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31 December 2002




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Connie Willis: The Facts of Death January 2003

Connie Willis began publishing short fiction in 1971 and novels in 1982, collecting since then 8 Hugos and 6 Nebulas, more than any other SF writer. Her major solo novels are Lincoln's Dreams (1987), winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award; Hugo- and Nebula-winning Doomsday Book (1992); Hugo-winner To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998); and Locus Award-winner Passage (2001), which is about investigation of near-death experiences. Other books include three short novels, Uncharted Territory, Remake, and Bellwether (1994-1996), three novels in collaboration with Cynthia Felice, and three short story collections. Her many award-winning stories include "Even the Queen", "The Last of the Winnebagos", "Fire Watch", "A Letter from the Clearys", "Death on the Nile", "At the Rialto", and "The Winds of Marble Arch". She is a frequent speaker and popular toastmaster at SF conventions. She lives in Greeley, Colorado, with her husband.

Photo by Beth Gwinn

Excerpts from the interview:

“Death is a subject Americans don’t like to talk about. I guess nobody does, but our American culture is especially in denial about death. If they do want to think about it, it’s in non-threatening Hallmark terms. Polls show these people don’t go to church, they don’t have any organized religion, but they all somehow think they’re going to heaven. They are in love with happy thoughts about death and at the same time they’re very frightened about death. You can see it in the culture everywhere - the way people jog frenetically, not to feel better or to be healthy but to be immortal. I’ve been on some convention panels where the overriding topic has been immortality: ‘The last person to die has already been born and the next generation will live forever.’ This is actually religion masquerading as science, and it speaks to how terrified people are about death.”


“Death is a major issue in my writing. My mother died suddenly when I was 12 - an astonishing, totally unexpected death. She went to the hospital to have a baby and died that night. Like Katherine Anne Porter says in Pale Horse, Pale Rider, it was ‘a knife that cut across my life and chopped it in two.’ Everything changed. The first few days were so hard to get through, partly because of the appalling things people say to you when someone dies. My best friend died of breast cancer about three years ago. When we got to the house that morning, I told her 15-year-old daughter, ‘Now, your goal for this day is to get through the day without slapping anyone.’ She said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘You wait.’ Twenty minutes later, as the relatives and friends began to arrive, she came back in and said, ‘Oh, I so see what you mean.’ People say things like, ‘There’s a reason God took her’ - if that’s true, God’s a sadistic sonovabitch. They’ll say, ‘God has a plan we don’t understand,’ and ‘You’ll get over this,’ which is the worst thing you can say to someone who’s grieving, because they don’t want to get over it. Getting over it means they lose the person forever. They’ll say, ‘The good die young’ - even at 12, I understood that was not a particularly good incentive to good behavior. It meant you were just asking for it if you behaved yourself! I found those sayings worse than vacuous; I found them insulting. I resented them mightily. I had great difficulty getting through that first day, and first year, without slapping anybody.

“What saved me was the books I had read and the books I went back to read. I was reading my way through the alphabet like Francie in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I had made it to the Ds, which was really good because I had read Peter De Vries’s Blood of the Lamb, a wonderful book for anybody who’s grieving. He said, ‘The mourners’ bench stretches on forever,’ and there is no comfort and it never gets better. I had read A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle, which says such wonderful things about death and has such an uplifting attitude, and James Agee’s A Death in the Family, which is all about the stunning shock and how you adjust to it, and Katherine Anne Porter, and Emily Dickinson.... These authors were the only people telling the truth. This is why I have always intensely resented it when people say, ‘Literature is just escaping from life,’ and ‘When you read you’re not really getting out there and living.’ To me, the only place to find life is in books! So when I set out to write Passage, I wanted to make sure some reader who had just had somebody die, instead of wanting to slap me, would say, ‘Thank you for telling the truth and trying to help me understand this whole process.’ I tried to be as honest as I could, even if it meant Passage would never be the bestseller Melvin Morse’s Closer to the Light is.”


“What am I writing next? Last year I had been working on my UFO abduction novel, having a lot of fun with it, thoroughly enjoying poking holes in the whole UFO thing and doing the original research. On the 11th of September, among all the other things that went smash was the plot of my book. I had UFOs that had been picked up on radar but not immediately shot down by the Air Force, an FBI agent who was free to come out and investigate this foolishness in New Mexico - just a number of plot points that no longer worked after the 11th. But mostly, I had been going to poke fun at our way of life, our foolish ways, our government and our pop culture and everything. You poke fun at people when they are feeling fat and sassy and complacent. When people are jittery and nervous and scared, it’s mean to poke fun at them. So I decided I would do my UFO novel when I was feeling a little calmer and maybe the country was feeling a little calmer and able to laugh at themselves again. We’re getting there real fast, moving right back into the territory of the ridiculous, and I’ll get back to the UFO book soon, but not yet.”

The full interview, with biographical profile, is published in the January 2003 issue of Locus Magazine.


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