Part I of this multi-part interview with Connie Willis, conducted at the Nebulas this year, can be found here. If you like Connie Willis, this interview should make you very, very happy!
Carrie: What are some things you’ve figured out from your books? I’m thinking especially of All Seated, Miracle, and To Say Nothing of the Dog, because I know those books are popular with romance readers.
Connie: And you like Passage, right?
Carrie: I LOVE Passage.
Connie: OK! I think one of the things I figured out from Passage is just the incredible mystery of it all. All of my scientific knowledge, and all of my knowledge about how the brain works, tells me that there cannot be anything after death. And yet, at the same time we hold in our minds this incredible sense that it can’t be the end. And to say, well, that’s simply a function of consciousness, and if we were really aware of death as the end we couldn’t bear it so we live an elaborate form of denial – I don’t think evolution works like that. I don’t think an elaborate form of denial has ever been a survival characteristic, so why do we have these two mutually exclusive things that we hold in our minds at the same time?
I don’t think I’m any closer to that after writing the book, except that I clarified that part of the problem is that we have these two mutually exclusive ideas. We are convinced that our lives mean something. We are convinced that there is something beyond simple animal existence and destruction. Even though all the evidence is in the other direction. And we cling to it, I don’t think out of stupidity or denial or emotional inability to cope. I think we cling to it because it’s real. Because we sense some reality. And maybe all that reality is, is that we continue to exist through what we do while we’re here. I think that’s a strong possibility.
We just finished watching the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice. It is the only adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, of which all the others are pale adaptations. I think that with Jane, she’s the best “show don’t tell” person ever. Because she shows you what a horrible proposal is like – two horrible proposals! And what a good proposal is like. Then she shows you what a good relationship looks like – talk about somebody having your back, Darcy has Elizabeth’s back! But she also shows you a whole variety of bad relationships and bad marriages as well. With the contrast, you understand what a good relationship is even better. Because it is NOT Mr. Collins and Charlotte, and it is not Lady DeBourgh, and it’s certainly not Lydia and Wickham, oh my goodness!
You can’t do a summary of Pride and Prejudice that’s not at least as long as Pride and Prejudice, so you might as well read Pride and Prejudice. Which is the mark of a great book – that it can’t be synopsized.
It’s all about how do you maneuver in a society which does not value your human-ness without knocking the society over completely. And the answer is to grow up, mature. Get rid of your prejudices, and figure out the difference between the appearance of virtue, and actual virtue. Let go of your snotty attitude! There are thousands of lessons that you could embroider on a sampler from that book.
I love Jane. Jane is the best. Well, she’s not THE best. Shakespeare is the best. But Jane is about as good.
People talk about the “Jane Austen novel” as if it’s just one thing, but all her books are very different. All her stories are very different, her heroines are very different, and they face different challenges. They all face the same problem in a way, which is how to maneuver in a society that doesn’t particularly value you for who you are.
But, within that construct, you can be the bossy lady of the manor who tries to run everyone else’s life, like in Emma, or you can try to keep it all to yourself, like in Sense and Sensibility, or you can be witty and ironic like Elizabeth Bennet, although that doesn’t work for her father. Her books are wonderful. I don’t get how anyone can not like Jane Austen! But a great many books are written with everything on the surface. They will tell you how the characters feel, and how the characters think they feel, and what’s going on. They don’t leave anything for the reader to do. That tends to make people think all books are like that. But Jane makes you work. People have to be educated to read it, because nothing happens on the surface. Henry James is even more like that – there’s nothing on the surface, but under the surface is a seething mass of emotions and problems and things. But a lot of people don’t want to work that hard.
Somebody once said that a true good relationship was not two people staring into each other’s eyes. It was two people looking outwards, side by side. And I thought that was nice. And I think that one of the things in To Say Nothing of the Dog is that there are bigger fish to fry here. The two of them finding each other are not all that’s at stake here. As time goes by they realize that more and more is at stake. And then they realize that the only way for them to come together is to basically save the world. Which is true of so many stories in one form or another!
Shakespeare likes to finish his stories by having everyone get married. And I don’t think that’s an accident! I think that is basically saying, if you fix one thing, you could fix it all. It’s not that happiness is contagious. It’s that communication is contagious, selflessness is contagious, compassion is contagious. So if you apply these things in your personal life is spreads. So, like Rosalind, in As You Like It, she’s like spreading pixie dust everywhere she goes! She’s fixing everything. And I myself have complained sometimes about how coincidental it is that she fixes everything. Suddenly everyone’s happy and they get married, and it’s all great! I used to say, oh, come on! But I think he did that on purpose. I think he did that because once you fix one thing, you can fix a lot more.
