Among seasoned readers of science fiction, Connie Willis needs no introduction—toss a baseball through one of her windows, and chances are good it’s going to knock over a Hugo Award or two. But with Crosstalk, her first new novel in six years, she’s making a strong bid for readers who have never picked up sci-fi before: it’s a romantic comedy first, and a smart sci-fi and social satire second. Of course, those aforementioned seasoned readers know Willis’ fiction has long embraced all of those qualities and more.
We recently caught up with her before a signing at New York Comic-Con to discuss how technology is ruining our lives even as it makes them better, why she’ll never write far-future SF, and what makes a truly great romantic comedy.
So my first question for you is, do you own a smartphone?
I do. I have a smartphone, my new smartphone. But I am just learning it. I have avoided it as long as possible, and it’s becoming, of course, more and more necessary. It was necessary years ago, and I just tried to – I’m not a luddite totally, but partly. [Laughter].
You finally agreed to make a deal with the devil.
It’s—well, I mean, there are things that I love. Mostly I need the ability to text people, and to get incoming messages and that kind of thing. I’m not really anti-technology. Some parts of it I love, but I just feel like it comes out at us from all sides, all the time, and if we don’t protect ourselves from some of it, we can be as overwhelmed by it as we would be if we were telepathic and getting everybody’s intimate thoughts.
In the Oxford time travel books, you somewhat famously have imagined a future that doesn’t involve cell phone technology, in which it’s still hard to stay in touch. I was wondering how much of that was because when you thought it up, it was the ’80s and ’90s.
When I wrote Fire Watch, and then Doomsday Book, the cell phone was not around, and so I didn’t have cell phones there. There’s always the temptation to go back and revise your work to fit into the future, and that’s the problem [whenever] you’re writing about the future. It’s not gonna work out the way you thought it would. But I felt like because I had put so many other different events between—there was a pandemic, there was clearly a nuclear strike on London, there were all these things…
And no cats.
And no cats. The world had changed so radically that I thought I could get away with it. But of course the younger people reading the book always ask about that, because they can’t imagine a world in which there aren’t cell phones.
I’m probably part of the last generation to grow up without a computer in the house and without a cell phone. It’s a completely different world now. My children will experience the world in an entirely different way.
Right. And, you know, you can’t dislike that. The future—the information age we live in is so vastly superior in so many ways. My daughter lived in London one year after college, and we had no easy way to speak to her. She didn’t have a phone. She couldn’t get a phone, and there were no cell phones. So she arranged to be in a phone booth on a Sunday at a certain time to talk to us and it was awful. She had no way of getting in touch with us, even in an emergency. So, obviously I prefer the cell phone world to that. [Laughter]
And there are so many advantages. But one of my things that I always write about is that technology cannot solve our problems. For every benefit we have, there is always an unintended consequence. For every positive, there is always a negative. That’s been true ever since the invention of the wheel. You know, you have this great wheel. This is terrific, except that it can run over and break your foot. So from the very beginning, it’s been a kind of risk-benefit analysis kind of thing. And I think that often in science fiction people think that technology will save us somehow, that we invent this perfect technology, and there will be no side effects, no consequences. And I fight back against that idea.
So when you were wedging your way into this book, did you start off with being fascinated with telepathy, and wanting to explore those sorts of myths and pseudo-scientific studies, or were you looking to start with this idea that we’re too bombarded with communication?
Actually, I think it was both. Telepathy goes back a long way in science fiction. People have been writing about it forever. Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, James White’s tales and stories. There’s a whole bunch of telepathic people in science fiction history. Although what I’ve noticed was, very few of those were positive stories. It was more about either world domination, or madness, or suicide. Nobody had ever done the romantic connotation of telepathy. So I thought that might be kind of fun to go that route. And also just the whole myth that technology we have now—online dating, and Facebook, and the face-to-face, you know, where you talk to people face-to-face…
Facetime. I’m sorry. That was the word I was looking for.
Face something. [Laughter]. That those somehow will solve all of our communication problems, which—they’re not solving them. They’re solving some, and making others worse. There was just a column in the paper this morning about how people 10 years ago said they had three really good friends they felt they could confide everything in, and now it’s down to two.
Hmmm…Does my spouse count?
