November 05, 2007

Winter Blog Blast Tour Presents: CONNIE WILLIS!

And here begins the tally: Thirteen novels/novellas, four short story collections,three anthologies, fifty-eight short stories (and counting!), fourteen essays, nine Hugo Awards, nine Locus Poll Awards, six Nebula Awards, four calling birds, three French hens, two turtledoves...

You'd think she'd have been on Oprah at least twice by now, but that's not the way the world works for science fiction writers. Sometimes it seems that the best are only honored by the world posthumously, and in life, only by their communities, by the legions of readers (like Sara!) who eagerly await their latest Christmas novella or short story in Asimov's.

Connie Willis is a brilliant science fiction writer -- one so brilliant that readers are only gradually aware that they are reading Hard Science. Though she has only recently written an 'officially' young adult novel, many of us as young adults sought out her collections like Firewatch, Bellwether or Even the Queen looking for a good story first -- and boy, did we ever find it.

And so it is with immense pleasure -- my GOSH, we are so honored!! -- that Wonderland presents the WBBT interview with Connie Willis, my all-time favorite science fiction writer in the world.

Wonderland: Polly Shulman's 1999 article at quips that you write "science fiction for humanities majors." Definitely the heroes of many of your books are brilliant librarians and history lovers, but in D.A., the heroine is essentially a slacker who doesn't want to get with the high-stress, highly academic program. What was the inspiration behind Theodora?

Connie Willis: Theodora isn't a slacker! She's just somebody who thinks for herself and doesn't want the same things everybody else wants. She's got a mind of her own.

I got the idea for D.A. when I was the guest of honor of the World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles last year. The theme of the convention was "Space Cadets," and everybody was asked to write a story based on either the old 1950s TV show "Space Cadet" or the Robert A. Heinlein book, Space Cadet, that it was based on. I love Heinlein's books, but when I read Space Cadet, which is about teenagers going to the space academy so they can be astronauts, again, I was really annoyed at how "gee whiz! isn't this great?" attitude all the characters had. I mean, being an astronaut is a really dangerous job and living on a space station is downright uncomfortable. I mean, you can't take real showers, and there's no room, and I don't even want to think about how unpleasant zero-gravity toilets must be. But everybody in the book was just thrilled to be there, and I decided it might be fun to have somebody who wasn't thrilled be stuck at a space academy.

Thinking for yourself and going your own way is always a big thing with my characters. When I wrote my book Bellwether, which is about where fads come from, and why everybody suddenly decides to start playing with hula hoops or start collecting Beanie Babies, my heroine had to be somebody who didn't automatically go along with fads, who thought things through for herself. I think both characters are a lot like me. Whenever everybody just loves a new movie or book or idea, especially when they say, "I just loved it, and I know you will, too!" I always think, "Well, maybe I will or maybe I won't." I guess it's the stubborn streak in me. But thinking for yourself has got to be a good thing, right?

Wonderland: D.A. was excitedly pushed into my hands by a friend who constantly bemoans the lack of science fiction for young adults. Did you read science fiction and fantasy through your teen years? What were you able to recommend to your daughter during her teen years? What, if any, young adult science fiction do you read now?

CW: I was crazy about books from almost the moment I was born, and I read everything I could get my hands on when I was a kid. The first books I read were the Oz books, so I guess I was always interested in fantasy and science fiction, but I read all kinds of things, but then, when I was thirteen, I found this book in the school library called Have Space Suit, Will Travel, and I got totally hooked on science fiction. Have Space Suit, Will Travel was by Robert A. Heinlein, and after I finished it, I read all the other Heinlein books (The Star Beast, Time for the Stars, The Door into Summer, and Double Star are my favorites) and then everything I could find by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and Zenna Henderson.

I especially loved stories about time travel, and now that I'm a writer, that's my favorite thing to write about. My books Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog and my novelette "Fire Watch" are all about historians who go back to different periods of history, and the book I'm working on right now is about time travelers who go back to World War II. It's called All Clear.

