Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis
If you Google “author with most Hugo awards” the answer Google pushes on you is that Robert A. Heinlein won four Hugo awards in his lifetime for Best Novel. Not counting retroactive awards, his last win was in 1967. If you squint you will see another result: Lois McMaster Bujold, four wins for Best Novel with overall sixteen Hugo nominations and seven wins. You have to pay attention to find Connie Willis, despite the fact that the correct answer to the question is actually “Connie Willis”: eleven Hugo Award wins and twenty-four fiction nominations.
Connie Willis was born in Denver, CO. She earned a BA in English and elementary education from the University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, in 1967, and taught elementary and junior high school from 1967–1981. Her first SF story was published by Worlds of Fantasy in 1971, “The Secret of Santa Titicaca.” She landed her first Hugo nomination for “Daisy, in the Sun,” published in 1979 in Galileo. In 1982 she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which made writing full-time possible.
That year, she published her first award winners: Hugo- and Nebula-winning novelette “Fire Watch” in Isaac Asimov’s Wonders of the World and Nebula-winning story “A Letter from the Clearys” in the July 1982 Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. First solo novel Lincoln’s Dreams, published by Bantam Spectra in 1987, won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, and her second solo novel, Doomsday Book, published by Bantam Spectra in 1992, won Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards.
In fact, Connie Willis also has the most Nebula wins (seven wins and eight nominations) and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009. She has won or been nominated for pretty much every major SF award, a slew of minor awards, foreign awards, and even a number of awards you’ve never heard of, not to mention (take note, Google) a 2011 Robert A. Heinlein Award for “outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings to inspire the human exploration of space.”
In 2011 she took home a Nebula for “novel in two parts” Blackout/All Clear (published by Bantam Spectra), and the next year the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America named Connie Willis the recipient of the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award for her lifetime contributions and achievements in the field. She kept going with a Locus Award win in 2014 for collection The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories, Asimov’s Readers’ Poll wins for short story “All About Emily” in 2012 and for novella “I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land” in 2018, plus a handful of other nods and nominations.
Connie Willis has lived in Colorado most of her life. She lives (and continues to write notable work) in Greeley, CO with her husband Courtney. In November 2020 novella Take A Look at the Five and Ten was published by Subterranean Press and appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine.
You made your first SF sale to Worlds of Fantasy with “The Secret of Santa Titicaca” in 1971, and earned your first Hugo nomination for “Daisy, in the Sun” in 1979. When did you start to really feel established in the industry, what did it take, and what was the road like getting there?
Like so many authors, I was one of those “overnight successes” that really wasn’t. I started writing stories and sending them out to publishers as soon as I graduated from college and got married (1967). I sold a short story (not SF) and an article on teaching in 1968, and then “Santa Titicaca” in 1971 to a magazine that promptly went belly-up, but basically I worked in isolation for nine long years ’til I finally found the Southern Colorado Writers’ Workshop in 1976. The worst moment in all that time was one day when I walked to the post office to pick up the mail. (We lived in a small mountain town without house-to-house mail delivery.) I had a pink slip in our mailbox, and I thought it was a present from my grandmother. Nope. It was every manuscript I had out, coming back with a rejection slip. Until then when I’d gotten a manuscript back, I could always say, “Oh, well. But I bet the story I’ve got out to Asimov’s (or F&SF or Omni) will sell,” but this time it was virtually everything, and I took it as a definite sign that God was telling me, “Time to pack it in.” Luckily, I still had a bunch of prestamped manila envelopes at home, so I sent everything out one more time, something sold, and I kept going.
As to when I felt fully established, the answer is never. When you’re as neurotic as I am, you’re always worried. As Robert Silverberg (another neurotic) said when we were discussing this, “There’s always something to worry about. With luck, you can go straight from, ‘Why can’t I sell anything?’ to all washed-up without anything in between.”
Your first novel out was Water Witch in 1982, a collaboration with Cynthia Felice; your first solo novel was Lincoln’s Dreams in 1987. Did writing novels change anything about the way you wrote or approached short fiction?
I remember people saying to me, “You should try novels. They’re so much easier. They’ve got so much more space.” Nope. If you do it right, you don’t have any space in novels either. Novels are definitely different—you’ve got to have lots more supporting characters and subplots and complications and reversals and twists and turns—but if they’re done right, they’re just as taut and carefully written as short stories. I love writing both for different reasons.
Are there books or stories that were particularly difficult to write for one reason or another, and how did you overcome the challenges you faced?
They’re all difficult. As Erma Bombeck said about housework, “If you do it right, will kill you.” Early on, I thought, someday soon I’ll figure this out and then writing will be a breeze, but that’s never happened. Every story and novel has a whole different set of things you need to learn how to do. It’s like you’re starting from scratch every time.
That’s not quite true. As you continue to write, you learn how to do a bunch of things—dialogue, flashbacks, transitions, description—which you can use on the new story, but writing is still a pain. As somebody or other said, “Writing is easy. You just sit down in front of a blank page and stare at it until drops of blood appear on your forehead.” When I’m on panels with writers who say, “Oh, I just love writing. I just sit down and it flows out like magic,” I always want to slap them.
I only remember one story that came easily, and that was only after I’d struggled for weeks and weeks to come up with an idea. I was supposed to be writing a story about quantum theory for a collection, and nothing, NOTHING, was working. I finally walked down to the library (a mile or so) to try to get an idea, spent a totally unproductive couple of hours there, and then, on the walk home, had a revelation. Once I had the idea, I was able to write the story very easily, based on my recent experiences at the Nebula Awards in Hollywood at a hotel opposite Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and just down the street from the Frederick’s of Hollywood Bra Museum. The story was “At the Rialto.”
