[The material below is an edited version of a discussion held at MIT on March 6, 2000]
|Science and Spirituality
in Science Fiction
Kurt Lancaster: Okay, this is a question for both of you. I noticed, Nalo, on your first novel you put a lot of spirituality within some of the themes alongside science fiction and Connie, within the story you just read, we see a lot of biblical themes coming out. What connections do you see between spirituality, science, and science fiction in terms of how it shapes the way we view life today?
Nalo Hopkinson: I used to get my girdle in a knot about questions like that, trying to figure out how in the world you could put them together and then I thought about the real world and that is what we do every day. I mean we mix science and spirituality all the time. You can imagine somebody who is a bus driver who says a prayer before he gets into the bus every morning. It's a series of paradigms we can very easily hold in our heads simultaneously so I don't worry about it too much when I am writing.
Connie Willis: Yeah, that was a good answer. It seems to me that science fiction is not about science, although people always think that it is. It is about the border between science and people, how we come together and how we view that. And I think that is why it has been so relevant in the past 120 years or so and why I don't see any signs that it is going away any time soon, although the forms may change. I don't see science and technology ceasing to have a major impact on our lives. We are always trying to figure out what place the spiritual, in fact what place all human aspects -- emotions and everything -- have, while trying to live in a world of science and believing strongly in a world of science. How do you cope with that? It is real difficult and it is that borderline -- that borderland that is such an interesting land to inhabit -- where all these things come into contact.
Nalo Hopkinson: I am beginning to come up with my own definition of what science fiction or speculative fiction, that whole complex of genres is about. And for me, it is essentially about how human beings manipulate their environment and that could be science, it could be technology, it could be religion, it could be laws or mores. We choose different ways to do it, essentially we are trying to make our worlds make sense.
Connie Willis: I think one of the hardest things is spending all your day making up stories while you are also trying to tell the truth. And that can be very difficult because trying to figure out what you think about things and then trying to tell that truth is real hard. While I have been writing this book on near-death experiences, I believe very, very strongly that the dead do not speak to us in any way other than from inside. So even though I was constructing a science fiction fantasy kind of landscape, I did not want to break that belief. I mean, I did not want to tell any lies as far as the way I see the world while telling a story and a lot of times you are very tempted to do that because it makes a better story. No, it doesn't make a better story, but it sometimes makes an easier story or a more easily manipulatable story. But I think you have a real obligation to try to tell the truth about the world as you see it. And if you succeed, then that is something that stays, I mean, Shakespeare always told the truth and that's why he is still around.
Science Fiction and Future Technology
Michael Burstein: I have a question specifically for Connie, but Nalo if you have any thoughts as well, I was thinking about the Media in Transition theme that these lectures are supposedly under. In your novel, Remake, which is about a person in the future who wants to be in the movies, although the movies at that point are made entirely differently, I was wondering from your perspective, not as a professional in the field, but as somebody who is very into the movies, sees a lot of them, loves it enough to have written this novel, how do you see film and the film media transitioning over the next five to ten years? Some of the stuff that you put in there looks like it is starting to come true, I was wondering how much of that you see as actually going to end up happening?
Connie Willis: I would recommend to all of you never write a novel about media in transition because when you write a near future novel you run the risk of being run over at some point. This is why people set their novels 20 million years in the future. And then if they want to make it look like next Tuesday then they just pretend that nine empires have collapsed in the meantime. I would think of all kinds of things that were possible in my book, but you don't have a story if everything is possible so I would try to think, "okay, they can do this, this, and this, but not this yet." And then I would read an issue of American Cinematographer and dammit they can already do that! So then I'd have to think of something else and eventually I discovered that I couldn't fight the technology, so I brought in the lawyers and that slowed everything down just fine.