To me, the message romantic comedy has for the world is this: love is a positive force. Grown-up, mature love – meaning love that is selfless, love that doesn’t put it own needs ahead of the needs of honor, courage, duty, family. The kind of dramatic love we see in Wuthering Heights, or in grand opera, is love as a divisive and explosive force. It blows stuff about. You end up with the entire world around you in shambles. It’s not a good thing. And usually everyone is dead by the last act. But romantic comedy, it fixes everything. It says that love can triumph. Communication can triumph. Understanding can triumph. Compassion can triumph. These things do occasionally triumph in the world.
And I think that Shakespeare and Jane Austen are perfect examples of that. In Pride And Prejudice, not only are Elizabeth and Darcy happy, but now Kitty will be fine. And the family is saved. Sometimes love triumphs. It usually happens when people are willing to give each other up. You know, Elizabeth has accepted that she and Darcy won’t marry, and that she and Jane will never marry, and she’s trying to act honorably in the face of that, and that’s part of what brings about the happy ending in Pride and Prejudice. And Darcy is willing to risk a lot. They’re all willing to risk a great deal. Not just so that they can have the person they want, but in the greater cause.
That’s why I love romantic comedy. It’s hard to do, and most people do it wrong. I’m actually working on a non-fiction book about the nature of romantic comedy. I get very frustrated when I watch Katherine Heigl movies, and I go, “Oh, my God! Nobody knows how to play this game!” But there are so many wonderful romantic comedies out there, too. I don’t just like the classics. Love, Actually is one of my favorites. Notting Hill, Wimbledon, Fever Pitch (both versions). Sweet Home Alabama is a wonderful romantic comedy. There are a lot of really good ones. But many people don’t know what’s going on, and they assume it’s one thing when it’s actually another.
I’m always screaming when there’s something like Life As We Know It. It’s awful. It’s just awful. Because the writers don’t understand. It would have been so easy to do right. No Reservations is a movie that gets it right – same plot. Jack and Sarah is a British movie that gets it right – same plot. Why couldn’t they get it right?
It’s because they don’t understand what romantic comedy is about. I think they think it’s about sexual attraction, and being forced into proximity. It is, partly. But it’s about more than that. Take the case of the mis-matched couple. You take a millionaire and a shop girl, or a hooker and a respected citizen, and they are different. But it’s not that they are different – it is that they appear to be different on the surface, but in some essential way they are the same.
The story then is about the discovery of how they are alike. That essential similarity turns out to be more important than all the surface differences. But in a bad comedy, they set up the part about differences, and never fix it. So the couple fights for the first half of the movie, and then they fall in love. No! They aren’t supposed to just randomly fall in love – they find out this important thing about each other!
They need to find out that they both love something more than they love themselves, or in some other way they are alike. Pretty Woman is a fabulous movie. In that movie, they go out of their way to draw that theme out. He is doing something that is really distasteful to him, and he is so ashamed. And so is she. And his job is a little more socially acceptable, but you know – it’s the same job. It’s very carefully structured, so that your sympathies are with them as they discover that even though she works as a low paid, no high school education hooker, and he’s a high powered businessman; they both badly need to change. They both are doing something of which they are deeply ashamed and they are going to rescue each other from that life and be better. It works great. And no, it doesn’t glorify prostitution! It’s a story we love to hear, that people need to change, and that people can help each other grow, and see who they really are, and see worth in who they are, and move from there.
I’m hoping that if clarify all of this for everyone, then everyone will know how to write romantic comedies, and the benefit to me will be that I will get to go to the movies more often, and it will all be lovely!
Since romance’s main thing is emotional connection, people assume that it’s all about getting the emotions right. But it’s not – so much of it is about getting the structure right. So when you find yourself sobbing at the end of a movie, or grinning like an idiot, it’s not by accident. It is in the sense that a lot of writers don’t know how to do the underlying structure. They kind of stumble on it. The get it right, but only by chance. But if you go back and look at things, you’ll find that the people who have figured out the structure will always push the right buttons, because they know how to put everything in place. It sounds very cold-blooded, but it’s not. I think the importance of structure works all through fiction, in every category.
I was talking about reversal in a class – the kind of reversal that’s a huge revelation, where it shifts everything. Someone in the class said, “Well, that’s just a trick!” It’s a trick, but it’s a trick that we respond to every time. I got a list of the Academy Award winning movies from the last 50 years, and every single one had a major revelation that shifts the entire story about half way through. This is not an accident – this always works. But it has to be done well and with heart.
