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Interview With an Author: Connie Willis

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Connie Willis and her latest novel, The Road to Roswell
Photo of author by G. Mark Lewis

Connie Willis is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and a Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. She has received seven Nebula awards and eleven Hugo awards for her fiction; Blackout and All Clear—a novel in two parts—and Doomsday Book won both. Her other works include Passage, Lincoln’s Dreams, Bellwether, Impossible Things, Remake, Uncharted Territory, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Fire Watch, and Miracle and Other Christmas Stories. Connie Willis lives in Colorado with her family, where she deals with the delights (and the more maddening aspects) of our modern, oh-so-connected world on a daily basis. Her latest novel is The Road to Roswell and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Road to Roswell?

I can never point to a single thing that inspired any of my books—there are always a bunch. One was that I am wildly skeptical of all nonsense pseudo-science—UFOs, channeling, mediums, near-death experiences, telepathy, you name it. Another was that I had always wanted to write a book about the Southwest with its wide-open spaces and gorgeous skies. And I was fascinated by a story a friend of mine, Jack Williamson, had told me. Jack was one of the forefathers of science fiction, and he lived nearly all his life in Portales, New Mexico, only ninety miles from Roswell. In World War II, Jack served as a meteorologist in the South Pacific, and when the Roswell "crash" occurred, he and another SF writer, Fred Pohl (who’d also been a meteorologist in the war) decided to run down to Roswell and check it out. Now, keep in mind that there were not two other people on the planet who wanted this to really be aliens. But they went to Roswell, took one look, and said, "It’s a weather balloon." I loved that story, and I loved that science and evidence were more important to them than what they wished was true. This book was written in their honor.

Are Francie, Wade, Lyle, Eula Mae, Joseph, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

That isn’t how I come up with my characters. They’re always composites. But nearly all my books are about how appearances are deceptive, and people are not always what they seem at first glance. And that includes extraterrestrials.

Early in the novel, Francie thinks, "No human would ever have come up with an ordinary tumbleweed as an extraterrestrial." But you did! What was your inspiration for "Indy?"

I was mostly annoyed that people—particularly the UFO crowd—picture aliens as humanoids when we obviously have many forms of life just on this planet. Also, tumbleweeds are perfect for a story about the West—they’re in virtually every Western.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

Tons of things change as you go along, but the final product is all that matters. And, no, unlike the movies, there’s no blooper reel.

There are various UFO events and theories sprinkled throughout The Road to Roswell. How familiar were you with UFO sightings, close encounters, and the various theories, conspiracy and otherwise, prior to writing your novel? Did you have to do a bit of research? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write The Road to Roswell? What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research??

I did tons of research for the book—"Many Bothans died to bring you this information," as they say in Star Wars—and most of it was massively annoying. As with all conspiracy theories, it doesn’t matter that stories and so-called "evidence" have been debunked. They just keep repeating it. There’s a famous photo of three flying saucers that has been PROVED to be faked (the guy who took the photo pasted the flying saucers to a glass door and then took the photograph through the door), and it’s included in every single book. I also grew totally exasperated with all the evidence that somehow mysteriously disappeared right before they were going to photograph it or take it to the FBI. (Their explanation is that the aliens removed it—and the implants they’d put in the abductees’ bodies—but I think it’s far more likely that it never existed and they made the whole thing up.)

And, just in case it’s not perfectly clear from everything I’ve said so far (and from the book), I DO NOT believe aliens landed in Roswell or that flying saucers are real, and I didn’t see any evidence in all the tons of research I did to convince me otherwise. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, but I didn’t see any, extraordinary or otherwise.

That doesn’t mean I don’t believe there are aliens out there or that I don’t think intelligent beings exist on other planets (though, given the examples here, I’m not sure), just that I don’t think it’s logical that they would come here, And if they’ve been watching our behavior lately, my guess is they’ve put up a big sign saying "Danger: Crazy People Area. Keep Away" somewhere out near Pluto. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of our probes brings back pictures of crime scene tape strung around our whole solar system.

Have you visited Roswell and/or attended the UFO Festival? Do you have any favorite places or things to do? A hidden gem that someone visiting should not miss?