When I was writing Remake the issue that bothered me the most was, these technologies that we create, what place do they leave for us? If you can have a movie made by a computer in which a Fred Astaire-type character can make as many kicks as necessary, do as many elaborate steps as necessary, do physically impossible things, what place does that leave for the human dancer? When we create these technologies, are we careful to leave places for ourselves where we can contribute to, and can deal with the fact that we have dealt ourselves out of the hand, we've moved ourselves out of the picture? I think that is always a major issue in science fiction and one that I do worry about a great deal. The Hollywood revolution will make or break lots of people and make or break lots of hearts like any advancing technology and that's why I think it's so interesting.
Michael Burstein: I was thinking also of the excerpt you read in which there is a labor tax because the artificial intelligence isn't being allowed to drive the cab.
Nalo Hopkinson: It wasn't until I was three-quarters of the way through that somebody said to me, "You've written a utopia." And I said, "No I haven't." And he said, "Think about it, people don't have to do manual labor, you have solved the problem of people working until they collapse or working until they are turfed out, essentially it's a utopia." And immediately, I couldn't stop at "yes," because I started to think of all the ways human beings are going to want to intervene on that. We are not happy enough with "good enough" and of course there are going to be people who object to it, there will always be the dissenters. There are people who will say, "Wait a minute, what's this technology doing to us?" So you can only have a utopia as long as you don't put human beings in it. As soon as someone starts talking about wonderful new technologies I start to think about issues like, "Who has access to them?" We talk about nano-technology as going to solve problems of hunger, who is going to have access to that technology? And how are people going to insert themselves? We are naturally subversive as a species, we always want to do stuff to things.
Why Science Fiction?
Michael Burstein: I am sure there are a lot of people in the audience who have thought about writing science fiction, I wonder if you remember the definitive moment when you decided you wanted to write science fiction and why science fiction rather than mainstream fiction? Does it reflect a certain desire to express a contemporary mythology, to give people a sense of a place and a hope for the future in today's society?
Connie Willis: I think it's always very difficult to trace back those moments. I am fond of saying that it all happened when I read, "Have space it will travel" on the first page when I was thirteen, but I think it was a little more complicated than that. What I found that I loved about science fiction that I still love, although most people grow out of this is that there was so much freedom in the field. I could tell so many kinds of stories. If I wanted to, I could tell an old-fashioned Victorian, what I referred to as a "long-dress novel," the kind of thing that I loved when I was a kid. Or I could do romantic comedies, when I started writing my screwball comedies, that was a moribund form in the movies. It has kind of come back now and I am very happy. At the time that I started, nobody was doing that in the movies. And I was able to do tragedy and comedy and social commentary and of course the wonderful advantage of science fiction is that you can poke fun at just about anybody and everybody so long as they don't know that it's them and they don't seem to recognize themselves when they are off-planet, it's great! You stick 'em on Mars and nobody knows what you're doing, it's wonderful!. So those things really attracted me to the field in the first place. I have just felt that I can basically do anything I want to do. And I have never ever had an idea for a story where I thought, "Oh I can't do that in science fiction, I am going to have to move outside to do it."
Nalo Hopkinson: I think for me it was more a matter of realizing that the kind of thing I was reading all along had a name -- at least according to the book stores -- so that I finally could ask for it instead of saying, "you know, where things happen and there are beasts that don't exist and, you know, people go to Mars." And that's because my father was a writer and he also taught writing, my mother was a library technician; there were books everywhere and the bookshelves were pretty much open to me so I was pulling down Gulliver's Travels and the Iliad, not knowing that I was too young to be able to read them. And when you are missing all the social and political commentary and when you are too young to know the history, what keeps you going is the story. That's how I got through those things. So I always ended up looking for work that was in some way fantastic in nature. And when I got a little bit older, in my early teens, my mother was working in the Kingston Library in Jamaica and they had adult and youth library cards. I would go to see her at work and we would wait for my dad to come, she would still be working so she would give me her library card and say, "don't bug me for a few hours" and that's when I discovered the science fiction section of the public library.