This isn’t actually how I construct my stories. They way I construct my stories, is I say, “Well, how would I feel here and how would I feel here”. But then when I get to the end of the story, I find that it magically has fallen into those structures. It has the reversal, and all the elements of how you build a relationship, and all that. But I didn’t do it coldly or manipulatively. I wrote the story from my heart, and this is how stories look when they are written from the heart. They look the same way as when they are carefully structured on purpose. And I hate the stories where somebody is not skillful enough or you feel like they are just trying to push your buttons, and they devised this trick in a pitch meeting, and no one really cared anything about the story at all.
I started watching Primeval and fell in love with the series. It’s about modern-day dinosaur hunters in modern day London. It sounds dumb, but it’s all about the characters. It’s not all a romantic comedy, but that is a big part of it. And they know how to do irony, and they know how to do plot twists, and oh, my God, it’s so well written. It’s a great show! It had five seasons, which are a complete story, with a complete ending. Anyway, when I saw how they handled romantic comedy, I got really interested in what the basic plots are in romantic comedy.
On assumptions about genre:
When it comes to romance, you do have to really dig to get to the good ones, and that’s true of science fiction too. I think it was Robert Silverberg who said, “Science fiction is the only genre (he’s wrong, of course, because Westerns and romance get this too) that is judged by the worst examples of their genre, not the best. I say I write, and people say, “What do you write?” “I Write Science Fiction.”
And then people say, “Oh…” They’re clearly judging it by the worst novels every written. And you know, there are great novels out there in science fiction. And yes, some of it is junk, but some of mainstream fiction is junk too, you know. I think romance especially suffers from that. And I always think it’s the job of the people in the genre – if you love the genre, you have to get out there and say, “Of course there’s junk, but there’s great stuff too. Here’s who you should be reading. If you are an intelligent reader, and you want to read stuff that’s above the level of this other stuff, here’s what you should be reading. We all need to do a better job of getting the word out, of saying, if you like Daphne Du Maurier, you like romance. If you like Mary Stewart, you like romance. If you like Helen Fielding, you like romance. So stop saying you don’t like romance!
Well, Austen and Shakespeare, of course. In science fiction, Heinlein was one of my biggest influences. I was so lucky in the book that I read first. I knew nothing bout science fiction, and I see this book called Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. Of all the Heinleins I could have found, that was the best for me, because it was very literary and very funny. The hero was smart and sassy and had a good sense of humor. And there’s an adorable ten year old girl who’s a genius. She’s his sidekick. And they’re both at the mercy of these awful things that are happening, and they’re having to figure out how to work together. It’s obviously not a romantic comedy, because she’s ten, but I always thought that I would love to write the sequel to this where they grow up and fall in love.
It was the perfect book for me, because I saw a side of science fiction I had never seen. It had spaceships in it, it had aliens in it, it had all the traditional science fiction stuff, but it also had all this humor and at one point Kip, the hero, and the Kiwi, girl, is on trial for whether the earth should be destroyed or not. And they use Shakespeare’s Tempest as their defense. And I’m like, OK that’s the best defense anyone could ever use for us. That’s our justification for being.
My second big influence was The Year’s Best SF&F. This was the 1950’s, when Judith Merrill, and Robert P. Mills, and Anthony Boucher were editors of this collection, which came out every year. I’d read a Philip K. Dick story, and then a Theodore Sturgeon story, and then a Frederick Brown story, and then a Shirley Jackson story. It was an amazing experience, not just because the stories were amazing, but because I saw this vast variety of things you could do. You could have a highly experimental story, and then a rip-roaring adventure, and then a horror story, and then you’d have a sweet little romance – all in one book. Had I just read novels, I don’t think I would have stuck with it.
One of the first stories I ever sold was a romantic comedy. It was called “Capra Corn” – a terrible title. I knew that within science fiction, I would write anything I wanted to. I thought, I can write a sad story and then a really fun story, and nobody said a word. I thought, I can do anything I want! That’s why I had so much fun, and why I’ve stuck with the genre all this time.
On her next novel:
I’m also working on a new novel, about telepathy. Its working title is Connection; I don’t know if that’s going to be it’s real title or not. The premise of my story is that there’s a new trendy thing that couples can do. They can have this implant put in so that they are empathetic to each other – they are in tune with each other’s feelings. It’s a really stupid idea, but this is what the trendy couples are doing. Trendy couples are also using it as a pre-nuptial, because you have it done together, and it won’t work if you’re not emotionally bonded to each other.
So, my heroine is talked into this by her boyfriend, who may or may not have other motives for wishing her to have this done. She has it, and when she comes out of the anesthetic, she is not, in fact empathetic to her new boyfriend. She is full-blown telepathic, and not with him. She is connected to someone else entirely, and not to someone that she really likes. So. Obviously, the grounds for romantic comedy!
Thank you again to Connie Willis for sitting for this interview! You can find out more about Willis and her books at her website.