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Connie Willis Biography

Connie Willis comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Constance Elaine, Denver, Colorado, 1945. Education: University of Northern Colorado, B.A. in English and elementary education. Career: Elementary school teacher, 1967-68, and junior high teacher, 1968-69, Branford, Connecticut, public schools. Awards: Nebula award, 1982, and Hugo award, 1982, both for Fire Watch; 1982 for "A Letter from the Clearys"; Nebula award, 1988, and Hugo award, 1988, both for The Last of the Winnebagos; Campbell Memorial award for best science fiction novel, 1988, for Lincoln's Dreams; Nebula award, 1989 for "At the Rialto"; Nebula award, 1992, Locus award, 1992, and Hugo award, 1993, both for "Even the Queen"; Nebula award, 1992, Locus award, 1992, and Hugo award, 1993, both for Doomsday Book; Locus award, 1993, for Impossible Things, 1993, for "Close Encounter"; Hugo award, 1994, for "Death on the Nile"; Hugo award, 1997, for The Soul Selects; Hugo award, 1999, for To Say Nothing of the Dog. Agent: Ralph Vicinanza, 111 Eighth Ave., Suite 1501, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.



Water Witch, with Cynthia Felice. New York, Ace Berkeley, 1980.

Lincoln's Dreams. New York, Bantam, 1986.

Light Raid, with Cynthia Felice. New York, Ace Berkeley, 1988.

Doomsday Book. New York, Bantam, and Hodder and Stoughton, 1992.

Impossible Things. New York, Bantam, 1994.

Uncharted Territory. New York, Bantam, and Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.

Remake. New York, Bantam, 1995.

Bellwether. New York, Bantam Books, 1996.

Promised Land (with Cynthia Felice). New York, Ace Books, 1997.

To Say Nothing of the Dog; Or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump at Last. New York, Bantam Books, 1997.

Short Stories

Fire Watch. New York, Bluejay, 1985.

Miracle, and Other Christmas Stories. New York, Bantam Books, 1999.


I first fell in love with science fiction at age thirteen, when I read Robert A. Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel. That's not unusual. Science fiction and adolescence have a lot in common: love of adventure, love of ideas, boundless enthusiasm for the universe. For many readers, it's only an infatuation, but for me it has turned into a lifelong love affair, I think because the medium of science fiction is ideal for the stories I want to tell and the themes I want to write about.

I find that looking at things obliquely, through the disguise of other places, other times, cuts through not only the reader's prejudices and defenses but my own and makes it possible to look clearly at our own world, our own faces. And the conventions of science fiction—Martians, time travel, robots—carry within them the themes that matter most to me. Time travel, especially, with its built-in resonances of grief and loss and regret, I could write about forever. After all these years, I still come to science fiction with that same shock of joy and recognition that I did at thirteen.

* * *

Connie Willis is one of the most beloved and respected writers in the field of science fiction. For her novels and short fiction, Willis has earned more Hugo and Nebula awards—the two major prizes given by readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy—than any other author. She is a noted humorist; her comical works are satirical while expressing great warmth. Often overshadowing the screwball antics and witty dialogue is a keen sympathy for the human condition, filling her novels with heart-wrenching pain.

Willis's earliest novels, Water Witch and Light Raid, were written with Cynthia Felice; they are generally considered slight and implausible. However, Fire Watch, her first short story collection, reveals Willis's talents for both humor and tragedy. The titular story, "Fire Watch" (1982), a Hugo and Nebula winner, is indicative of the themes and concerns which recur in her fiction. In the twenty-first century, time travel technology permits history students to visit the era of their studies. The protagonist is sent back to London during the Blitz of World War II, a period that fascinates Willis. Working with the volunteers who attempt to save St. Paul's Cathedral from the Luftwaffe, he learns that history is not a matter of textbook statistics but of living people, laboring side by side to save what they love, with their many species of courage and weakness.

