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Connie Willis: Her Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland

Connie Wills is arguably the reigning Queen of SF, having won more Hugo awards than any other writer, as well as many Nebulas, Locus Reader Polls, etc, plus her novels are consistently big sellers. There are only two other active female authors that I would rate as highly, both of whom I will be focusing on in the (hopefully) near future. They are Ursula K. Le Guin and Lois McMaster Bujold (maybe a third; C. J. Cherryh). I'm sure there are many other women authors worthy of mention, but I'm just talking about those with whom I'm familiar.

She was born on New Years Eve, 1945, in Denver, Colorado, and has lived in that state the majority of her life. She now resides with her husband Courtney in Greeley, where he is a physics professor at the University of Northern Colorado. When she attended that institution it was named Colorado State College. She graduated with a degree in education in 1967, working as an elementary school teacher for several years until the birth of her daughter. At that time she decided to try her hand at writing full time.

She had already published a few short stories, the first of which was "The Secret of Santa Titicaca" in the short-lived (only four issues) Worlds of Fantasy in 1971. Her first Hugo award nomination came in 1979 with "Daisy, in the Sun," and her first winning story was 1982's "Firewatch," which garnered both a Hugo and Nebula. It was not only the title story of her first book collection, it was also the first in her popular Oxford Time Travel series. In it, a young James Dunworthy travels back to 1940 London to witness the attempts to save St. Paul's Cathedral from fire-bombing during the Blitz, and this same incident is referenced in her latest release Blackout/All Clear.

1982 also saw her first collaboration with Cynthia Felice, with whom she has written three novels, all out of print at this time. The first was Water Witch, a combination of science fiction and fantasy. Then came 1989's Light Raid, which concerns a future American Civil War pitting the Eastern seaboard against Western states. The last of the collaborations (so far) was Promised Land from 1997, which is as much a romantic fantasy as it is SF. Her first solo novel, 1987's Lincoln's Dreams, while more a romantic/historical novel, was the winner that year of the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. This is not to be confused with the JWC Award for Best New Writer. It concerns an American Civil War historian who encounters a woman whose dreams seem to be possessed by the spirit of Robert E. Lee.

By individual titles (if not by word count), I've read more of her short stories and novellas/novelettes than I have her novels, and from that experience I would say she is more successful, in a literary sense, at the shorter lengths. That is not to say her novels are not worth reading, far from it, but I think her shorter work throughout the '80s and early '90s helped hone and tighten her plotting techniques. That and her ability to create believable, sympathetic characters are her two strongest suits. She has produced four separate story collections, the first of which was the aforementioned Firewatch (and Other Stories), which is currently out of print but available in a Kindle edition from amazon.com. I'm not sure about other e-readers, but if you have a Nook, Sony Reader or other device, it is possible it is also available for them. Her second collection was Impossible Things, currently available in paperback and for the Kindle, which is also the case for her third, Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. In 2007, Subterranean Press issued the massive The Winds of Marble Arch: A Connie Willis Compendium, containing twenty-two of her stories, six of which had not been collected previously. There was also a separate "Limited/Lettered" edition which had two others plus a career-spanning bibliography. Unfortunately, all editions of this are out of print, and the cheapest copies I've been able to track down start at around $50. One of the stories exclusive to this book is the non-SF "Just Like the Ones We Used To Know," which was the basis for the 2005 TV movie Snow Wonder.

Doomsday Book from 1992, marked the true maturation of her narrative skills. A continuation of her look at the time travel adventures of Oxford faculty and students, it is at once tense and suspensful as well as hopeful and inspirational, and it won both a Hugo and Nebula. This sequence continued with 1997's Hugo-winning To Say Nothing of the Dog, and reached a new peak with her latest novel series, Blackout/All Clear, again a dual award winner. In addition, each of these novels also won the Locus Poll for Best Novel in their respective years. I'm sure we have not seen the last of Dunworthy and crew, but in a recent interview Willis stated she is working on something completely different for her next publication.

During this same period she continued to publish other short stories and novels, many of which won or were nominated for the major awards. Three stand-alone novels from this time are still in print, even though an omnibus edition of them is not. While I have not read it, the synopsis of 1994's Uncharted Territory reminds me of the premise of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein human explorers visit an alien planet where gender is ambiguous, although it seems Willis treated it more as a farce. Remake, also 1994, is a light-hearted look at a future Hollywood (maybe not so future anymore) where digitized images of former screen icons once again reign at the movies. It was nominated for a Hugo, and while enjoyable, the gimmicky, new slang dialog gets old fairly quick. Bellwether from 1996 was a Nebula nominee, and is a good example of how Willis can add a romantic twist to a tale without letting it overwhelm the science fiction elements. The out-of-print omnibus of these three short novels was titled Futures Imperfect. Passage (2002) is a look at research into near-death experiences. It was nominated for both a Hugo and Nebula as well as an Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was the winner of that year's Locus Poll for Best Novel.

In the last year or so she has released several novellas in individual "chapbooks," limited editions in hardcover but also for e-readers, and those are relatively inexpensive. They include Inside Job, D. A. and All Seated on the Ground, and while each contain either fantasy or SF elements, they are primarily comedic farces. Another forthcoming one is All About Emily, only listed for hardcover on amazon at the moment with no release date given.

If there is anything I could point to as a criticism of her work, it would be the frequent use of a narrative gimmick, what mystery writers refer to as a MacGuffin. It could be an object, a person or just a story element that at times seems to be the focus of the narrative, but in most cases turns out to be used for misdirection. As far as I can recall right now, this is most evident in her time travel stories, although present in several others. It usually does not hinder the plot, but rather keeps the reader's focus on what the author wishes until her true purpose is revealed. As for her use of romance, that typically is a natural progression of character development, even when it is somewhat predictable, and it is nearly always on the periphery of the story, not the main focus.

In conclusion, I highly recommend Connie Willis as one of the best writers in this or any other genre. Her stories are lively, literate, and full of clean and crisp prose. It is obvious she loves to play with the language. She is an excellent researcher, and seems truly interested in her historical (even when fictional) characters and scenarios. May she continue to produce great stories for many years to come. Even if she wins no more awards I think it will be quite a while before anyone else surpasses her combined totals. There are several other authors more advanced in age that probably deserve recognition as Grand Masters before her, but Willis is definitely on track to also win that accolade in the future.

UPDATE, Jan. 16, 2012: How prescient I am. The SFWA announced today that Connie Willis will be this year's recipient of the Grand Master award.

Related Links:
Connie Willis' Official Website
An overview and interview at Locus Online
ekt's review of Doomsday Book
My review of To Say Nothing of the Dog
My review of Blackout/All Clear
My review of Connie's latest, Crosstalk

 

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Born
Constance Elaine Trimmer
December 31, 1945

Official Website

Awards
11 Hugos
7 Nebulas
4 Locus
1 John W. Campbell Memorial
SF Hall of Fame (2009)
SFWA Grand Master (2012)