Connie Willis: “History Is the Raw Data”

TW Interview by Lorraine Berry

The Blitz, the Plague, and Other Fodder for Science Fiction

 


 This is the first section of a two-part interview with award-winning writer Connie Willis. Don’t miss the second part, Connie Willis: "Success Is the Best Revenge."


 

When it comes to introducing Connie Willis, it’s difficult to know where to start. Does one begin with her eleven Hugos and seven Nebula Awards? That, in 2009, she was elected to both the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and the Science Fiction Museum? That since “Santa Titicaca” appeared in the Winter 1970 edition of Worlds of Fantasy, she has published fifteen novels, five short story collections, and a seemingly countless number of stories and essays?

Connie Willis (in red); photo by G. Mark LewisWillis is perhaps best known for science fiction that wrestles with the emotional life of her characters, making them much more than players pushing forward a plot. I found that—like those in literary fiction—they’re fully developed individuals who garner the reader’s sympathy and affection.

In Passage, for example, Willis combines scientists investigating what happens to the brain after death with a young girl waiting for a heart transplant, a budding romance between two researchers, and a female friendship that feels real. The fact that Passage also contains a mind-blowing plot made the book one of my favorites of hers.

I also relished the books in Willis’s Oxford Time Travel series. In the first of these, Doomsday Book, a time-traveling Oxford graduate student from the twenty-first century winds up in 1348, the year the bubonic plague arrives in England, and becomes an eyewitness to the pandemic that wipes out nearly half the European population.

Other books in the series include a two-volume novel about the Blitz—Blackout and All Clear—that Willis worked on for eight years. The abundant details of everyday life in London revealed in these volumes show her deep commitment to historical research, character development, and richness of plot.

As I read Willis’s work and reviewed her prior interviews, I found myself wondering just what I could add to the conversation. Willis is not only an award-winning writer; she possesses a formidable intellect. Frankly, I was intimidated. But when I called her at her Colorado home in the week prior to Christmas 2012, she immediately set me at ease.

Doomsday Book coverOur conversation ranged from feminism to fashion, from time travel to telepathy. In fact, we had such a good time talking that we found it hard to stop, which is why this interview is coming to you in two parts.

In addition to being published in sections, the interview has been edited and condensed for Talking Writing. Part I, which focuses primarily on history, is presented here. Part II, "Success is the Best Revenge," addresses feminism and fame.

 


TW: You’ve said that we can imagine what the future looks like because we’re eventually going to get there, but we can’t really imagine the past, because it’s gone. I’m wondering if that’s what draws you to writing about it.

CW: I love history. History is the raw data if you want to understand human beings. The only way to see what human beings are like is to see what they do in all kinds of different situations and try to extrapolate from that what they might do in other situations. It is so endlessly fascinating. I feel it’s sad that history is so badly taught. I mean, there are wonderful teachers out there, but when you ask most people about history, they’re just like, “Oh. Gaawwwd. Kill me now. So boring.” And I don’t know why that is, because it’s just the greatest reality show ever. It’s just got so much stuff. That’s why I like to focus on real history as opposed to made-up history. A lot of people do alternate histories in science fiction.

TW: I have read some of these alternative histories, like when the Nazis win World War II….

CW: History has so many odd turning points, where it all could have gone the other way, so I understand the fascination with that. I’ve used that fascination in my own stories. But I could not hope to make up something as complex and unexpected as real history.

Anything that you get into, any little area—you want to delve into 1348 or the Blitz or anything—the history of Watergate—seems small at first, but then it just expands and expands and expands, and the deeper you get, the more stuff there is. So it’s not a diminishing returns kind of thing. My first novel was about the Civil War, and although I read a lot about the Civil War, I have this feeling that I was not even scratching the surface—that I could devote my entire career to doing the Civil War because there was so much stuff there.

This whole “live in the moment thing” is such garbage, because we actually are creatures of past and future. This morning, when I got up, I was thinking about all the things I have to do this week before my daughter gets home for Christmas, and I was thinking forward all the way, but I was also thinking about the friends we saw last night, and one of them left his hat here, and we have to get it back to him. We live in all three dimensions all the time, but the past is the only one we can’t change. And we have all these regrets. All those “what ifs.” There’s the things that we are sorry for, the people we alienated ourselves from, the conversations that didn’t go the way we hoped they would.