That’s the only time that’s ever happened, and you can’t count on revelations or dreams or the cavalry riding in at the last minute. You just have to keep slogging away. Which, with the exception of that one story, is what I do.
You’ve been an award-winning icon in the industry and you have a ton of work out. Did you ever hit a career or a writing slump, where you struggled to sell or produce work? And how did you deal with it?
Despite appearances, I am an incredibly slow writer. I’ve just produced a lot of stuff because I’m really old. I’ve always been able to keep working, I think because of the way I work, which is in pieces. If I get stuck on one story, I work on another. If I get stuck on one part of a novel, I write some other scene or the ending or something and then come back to the place I was stuck in a couple of weeks. Or I work on something else altogether.
My main problems have been A) deadlines, which I hate and obsess over, and when you’re muttering, “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” over and over in your head, it’s not really helpful. People tell me to just ignore the deadlines, but I can’t. I keep switching back to high school mode when I absolutely had to get papers in on time and, yes, I obsessed back then, too, and B) all the things that interfere with my writing, like having to feed the cat and call the vet because the dog threw up and deal with e-mails and phone calls and the dishes and the ironing and packing to go to conventions and writing speeches and . . . If only real life wouldn’t intervene, I could get SO much writing done.
On the other hand, if I didn’t have all those things to deal with, I wouldn’t have anything to write about, so . . .
One of the many things people love about your work is the dialogue. What are the keys to writing effective dialogue?
I was basically born talking, so dialogue has always come easily to me. (Note: it’s the only thing that has. Everything else—plotting, characterization, description, foreshadowing—I had to learn.)
Take a Look at the Five and Ten is a holiday tale. I feel like you are drawn to holiday tales, you even have a collection of them. What do you like most about writing them?
I love Christmas, which is reason enough, I guess, but I also think that good Christmas stories are hard to write—getting just that right mix of cheerful and ironic so the story’s not too schmaltzy, but you also don’t want to kill yourself after reading it.
I was just asked to help edit and to write the introduction for the Library of America’s collection of American short stories. It was fun, but really challenging—there are SO many stories to choose from, and we were trying to get just the right mix of funny and serious, mainstream and genre, old favorites and things people have never read before, and stories from lots of different backgrounds and cultures, just like the American Christmas itself. I just finished the introduction, and I’m really looking forward to the book’s coming out.
Take a Look at the Five and Ten is told from Ori’s point of view, a young woman caught up in various kinds of family friction. She’s the target of Sloane’s ire, who jealously guards her latest “boyfriend of the month” and Ori gets ensnared in said boyfriend’s scientific investigations. Or . . . so it seems! What do you like most about Ori? Do you see a lot of yourself in her?
Ori’s obviously a Cinderella character, and as Kurt Vonnegut said, everybody loves that story. It appeals to the downtrodden in all of us. I’m certainly not downtrodden anymore, though I still seem to run into people who make mean-girl remarks, like the kind Sloane and her awful mother are so good at and which invariably wound, as they are intended to. What IS it with mean girls? They must spend hours and hours thinking up the absolute cruelest thing they could possibly say. Where do they find the time? And WHY do they feel the need to say those things? I would love to write a story about the whole mean girl thing, only, even though I have been known on occasion to have a sharp tongue, I could never think of the hurtful comments they come up with.
What is special or important to you about Take a Look at the Five and Ten?
I worked at the downtown Denver Woolworth’s one Christmas when I was in college and absolutely loved it. As a result, I’ve been talking about it ever since, driving my family and friends crazy (it’s a really boring story) so I decided to see if I could get it out of my system by writing a story about it. With maybe a few embellishments . . .
What is your writing routine like, and has it changed with the pandemic?
I used to work at Starbucks every day, and the pandemic practically killed me, but I compromised by setting up a work table in the living room and getting my chai at the drive-through. A couple of weeks ago my Starbucks shut down due to COVID and I had to drive halfway across town to get my chai. Addiction is a terrible thing.
I try to write mornings and then do everything else in the afternoons. And I usually split my writing time into blocks: half an hour on research for the time-travel novel, then an hour on the novel and an hour on something else. If things start going well, then I just keep going, but if not, then the switching out helps me to be productive.
What else are you working on, or what else do you have coming up that readers can look forward to?
I just finished my alien abduction novel, The Road to Roswell, and it’s been handed over to my agent. It’s about a well-meaning maid of honor, whose crazy friend is getting married at the UFO Museum in Roswell during the UFO Festival, who gets snatched by an alien and forced to drive all over the Southwest while he?she?it? (it looks like a tumbleweed, but with the bullwhip talents of Indiana Jones) abducts other people and tries to communicate what it’s doing there and where it needs her to take him—Area 51? Monument Valley? A Las Vegas wedding chapel?
I’ve also started work on a new Oxford-historian time-travel novel called The Spanner in the Works, in which a young woman from 1980 accidentally gets transported to the future Oxford (something that’s supposed to be impossible according to time-travel theory.) The time-travel techs are freaked out and try to send her back before she causes any paradoxes, but the drop won’t cooperate and sends her everywhere but back home. Although my time-traveling historians are based in Oxford, I’ve never actually written about the city, which is the home of most of my favorite authors—the Inklings, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lewis Carroll, and Percy Bysshe Shelley (who’s stuck in a basement somewhere and probably deserves to be)—so I decided to write a novel where I could explore Oxford—and Tintern Abbey—in assorted time periods, and Hollywood in the 1930s.
Oh, and I’m working on a story involving paper dolls and another one about Orpheus.