Connie Willis is one of those writers whose books shape me as person. Her contributions to science fiction cannot be overstated – and romance readers love her romantic books and short stories (she writes a huge variety of stuff, so don’t assume from that that everything she writes is romantic or happy). I’m unbelievably honored that she spent so much time talking to me at the Nebula Awards. I’m trying to present this with some veneer of professional cool, but please just assume that the whole thing is overlaid by me screaming, “Holy shit, Connie Willis just talked to me for an hour and a half! OMG OMG OMG!”
Ahem. The interview shall hereby commence.
On choir, theater, and writing:
Carrie: So many of your books have to do with theater and singing [All Seated on the Ground involves church choirs]. Do you have real-life experience in that area?
Connie: Yes! I sang in church choir for many years, and only quit because I dropped from soprano to alto and did not want to sing alto. Plus, when my husband was a teacher, I assisted with the high school musical every year. I got lots and lots of backstage experience for which there is no substitute anywhere on the planet! And my daughter had a musical theatre background. So the musical comedy thing has always been a strong part of my life. And I loved singing in a church choir. It gives you all the experience you will even need for writing. It has drama, it has romance, it has tragedy, it has disaster, and it has lots of comedy. One of the highlights of my life was that I got to go to Manchester Cathedral on Easter Weekend during the British National Science Fiction Convention. I was going to go to church service, but I got the time wrong, and I got there an hour early. That meant that I got to listen to the choir director yelling at the choir for an hour. And it was wonderful! It was a great experience, because he was saying the exact same things that my choir director says!
I have this theory that there is only one church choir. You know, it’s like the aspen trees – there are huge aspen forests, but they’re all connected by one root system under the ground – this is my theory about church choirs. There’s one church choir, and all the individual ones you see are just little sprouts. Because they all act exactly the same, and they all have the same problems, and the choir directors all yell at them in exactly the same way, no matter what the language, and the basses are never on the right page, and the tenors are always flat, and the altos – well, you know, and the sopranos are all divas. They’re all the same, and they’re full of drama!
I’m a believer in the Jane Marple theory of literature, which is that you don’t really need to go around fighting bulls and sailing ships at sea and smuggling people out of Iran in order to understand the world. You can get plenty of experience of how the world works in a small town. For Jane Marple, that was St. Mary Mead; for me, it is church choir.
Carrie: One thing I liked about All Seated on the Ground is how appalled the main character is about the choir – they are totally unprepared and everything is chaotic, and the director is all, “Oh, don’t worry, at the last minute it will all come together”. Because in my experience that’s exactly how it is – you go one stage and everything has been a mess then this magical thing happens and it works.
Connie: It’s a miracle every single performance! And there’s that aspect to theater too – the endless disasters backstage, and then somehow magically it all comes together. I love that. And it’s kind of true, I think, of writing, although with writing you get endless drafts. You’re not held to a real-life performance, but still, at some point it has to magically come together. And I know that whenever I’m working on a project, I always think, “It’s not going to come together.” And then, somehow, magically it does.
On happy endings in romantic comedy:
Carrie: You are very successful at writing short story and novella romances, partly because you don’t try to show us the whole romance through meeting and marriage. You show us the beginning of the romance. Do you picture the couples in “Miracle” and All Seated on the Ground as having happy ever afters?
Connie: Oh, I think they already have it! I don’t like romance as well as I like romantic comedy. They are slightly different things, and usually what I’m writing is romantic comedy. The point of romantic comedy is that you see the entire relationship in microcosm. You have seen symbolically, over the course of three days, the people learn to understand each other, deal with miscommunications and misunderstandings, learn to work together, learn to understand each other and appreciate each other. All these things are what they need to make their relationship after marriage work. And you have watched the entire thing over the course of three days. And of course their relationship extends beyond the end, but does anybody really think that Cinderella and the Prince won’t be happy together? Of course not! Because Prince Charming already saw her true value through the rags, and we’ve already seen her sterling character, and we know they will be happy because we’ve watched it. So people will say, “Three days isn’t long enough to get to know somebody”, and I say, “A story is not a piece taken from real life. It’s a symbolic kind of microcosm. You are seeing the entire relationship.”
When I look at whether or not a relationship in a story will be successful, I ask myself, “What are the chances of this couple’s happiness? Have they grown up? Are they better people at the end, have they changed each other for the better?” If so, great! That’s the happy ending. Whatever stage they’re in in their practical relationship, what’s important is that they’ve worked out the essentials of how to have a relationship in the first place.
Of course, I think all my characters stay together forever. They should! They are made for each other. For one thing, they are the smartest people in the room. Also, I think that romance always benefits when it’s not the center of the plot. This is why Harriet and Peter, in Dorothy Sayers’ novels, do better together when they are trying to solve mysteries instead of just sitting around trying to have a romance. I think that when people are having adventures, or, in the case of All Seated on the Ground, when they’re trying to figure out if they are in the middle of an alien invasion and the world is about to explode – solving that problem together is how the romance happens. And I think that’s usually the case in real life, too.
On partnerships in romantic comedy:
I think one of the things I like so much about romantic comedy is that it’s not a question of seduction or surrender or winning and wooing. It is a situation of teamwork. The two are equal partners in the relationship. The two bring corresponding qualities to the relationship. Either they are just alike in some essential way, or they bring corresponding qualities, like she’s got the brains and he’s got the intuition, like in X Files. Primeval is one of my favorite television shows ever, with one of my favorite romantic comedies in it – they really know how to do romantic comedy! In one of their couples, Abby and Connor, she’s got the brawn and he’s got the brains.
