Connie Willis Click here to read more or purchase the book Connie Willis
conducted December 4, 1997

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Jim Freund: Good evening. Tonight at X EDT our guest will be Connie Willis, discussing, among other things, her latest novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog. We're planning on the first half-hour being an interview, and will then open the forum to include your participation.

Connie Willis: Hi. This is Connie Willis. I'm here and ready to start anytime being interrogated.

JF: Great! I finished reading TSNOTD yesterday, and I cannot describe my delight. Would you mind giving us a precis of the novel?

CW: Okay. A lunatic American has hijacked Oxford University, making them help her with a crazy project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral in return for money for their time travel projects. As a result, poor hero Ned has been bouncing around the past, getting time-lagged beyond belief. When he's grounded and told to get bedrest, they send him to Victorian England for safekeeping. At least that's what Ned thinks. Actually, a slight problem has occurred in the time-space continuum and Ned's been sent back to fix it, but he doesn't know what he's supposed to do. or how to do it. Or anything. And there's a butler and a bulldog and a girl who looks like a Waterhouse nymph, and some jumble sales and the Three Men In A Boat and a cat and stuff...for about six hundred pages.

JF: The book was a special treat for me, having recently returned from England for the first time, and included a brief boating sojourn on the Thames. There's also a liberal dash of Sayers & Christie-like puzzles in the book. You are from Colorado, yet there is quite a bit of Anglophillia in your writing. Have you ever lived in the UK?

CW: No, I've never actually lived in England, but I've been there lots of times, and before I ever went I was in love with the place. Every book I ever loved (except for Heinlein, I guess) was set in England, and going there for the first time was just like going home. Especially St. Paul's. It's my place.

JF: Do you prefer any one era over another? If you had the choice, would you be a Victorian over an Elizabethan?

CW: Neither, although I do love the Victorian era. My real time, and the one I swear I'd want to visit if things ever opened up is the London Blitz. This, for all the young folk, was the first winter of WWII when Hitler was raining bombs on London and people were sleeping in the tube stations and muddling through. It's my favorite period of history. I wrote about it in "Fire Watch" and "Jack" and in To Say Nothing Of The Dog, with Coventry Cathedral being burned down, but I'm not done. I want to do another novel specifically about the Blitz.

The peculiar thing is that everybody always assumes that my favorite period is the Middle Ages because of Doomsday Book, but it's not true. I like the plague, not the Middle Ages. They were smelly and diseased and brutish and boring. The Blitz is much better. And even the Victorian era, for all its reputation of tea parties and croquet on the lawn, had more going on than the Middle Ages. Unless, of course, you count dying. Lots of dying in the Middle Ages.

JF: Speaking of dying, you seem concerned with everyday things becoming extinct -- dogs ("Last of the Winnebagos"); cats (your time travel series) and cathedrals, among others. Is there any particular driving force behind this?

CW: How about severe neurosis? Loss has always been a very important theme in my work (although I always worry about writers talking about the themes in their work--remember that Mark Twain thought Tom Sawyer was his best work--but anyway, loss is the really irrevocable thing in the universe. And, no, I don't think we have multiple lives or multiple choices. I think loss is a central fact of the universe, and I love Camus's quote, "Do not wait upon the day of judgement. It happens every day."

JF: This is my most overasked question, but you are such an eminent short story writer I must bring it up. Do you prefer short fiction to longer works?

CW: You betcha. I have always loved the short story. I think it's the best part of science fiction. When I'm asked to list the ten best SF novels, I always have trouble coming up with ten, but I can list dozens and dozens of short stories that I think are classics that will live forever. Like "Flowers for Algernon" and the "Quest for St. Aquin" and Ward Moore's "Lot" and Kit Reed's "Songs of War" and on and on and on...

I think it's because the short story, rather than trying to build an entire world or an entire future, focuses on a single event or thought or theme or tone and illuminates it. Like "The Light of Other Days" by Bob Shaw. A sudden dazzling illumination of a single moment in the future and all its outraying implications.