I’ve been to Roswell several times, and it’s lots of fun. Of course, you have to go to the UFO Museum, which is even cheesier than my description of it in the novel, but you also need to go to the other museum in Roswell—the Roswell Museum and Arts Center—which hardly anyone goes to. It’s got some wonderful artworks and exhibits, including the actual workroom of Robert Goddard, the father of American rocketry, which was transported intact from his ranch after he died. On the grounds, you can also see many of his rockets, and there are videos of the launches of many of his rockets.

Are you a fan of the Western genre? What are some of your favorite authors, novels, films, and/or filmmakers?

As should be apparent from the book, I love Westerns. I grew up in the heyday of Westerns and have been a fan ever since. I especially adore John Ford’s Westerns—The Searchers, Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and especially Stagecoach—but I love pretty much all of them, including the humorous ones, like Paint Your Wagon and Support Your Local Sheriff and Blazing Saddles. My favorite Western novels are Alan LeMay’s books—he wrote The Searchers and The UnforgivenOwen Wister’s The Virginian, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome DoveI am also endlessly intrigued by Monument Valley’s apparent habit of wandering all over the place. I swear, it’s somewhere different in every single movie. What the heck?

Do you have a favorite UFO-themed novel, TV show, or motion picture? A least favorite? One that is so bad that it is fun to watch?

I love Close Encounters of the Third Kind (though it’s really more about faith than about aliens) and Alien and E.T. and I actually really liked the TV series Roswell (the original, not the reboot, which I haven’t watched.) One of my favorites, which you might not have seen, is Starman, starring Jeff Bridges. To say nothing of Mork and Mindy. And Alf and Lilo and Stitch. And, of course, the X-Files. But that was mostly because of David Duchovny.

As for bad alien movies, I actually have a soft spot for Independence Day, even though it’s a terrible movie, and I really liked Cowboys and Aliens. I have no such soft spot for Signs, which is just bad all around. Especially the water-phobic aliens’ landing in the Midwest, where there are lakes and rivers all over—or on a planet that is three-fourths water in the first place. They could at least have landed in Arizona or something.

The Road to Roswell would make a marvelous film or series. If you were able to cast the production of The Road to Roswell, who would your dream cast be?

They’re both too old, but wouldn’t Emily Blunt and Edward Norton be great? Of course, they’re great in everything. I especially love Emily Blunt in Into the Woods and Edward Norton in Keeping the Faith. I wish both of them would make more romantic comedies.

Have you ever had a "close encounter" of any kind? Or do you know someone who has? If so, can you tell us about it?

First of all, I don’t believe in "close encounters" with aliens. At all. I did have an interesting experience when I was a kid walking home from high school. I lived near a hospital, and walking past, I saw what looked like a large silver object suspended in midair. I stopped, looked, and then took a step back. The object disappeared. I stepped forward. It reappeared, and then, as I took another step, disappeared again.

It was a mirage created by the steam of the hospital’s generating plant, and what I was seeing was actually an upside-down image of a car parked on the street ahead of me. But very convincing. It taught me 1: you can’t always believe your own eyes and 2: that scientific investigation is absolutely essential before you make conclusions. The UFO movement has failed to learn either of those lessons.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Right now I’m reading Richard Powell’s Pioneer Go Home, a great novel I read in high school and just rediscovered. It was made into my favorite Elvis Presley movie, Follow That Dream, and is a delightful comedy. I’m also reading The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, the 1930s novel that Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes was based on. (Great movie, by the way.) And because I’m currently working on a time travel novel set in Oxford, I’m rereading Gaudy Night and Alice in Wonderland and lots of stuff by the Inklings—TolkienC.S. Lewis, and Charles Williams.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

