TW Interview by Lorraine Berry
Love, Death, and the Idiosyncrasies of Fame
This is the second part of a two-part interview with Connie Willis. Don’t miss the first part: Connie Willis: “History is the Raw Data.”
When I interviewed Connie Willis, it was the Monday before Christmas. It was also the first Monday after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Although we reached the point of laughter by the time we finished the interview, both of us felt a pall of sadness hanging over us when we first began talking.
Newtown popped up when we discussed the idea of history. Willis talked about how nearly impossible it is to live in the moment; we switch back and forth in our heads between present and past, but we only spend a short amount of time in the present:
We live in all three dimensions all the time, and the past is the only one we can’t change. And we have all these regrets. I’m sure the people in Newtown, Connecticut, people who had nothing to do with this tragedy and had no way of affecting it in any way, are still going to spend who knows how long going over and over: ‘If I had just done this. If my daughter had had the sniffles. If I had kept her home from school.’ All those what ifs. We relive the past, and we try to think about how it could have been different if we had just done something differently.
Willis talked about these things as a way of describing what drew her to writing about time travel. Her Oxford Time Travel series includes Doomsday Book, in which a time-traveling Oxford graduate student from the twenty-first century winds up in 1348, and a two-volume novel about the Blitz—Blackout and All Clear.
Willis is known for science fiction that wrestles with the emotional life of her characters, making them much more than players pushing forward a story. In Passage, one of my favorites, she 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—all on top of a mind-blowing plot.
I was curious to know whether Willis, who has won shelves full of Hugos and Nebulas, had experienced sexism in a genre that is still dominated by male writers and male fans. Her answers surprised me.
This interview appears in two parts, which have been edited and condensed for Talking Writing.
TW: You’ve said in previous interviews that you frequently write about the same topics because you’re actually conducting arguments with yourself, only in a more public way. I’m wondering if you would argue with your interpretation of death as you wrote about it in Passage. Or are you still pretty happy with what you envisioned death to be like?
CW: No answer at all. When I say I argue with myself, it’s not that I think “I can’t get anyone to listen to my rants anymore. I think I’ll put them in a book.” It’s more that whatever you’re thinking about tends to come out, and it doesn’t really matter what you’re writing about. You can pick your topic, but really what the book is going to be about is what your current obsessions are. Your current fears, your current worries. In that sense, even though I was directly looking at death and trying to think what I thought about it, it’s in every one of my stories, always. At the end, after I wrote Passage, people kept coming up to me and asking, “So what does happen after you die?”
How do I know? Nobody knows. That’s the whole point. And they were like, “I thought you might have found something out.” And I answered, “How would I find something out without dying? And then I can’t come back and tell you!”
Whatever religious feelings and thoughts I have always come up hard against the rock-iron cliff of brain death. You can have brain death while you’re still alive. If you have Alzheimer’s, you can lose yourself, your personality, your memory, everything that makes you “you,” while you’re still alive. We know that within moments of death, the destruction of the cells that make you “you” begins to happen, and you can’t bring people back once six minutes has gone by. So how do you square that with believing that you’ll live forever? I’m not satisfied with “Well, it won’t be us exactly, we’ll be some universal soul.” Or “It will be us as our essence but without any memories.” I think without my memories and thoughts, it’s not me, so I don’t care.
Yet, there’s always this feeling that there is a bigger purpose, and this can’t possibly have all been meaningless. That’s the existential thing: In the face of meaningless, I will behave as if there is meaning. I think that we all, as humans, sense that there is meaning, and we look at the sky and the gorgeousness of the universe and of the world, and we think that cannot possibly be an accident. And then when you see these incredible acts of courage, it doesn’t get any worse or any better than that. That’s us. That’s who we are as a species. That has to count for something. And so I guess I’m still where I was. Except rocketing closer to death with every breath I take.
I was so proud of Christopher Hitchens when he was dying and he said, “If you hear me say that I’ve suddenly turned into a Christian, I want somebody to slap me. I refuse to give into these ridiculous, comforting fictions in order to make myself not be so afraid.” And I guess that would be me. And yes, I have these conflicting ideas, and I hope that I don’t suddenly launch into the idea that I better believe in something that I don’t. These thugs of the religious right have taken over the public awareness of Christianity, but real Christianity is all about self-sacrifice and courage and kindness and caring for the least of these. Victories that appear to be failures in the world and victories in the world that are in fact failures and all these wonderful, ironic paradoxes seem to encompass the reality of the world. I guess that’s where I was. Looking endlessly for meaning in books.
TW: I read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus when I was seventeen, and that book has continued to be how I treat my life. That maybe life is ultimately meaningless but I have to find meaning in the struggle.
