rare Device,” “And Her Smoke Rose Up Forever,” “Day Million,” “Nonstop to Mars,” . . . see? And I’m just getting started.
The SF story provides a sudden dazzling glimpse, like a thunderhead lit from within by lightning. Just a glimpse of beauty or horror or insight, but one that prints itself on your brain forever.
My introduction to SF came (like everybody else’s) through Heinlein, but very shortly thereafter I ran into a whole shelf of The Year’s Best SF‘s edited by Anthony Boucher and Judith Merril and Robert P. Mills, and it was those collections, chock-full of stories by Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison and Kit Reed and Clifford Simac and Zenna Henderson and Fredric Brown and James Blish and Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury, that made me fall in love forever with science fiction and its endless possibilities, its endless variations. How could I not write short stories?
When writing, do you find that you approach a story or scene differently if it is set in our world’s actual past as opposed to in an invented future or fantasy world?
There is no such thing as a story about the future or the past or aliens or faery lands. All science fiction, all fantasy, all literature is about us.
You’ve written several works of science fiction with little or no historical context (though even many of these have some snippets of history thrown in). Would you ever be interested in writing pure historical fiction without any SF/F content?
I’ve actually written lots of stuff with no overt historical context: “Even the Queen,” “The Last of the Winnebagos,” “A Letter from the Clearys”, “Inside Job,” nearly all my Christmas stories, Uncharted Territory, all kinds of stuff. But I love history, and so do science fiction readers. One of the first things that drew me to the field was how well-read science fiction writers were and how interested they were in literature, mythology, and history.
As to writing a piece of pure historical fiction, I have no interest in doing that at all. I’m interested in history as it looks to us, in pointing out the sharp difference between living through something and looking at it afterwards, and only time travel can do that. You get to look at the historical event from the point of view of the poor contemps living through it, from the point of view of my historians, who actually live in our future and who see our present as the past, and from our point of view. It creates a sort of triple-parallax vision that is infinitely more interesting to me than the single viewpoint of historical fiction. Besides, with historical fiction, you always end up writing Mary Queen of Scots’ or Abraham Lincoln’s thoughts, which I find not only impossible, but insulting.
What’s next apart from All Clear? Any other novels in the hopper or upcoming short stories we can look forward to?
I’m still caught in the toils of All Clear, which has turned out to be much longer and complicated than I expected, like World War II, and I’ll be working on it for some time.
Then (if I’m still alive—I am getting older by the second) I want to write a story about a robot who wants to be a Rockette and one about long-distance truckers and literary criticism. And a comic novel about Roswell, Area 51, alien abduction, and Las Vegas, and Liberace. I have always loved road pictures, from Bob and Bing and Dorothy Lamour’s adventures to It Happened One Night to The Sure Thing, and this will be my contribution to the genre. I hope. If I’m not abducted by aliens in the meantime.
For more about Connie Willis, please visit her website.
This interview first appeared in Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction, Issue 9 (Summer 2006). Copyright © 2006 by Christopher M. Cevasco and Paradox Publications. Reproduction in any form is prohibited without prior permission.