I love the intensity and focus of writing a short story, where all your energies are focused on one thing. I think they're just as hard to write as novels. One of the things that always maddened me before I wrote novels was people saying, "You'll love novels. You'll have so much more room to mess around, so much more time to do character and setting." I believe a novel should have no more room, no more space, no more time, and that it should be written with exactly the same intensity and focus as a short story. Only much longer. Which is why they're no fun.

JF: You say they're no fun, yet that's not true in reading yours, at least. As much a champion of the short story as I am, I enjoy the wallowing a novel can give. Much of the spirit of TSNOTD is the feel of the pace of Victorian life, which I don't think a short story would allow in the same manner. Yet short stories are such finely cut gems... You're the only writer to have a Grand Slam in the Nebulas--an award in every category. Is the length of a story pre-determined in your mind before you set out to write it, or does the length perhaps come as a result of the story itself?

CW: As to the length of my works, I never know till I write them, which sometimes gets me into trouble. Bellwether was supposed to be a novella and sort of grew like Topsy into a novel. Lincoln's Dreams started out as a novella and was actually written in that form and taken to workshop. Everyone had all sorts of things they didn't understand and needed explained and so I took the stupid thing home and started over from scratch to make it into a novel. As to the awards, as you may know, I need a lot because I am saving up till I have enough to trade them in on Harrison Ford. I have been told that I have enough to get Keanu Reeves right now, but what good is that?

JF: (I knew you were going to mention Harrison Ford somehow.:-)

Peter Gruner: Connie, I've read that you "honed" your writing with "True Confession" stories. How has this helped you? Would you recommend it for other writers starting out?

CW: Sure. True confessions are fun to write, and you get to use stuff you read in the newspapers, like the woman today who found the dead python in her car engine. Well, maybe not that one. They're more into sex and stuff. But they're great for learning to plot, write dialogue, do scenes and transitions and stuff.

David: Read the new book -- it's terrific! What's the title of the next one? SO I know what to bug the bookstores for in a few years...

CW: It's called (at this point) Working Cape Race and is about near-death experiences. A friend forced me to read Embraced By The Light and I decided somebody needed to do near-death experiences right. Or if you mean my new novel, it's out this week and is called To Say Nothing Of The Dog, a Victorian time travel novel. Also, I've just sold a collection of my Christmas stories to Bantam, and that will be out next Christmas, with all my stories that have been in Asimov's and two brand-new ones.

Marilee: Hi Jim! Hi Connie (Hi Ellen, if you're out there!) Connie, I love your short stories and novellas. I particularly like "Even the Queen." Is there any chance this will be in a stand-alone version some time? I'd love to give lots of copies to friends.

CW: Gosh. "Even the Queen" is in Impossible Things right now, but that's it. If you want a stand-alone version you might tell my publisher. Or one of those little press things that do chapbooks. I loved writing that story. It all started one day when a bunch of women were in an elevator and we were discussing the wonders of ibuprofen and how if men had cramps the inventor of ibuprofen would have won the Nobel Prize. I still think he should. Also, I was just a tad vexed at radical feminists who were always after me to write a story about women's issues. So I did. Now they leave me pretty much alone.

Guest: I am amazed by the amount of research that goes into your novels. For example, in Bellwether, it was chock-full of info about fads and scientists. How do you distill all that information when you are researching? Are you usually looking for specific info or you just do a wide search to see what you'll find?

JF: Guests, please be sure to remember to sign your messages.

CW: I love doing research. It's my favorite part of writing, so the real problem is stopping and getting on with the hard stuff. I do all kinds of research, both general ramscoop type stuff where I just read everything and watch CNN all day and try to get ideas, and then the specific research for a specific story. But it's all fun, and the hardest part is researching something wonderful and then not being able to use it.

David: Connie read TSNOTD -- its great! Do you have a hard time reconciling your religious beliefs with your scientific outlook?