Couples in romantic comedies are equal partners in that they know that they both have to bring something to the relationship. That was a big difference when screwball comedies like It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby came out. Instead of just having the millionaire woo the shop girl, the shop girl gives as good as she gets. In It Happened One Night, she starts off as the spoiled heiress, and he has to rescue her three times in the first 20 minutes of the movie. But then the ground shifts and she starts rescuing him right back! My favorite line ever from a romantic comedy movie is in Pretty Woman, where Richard Gere’s character says, “OK, I saved you, now what” and Vivian says, “I rescue you right back”. And that’s the essence of romantic comedy.
In To Say Nothing of the Dog, they’re both desperately trying to solve the problem and find the bishop's bird sump but they’ve got each other’s back all the way through it.
On life after death (this relates to Passage, but is not a spoiler):
I don’t buy any of the simplistic ideas – that there is a real tunnel, and a real heaven. I think the chances are that we might experience something symbolic, like a vision. But I do believe in immortality. That became very clear to me as I was writing the books. I believe in it, but that the immortality comes from who you were, and what you did to influence the future while you were here. The love lasts.
My favorite passage ever in a book is the last paragraph from Thorton Wilder’s Bridge at San Luis Rey. He talks about how all these people died, “And soon all the people who knew them died, and the memory of them passed from the earth.” But love didn’t. Love is the bridge, the only meaning, the true immortality.
I believed that when I started the book, and by the end of the book I really believed it. I convinced myself by looking at all these people’s lives, by looking at the Titanic. [The quote is: “We ourselves shall be loved and then forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”]
We wouldn’t last as a species for a second if we simply tried to survive. We last because we become convinced that it is worth saving something besides our own pitiful lives. Whether it’s the first class mail, or letting somebody else go in a boat, or staying at your post at the wireless until the bitter end, so that you can save other people, whatever it is – all those people on the Titanic made the decision that their own lives were not as important as doing something else. That’s what I think drives us as a species, and that’s our immortality.
But it’s better said in the book! You can’t say it out loud, it always simplifies things. You lose the resonances. When you see it in front of you, it has way more resonances. It’s like trying to summarize War and Peace by saying, “Don’t invade Russia”.
On the writing process, and on how the subconscious uses writing to solve puzzles:
I love finding great stories. There’s a million stories out there, of course – “There’s a million stories in the naked city”. Only some of them have resonance. Only some of them are the kind of thing that when you hear them you say, “Oh, my gosh – that means something! What does that mean?” And then you try to figure it out for yourself. Whenever I find one of those somewhere I know that I’m heading towards a story, because I want to know what happened, and why.
A lot of times people ask me questions about process. There’s always asking me things like, “Do you write by hand, do you use a computer?” I’m like, “None of this matters!” So I started thinking, “What are people really asking when they ask that?” I do think the process is interesting where you get from the process to the actual story. But it’s really hard to explain. I like to talk about things that are not about me and my writing and my stories, which is why I always talk about something else.
I have had stories where I thought I knew what I was doing, and I can tell you step by step how I came up with the idea, and how I constructed the story, only to discover much later, sometimes after the story was published, that the story was about something completely different. I don’t get this! Clearly, your subconscious has a completely different agenda for your stories than you do! And what you are trying to communicate, and what you are actually communicating are two different things. And that’s really a mystery to me, and one that I find really fascinating.
And I’m also fascinated by the question of why did one piece of information leave me cold, and another send a shiver up the back of me? I think my answer is that we all have our own issues, our own things that we’re trying to figure out in our lives, things we have to deal with. And we deal with them all the time. They’re things that are scars we are trying to heal, or things that disturb us, or something. And our subconscious is always working on these things. Always. 24/7. I think that what happens in when you read something or find something or hear something, that your subconscious latches on to that and sees a piece of a puzzle. That’s why you respond to one story or piece of information over all others.
We’re going to England shortly, and this time we’re going to do a Jane Austen/King Arthur/Primeval tour of England. So I look up this stuff about a forest that we have to pass through. It has all this stuff, it has a swannery…
Carrie: Wait, what? What’s a swannery?
Connie: A swannery! A swannery is where they raise swans! Is that not cool? And it’s been there since 1541! So anyway, in the guidebook it said that in Lyndhurst you might want to go to the church, because it’s where Alice Liddell is buried. The real Alice in Wonderland. Her grave is there. So I look up the church, and I found what they call “A Stairway to Heaven”. They made a stairway up the hill of old tombstones. Imagine very shallow, shallow steps. And I’m like, “OK, that is so cool! Why is that cool? It should be creepy. But it’s not creepy! It’s cool!” It’s in Lyndhurst – that’s the name of the town. So I’ve got to go there, and I’ve got to see it. And I’m sure there’s a story in there for me. I don’t know why, though. I don’t know why that piece of information resonated more than anything else.
You would think that after all these years of writing I would understand it, but I don’t. I could show you the conscious process – I understand that really well. I can show you how to plot, I can teach you how to do characters, all that stuff. But what’s really going on? I have no idea! I think that under the book you’ve written, you’re teaching yourself. You are your best reader. You are the one who really needs to read this book. Because you are trying to figure out things that you haven’t been able to figure out.
Thank you to Connie Willis for the interview while Carrie S was at the Nebulas. More of their conversation will be posted in the coming weeks.