CW: For me, one of the things that I send to people if they’ve lost somebody is the last paragraph of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, whom I adore, by the way, and who doesn’t get nearly the credit that he should—he’s such a wonderful writer—and who wrote romantic comedies, also, so maybe that’s why I also like him. But he talks about the people who died on the collapse of the bridge, and this takes place in the Middle Ages in South America, and he says, “Soon the memory of these people is lost, and then all the people who loved them die, and all the memories about them are lost and they pass into nothingness but the love remains. Love is the bridge, the only connection, the only meaning.” And that’s true. I believed it the second I read it. And I still think it’s true. All books are scriptures, I think, in that way.
TW: I’m working on an article about inappropriate questions asked during author interviews, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever had an experience with something like that.
CW: That is an interesting question. Not usually. They usually ask me about my work. Lots of people ask process questions that I think are totally beside the point. “When do you get up in the morning, and how do you work? Were you having Starbucks this morning?” I know people are interested in that, but that’s not really how I construct my stories. And I don’t think that has anything to do with being a woman because I’ve been on panels with guys and they get asked the same kind of stuff.
I did have one newspaper interview one time where the person apparently saw herself as an investigative journalist, and even though she was supposed to be doing some sort of puff piece on the new book, she asked, “So what are the secrets? Who are three people who I could call that would say something bad about you?” And I was like, “Do I look stupid to you? That I would actually give you the names of people who would say bad things about me?” And then the article went on and on about how I had mismatched towels in my bedroom, and how clearly my entire life was an attempt to convince people I was an ordinary person when I wasn’t. It was a bizarre experience from beginning to end. That would be the closest.
TW: Well, that’s pretty damn bad, I have to say.
CW: I’ve gotten questions about my husband a lot. He’s a physics professor, so they always say “Does he help you with your research?” And that’s a really annoying question, because the implication is that I can’t do my own research. Although I understand the question: Because I write science fiction and I have a scientist in the house, it’s logical I would ask him. But the answer is “No. He doesn’t help me with my research. He helps a lot of my friends with their research, but not me. Because I don’t want him to help me. I want to do my own research.” I guess you could say that’s a sexist question, but I don’t really think so. I think it’s more a “there’s a scientist on the premises.”
I cannot think of any time when I experienced discrimination, as I would define it, in the field, for being a woman. Never had a story rejected for being a woman that I know of. Never been sexually harassed by someone in a position of power. Certainly, there are a lot of jerks. And there are people who dismiss me out of hand for being a woman, and that sort of thing.
The first time I was at the Nebulas, nobody knew me. I was virtually unknown, I had written a handful of short stories, I was a little housewife from Colorado, and then I showed up with nominations for two different stories at the Nebula Awards in New York City and won for both of those stories. And I made the mistake, although it didn’t seem to me to be a mistake at the time, of wearing a really charming Laura Ashley dress. They were very popular then, and this had a Peter Pan lace collar. I got teased about that lace collar for years. “Her Peter Pan collar stories, and her Peter Pan collar personality, and her Peter Pan collar.”
That has never particularly bothered me, simply because some of my greatest heroes are people like Miss Marple. She does all of her own work because people consistently underestimate her, and when people underestimate you, you have an incredibly powerful advantage over them, because they will never see it coming. Success actually is the best revenge. I have had friends who said, “That whole Peter Pan collar thing was so ridiculous because, yes, you dress like a Midwestern housewife, but the minute you opened your mouth, they should have known what was going on.”
Actually, my greatest sense that people were treating me differently because I was a woman came from the feminists in the field, who invited me to be a guest of honor at WisCon, which advertises itself as a feminist science fiction convention, and then totally raked me over the coals because I was writing stories with housewives as heroines. They felt I was betraying the sisterhood. And they told me a number of things they thought I should fix in my writing because I had an obligation to write about women’s issues. And I was, like, every issue is a goddammed woman’s issue. I’ll write about whatever I want. I didn’t go through the raising of my consciousness in order to switch from letting men tell me what to do to letting you tell me what to do. So, there’s been that constant conflict in the field. And I would say some of that lasts to this day.
This is why I trust common sense over ideologies. Any group given too much power can be in trouble. When I wrote “The Last of the Winnebagos,” the bad guys in the story were the Humane Society, which circumstance had morphed into this powerful, thuggish sort of organization, and people kept asking, “What do you have against the Humane Society?” And I said, “Nothing. I chose the most harmless society I could think of to show you that no one should be trusted with absolute power, because it’s not good for you.” And I think agenda-driven groups always get in trouble for that reason.
I am a feminist. I am a woman who worked my entire life in what was largely a man’s field. But I also got advantages in that field, too. When I got in, there were a lot of people screaming that there were not a lot of women represented in the field, which I think is a ridiculous thing to say in basically a meritocracy field, as writing is, but the fact remains that they would be putting together an anthology, and they’d say, “Oh no. We don’t have a woman.” And they’d call me. They were not calling fellow writers of my age and my friends who were guys, and so I got a leg up occasionally, so I felt it all balanced out. Besides, it’s always been a very progressive field, so it was not like working in corporate America or something like that.
