Connie Willis talks BLACKOUT! (Part 1)

Connie Willis’s new book BLACKOUT is in stores now and has got people talking! Connie’s been touring the country talking about the book, fielding questions from fans, and musing about the writerly life. So that more folks can read Connie’s observations, we thought it’d be great to give her a forum here on Suvudu. Look for more from Connie Willis over the next few days, but for now, without further ado, let’s turn it over to Connie:

Hi, I’m Connie Willis. I just finished writing a new novel, BLACKOUT, and Suvudu has been kind enough to let me blog about it and about writing and books and…well, whatever.
I guess I’ll start by introducing myself. I love books and being a writer, except for the actual writing part, which I find really hard. Erma Bombeck said if you liked housework, you weren’t doing it right. I feel the same way about writing.
In spite of this, I’ve written a bunch of books–DOOMSDAY BOOK, BELLWETHER, PASSAGE, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, LINCOLN’S DREAMS–and tons of short stories–”Even the Queen,” “The Winds of Marble Arch,” “Inside Job.” My story, “Just Like the Ones We Used to Know,” was recently made into a TV movie starring Mary Tyler Moore called SNOW WONDER.
I’ve spent the last eight years–yes, eight–writing a novel about an assortment of Oxford historians who travel back to World War II to observe history on-site: Pearl Harbor, the evacuation of Dunkirk, Bletchley Park, and the London Blitz. They’ve done tons of research on everything from the blackout to food rationing and putting out incendiary bombs, but the war’s a far more complicated place than they imagined, and when things begin to go wrong, they find themselves in over their heads.
BLACKOUT is only the first half of the story. The second half is ALL CLEAR, which will be out in the fall. (Note: both books are completely done, in case you were wondering about starting BLACKOUT and then my being hit by a bus or something.) And I promise this isn’t one of those books that turns into a never-ending series. BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR tell the whole story, and my next novel’s going to be a comic novel about UFOs and Roswell.
My favorite books are Sigrid Undset’s KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER and Jerome K. Jerome’s THREE MEN IN A BOAT. My favorite author is Shakespeare (of course) and my favorite play of his is TWELFTH NIGHT. My favorite movies are DREAMCHILD and LOVE, ACTUALLY. I love Preston Sturges’s screwball comedies and Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries and have a bulldog (Smudge) and a cat (Huck) whose name should be He Who Must Be Obeyed.
And I’ll talk to you again–and attempt to answer some of the questions folks ask me–next time.
Connie Willis

14 Responses to “Connie Willis talks BLACKOUT! (Part 1)”

  1. rdaneel says:

    I’ve read Blackout, and it’s very good. My only complaint, which I realize is not your fault, is that it would be nice to have the second half of this novel available now rather than having to wait until the fall.
    Perhaps you won’t want to answer this question, as it might “spoil” All Clear, but here goes:
    Will the resolution to All Clear be consistent with the universe it’s set in, as set out in particular in To Say Nothing of the Dog? I’m thinking in particular that To Say Nothing of the Dog had some references to some far future dates, beyond the “future present” of 2060 in Blackout and All Clear.

  2. Dr. Siddiq says:

    Hi Connie,
    I love your work. I am curious if you can forward me your literary agents contact information to discuss filmic adaptation.

  3. Holly says:

    I love yout books. I think your writing style seems British. Does that make sense? It kind of reminds me of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Do you enjoy these writers? I also notice that you seem to have a lot of respect for churches and also for the clergy. And yet your novels are not overtly religious. This is very unusual for a Sci/Fi fantasy writer. I find it moving. Do you have any comments on this? Also, I was so touched by accounts of the bravery of the Londoners bravery that I spent a lot of time crying but not depressed. The book makes me very greatful for my life. Looking forward to your next novel. Thank You,

  4. Howard Brazee says:

    I’m curious – what relationship is there between the character of Gerald Phipps and the Coloradan of the same name?

  5. Shawm Kreitzman says:

    Thank you, and Curse you!
    Thank you for a wonderful, gripping, moving time-travel story – which I have just devoured, and which was every bit as thrilling and satisfying as I wanted it to be…
    Curse you, because I now have to spend the rest of the year rocking in a corner waiting for the second half of the book! My girlfriend (who is just as big an admirer of your work as I am) is absolutely refusing to read it (or even let me talk to her about it) until both books are in her hands, and I can’t say I blame her. It’s going to be a long year.
    Although I am an American, I have lived in London for the last 20 years, and I love reading your London-based time travel stories. My flat is actually just around the corner from Grove Road and the site of the first V-1 impact; it’s a reminder that this city is the sum of its history; a history that will hopefully continue into the future.
    …Which leads to my question: I know it isn’t fair asking about this before we get to read the rest of the story, but you reference the recent London terrorist bombings (in relation to Russell Square Tube Station) as taking place in 2006. Is this significant? Like most Londoners, I remember the 7th of July, 2005: confused news reports, growing realisation, frantic calls to friends and family… Was the year changed for a reason?
    Thank you for a wonderful and life-changing body of writing, and please don’t get hit by a bus! Apart from anything else, the world needs more screwball comedies!

  6. Jon Lathrop says:

    I am in the middle of enjoying Blackout – relishing the return to the world of To Say Nothing… and your exquisite plotting – and I am very interested in taking a writing class or workshop with you leading. Is there any possibility of this and, if so, how can I find out more?