I don’t know how they were counting. But it was like, oh gosh. And you look around at the breakups and the relationship disasters and things that you see in all your friends, so clearly all this communication is not radically making things better. So I was interested in that too. But mostly just interested in playing with the idea, what if we had an even more direct channel of communication? I think nine out of 10 people would say, wow, that would fix everything. But of course, it just makes things much worse. If you’re a relationship, you know that you have to keep things to yourself. [Laughter].
That’s true! And not to spoil anything overmuch, but there is a point where the characters begin to fear what would happen if they lost their newfound telepathic abilities. And in that situation, I would just feel an immense sense of relief if that happened.
Right. Right. Right.
But as a reader, you want them to stay connected, because that creates the romantic comedy tension.
Right. One of the things that I love about writing romantic comedies, one of the things I’ve always loved about the whole genre, is that getting what you want out of love is not the highest value, which is it is in romance. Getting what you want it isn’t of the highest value. But getting what’s right for the other person is the highest value.
It feels terrible to only get what you want, when the other person doesn’t get what they want. I’ve been in that situation before, and it’s not fun.
Right. If you really love the person, you want what’s best for them too. And that’s why it’s possible to have romantic comedies that don’t have the couple getting together, like in Roman Holiday or Truly Madly Deeply, [situations] where the right answer is not them getting together. But their love for each other, and their desire to have what’s right for the other person, triumphs, so it’s a happy ending anyway.
I always think of romantic comedy as a very adult genre, in that it describes adult relationships that are really positive, where you have teamwork, and you care about the other person, and you care about yourself. And you care more about other loyalties, and you don’t want happiness if it comes with the cost of destroying your family and friendships, and everybody else around you, leaving nuclear waste in your path. [Laughter].
Emotional nuclear waste.
Emotional nuclear waste.
So I do want to talk a little bit more about the romantic comedy angle, but before I do that, I have one more question about social media: do you use it yourself?
I have a website. My daughter handles Facebook and other things for me, which I appreciate, although the other day I was practicing texting on my new smartphone, and she posted them online to show how pathetic I was. So that’s another bad side effect for me. I’m online a lot. But I’m trying to keep a low profile.
You’re sort of famous for your exhaustive research when you write a new book, you know, whether it’s the Titanic, or near-death experiences, or the Black Death…
So did you have to do a bunch of research when writing Crosstalk? You have a ton of contemporary references in here, you’re talking about Snapchat and Twitter.
Did you have to feel like you knew what they were and how to use them?
Well, I did—I mean, I’m online enough that I know what all these things are, and I did look up a lot of things and try to establish what was going on. The hardest thing was to make it right up to the minute. We kept changing everything up to the last draft of the book, because things changed [in the real world].
I was wondering if anything changed between the advance copy I read and the final.
Brangelina broke up. [Laughter]. I was mortified. I was like, oh, come on. You guys have been together forever.
I think I mentioned that in my review: well, it’s another imperfect Connie Willis future. There are no cell phones in the Oxford universe, and Brangelina made it.
That’s always the danger. In fact, I think that’s why so many fantasy and science fiction writers go clear into an imaginary world. They’re into the future a million years, so they don’t have to deal with the fact that the world keeps changing.
Have you ever thought about writing a novel like that?
No. Well, maybe occasionally, but really I’m just too interested in our own world. For me, the most interesting aspect of science fiction is the aspect where we’re actually looking at ourselves. And even though we’re pretending to be on another planet or in another time, it’s us that we’re looking at. And that’s what fascinates me, and that’s what I want to write about.
Remove that filter out of it, and write directly about it.
So you’ve talked a little bit about romantic comedy, and I think a lot of your books have elements of romantic comedy. At least half of the Passage is pretty romantic comedy, and obviously To Say Nothing of the Dog. What about the genre made you want to write it up as a novel?
I’ve always loved it. I don’t think romantic comedy usually is enough to hold up an entire story. Most of the time, you’re looking at romantic comedy plus adventure. Romantic comedy plus mystery. Romantic comedy plus tragedy. There is something else going on. The fate of two people is not usually enough to hold a book together. And here, there ware obviously other things going on besides the two of them. But what I’ve always loved about romantic comedy is that it is such an adult relationship. Romance, to me, is a very immature view of love. It’s about this perfect person who is gonna come and sweep you away, or it’s all conquering and finding perfection. Which is, as we know in the real world, probably not gonna happen.