And I remember the first time I read Harlan Ellison's "Shattered
Like a Green Glass Goblin." I was 13 years old, I was living
in Kingston, Jamaica. Talk about another reality -- Haight Ashbury
had nothing to do with my life. Spliffs were something I had only
heard about when my mother said, "don't you ever." I also
discovered Michael Crichton, but we need not go into that. So the
way that you could sort of step outside reality and point back at
it was something I was always sort of attracted to. When I decided
I wanted to write it, well that had to wait actually until the other
writer in our family died. In my mind, writing was something fathers
did, so I did not start writing fiction until 1993 which was the same
year my father died.
Connie Willis: I'd like to say a little something about my personal background too because I think the kind of background you come from is a common one for writers. You know, people who grow up among books and stuff and when I teach I am always being asked, "How can we nurture our young?" And I always say, "Tell them that they shouldn't be reading and that they should get their nose out of a book and go outside and get some fresh air and you have nobody else anywhere in the family that is remotely interested in any of this so that to become a writer is the height of rebellion and that is how you do it.
If you have those advantages of growing up in a bookie environment it is wonderful, but it is also possible to come at it from a direction where this is the alien landscape that nobody really is pursuing and, in fact, would just as soon prefer that you got a real job. That adds to the pleasure of finding your own place, too.
Nalo Hopkinson: My mother would get really cranky if people weren't doing their chores so I managed to be both a tomboy and a bookworm simultaneously, out of the house, up a tree with a book in my teeth.
Connie Willis: What is this thing about fresh air? I don't get it.
Nalo Hopkinson: Fresh air meant just that I was away from having to do the dishes!
Luke MacNeil: My question is for Connie. A lot of your books like Doomsday Book, seems to be extensively and almost exhaustively researched, at what point in your research do you decide, "Okay, I have enough of every little detail," and then get into actually writing the story?
Connie Willis: Well, like many writers, I am addicted to research; it's the only fun part there is. The rest of it is really boring. So my problem is that I'd much rather be looking stuff up and reading about all these fascinating things and then reading about all these other fascinating things that you find while you are reading about these fascinating things and then these other fascinating things that relate and pretty soon you are so far afield that you have got enough material for five or six books. I think that most writers find that it better be just the tip of the iceberg that they put in their books. The temptation to stick in everything is so strong, I mean you looked it up, you want credit for it. It took you five years to find this thing so by God everybody is going to hear about armor in the 14th century whether they want to or not. But the truth is they don't want to so leave it out! That is always a dilemma because you want to be accurate and then once you've done the work you're interested in it so you want to stick it in, but you have to think about what the public is interested in.
The hardest thing though is that in spite of all your research and all your effort you still make mistakes and then people write you these long, exhaustive letters about all the mistakes you made and this just really depresses you and doesn't help you in any way. But I can understand why they do it because what you are trying to do when you write is to cast this spell, so that you are no longer sitting in your tree, you are on Nalo's planet or wherever the spell you want to cast. And so a mistake, of course, wakes you up and knocks you out of your hypnotic state and you realize that you are just reading a book, and that the person who wrote it is not all that smart. So the need to get it right is very strong and that tends to make people overwrite their research. Why? Do you think I have too much research in my book?
Luke MacNeil: I was just wondering how much work you put into it.
Connie Willis: Well, that 's my favorite thing and it sort of depends. In Doomsday Book, I knew nothing about the middle ages at all. I don't like the middle ages and I only set the book there because that's where the plague was. But that thing took forever because I didn't even know the most basic stuff. I'd want a conversation and I didn't know where people would talk. Did they talk in the living room? Did they stay in the living room? If they weren't eating were they ever in the living room? What did the living room look like?
On the other hand, when I did To Say Nothing of the Dog, with the part set in Victorian England, that's my country, that's where I grew up! I had to research almost nothing except the rules for Croquet which I had to look up again. And the worst book of course was Remake because I had to lie on the couch and watch old movies for 4 straight years. It was hell! That's what you want: to write yourself a book that lets you lay on the couch and watch old movies.