That pile of regrets follows us through our whole lives, and I think when we deal with time travel, part of it is an effort to go back and look at the things that we wish had been different. You can change the present, you can make decisions right now about what you’re going to do in the next five minutes. You can obviously decide to try to change the future.

A Christmas Carol book coverI think this is why A Christmas Carol is such an enduring story. I work with the English Department’s honor society here at the college, and we just had our marathon Christmas Carol reading, and it never fails to bring me to tears. We got to the point with Tiny Tim and the little crutch by the fire and him dead and this guy, this college senior, broke down when he was trying to read that passage. And I was like, Wow. Dickens really has the stuff. And when he says, “And Tiny Tim did not die,” probably the best line in literature, it’s everything we hope—that we can stop bad things from happening by changing our behavior.

TW: And it’s not the major events, it’s the little things. I do want to push back a little bit when you say we can’t rewrite the past, because it seems as though people are always trying to rewrite history.

CW: You’re right. There is a constant rewriting of the past, although I don’t totally agree with the people who say, “History is written by the victors.” I think the farther we get from the past, the less we have a dog in the fight, the more the real past starts to emerge. We know more than we did. Like Anastasia, a story I followed relentlessly. I so wanted that girl to be Anastasia. And she’s not. They did the DNA. They even know who she was. So we know more than we knew about that story when I was growing up. And we know where the Titanic is. And it did in fact break in half like all those people claimed. I think we have probably a pretty good picture of the War of the Roses now, because nobody has a dog in the fight.

TW: Oh, I don’t know. The Richard III Society has a dog in that fight.

CW: That is true. And I loved Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, which is about Richard III and the little princes in the tower. She makes a wonderfully persuasive argument in the book, but she’s wrong. And they found the bodies.

History has a way…and, yes, tons of stuff is lost, and obviously we don’t know everything. As I find out every time I try to write about history and find out all the things I need to know that are not written down. And it’s so maddening. It’s not political, and it’s not an attempt to skew history one way or the other. It’s simply that everyone knew these things, so there was no need to write them down. But now, we don’t know them.

You have to pull from many, many sources and especially from people who were not intending to do anything, who didn’t have an agenda of any kind. You know, those postcards written on the Titanic from the day before, which they found at the bottom of the sea. Those are great, and they add to that general picture you can’t get any other way.

One of the coolest things about the Blitz was that the British government in the ’30s had this project where they were trying to find out what the common man thinks, so they were paying a whole bunch of people a shilling a week to keep a diary. And they forgot to tell them to stop when the war started. They’re called the MOA Diaries, and there are masses and masses of them, too many to read, but a treasure trove for historians and for me when I was writing the book there. And you have people who would not have ordinarily ever kept a diary—a waitress working at the Lyons Corner House—and a workman who finds himself on a bomb squad crew—people whose voices you would never hear, and, yet, they provide an interesting and different view from E.P. Snow’s and upper-class women who were writing their diaries.

TW: I was born in 1963, which was 18 years after the war ended. And I had no idea when I was young that I was really that close to it.

CW: I think one of the reasons that I have always been drawn to World War II is that I was raised by my grandmother after my mom died. Her son, my uncle, had been killed at Guadalcanal, and my natural father was in a really hellacious situation and suffered from, I guess you’d call it PTSD now, for the rest of his life. And so, for me, the war was really close. I heard stories about it all the time. Most people growing up in the ‘50s didn’t know that much about the war, but because I was actually kicked a generation earlier by being that close to my grandmother, to me it felt like it had just happened.

Then I had this teacher in eighth grade, Mrs. Woerner, who read us An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden, which is a great book but is not a book for children at all. I’m sure I’m the only person who loved that book in the class. It’s a story of a little girl in post-war London who makes a garden in the rubble of a bombed-out church. And I was fascinated with that. And once my radar had been perked up on all of this, I was constantly finding new and interesting stuff, so that by the time I got to England and went to St. Paul’s, it was all over. This is the greatest stuff ever.

An Episode of Sparrows book cover When I say that, when I say “I love the Blitz,” and I tell people that, they’re like, “How can you love something so horrible?” Because it’s so interesting. It’s so fascinating.