CW: David, great question. I have trouble reconciling all my beliefs all the time, particularly with my experience with the world, which constantly surprises, disappoints, and amazes me. I don't have any problem at all, however, with reconciling religion and science, which seems to me to be the most amazing manifestation of an actual plan and intelligence in the universe (the only one, actually, because people certainly don't give any indication of it.) I mean, DNA is the most astonishing, complex, clever thing, and so are elephants, and chaos theory, and the EPR paradox and quasars problems at all.

Marilee: I think one of the things I like best about your stories is the touches of whimsy. Even in serious stories, there's funny elements. Do you plot this, or does it just come out that way?

CW: Marilee, I fundamentally see the world as an hilarious place, which is a good thing or otherwise I would get pretty depressed. Consider Massachusetts, which just had a battle royal in their statehouse over the state cookie. It's things like that that keep me going. Also, I think we live in times when everybody takes everything far too seriously and needs taking down a peg or two. I love writing comedy. It's actually fun to write, unlike the serious novels. Oh, I don't mean that. It's all horrible to write.

Peter Gruner: I know that you were influenced by Robert Heinlein. What other authors influenced you? And who do you read now?

CW: Heinlein I think was the primary influence not only for me but for everybody of my generation--his futures were so funny and full of science and bursting with ideas (even if he did have a tendency to rant) and so actually lived in, plus he did wonderful takes on old stories. I just read Farmer In The Sky again, and it's like one of the best novels ever written about the American West, even though it's set on Ganymede.

Writers aren't very good at recognizing their influences, but I think it's no accident that one of my favorite books as a kid was Rumer Godden's An Episode Of Sparrows, which is set in the rubble of the London Blitz. I am also a serious student (not the same thing as an influence) of P.G. Wodehouse and Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome and Preston Sturges, all of whom helped me learn to write comedy...

JF: As for comedy, who would you say your antecedents are? Methinks I note some Preston Sturges-like screwball comedy in your writing, and perhaps some Tom Stoppard?

CW: Oh, heaven, to be compared to Preston Sturges and Tom Stoppard, both of whom I think are wonderful. If there's anybody out there who hasn't seen MIRACLE OF MORGANíS CREEK, they should leave this chat room and go watch it immediately. Blockbuster is still open. And it's even tremendously topical right now. You're right. I love screwball comedies and watch them religiously, trying to figure out how they get that sophisticated smartness and craziness and still keep the sentiment where it belongs. Also, while you're renting, get HIS GIRL FRIDAY and WALK, DON'T RUN and FATHER GOOSE and HOW TO STEAL A MILLION and FRENCH KISS, the latest movie in my opinion to get it right..

You've mentioned time slippage a couple of times, and one of the things I love about time travel is how you deal with the paradoxes. All those writers in the fifties played all those paradox games like "All You Zombies" and Charles Harness's "Child By Chronos" till it's hard to come up with anything new, but really interesting. My favorite thing about history, as witness TSNOTD, is how so much of it seems to turn on a dime, how many things would never have happened if somebody hadn't been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Everybody knows about the Archduke Ferdinand's chauffeur taking a wrong turn and causing an entire world war, or possibly two, but when I started looking for what I call crisis points in the novel, I found there were thousands, millions, and that any one of them could have changed the course of everything.

And those were only the ones we knew about.

David: Most writers who deal primarily in comedy have a "dark" past (family wise) and a cynical outlook? Do these labels apply in anyway to yourself?

CW: David, I think there are lots of different kinds of comedy. There's your dark, angry, Evelyn Waugh sort which I can only take in small doses, and then there's your person who feels kindly toward the world and even though he thinks people are fools, he knows he's one of them--like P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome and my favorite comedy writer of all time, Billy Shakespeare. Did he have a dark past and a cynical outlook on life? Or did Marlowe? (See my story, "Winter's Tale".)

JF: (For those who don't know, the complete title of Jerome K. Jerome's book is, Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog). Connie, have you ever though of writing screenplays, or has anyone ever seriously approached you with making a movie of your work?