I also loved short stories--especially longer short stories, like D.A.--which is my favorite thing to write. Science fiction has always had terrific short stories, and all of its best writers have written short stories. I've listed some of my favorites below, and also some science fiction and fantasy books I think young readers might like. If you want to read some of my short stories, they've been collected in Fire Watch, Impossible Things, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories, and The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories.

(Note: I haven't told you what books you can find the short stories in, but you can usually find that out by googling the title, and lots of science fiction stories can now be found on the net.)

"The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury
"Homecoming" by Ray Bradbury
"A Sound of Thunder" by Ray Bradbury
"The Menace from Earth" by Robert A. Heinlein
"One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts" by Shirley Jackson
"Nightfall" by Isaac Asimov
"Bloodchild" by Octavia Butler
"Surface Tension" by James Blish
"Vintage Season" by C.L Moore
"Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett
"A Saucer of Loneliness" by Theodore Sturgeon
"Computers Don't Argue" by Gordon Dickson
"We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" by Philip K. Dick


Isaac Asimov--I, ROBOT

C.J. Cherryh--CYTEEN
Robert A. Heinlein--TIME FOR THE STARS

Nancy Kress--YANKED!
Lois Lowry--THE GIVER
Alexei Panshin--RITE OF PASSAGE
Paul Zindel--RATS

Madeleine L'Engle--A WRINKLE IN TIME
Andre Norton--WITCH WORLD
J.R.R. Tolkien--THE HOBBIT,

Wonderland: Many (stupid) uninformed people don't expect women to really dig into hard science, and reading Bellwether was exciting because I felt like I was in there, me, an English major, connecting to real scientific stuff. Has researching hard science been as interesting to you as it is to us as readers? What's the most exciting thing you've learned?

CW: I love science. I didn't like it that much in school 'til I started reading science fiction, though. The first SF books I read were Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel and The Star Beast and Time for the Stars, and they were full of really interesting scientific things, from how to figure out which planet you're on while trapped in a prison cell to how to grow plants on board a spaceship to what it would feel like to look at our galaxy from the outside.

I've been interested in science ever since. I even married a physics teacher. And, no, he does not do my research for me. I do it all myself, though if I'm confused about something, I'll ask him. I'm especially interested in quantum theory ("At the Rialto") and black holes ("Schwarzschild Radius") and in chaos theory, which I've written about in regard to how history works (Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and how the silly world we live in works (Bellwether.)

I think people are sometimes afraid of science--it's the math, I think, or the graphs and formulas--but there are lots of terrific authors and books out there that make science understandable. Isaac Asimov could explain anything, and so could Carl Sagan. I love Stephen Jay Gould's The Panda's Thumb, John Allen Paulo's Innumeracy, and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Everything.

Wonderland: Many writers now flinch from the words "science fiction." By some definitions, what you write isn't science fiction because it does not include: a) monsters, b) robots, c.) spaceships, d.) gadgets, e.) galaxies far, far away, etc. Do you consider yourself a writer of the preferred "speculative fiction?" What does the term "science fiction" mean to you, and what do you make of this trend to avoid the phrase?

CW: I love science fiction, and I can't imagine calling myself anything but a science fiction writer, but I know people sometimes have a very odd idea of what it is. "Oh, you write science fiction," they say, sort of wrinkling up their nose as if they smelled something bad, laugh nervously, and ask, "So, have you ever been abducted by aliens?"

"Fiction!" I want to yell at them, "I write science fiction." I think the problem is that when you say science fiction, people think of Star Trek, or Star Wars, both of which are science fiction, but they're only one part of a very big and varied field that includes funny stories by William Tenn and Fredric Brown, high-tech futures by William Gibson and Corey Doctorow and Nancy Kress, space adventures by Arthur C. Clarke and Lois McMasters Bujold, elegant and bizarre and heart-rendingly sad stories by Ray Bradbury and Howard Waldrop and John Collier, political stories by George Orwell and Ursula LeGuin, and great literature by authors like Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Octavia Butler and Philip K. Dick.

But science fiction is so big and complicated, it's hard to explain it to people. And to further confuse things, authors like Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood write about cloning and future societies and then say, "But my book isn't science fiction!" when it obviously is. I suppose they're worried people won't take them seriously either.