I think that’s one thing that books do. In fulfilling other things that are also its purpose, literature provides really good history lessons. You can learn a lot about the Civil War from reading Little Women, even though she wasn’t writing about the Civil War. An Episode of Sparrows was not about the Blitz, but I learned an awful lot about the Blitz from reading it. The purpose of literature is to make you imagine and to make you think and to tell you stories that will help you at some point in your life, but you don’t know when.

TW: You said that you see 1348 [when the Black Death reached Europe] as one of the moments at which the world ended. Do you think there have been other moments like that in our past, and do you plan to visit some of those other places in your fiction?

CW: I think it was Chekhov who said, “Do not wait upon the date of judgment. It happens every day.” And I think that’s certainly true. And your world, your personal world, can end, and you don’t have to die for it to end. You can get a revelation, you find out something terrible that shifts everything and makes you look at the world in a 100 percent different way. Or you can lose all the things you thought ever really mattered to you and then find happiness in some totally unexpected way.

I grew up reading a bunch of end-of-the-world science fiction. True end of the world: The virus has wiped everybody out. Or nuclear war. A few survivors are looting among the rubble kind of thing. And the part that I thought they got totally wrong was that there was never any emotional dimension to that. It was more of a Robinson Crusoe or boys’ adventure kind of story, where everyone’s emotional life was still fine even though this terrible thing had happened.

So I wrote a short story called “The Last of the Winnebagos,” in which the entire dog population had been wiped out. I wrote this story during the parvovirus, which they thought might really kill all the dogs. Anyway, I wanted a small end of the world. One that really didn’t affect commerce, or politics, it didn’t affect history, really, except that it affected everybody in incredibly emotional ways, and then there were resonances that went out through society in all different ways. The guilt people felt and the blame that people put on others and so on, and I wanted to really deal with the emotional aspects of the end of the world. That’s one of the stories that I’m proudest of, because I think that is an issue that needs to be addressed.

You can make an argument that the Titanic served as the end of a particular era. An era that would have actually ended anyway. But the Titanic symbolized that.

TW: It’s the end of the long nineteenth century, which most historians see ending in 1914.

CW: It’s also the year that income tax came into being, so here comes the modern world. With a vengeance. And it’s the first inkling we’re getting in the modern world that technology is not the unmitigated blessing that so many people thought it was at the turn of the century. So, yeah. It’s a bellwether. If not a culmination.

My favorite Onion headline ever, below a picture of the Titanic, is “World’s Largest Symbol Sinks.” And I love that. Because it’s true. It’s been used as a symbol for just everything. Mostly it symbolizes the idea of the human condition, which is that we steam merrily ahead, in spite of all the evidence around us, assuming that everything will be fine. We’re actually steaming toward our deaths, but we never notice it, and we’re always surprised when we hit the iceberg, even though we really shouldn’t be surprised. It’s happened to everyone else in the entire history of humanity.

Obviously, I’ve written about that one. When I write my romantic comedies, they are always about a person thinking they want one thing to get their life settled. They’re engaged, they’re happy in their jobs, etc., and then there’s something, a disruptive element. All of a sudden, they find themselves losing everything they thought they wanted and finding something else they wanted better. I think we play this story out over and over again. In many ways, all stories are about the end of the world, a personal end.

TW: I teach creative writing, and I never fail to be astounded by the number of women (and sometimes men) who choose to use the topic of the first time they got their hearts broken as the central event around which they build a narrative.

CW: Love is one of the big things, a big deal in life wherever you find it. Not just romantic love. Parental love and friendship and love of country, all those things.

Much Ado About Nothing book coverI’ve been hounded from the beginning for writing romantic comedies, because I’m supposed to be a feminist. I’m currently working on a nonfiction work on what romantic comedy is, because I don’t think anybody knows how to play this game.

If romantic comedy is done correctly, à la William Shakespeare, who invented the form, it is not a story of conquest and surrender, it is not a story of being swept away by uncontrollable passions and letting the whole world go smash, like in The English Patient, it is a story about two people making each other better, meeting as equals, forming a united front against the world, all these very positive things. The women are always completely equal with the men. Both have something lacking that the other one brings to the relationship so that together they form a fulfilled unit. Usually, one has skewed priorities that need to be set right; sometimes both have skewed priorities. And everyone needs to get a grip, grow up, become a full human being, and, when they do, the love follows successfully from that. So, to me that’s like, Wow.