CW: As we speak, Doomsday Book is optioned and Bellwether looks promising. As to would I

ever write for Hollywood, are you kidding? Look at Faulkner. Look at F. Scott Fitzgerald. Look at Nora Ephron's latest movie. Hollywood chews you up and spits you out, even if you are a Nobel Prize winner, plus you start drinking. Plus you have no control. I am a control freak. I like writing books by myself and not having to deal with test audiences in Pasadena deciding how my novels should end.

JF: Yeah, but then there was Leigh Brackett, but I guess she was singular in getting her way.

CW: I really admire Leigh Brackett, both for her SF and her movies. EMPIRE is definitely the best of the three STAR WARS plots because of her complicated intercutting of the stories and her repeating of elements like the ship not working and everybody taking turns saying, "It's not my fault.'

Marilee: I own copies of FATHER GOOSE and HIS GIRL FRIDAY. I have a lot of old "screwball comedies." Do you watch them while you write? What kind of writing environment do you keep?

CW: My writing environment is chaotic, which works well when I'm dealing with chaos theory. I don't listen to music or watch anything while writing, though I do drink café latte (decaf in case I want to take a nap).

My favorite book was Remake because I got to lie on the couch and watch old movies for almost two years and nobody could say a word. Unfortunately, it also involved watching Doris Day in TEA FOR TWO a number of times, a movie that could well be used in South American torture chambers.

Ellen Datlow: Hey, she was great in THE PAJAMA GAME. I saw it again recently. And from what I remember, PILLOW TALK with her and Rock Hudson was hilarious. That's one I have to check out again some time.

Peter: Whoops! At least you weren't watching THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and had to listen to Doris Day sing "Que Sera" ad infinitum!

CW: Peter, no, but in TEA FOR TWO her teeth kept getting bigger every time I watched it till they practically filled the screen. A puzzle to me is, why are those Doris Day comedies like PILLOW TALK and SEND ME NO FLOWERS virtually unwatchable while all the comedies of the thirties are still wonderful?

Ellen Datlow: sorry. Pajama. There were a series of them where she plays very coy and I remember those being annoying even at the time. But still, are you saying Pillow Talk isn't funny any more? I'm devastated. Will have to rent it some time if it's available.

JF: Re: Doris Day vs. The Thirties: Directors. Period.

CW: Jim: I agree. Directors and screenwriters. Script is everything. Witness MEN IN BLACK. And ALIEN RESURRECTION. Lines. Wit. Irony. Oh, my God. And, no, Ellen, PILLOW TALK, which I loved the first time I saw it, is just awful. Manipulative, icky, full of double entendres and sexual innuendo that sets your teeth on edge. Don't rent it. Rent THE MORE THE MERRIER.

JF: Does writing ever come hard to you? What is your writing regimen like? Do you work every day?

CW: Is writing ever hard? Are you kidding? It's grueling, awful, wretched, virtually every day. I will do anything to avoid it, including washing windows (though not watching Doris Day)...

Regimen is the wrong word, implying as it does discipline and order. I try to write for four hours a day (manuscript, not correspondence, etc.) when I don't have to take the dog to the vet or bake cookies for something or pack or unpack or wash windows or answer letters that people wrote several years ago. I start at Margie's Java Joint and usually move on to one of the three libraries in town so I can be close to my research

David: You write such hilarious Xmas stories -- have you ever considered writing one about Easter?

CW: Easter's not that funny.

To get back to the printed word, To Say Nothing Of The Dog was really interesting to write because I was trying to do Shakespearean comedy, which is really hard. He was really good at it, which I find absolutely maddening. he was good at everything, and it isn't fair.

Peter: There is a lot of religion in your stories. Orson Scott Card has written that he couldn't write the stories he does if he wasn't a Mormon. Do you think your religious affiliations directly influence your writing in the same way?