I would say that my interviewers have always pretty much stuck to the matter at hand, which is, “How did you write these books? And what are they about?” I’ve always been very pleased that my interviewers are more interested by the ideas in the books than they are by the process. I find the process endlessly fascinating, but I also know it’s like having accountants discuss….
TW: Exactly. It’s the stuff that’s interesting to other writers but may not be interesting to the general reading public.
CW: To the real people who read the book. I don’t want to know how the movies are put together. I used to watch all those special features, but now I’m like, I don’t really want to know. I want the illusion here.
Many of the books that I loved as a kid are lost to me because I have no idea who wrote them, and I didn’t even know that people wrote them. They just existed. And I think in many ways, that’s a healthy way to take literature. Once you start tangling it up with the biography of the person who wrote it and all that, there are some very good insights you can get. When I read Mark Twain’s autobiography and how his brother had died in a steamship accident and how responsible he felt and so on, I thought that explained a lot about Mark Twain’s writing. I could read it with a new eye.
But I started reading a biography of P.G. Wodehouse, who is one of my favorite authors, and I lasted about four chapters. They were presenting this image that clearly he was emotionally stunted and never was he a full human being—he was deeply depressed. And I was like, “Oh my God. You’ve missed the point entirely. You are talking about one of the funniest people on the planet, and you really can’t see what he was really like at all.” Because his personality shines through in practically every word on the page.
I have been so annoyed with this, because I think, “What would people say about me?” What their own prejudices are and their own prisms through which they see things and the assumptions they make. I know I’ve said many things that if they were taken as the only truth…. Writers are liars, they lie for a living, you can’t trust what they say about themselves.
Maybe I’m better off just reading books and thinking I have no idea who wrote them.
TW: I teach creative nonfiction. We try to guess what the author’s bias might be and why we’re being presented with a certain argument and what might have gotten left out, but I don’t often research the writer to see if I can figure out why they wrote the book.
CW: I think the mistake people make is that they don’t see that the inner life and the outer life are two different things. So if you’re writing a book about someone who has an affair, you’ve thought about it. It doesn’t mean you’ve had an affair. And it doesn’t even mean you’re thinking about having an affair, but it could mean you had a friend who had an affair and the effects of that, or you read something that triggered a bunch of ideas. I do think that writing reflects what the writer was thinking about at the time. But not necessarily; you can’t take it to events that were going on in their lives. It’s not a reliable way to look at it.
TW: One of the things that has emerged from my talking to these female writers is that if you write about something domestic in your books, it’s seen as autobiographical. The idea that women can’t write about something that they themselves have not experienced.
CW: I think that there is always that confusion with writers. I’ve heard guys asked that question. Not that particular question, but questions like, “So, did you actually do this?” My favorite question was from a woman who asked, “Have all the things that you wrote about really happened to you?” And I’m like, “I write science fiction, and, yes, it’s all happened to me. I’ve been abducted by aliens. I have lived in the future and in 1348. What do you think?”
People can’t imagine writing about stuff that didn’t happen to them, so they assume that you have done the same thing. It’s hard to sort out. There’s still some discomfort with the idea of women writers. There shouldn’t be. They’re out there in droves.
TW: And we know that women are the majority of readers, too.
CW: Yes. Exactly. But I don’t dwell on that. I’m a person who obsesses about everything, and in fact feels that I’m holding the entire world up, so I can’t fall asleep on a plane because it might crash while I’m not awake and not holding it in the air. So, I am the kind of person who tries very hard to say, “Okay, you can’t do anything about this. Here’s the only thing you can do. Keep writing your books, keep getting your stuff out there, and then let it fend for itself and ignore all the rest of it.” I can’t do anything about how I’m perceived.
And the people who are vastly annoying are the people you notice the most. But I get all the time this wonderful feedback from people who loved the book, it meant something to them the way that books I loved meant something to me, and that’s what I was going for. That’s all you can go for. I think Updike said, “You don’t write for the critics. And you don’t write for the public. You don’t write for the people who can buy hardback books. You write for a ten-year old kid in a public library somewhere in the middle west a hundred years from now.” That’s what you do. And I’m like, excellent. That’s an excellent piece of advice.
TW: You’ve said that you’re working on a nonfiction book about romantic comedies. What are you thinking of for your next novel?