TW: So would you venture to say then that Shakespeare was the first one to write feminist romantic comedies?

CW: Absolutely. But I don’t think there’s any other kind. A romantic comedy is feminist in that the women are accorded full and equal parts with the men.

TW: Certain romantic comedies. Certainly in Shakespeare, but I’m sure we can all think of rom-coms where the women are not equals.

CW: Good romantic comedies. The way it’s supposed to be. Jane Austen romantic comedies. Jane, and Dorothy Sayers, and of course the screwball comedies of the 1930s. And a lot of modern romantic comedies do a good job—most of them British, because their system of making movies is better than ours in making romantic comedies and getting the result that you want. But there are a lot of really good ones out there, and they do not promote anything that any feminist should have any problem with. Because they’re saying, “Men need fixing. Women need fixing. We are natural allies, and once we get past the squabbling part, we do great together.”

TW: At Talking Writing, we’ve been discussing our joint dismay at the popularity of the 50 Shades books and the Twilight books, in which women completely surrender themselves. Do you have any explanation for this phenomenon?

CW: You know, I think for Twilight I do, because young girls are deeply romantic and what could be greater than a guy who cares so much for you that he does not want to have sex with you? He’s so protective of you. You can feel perfectly safe. That idea is a great fantasy. And the fact that it’s badly written—well, the girls who are the target demographic don’t care; they haven’t read anything. They don’t know how to judge a well-written book against a badly written book. But the idea is intensely romantic, I think, and young girls have a deep need for romance in their lives. Not love. Not sex. Romance. Which is a whole different thing. The idea of love.

So, in some ways, I rant and rave about 50 Shades of Grey as much as the next person, but the truth is, the kind of books I’ve liked have never been liked by popular readers. And I have no desire to write those kinds of things.

I really strongly believe that there’s more than one kind of reader. Part of the phenomenon of Twilight and DaVinci Code and Bridges of Madison County is not that you want to read the book for the experience of reading the book, you want to read the book so you can participate in the conversation that everyone seems to be having. It’s the same reason you watch the hot TV show. And there’s this whole other group of readers for whom reading provides this incredible, personal experience. They’re addicts, let’s face it, for certain kinds of emotional experiences that you can get only in books. And—just like a crack addict will try to get that high again—you will spend your whole life trying to get that high again, and it gets harder and harder because you get to be more of a discriminating reader, but when it happens, you’re stunned.

One of the great pleasures of my life now is to find a book that I can be stunned by. I spend my life doing this, and part of me is always analyzing what they should have done here and what they should have done here and they don’t know how to plot, etc. And when you find something that’s really good, it’s often in the most unexpected places.

The Uncommon Reader book cover A couple of years ago, I read Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. It’s about the Queen of England, who stumbles on a bookmobile near Buckingham Palace and starts reading books with disastrous results for the empire. It’s a little novella, and it’s so charming, and it’s so lovely, and he knows exactly what he’s doing, and I was so blown away by this. You lovely man. You’ve given me back this delightful pleasure that I haven’t had since I was a kid. And then I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Same thing. Amazing book. When I read those books, I can be thirteen again and just discovering books. That is the greatest pleasure in life. I know I’m an addict, because when I get the hit, then I’m like, Oh my God. This is why I read. This is why I’ve devoted my life to this—this kind of moment.

TW: Is there anything you’ve read in the past year that has done that for you?

CW: No. I was involved in the election, and I was working on the campaign. All I’ve read are political websites. Which is a whole other kind of reading.

TW: Given that you were so involved in this last political campaign, are you excited by any intellectual movements that you see going on right now?

CW: I am always excited by the fact that the American public is asleep nine-tenths of the time. It’s not that they’re stupid. We’re just so focused on putting one foot in front of the other, on getting through daily life, what’s right in front of us, that we hardly ever look up. I have faith in the American public that they will eventually look up. But when they do, and see what’s going on around them, their common sense is overwhelming. And I trust their common sense more than I trust any movement.

I guess I’m more interested in the tipping points, because I find those so fascinating. You can’t see them coming. After they happen, you can go back and trace all the things that happened up to it, but the tipping point itself is so fast, and suddenly the Berlin Wall is down.