CW: Peter, I think writers have to tell the truth as they know it. On the other hand, I think every truly religious person is a heretic at heart because you can't be true to an established agenda. You have to be true to what you think. I think Madeleine L'Engle and C.S. Lewis both have times when they become apologists for religion rather than writers. I want always to be a writer, and if my religion is what has to go, so be it. The story is everything.

JF: Who are your favorite contemporary writers?

CW: My favorite contemporary writers? In SF, I love John Crowley and John Kessel's short stories and Howard Waldrop's short stories (talk about research!) and James Patrick Kelly's work and Nancy Kress's work and Gardner Dozois, who doesn't write nearly enough short stories even though he's always nagging me to write them. I mysteries, I really like Jane Langdon. In mainstream, I like virtually nobody, and really mostly I like old writers. Like me. I mean, old like me. Not that I like myself.

David: Question for Ellen & Connie: when will Mrs. WIllis be doing a story for Omni Online?

Ellen Datlow: Yeah. Connie?

CW: When am I doing an online story for Omni? I don't know. At this point I owe virtually everybody stories, I've just started a novel, I have a Christmas collection due March 31st with two stories I haven't written for it yet, I just signed on to edit the Nebula volume for this next year. And I have to take the dog to the vet.

Marilee: Yeah, but Ellen only needs a virtual story, you could move hers to the top!

Ellen Datlow: Thanks Marilee:)

David: Regarding contemporaries: do you read other Colorado area writers? Simmons, Bryant, etc?

CW: Colorado is so peculiar. We're actually a very small state populationwise, but we have thousands of authors. I have known Ed Bryant for a million years and just wrote an introduction for a new short story collection of his. He's I think a vastly under-appreciated author. His short stories like "Shark" and "The Hibakusha Gallery" are brilliant. Some of the best things ever written in SF.

Ellen Datlow: I think Ed's horror is pretty wonderful too. "The Transfer" and his "Book of the Dead" story come to mind.

CW: Yes, I like Ed's horror stories, too, and just like Garrison Keillor, they're even better when he reads them aloud, which living in Colorado I get to hear him do. We have been in workshops together since l976, and I only like him better with each passing year. If you've never read Among The Dead or The Thermals Of August or Cinnabar, you should definitely go search them out. They're wonderful.

Ellen Datlow: And "Dancing Chickens," which is wonderfully icky, in an elegant way, of course.

David: Gotta go early, but just want to say that I enjoy your writing and I will write a letter to the Nobel committee and ask them to short list you next year (Mrs. Willis). Thanks! -- David

Peter: How many children do you have? And how the heck did you find time to write while they were young?

CW: I have one great human daughter and three very obnoxious non-human ones. Gracie the bulldog tore her crucet ligament by jumping straight up in the air and has to have surgery tomorrow. Molly and Hildy the cats (from HIS GIRL FRIDAY) are sweet but evil and spend all their time pestering the dog. I don't know where I went wrong. Cordelia turned out so well. She's currently at George Washington University, getting a master's in forensic science and will shortly graduate and solve the Ramsey case, since no one else seems to be doing it.

Oh, by the way, I'm the mother of a TV celeb. My daughter Cordelia (well, they called her Cornelia, but, oh, well) was on BURDEN OF PROOF today. She was one of those people who sit in the second row and don't get to say anything, but there were some great shots of her shoulder and her neck while the camera was on the people in the front row. I love BURDEN OF PROOF because I am hopelessly addicted (still) to O.J. and to the Ramsey case and to the au pair case, etc. Also Greta van Susteren has very long hair and a very wide mouth and my daughter actually discussed statistics with her and I know what grade she got. Greta, not Cordelia. Cord always gets A's.

JF: Perhaps you could get your bulldog cast in something... (And yes, let's hear it for Ed Bryant!)

CW: Gracie should be cast in something, possibly cement. She is the naughtiest bulldog we've ever had. There's a bulldog in To Say Nothing Of The Dog, but it's based on our three earlier bulldogs, who were all saints. Patient, loving, mellow, and with a delightful sense of irony. Gracie is a very large toddler. She does not get to be in any books until her behavior improves.