CW: I’m really working on a novel, and the nonfiction romantic comedy book is for those moments when I can’t get the novel to move. So I’m focusing on it at odds and ends of times, and it gives me a great excuse to watch a lot of romantic comedies, but the new novel, I wanted a total change of pace—no time travel—too hard. I spent eight years working on Blackout and All Clear, and I was writing in a foreign language the whole time. It was really hard. I was like, I need a totally different change of pace for this book, so I’m doing a romantic comedy about telepathy. And what a terrible idea I think telepathy is.
TW: Because we really don’t want to know what our partners think.
CW: We do not know what anyone really thinks. And we certainly don’t want the world to know what we really think. Paradoxically, this book’s genesis was when I was in public situations where someone is saying something to me, and I’m keeping a very careful poker face and thinking, “If they knew what I was thinking at this particular moment, my career would be so over.” So, anyway, I’m having a lot of fun with it.
The premise is that there is a new thing you can have done—think Botox, facelifts, think all the cosmetic surgeries that people go through and stuff—now there’s a little thing that you can have done that supposedly makes you and your partner more in sync with each other emotionally. You won’t become telepathic, but you’ll become empathetic. So you won’t fight over which restaurant, you can tell if your partner has reached his breaking point, etc. You’ll just be more emotionally in sync. And so my poor, misguided heroine is talked into having this done with her partner. In fact, many people are doing it as a sort of prenuptial, because it doesn’t work unless the two of you are emotionally bonded and serious about one another. She has it done and finds herself linked not empathetically but telepathically, and not to her boyfriend. Someone else altogether.
TW: Do you anticipate when you might finish it?
CW: Well, it’s due February of 2014. So that’s hopefully when it will be done. I’m working steadily on it, except it’s Christmas, so I failed. But it’s going pretty well, and I’m having a really good time. I’m able to work in a lot of my feelings about the modern communications revolution, in which people don’t talk to each other but sit and play with their little electronic devices. And the fact that we’re constantly striving for more communication but are actually not communicating at all in most circumstances. So it’s fun. And it’s fun to be writing a story set in the United States, where I actually know what’s going on, and it’s fun to be writing something light but serious, because once again it’s about what makes good relationships and what’s real communication.
TW: So, I have to tell you something that never fails to stun me, which is the number of young people who have confessed to me that they sneakily go through the text messages on their partners’ cell phones to see if they’re being cheated on. And a lot of them have written that this is how they’ve discovered their partners were cheating and that therefore invading their privacy was justified.
CW: Interesting. Well, that’s fascinating. The whole idea of privacy is changing so radically. Orwell would just be stunned by the fact that instead of an evil government imposing surveillance, people are willingly taking it on themselves. They’re giving away all their personal information. They don’t care that the Internet is following them on all these things. They just want to buy this new app sort of thing and the whole, “I’m not really doing anything wrong, so why should I care if anybody’s watching?” Because. Because.
And that whole notion of privacy and having things that are sacred. You don’t want people to read your diary, for heaven’s sake. Not because you’re plotting anything nefarious but just because it’s your own thoughts. That’s the only place you can feel free to say what you really think and what you really feel about things. And anyone who’s in a relationship who doesn’t occasionally have a negative thought about their partner is, you know, there’s something wrong with them.
I know there are a lot of parents who secretly monitor their kids’ Facebook pages and their kids’ texts. One guy put a bug on his kid’s backpack so that he could follow where he went. To me, especially with children, that’s almost worse than romantic partners, because with kids, you have to respect their sense of autonomy. You have to treat them as people. If you don’t, you will never be able to establish an adult relationship with them. And of course, they’re going to keep stuff from you, because that’s part of the nature of growing up. But you want to be treated like a trustworthy individual.
It worries me that everyone is suddenly turning into the scary boyfriend who is super-controlling, who wants to know who are you talking to and who was on the phone and why did you say hello to him and what does that mean. Those people don’t do that because they love you. They do that because they’re crazy. So do you want really the whole country to turn into that crazy guy? I don’t think so.
The whole idea of communication and privacy and barriers. I mean, we are used to thinking that we are free to think anything that we want, and what if that changes? What if people are listening? What if people could suddenly hear what we were thinking? How bad would that be?
Exploring the Worlds of Connie Willis
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).
“John Updike, The Art of Fiction No. 43,” interview by Charles Thomas Samuels, Paris Review.
- Photo of Connie Willis by G. Mark Lewis; used by permission
I am called Eliwys, and this is the mother of my husband, the Lady Imeyne. What is your name?’
And now was the time to tell them the whole carefully researched story. She had told the priest her name was Katherine, but Lady Imeyne had already made it clear she put no stock in anything he said. She didn’t even believe he could speak Latin. Kivrin could say he had misunderstood, that her name was Isabel de Beauvrier. She could tell them that she had called out her mother’s, her sister’s name in her delirium. She could tell them she had been praying to St. Catherine.
‘Of what family are you?’ Lady Imeyne asked.
—Doomsday Book by Connie Willis