Willis's first solo novel, Lincoln's Dreams, winner of the John W. Campbell Memorial award for best science fiction novel, is another story of history and (after a fashion) time travel. This remarkable debut investigates the horror with which the American Civil War continues to haunt us—as Willis says in her foreword, it disturbs us like a cry for help, or a dream, so that we still puzzle over its meaning. The first-person narrator, Jeff Johnston, is a researcher for an author of historical novels. Well-versed in Civil War minutiae and piecing together the story of Traveller, the noble-hearted horse of the noble-hearted general Robert E. Lee, he is only partly prepared to meet Annie, a woman suffering terrible nightmares. Jeff falls in love with this attractive and fragile woman as she tells him of her dreams. They hold no meaning for her, but Jeff recognizes the details as incidents from General Lee's actual memories. To learn the meaning of this extraordinary psychic link, Jeff escorts Annie on a tour of the Southern battlefields. He hopes to break the link by explaining to Annie the tragedies Lee and his men endured, but Annie determines to "finish the dreams" and exorcise Lee's guilt so that he may literally rest in peace. Jeff's discovery of the courage and ultimate fate of Traveller reveal to him his own connection to the inexorable replay of Lee's life and death. With immensely sympathetic characterization and vivid presentation of the horrors of war, Lincoln's Dreams is an unforgettable drama of love, loyalty, and duty.

Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog, or, How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump At Last are set in the same world as "Fire Watch." In the former, set in 2054, history student Kivrin wishes to visit medieval Oxford for her practicum. However, the time-travel time technician has fallen suddenly ill with an unknown virus, and in his delirium he accidentally sends her to 1384, the year of the Black Death.

Doomsday Book, which also won both Hugo and Nebula awards, alternates between the two timelines, showing that human nature is much the same in each era, as both sets of characters must cope with an apocalyptic plague and ensuing panic. Kivrin seems doomed to die in the past, grieving as the villagers who have succored her succumb, one after another, to bubonic plague, because there is no way that she can signal her friend Professor Dunworthy that she is in the wrong place and time. The sweet and wise Dunworthy, however, has reasoned this out, and struggles with idiotic bureaucracy and social chaos to do everything he can to bring her back. Through mesmerizing adventure and dialogue, Willis works out her theme of the psychological response to the end of the world, portraying religious faith, helplessness, and incredible heroism.

A couple of collections, Impossible Things and Futures Imperfect, and the short novels Remake, Uncharted Territory, and Bellwether, followed Doomsday Book. Remake is a satire about censorship, presenting a future in which classic films are edited to the point of meaninglessness to remove any scenes showing sexual innuendo, drinking, smoking, or other immoral activities. The protagonists, two star-crossed lovers seeking their big break in a Hollywood that is ironically, sickeningly corrupt, long for the days when movies told real stories with real actors. Uncharted Territory parodies many science fiction clichés in its portrayal of a daring exploration of another planet, a mapping project that is bedeviled by ridiculous regulations and fussily bureaucratic aliens. Its more important themes, also comically treated, concern love, sex, and gender roles. Bellwether is a screwball romance between a woman who studies fads and a chaos theorist who arrive at a cynical revelation of how human bellwethers start trends.

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Willis's next "big" novel, is as ambitious as Doomsday Book, though not nearly as soul wrenching. A cheerful homage to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, the novel documents a time-traveler's misadventures in a madcap tour of Victorian England. The plot involves a quest to find something called a bird-stump, but weaving through the antics is a satirical needle pointing out the puritanical (or Victorian) morality of the United States in the 1990s. It won the Nebula award in 1998.

Willis's fiction is not unlike that of Mark Twain's—very funny, often savage, and deeply compassionate. Her satire targets petty bureaucrats, hypocrites, and control freaks who make life miserable for others. Her protagonists are often middle-aged women wondering what happened to their happily-ever-afters and still seeking romance, or young people struggling to find love and preserve beauty while hampered by busybodies. Throughout her fiction there sounds a sorrowful note of loss and destruction, but Willis is optimistic that kindness and loyalty will always, if not prevail, then at least burn brightly in the metaphorical night of war, plague, and vicious stupidity. Her fans live in anticipation of her coming works, for, at whatever length, they always guarantee a good read.

—Fiona Kelleghan

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