Or suddenly the whole conversation has changed about gay marriage. I have been shocked, stunned, by the speed with which the acceptance of gays has come about. I was afraid it was going to be a total repetition of the black civil rights thing, and it would take just as long, and it’s been almost instantaneous. I’ve been pleased, but stunned nevertheless. And I don’t even know what the tipping point was, although the day that San Francisco, for a very brief period, made gay marriage legal—it was overturned almost immediately—there were pictures of all the couples getting married. Many of them very elderly and many of them with children and surrounded by their families and all crying, and that day I said to my husband, “It’s over. That’s it. We’re done.” Because there was nothing threatening about those people. There was nothing bully-mannish like the other side had been claiming. So maybe that was it.

Just because there’s a tipping point doesn’t mean that everything changes. Most things change. Enough things change. Still. We’re still fighting the Civil War, for heaven’s sake. You could go back and find stuff written in 1859, and that was an exact duplicate of things that were said during this election. It was really stunning.

Everything changes all the time, and yet things don’t really change under the surface, so we’re constantly fighting old battles, and you’re constantly reliving old revenges, and eventually everyone involved has to die before the whole thing is over. And, even then, maybe it’s not. I was very happy to get out of the twentieth century, because it was Hitler’s century, and I didn’t want to be there anymore, but he’ll be around a long, long time.

 


Exploring the Worlds of Connie Willis

Blackout Book CoverThe Official Connie Willis Website

Passage by Connie Willis (Bantam Spectra, 2001).

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (Bantam Spectra, 1992).

Blackout by Connie Willis (Spectra, 2010).

All Clear by Connie Willis (Spectra, 2010).

“The Last of the Winnebagos” by Connie Willis, first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1988; reprinted in Willis’s short story collection Impossible Things (Spectra, 1993).

 


Art Information

  • Photo of Connie Willis by G. Mark Lewis; used by permission

 


'Do you think so?' Eileen said doubtfully. 'I mean, he's a doctor.'

'If only that were a guarantee against being a nutcase,' Joanna said. 'You know Dr. Abrams from over at Mt. Sinai? Last week he suckered me into lunch by promising to talk to the hospital board about letting me do interviews over there, and then proceeded to tell me about his NDE [Near Death Experience], in which he saw a tunnel, a light, and Moses, who told him to come back and read the Torah out loud to people. Which he did. All the way through lunch.'

Passage by Connie Willis


 

Comments

I have to say that of all the author interviews I've done, the interview with Connie Willis was my favorite. I could have stayed on the phone with her all day--and I would have--except I knew I was going to have to transcribe the interview, which was going to take me days. :)
Thanks for the kind words, Steve and Martha, but when Connie was talking, I felt as if my job was to simply drop a remark in there at times, but to mostly just let her talk. She has such a complex mind that it made perfect sense to me that we could skip from 1348 to the Titanic to the death of dogs to American politics, all without feeling as if there were segues missing.
Sheila--I can see why Connie Willis is one of your favorite writers. I've read some of her books, but it's definitely a project of mine over the summer to read as many of her books as I can.

Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors in any genre. So many of her books and stories have provided me with exactly the high she describes -- I still remember the impact "The Last of the Winnebagos" had on me when it was first published. If you haven't read it, check it out -- as in all of her stories, there's more to it than meets the eye -- it's not just about dogs (or Winnebagos). Thanks for a wonderful interview, I can't wait for the second part!

I love this interview. I'm a longtime fan of Connie Willis, and it doesn't surprise me to find so many gems and quotable lines here or that Lorraine is such an excellent interviewer. But I am surprised, as always, by the power that such intellectually engaged conversation has to spark a sense of discovery in me. It's why I'm so committed to Talking Writing. As Connie says:

"The purpose of literature is to make you imagine and to make you think and to tell you stories that will help you at some point in your life, but you don’t know when."

Yes! Absolutely. It's why we write, and why we talk about writing.

I'm as impressed with Lorraine Berry's incisive questions--and maybe more important, follow-ups--as I am with Connie Willis's assertion that "History is the raw data if you want to understand human beings." This writing life, after all, is mostly a quest to know ourselves. And after a lifetime in academia where the old Santayana assumption ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it") pretty much goes unchallenged--and wholly unsubstantiated--it was refreshing to read a substantive argument for studying the past. Many thanks.

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