  7. Mike Scott says:

    There are a lot of inaccuracies in the novel, which make it quite painful to read if you actually live in London.
    Inability to use Victoria station wouldn’t be much of an impediment to getting round London in 1940, when it was only on the District line and wasn’t an interchange. There aren’t any garter snakes in England. Nor is there any skunk cabbage. London is not laid out in blocks. Russell Square Tube station was involved in a terrorist incident in 2005, not 2006. No English person who’s studied crosswords in the history of games could be unaware of the existence of cryptic crosswords, even in 2060. Charing Cross wasn’t the right Tube station for Trafalgar Square in 1945, because it was what’s now called Embankment. What’s now called Charing Cross was two different stations called Trafalgar Square and Strand, and you’d have used one of those for Trafalgar Square.
    “5p” was not a feasible price to charge in England until 15 February 1971 when “p” was introduced as an abbreviation for new pennies after decimalisation of the currency — 5 old pence was 5d. Your heroines in 1940 have problems with the Victoria and Jubilee lines being unavailable, which they blame on the Luftwaffe. This is a little unfair, because the Victoria line opened in 1968 and the Jubilee line opened in 1979, so they’d have had quite a long wait for their trains even without the Blitz. Even more impressive, one of them manages to catch a Circle line train, seven years before it appeared on Tube maps and nine years before it had any formal existence. There are no circumstances in which a feasible route from Daventry to London by train goes via Hereford. I do not believe (but can’t find conclusive evidence) that tokens were used in Underground turnstiles in 1940.
    London is not as big as you think it is. Bomb damage causes one character to have to walk two miles from Stepney to find a bus — but Stepney is less than two miles from the City, and is also less than two miles from at least a dozen Tube stations on several different lines (even lines that actually existed in 1940). Furthermore, there is no way that the Blitz could disrupt public transport enough for a healthy 24-year-old in a hurry to take three hours getting from Euston to a department store on Oxford Street — because it takes less than half an hour to walk it.

  8. Shawm Kreitzman says:

    Mike, I think you overstate some of the inaccuracies somewhat. You are of course correct about the Jubilee and Victoria lines, but I can’t say that spoiled the book for me. I also wondered about the use of tokens in the 1940’s, but I will have to ask around about that one (perhaps Connie Willis has already done just that!).
    Although five pence would have been written as “5d” people still called them “pence” so characters talking to each other would have said “fivepence”. William Gilbert used to recall the tea lady at the Japanese Exhibition that was to inspire “The Mikado”: her only words in English were “Sixpence, please”.
    Although the Circle Line was still in the future, most of the stations were already connected by the District and Metropolitan Lines (they form a natural circle in the centre of the map) and if I wanted to be pedantic about it, I could imagine a time-travelling Londoner thinking of this as the Circle Line, even if it wasn’t actually called that.
    Stepney is actually almost exactly 2 miles from the City by direct route, without taking into account roads blocked by bomb damage. I can easily imagine walking that distance without seeing a bus: that happens often enough in the 21st Century without the excuse of the Blitz, and it would be almost inevitable if, say, a bomb were to hit the bus depot…
    As for getting from Euston to Oxford Street, I have a vivid memory of trying to get around the city after the July, 2005 bombings. A city that has just been bombed suddenly becomes a different place, and no matter how well you know it, you find that you might as well be moving around an Alien Landscape. Routes that should be straightforward and direct are impassible (although that is equally true when they are merely digging up the water mains – I sometimes think Boris Johnson is secretly trying to re-create Blitz conditions). Everything you think you know about the place is suddenly useless. But that, I daresay, is the point that Connie Willis is making.
    I do wonder why the 2005 bombings have apparently become the 2006 bombings, but there seem to be a few curious details about 21st Century history (what would be “illegal” between Colin and Polly?) so I will happily wait to see what develops in “All Clear”.
    And thank you again, Ms Willis, for giving us much to think about! Please don’t make us wait another eight years for your next novel!

  9. Mike Scott says:

    The quotation from the book is ‘“Downstairs in the vestibule, but it’s for local calls only. Five p. If you need to make a trunk call, there’s a pillar box on Lampden Road.”‘ That’s not “five pence”, and it’s not plausible dialogue for any time pre-decimalisation.
    (You’ll note that she also seems to think a pillar box is a phone box, not a letter box.)

  10. Claire Baxter says:

    Reading Blackout inspired me to go back and read To Say Nothing of the Dog. I don’t have questions about the first (because I’ll wait until All Clear answers them) but I had a question about the latter. I’d like to read some of the authors mentioned, on page 205: “Dorothy Sayers, E.C. Benson, Agatha Christie.” I’ve read Sayers and Christie, but I’ve never heard of E.C. Benson. I can find writers who are E.F. Benson (humour novelist and biographer) and Mildred Benson (mystery writer). Did you mean either of these people? Or can I just not find the person you meant? I’d love to read more mysteries from the 1930’s, if you could recommend more favorites, or help me figure out who this mystery author is. Thanks!

  11. Elizabeth says:

    Claire, I think you might be looking for E.C. Bentley, the author of “Trent’s Last Case”, amongst others. “Trent” was one of Dorothy L. Sayers’ favourite detective novels and was published in 1913.

  12. Claire Baxter says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth, I’ll give that a try. I would still like to hear a definitive answer from the author, though, as none of them seem clearly best so far. (Though I’ll see after I’ve read a book by each of them.)

  13. Ali Kokmen says:

    Thanks for all your comments on Connie’s blogging!
    In case you haven’t seen it yet, Connie Willis responds to some of these comments in her latest blog entry here.
    Well worth a look (as are all of her posts, of course!)

  14. Glo McNeill says:

    I was born in 1929 and lived in England during WW11. I adored Blackout and have just started All Clear, but there are a couple of details which bother me terribly. 1: The word ‘phonograph’. That is an American word and was unknown in England. It was a gramaphone. 2: Getting tea in ‘a carton with a lid’. You could only get tea in cups which were later returned to the mobile or non mobile purchase point. Paper and cardboard were in short supply and certainly not used for beverages. 3: ‘Oleomargarine” is the American word, it was just ‘margarine’ in England.

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