It’s impossible to limit it to five. Here’s a (sort of) short list: Kit Reed, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mary Stewart, Jerome K. Jerome—especially Three Men in a Boat, P.G. Wodehouse, Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, Alan Bennett—especially The Uncommon Reader, C. S. Lewis—especially the Perelandra books, Till We Have Faces, and The Great Divorce, Charles Williams—the third member of the Inklings, and to my mind, possibly the best, especially his All Hallow's Eve and Descent Into Hell, Philip K. Dick—especially "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon" and "A Little Something for UsTempunauts," Joan Didion—especially her books on grief and loss, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Blue Nights, Tom Stoppard, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ursula Curtiss—a thriller writer you’ve probably never heard of Agatha Christie—the cleverest writer who ever lived and one who’s constantly underestimated, just like her characters Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Sigrid Undset—the Nobel Prize winner and author of Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken, two amazing books, Paul Gallico—especially The Poseidon Adventure and Coronation. Note: When I was in high school, the local paper published a four-page insert of "Books Every Well-Read Person Should Read" and I worked my way through that for several years, finding out all kinds of gems I never would have found on my own, like Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter and J.M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. It turned me into a huge lover of book lists. Hence, the above list, in the hope that you’ll find some treasure you haven’t read.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

I had dozens: Louisa May Alcott’s books, Anne of Green Gables, the Betsy, Tacy, Tib books, the Wizard of Oz books, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, The Beany Malone books by Lenora Mattingly Weber...I didn’t have any books of my own, so I had to rely on books from the library and the ones people loaned me. One of my mother’s friends lent me Valentine DaviesMiracle on Thirty-Fourth Street, the girl across the street lent me Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and I won a copy of Little Women in a school Halloween costume contest.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

No, they and everybody else were mostly upset that I spent too much time reading. "Get your nose out of that book and go outside and play," they would say. (Note: If anybody says that to you, you just tell them that Connie Willis told you that fresh air is highly overrated and there is no better way to spend your time than reading. And speaking of having to hide books, I am horrified and disgusted by the current spate of book bannings and burnings. The idea that children somehow need to be "protected" from books and that a book should be forbidden because it might make the reader somehow uncomfortable is opposed to everything literature is about. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable and to make you think for yourself. And clearly, that’s what all this is about. (If you don’t believe me, why is it that the books at the top of the banned list are always those that show what happens when you stifle thinking in society—1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451, and Lois Lowry’s The Giver?

Is there a book you've faked reading?

No, because that never works. Somebody always catches you out. One of my favorite episodes of The Vicar of Dibley (a great British comedy series, by the way) is about a book group at which nobody has read the book, and they’re eventually forced to find something they have read and end up having a high-minded literary discussion about...Winnie the Pooh.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

No, but I can think of more than one I checked out of the library for the cover, including Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, which I found while working in my junior high school library. (I checked it out for the title, too, which I thought was hilarious. Note: If you don’t get that, there was a TV show at the time called Have Gun, Will Travel. The book had a bright yellow cover with a guy in a spacesuit charging across the Moon, and it began, "You see, I had this spacesuit." I was hooked by the bottom of the first page and in love with science fiction, a love affair that has continued to this day.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Yes. Loads of them. Little Women made me want to be a writer (and sit in a garret with inky fingers while eating russet apples, none of which ever happened. Have Space Suit, Will Travel made me want to write science fiction. Kit Reed’s "The Wait" convinced me what I wanted to write was short stories. Bruce Catton’s Civil War books inspired me to write Lincoln's Dreams, Backs to the Wall and the London MO diaries written by people who lived through the Blitz inspired me to write "Fire Watch" and Blackout and All Clear, etc., etc. etc. Books change my life every single day.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Every single book on my list of favorites above. But if I have to pick one, I am always telling people to read Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. It’s a short novel about what happens when Queen Elizabeth II stumbles onto a bookmobile that’s come to Buckingham Palace for the staff. It’s a book made for lovers of books, and it’s just delightful.

I also, every time I speak to any group at all, tell them to find and watch the British TV series Primeval. At first glance, it was just a dumb idea, sort of The A-Team with dinosaurs, but it was really well-written, had great actors, and a plot that kept pulling off surprises right up to the very end. It ran for 5 seasons (short British seasons, that is), and it’s still one of my favorites.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

You can’t go home again, so, no, but I’d love to be able to recreate the shock of delight I had when, at age 8, I asked the librarian if they had The Wizard of Oz. She said, "They’re over here," which I didn’t understand, and I’ll never forget how thrilled I was when she led me over to a shelf with what seemed like dozens of Oz books. I checked out three that afternoon (that was the limit you could check out as a kid), went home, read them all, and was back the next day for three more.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I am always looking for great new movies and TV shows. A couple I’ve found lately were Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan, about an Irish immigrant coming to America in the 1950s, and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, which is based on a Paul Gallico novel called Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris, about a London charwoman who goes to Paris to buy herself a Dior dress.