But I always call myself a science fiction writer. Who wouldn't be proud to be one when all those great authors I just named are science fiction writers, too? I'm thrilled to be part of their company.

P.S. I do sometimes write about all the things you listed:
My newest short story, "All Seated on the Ground," is about aliens.
D.A. and "Spice Pogrom" are both set on space stations.
Uncharted Territory is about exploring a new planet.
"The Sidon in the Mirror" is set on the surface of a dying star. (Yes, it is possible.) And I'm currently writing a story about a robot who wants to be a Rockette in the big Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall.

Wonderland: You've been simply festooned with honors--nine Hugos and thirteen nominations, six Nebulas and eight nominations, not to mention numerous other lesser known awards. This must be both exciting and scary, yet as a writer you are not as well-known as, say, Isaac Asimov was in his lifetime, even though you are one of the most awarded science fiction writers since the 80's. Do you think your being a woman writing in a genre dominated by men makes the difference?

CW: I have gotten a lot of awards, for which I am very grateful. As to why I'm not as famous as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein wasn't as famous as Isaac Asimov either, and yet he certainly deserves to be. He influenced the entire field of science fiction with great books like Citizen of the Galaxy and Tunnel in the Sky and Space Cadet, and he's one of the best writers science fiction ever had.

There are lots of writers who deserve to be more famous than they are, like Thornton Wilder (Our Town) and Rumer Godden (An Episode of Sparrows) and Nick Hornsby (About a Boy.)

Fame doesn't have much to do with anything except luck and a knack for publicity. Do you know who the most famous writer during the Victorian era was? No, not Charles Dickens. Charlotte Yonge. And the composer Bach was almost completely forgotten until Mendelssohn came along and made him famous again. And Britney Spears and O.J. Simpson are a lot more famous than all of us writers, which proves what exactly?

Wonderland: (Ooh. Good point!)

Though Fire Watch and The Doomsday Book are often classed for older young adults because of their younger protagonists (and To Say Nothing of the Dog was even shelved as YA in one library we visited) your work is not really specifically for children. After your many years of writing for adults, what inspired you to write for young adults?

CW: I don't ever really think about whether I'm writing for adults or young adults or kids (even with D.A.), I think because as a reader I never though of myself as any of those. I just thought of myself as a reader, and I think that's how most readers think of themselves. Lots of fifth and even fourth-graders have read my books Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog (and they ask much better questions about those books than the adults ever do), and I knew a fifth-grader who read Moby Dick and loved it.

Most so-called "children's classics", like Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows and The Water Babies are loved by adults and kids alike, and I read young adult novels all the time and love them.

Cynthia Felice and I wrote two books which many people consider to be YA books. Water Witch is about a young girl on a desert planet who may or may not be a princess and who has the special ability of being able to find water. Light Raid is about a young Colorado girl living during a future war between an alliance of Canada and the western United States and their enemy Quebec.

Wonderland: D.A. has some really cool photographic illustrations. How closely did you work with J.K. Potter on those? Do you feel that the illustration captured the Theodora you "saw" in your work?

CW: I'm afraid I didn't have anything to do with the illustrations for D.A. Most of the time writers don't see their illustrations until the book is already done, and sometimes the illustrations look exactly like you envisioned the characters. Other times, they don't. When I wrote my novel, Lincoln's Dreams, there were three cats in it--a yellow tabby cat, a black cat, and a Siamese cat--but when I saw the cover, there was a gray tiger cat on it. I have nothing against tiger cats (I have two of them right now, plus an English bulldog), but there wasn't a gray tiger cat in my book. So I asked my editor about it, and she said, "Oh, that's my cat. I thought he'd like to have his picture on a book." I personally thought that if her cat wanted his picture on a book he should write his own book, but that's the way things go with illustrations. I loved the illustrations for D.A. I nearly always love my illustrations. I even liked the tiger cat.

Thanks for asking me these questions and for asking me to be part of your blog blast. It was great!

Through all of the interviews, the podcasts, and the articles I've read, Connie Willis has emerged as an engaging and funny person with a lively wit. She is an icon, but from her friendliness, her openness and lack of pretension, you'd never know it.