But romantic comedy is all that. You can see through the other person. You make demands of the other person. The way you know the relationship is working is that they want to be a better person, or you want to be a better person. and you both finally get your priorities straight, and figure out what it is you really want. You see those things done over and over again in a romantic comedy.
What always astonished me about Shakespeare, because he is working in this world where women were not equals in any way, is that he’s doing these very romantic comedies in which the women are fully formed and important. It’s just like, wow, where did you come from, and how did you figure this out? And the only thing I can think is he must just have loved women. I mean, he must have genuinely liked them as people, and loved his daughters. He had so many great daughters in his work that I think his daughter probably influenced him. But however he did it, he managed to get across that idea that and women are better when they’re working side-by-side, doing great together. Plus sex.
Well, in the ’40s movies, it’s not really sex.
[Laughter]. Oh, it’s sex. It’s sex. It’s not on the screen, but it’s absolutely sex. You know, they always used to say, why did Fred Astaire never kiss Ginger Rogers? When he is gonna kiss Ginger Rogers? There’s no sex! The dancing is the sex. If you can’t see that the dancing is the sex, you aren’t watching.
I’m not much for sex in books because it puts you in the position of the voyeur, which is not really a comfortable position. What you really want is to have the reader have the feelings that the characters would be having when they have sex.
Do you have a favorite romantic comedy couple you were hoping to emulate?
Oh gosh. I mean there’s so many. I watch so many romantic comedies. It’s funny, people tend to love the classics—Bringing up Baby, and It Happened One Night—and hate the modern stuff. Or they like the modern stuff, and don’t watch the classics. I love both. I think there are great, great romantic comedies nowadays. Love Actually, I loved, which is a totally romantic comedy. And Wimbledon, and Notting Hill, and Sweet Home Alabama.
Crosstalk very much put me in mind of the ones from the ’40s, particularly Desk Set, which also features a plot that hinges upon technology impinging itself upon this couple.
Hepburn and Tracy? Yeah, Hepburn and Tracy are wonderful. And especially in Desk Set, where he’s the efficency expert coming it to change everything.
Were you going for that sort of ’40s feel?
Definitely. I think romantic comedy worked well then because they were made in the ’30s and ’40s, and were incorporating the new technological and social changes that were happening. It Happened One Night. has a giant helicopter, and it’s got the transcontinental buses, and the little tourist camps. All those things were brand new back then, and how people were discovering how society was shifting in radical ways, adapting from the old order to the new world order. You kind of see an element of that in every romantic comedy.
And so I’ve always felt that science fiction was a perfect medium for romantic comedy, because we’re constantly dealing with technological change. One of the first stories I ever sold was specificly an attempt to write a romantic comedy that was science fiction too. Because I think it is a genre that adapts well to that, so I wish more people would do it.
They are great fun to read. And so much science fiction is about the dark side of technology, and while you do talk about that, it’s in a way that’s fun to read.
I know. Every time I read a The New York Times book review, I’m like, oh my god, kill me now. Terrible emotional traumas! These books are about a severely-abused person.
That’s why I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. It’s too real.
I know. [Laughter]. And really, the world is kind of fun out there, and people like to read fun books.
So speaking of fun…Passage is is a fun book that sort of famously smashes into a wall halfway through and becomes something else. Did you know Crosstalk was going to ultimately be tinged with darkness as well?
Yes. Yeah. Because one of the other things about romantic comedy is, people always say, well, comedy is about ironic distance, and tragedy is about being right there with the characters. I don’t agree with that at all. I think a certain kind of comedy is like that, but I prefer the comedy where you’re really in there pushing through the characters, and you really care about what happens to them.
And you may be laughing with them, but you’re not really laughing at them. And so if their hearts are about to get broken, or bad things are about to happen, they’re apparent. In almost every romantic comedy, no matter how light, there is a really dark moment. And you want that—you want people to be really nervous, because of course going in, they instantly think, well, I know what’s going to happen here. This is inevitable.
And it is inevitable, but you want them nervous right to the very last minute. And I think that love is probably the most dangerous thing we do, because we put ourselves out there, and maybe they don’t want us. Or maybe they want us, but there’s no way to make it work. And that’s a real tragedy, and as important a tragedy as there is.