I’m (as everybody knows) a huge fan of Christmas, and I’ve recently found some great new ones: Last Christmas and Spirited and a British movie with Martin Freeman called Nativity. I’m also a big fan of romantic comedies and am always looking for new ones. Recently I discovered Decoy Bride with Dr. Who’s David Tennant and Man Up. Plus, I loved the Barbie movie, which was not at all what I’d expected. And Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. (Pay no attention to the reviews). It’s the best Indy movie since Raiders. Oh, and I just saw the exhibit of Paul McCartney’s photos that he took when the Beatles were just beginning to get famous back in 1963 and 64. The pictures were great and reminded me all over again just how terrific the Beatles were—and how great Paul McCartney still is. He’s one of my role models for how to cope with fame. He was just a kid from Liverpool when he suddenly found himself one of the richest and most famous people in the world, and yet he didn’t end up like Michael Jackson or Howard Hughes. He’s been in two hugely successful singing groups, written a ballet, written an oratorio, and still likes to play his guitar in the tube stations of London. And just to mess with people, he occasionally goes to Abbey Road, where there’s a camera set up 24 hours a day, takes off his shoes, and walks across the street, a la the album cover. My kind of guy.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

That’s a tough one. I’d love to have lunch (or better yet, tea) with Agatha Christie and ask her what really happened when she disappeared for that ten-day stretch when everybody thought she was dead, but she wouldn’t tell me, so I guess I’ll just read Murder at the Vicarage—or What Mrs. MCGillicuddy Saw—again and try to figure it out on my own. Actually, sitting curled up and reading in a window seat is pretty much my idea of an ideal day. Just like it was when I was ten. (Note: I’m planning to write a book about her disappearance after I finish the book I’m working on right now, and I have a theory, but I’m not telling anybody what it is.)

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?

I love it when people ask me technical questions about writing, and I actually also think "Where do you get your ideas?" is a great question, even though most writers hate it. What people are really asking is, "How did you get from the first idea to the finished book?" and the answer is really complicated and, in some ways, unknowable. And one of the most fascinating questions to think about.

What are you working on now?

A new time travel book with the Oxford historians, tentatively called The Spanner in the Works. It’s a little different from my other books with the historians because they usually go to different places and times in the past, and this time, somebody comes through from the past, which, if you’ve read any of my other novels, you know, is impossible. Trying to figure out what happened and getting her home safely occupies most of the book. I’m writing it partly because, though most of my time travel books have been set in Oxford, none of my characters have ever spent much time there, and Oxford is one of my favorite places in the world—Alice in Wonderland, the Inklings, Shelley’s ghastly Memorial, Einstein’s blackboard, Christ Church, the Radcliffe Camera, the dodo at the University Museum, Blackwells’s Bookstore, Dorothy SayersGaudy Night, boating on the Thames—it’s got everything.

I’m also working on a book about writing. I’ve taught dozens of workshops and classes over the years, and I’ve decided it was time I wrote some of what I’ve talked about—and what I’ve learned—down.

Book cover of The road to Roswell : a novel
The Road to Roswell
Willis, Connie

In The Road to Roswell, award winning author Connie Willis puts her own unique spin on the alien abduction story. This is not a gritty alien abduction story where abductees are terrorized, probed, and traumatized. Instead, in Willis’ more than capable hands, it becomes a bit of a road-trip adventure with a growing cast of quirky and interesting characters who grow to become a type of found family. And, just like any family, there are plenty of snarky comments, sly and insightful observations, and maybe, just maybe a bit of romance. The alien abductor is unlike anything seen in any other UFO themed novel or motion picture.

The Road to Roswell if filled with Willis’ humor along with keen observations and a challenging of genre norms. Willis also highlights the importance of relationships, new or established, and our responsibilities to help each other when we can.