Were you taking notes on her booklist? I was! (How'd I miss her books with Cynthia Felice?!) Some of those short stories she mentioned brought back a ton of memories! (The Veldt I read for English. Yikes!!!) Robert Heinlen's writing is amazing. Have you read Heinlen's books for the YA set? You should! If you ever need a stocking stuffer, one of Connie Willis' holiday short story collections are exactly what you need -- a touch of Christmas mirth that cuts through the badly recorded Christmas carols and the endless shopping.

We are deeply honored to have "met" Connie Willis, and are grateful to have had her "visit" us. Find more information about her appearances and book tours on her official website, ConnieWillis.Net. You'll find more amusing, unusual and creative author interviews along the Winter Blog Blast Circuit. Today's authors include Nick Abadzis at Chasing Ray, Carrie Jones at Hip Writer Mama, Phyllis Root at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, Laura Amy Schlitz at Fuse Number 8, plus Kerry Madden at lectitans, and Tom Sniegoski at Bildungsroman.

The Winter Blog Blast Tour: more fantastic authors all week long!


Vivian Mahoney said...

What an impressive writer! I love what Connie said about science fiction writing.

I haven't read any of her books yet, but I am sure to pick up a copy now. Thanks!

Erin said...

Fabulous interview! I don't read a ton of sci-fi, but this stuff sounds intriguing...

Sara said...

I'm a big fan of Connie Willis and I blogged about her for Tell An Author You Care Day, but I can't tell enough people: read her! So thanks, TadMack, for spreading the word, and for that wonderful list of books and this great interview. I love her passionate defense of the term "science fiction writer."

And I can't wait for All Clear.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great interview! I'm a long-time Connie Willis fan so am glad to hear All clear is still in the picture!

Saints and Spinners said...

Thanks so much for this interview. I've been meaning to search out more science-fiction that focuses on science and yet has good character development and something that makes me actually care about the plot. I've had it up to here with fantasy (formerly my favorite genre) and am itching to get out into space. I'm hooked by the premise for D.A.

tanita✿davis said...

Alkelda - Novella. Roll the word over your tongue and enjoy it. Connie Willis writes novella, and it just makes her work so accessible. You read a snippet, and you become addicted like the rest of us. I wish you joy of it, I really do. I love her work!! I feel so smart reading it!!

Unknown said...

Ooooh! Fascinating interview. I have to confess that I'm not familiar with Connie Willis - though I'm not sure how I could have missed her. But I'm so going to have to check out her books! A lot of the books she lists were old favorites of mine growing up, too.

Lady S. said...

Wonderful interview! I'm another long-time Connie Willis fan (Lady Schrapnell a familiar name?), but had somehow missed her latest release. Thank you for this!

Definitely you want to read Promised Land (with Cynthia Felice) - it's just wonderful.

Mr.SFTV said...

Nice interview.

If you can update it to reference the official Connie Willis website,, it would be very much appreciated. I have linked to the interview from the site in the news and will add it to the links page later.

Lee Whiteside webmaster

Ceska said...

Let me first say that I am a huge fan of Connie Willis. One of my favorite books of all time is "Bellwether" and having read "Doomsday" and "To Say Nothing of the Dog" which also featured Oxford Historians traveling back in time I was sure I would adore this book but I didn't. Also I didn't realize until I started it that it was part 2 of 2 to be continued after "Blackout" which I have not read. But it was easy to pick up with the three historians from 2060 who had traveled back in time to WWII, Mike Davies, Polly Churchill, and Eileen O'Reilly. They are trapped in the past and each is worried that they have done something to alter the time travel. Mike saved the life of one soldier who in turn saved 591 other lives; Polly saved a fellow shop girl; and Eileen kept two street children from boarding a ship that was eventually sunk by a U Boat. Meanwhile back in Oxford Professor Dunworthy (who has been in all the previous time travel books) and Technician Badri and student Colin Templar are doing their best to fix the problem so they can get the 3 of them home before they are bombed to smithereens.

tanita✿davis said...

@ Ceska~ So glad that this post resonated with you! We tend to just interview our favorite authors here, and it's always a thrill to us when others love them, and they receive much-deserved accolades from the larger world.

Thanks for dropping by!