JF: I somehow always had the feeling that bulldogs are Jovian in nature--not really intended for our gravity. Dachshunds are similarly misplaced on Earth.

CW: Bulldogs maybe are from Jove, even though Men aren't really from Mars and women aren't really from Venus. What bulldogs are like mostly is Buster Keaton, fairly put-upon and bewildered by the insane world in which they find themselves. And rightly so. Do you believe there are two types of people in the world? People who like Buster Keaton and people who like Charlie Chaplin? Is there anybody who likes both?

JF: AgreeMsg. I'm a Keatonite, myself.

Peter: I love Buster! My son is named Keaton in honour of the Great StoneFace. I like Charlie, but his longer works don't hold up the same way Keaton's features do. Keaton was brilliant and ahead of his time.

Peter: Do you think that writer's workshops are helpful? What about writing groups?

CW: I think writers' workshops can be great--with the right people and the right attitude. Judith Merril said there's only one reason to be in workshop--to critique other people's work until you are able to critique your own with the same precision and detachment. I totally agree. Sometimes I teach Clarion and Clarion West, and a lot of the writers who come seem to want not advice on plot, etc. but verification--or maybe sanctification. They want you to tell them if they have the talent to be a writer, and I don't think that's a good reason to be in a workshop.

Writer's workshops can also be dangerous if you are sensitive and easily squashed. Harlan says that if you can't take the heat, you should get out of the kitchen, but I don't agree. I think if you're sensitive and easily squashed, you will probably make a pretty good writer. If the criticism doesn't kill you first. I still have lots of trouble with criticism, even if the person is a jerk and clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. it still hurts, and there were many times along the way when a cruel word could have stopped me cold.

Peter: Any plans for an online course? I'd love to sign up...

CW: Peter, as to the on-line course, I don't know. Maybe you should talk to Ellen. What I'd really love to teach sometime is plotting. Most writing manuals say something vague like, "You must have a rising action," or "Plot is character," and let it go at that. I'd love to teach plot in detail.

Ellen Datlow: I believe there are some online writing courses. There are definitely a few workshops including one on AOL (Marilee does it still exist?) and one run by Paula Guran, who publishes Darkecho, the horror newsletter and site under the OMNI auspices.

Marilee: Yes, AOL has several of different types. One is run by Amy Sterling. I don't know if she was in your Clarion groups or not, Connie.

Peter: Well, if you teach an online course on Plotting, Connie, I'll sign up. I'd take any writing class that you would teach. I've been restraining myself from oozing with praise, but I think you are FANTASTIC!!! Okay, I got that out. I really enjoy your stories. They have brought me a lot of pleasure.

CW: Last words: The new novel's To Say Nothing Of The Dog. It's set in Victorian England and in my Oxford time travel universe, but unlike Fire Watch and Doomsday Book, virtually nobody gets

killed. Not even the cat, who deserves to be. Also out, Bellwether in paperback. Upcoming, in

March, a reissue of the long out of print Fire Watch. And Cynthia Felice and I have a new light SF

adventure novel called Promised Land just out. Peter, I agree about Buster. Did you know he

broke his neck filming that great waterspout scene in one of his movies? And didn't know it till years later when he was X-rayed for something else. he did all his own stunts, and my husband, who was a gymnast, really is impressed because he knows just how hard they are.

JF: Again, what's the novel you're working on now, Connie?

CW: The new novel is called Working Cape Race. The CALIFORNIAN tried to send an ice message to the TITANIC and was told by the wireless operator, who was sending the assorted ship to shore greetings and passengers' messages, "Shut up, shut up, I am working Cape Race."

JF: Ah, once again the time lag worked beautifully. First the answer, then the question. Connie, it was wonderful having you here. Thanks for the opportunity for us to virtually meet you, and thanks for all the great fiction.

Ellen Datlow: Connie, Jim, Thank you. You were both great. And thank you to everyone out there in cyberspace. Thanks so much for coming.

JF: To all, thanks for coming by.

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