Connie Willis

A One-sided Dialogue, by Paul Kincaid

I didn't get to meet Connie Willis when she was over here at the Glasgow Worldcon, so it's going to be a great pleasure to meet her at Intuition. After all, it might give me a chance to ask some of the things you always find yourself wanting to ask a writer whose work you admire. For instance:

What is it about Britain? I mean, you've set more stories in Britain than any other American writer I can think of, except for those who are actually resident over here. The story of yours that first introduced me to your work was "Fire Watch" which is set during the Blitz in London, then there has been "Jack" (which is also set during the Blitz, come to that, does the war hold a special fascination for you?) and of course Doomsday Book, along with a few other stories. They're not researched on the ground, are they? (Am I right in thinking Intuition will be only your second visit to this country?)

Doomsday Book, of course, raises another interesting question. It tells the story of a time travel experiment which sends a researcher back from near-future Oxford to the Middle Ages, but due to a small mistake she ends up in the middle of the Black Death. Hardly a usual subject for a science fiction novel, but what makes it even more unusual is the gritty realism that makes the historical sections of the book almost unremittingly bleak. This is not a neat, clean, romantic image of the Middle Ages, nor is it a happy-ever-after story: the ultimate death-toll would probably make most writers of militaristic sf blench. So what prompted this? And did you ever consider writing it as a straight historical novel without the time-travel trappings?

With the exception of Doomsday Book, you're not normally known as a writer of bleak fictions. In fact, a lot of your work has been comedy to some degree or another. Which do you find easier, the comedy or the realism? And why is it that Hollywood seems to feature in so many of your comedies, like the novel Remake for instance? How much of a film buff are you? That novel had so many film references in it that I got the impression you must have spent a lifetime in front of the video?

There's one thing I've noticed in quite a lot of your science fiction, a trick that I've not seen any other sf writer attempt, at least not with the same success: you take a scientific principle and then reflect that principle in the behaviour of your characters. Let me try and explain what I mean: in your latest novel, Bellwether, you have one character researching into fads and another character researching into chaos, and of course the two come together. But the way they come together is due to the way that the situation in the laboratories where they work is descending into chaos and several key characters seem to be constantly taking up new fads. So the idea behind the novel is directly reflected in the action of the novel. It's a very neat device and I've seen it a number of your other stories as well, like "At the Rialto" and "The Schwarzschild Radius". So where does the idea come from? Is it even something you do consciously, it's there in so much of your work it might almost be an unconscious approach to storytelling?

Actually, there's one story where you do the same thing and I don't think it works quite as well, "Death on the Nile". But that's a fantasy in which a group of American tourists are drawn into the ancient Egyptian underworld, which is presented as a reflection of what one of the characters is reading about Egyptian religion. It may be that scientific notions provide a more rigorous framework for that sort of story. Or does it reflect a different attitude towards fantasy and science fiction in your work?

Of course, "Death on the Nile" went on to win a Hugo, didn't it? So maybe I'm the one who's wrong. In fact, you've won more sf awards than just about any other writer, I think, with the possible exception of people like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg and they've been at it a lot longer than you. What's the secret? Are the award winners your own favourites among your stories, after all they do include such excellent stories as "The Last of the Winnebagoes" and "Even the Queen" and "At the Rialto"?

But then, my personal favourite of your stories wasn't a winner. But I still think "Cibola" is as near a perfect story as we're likely to get. It tells of a journalist being led around Denver by an old woman who claims to be able to lead her to the legendary Seven Cities of Gold, until eventually she sees Cibola reflected in the dawn light on Denver's glass towers. Now that's what I call a really magical story.

And of course there's so much more we could discuss, like the wonderful civil war fantasy Lincoln's Dreams, and the series of Christmas stories you've been writing for Asimov's, and your early collaborations with Cynthia Felice. But if we talked about everything in your work that interested me, there wouldn't be any time left for the convention.

At the end of an interview, it is traditional to say "thank you". This has been an imaginary interview, and the answers are all in my head, or in the stories. But for those stories it seems appropriate to end: Connie Willis, thank you!

Paul Kincaid


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