Nalo Hopkinson: I actually don't like research much. I failed history. I failed geography. And now that I'm writing, I'm having to go back to all those old subjects that I failed and finally finding a good reason to take them up again.
I am reading a book on fractals. I never got to algebra! And it is
a good question because the next novel I am working on, I had the
bright idea to set in three different historical times and places.
And then the publisher said, "How quickly can you write that
baby? Can we have it in 8 months?" I don't think so. So I am
busily hitting up writers now asking, "How the hell did you get
all that research under your belt?"
James Taylor: My question is about conversation. It seems to me that that is the hardest thing to make convincing. In Nalo's book there is such a wonderful conversation with a Jamaican overtones and in Connie's short story was the business speech so concise and terse. Do you speak to yourselves when you write? Do you have some sort of schizophrenia that allows all these multiple personalities?
Nalo Hopkinson: It's not schizophrenia! You said conversation but you mentioned two different types of things. It is one thing to have one person be center stage nattering on at you and it is another to try and get three or four people talking together which is harder. I talk to myself all the time. I read stuff back to hear how it sounds. Someone was talking about the writer who wrote, Green Grass, Running Water, I think his name is Hill. He is an Ontario writer. They were saying that his conversation was so wonderful because nobody ever seemed to be talking directly to anyone else and I realize that's how we speak. We kind of talk on tangents to each another, so that is something I am trying to do more of now. To have people respond not exactly to what someone has said but sort of go, "Oh you know that reminds me I have to clean the drapes today" You know, something that has nothing really to do what was just said, but the topic is sort of winding it's way through the conversation.
Connie Willis: Dialogue is not conversation. It is not the same thing. It is the illusion of conversation and it differs from it in a number of ways. One is that it is much more concise and to the point than real conversation. If you really wrote down a normal conversation it is full of all sorts of repetitions and ums and ahs and pointless digressions which, although it would give the story a certain verisimilitude, would also bore the heck out of your poor readers. So you have to kind of give the illusion. It is kind of like when someone does dialect as Nalo does so well, she is not really doing dialect; if she was really doing dialect you couldn't make out what she was saying. You are giving the illusion of dialect by adding just enough of it so that the flavor is kept, but it is still understandable to the reader. And the same thing is true of dialogue, you are trying to give the flavor of what it is like to have a conversation with all the inconsistencies, but at the same time, you are keeping to the point. In addition to talking to myself all the time -- and I don't consider this mental illness and I don't think that you should have said that it was! We are very defensive on this point in our field! -- I also usually write in a number of stages and if I have a scene that is basically a conversation between two people I will do all the dialogue and then I will go back and do all the blocking such as, "she picked up the water bottle and dumped it on his head" and then I will also go back and see whether I have told you everything that I need to tell you in this scene. I will go back and purposely insert all the information. So it is not really written as a smooth, seamless thing, it is written in several stages with the illusion that it is seamless so that it is under more control.
Nalo Hopkinson: Yes, with both narrative and conversation you are trying to translate the oral to the page. If you have ever seen a transcript of a real conversation it makes no sense at all. You can't follow it. There's something that happens when people are actually conversing that is not translatable to the page. You are doing something that is a little bit like it and trying to convey the information at the same time. It's really a battle for me when I am using dialects to get that sense of orality, while still keeping it understandable. You do have to leave things out.
Connie Willis: It's so frustrating when you work in any medium. If you are working in water colors there are things you can't do. And there are always things you want and need to do. And then you think, "Why did I choose water color for this particular piece? So then you try oil and you can do all kinds of things in oil that you can't do with water color but you need to be able to do all these things that you're able to do with water color and here you are stuck with oil and you run into that all the time. Even though English is a wonderful language and very, very flexible, it is just useless! The other day I wanted my character to say something and then make a face like ... [she rolls her eyes and tsks and sighs] Now I know what that expression means, you all instantly recognize that expression, but tell me how you write that expression? And there are endless little motions that make gestured expressions and there are no words for them! It is so frustrating. It is like trying to carve a tree into a sculpture when all you've got is a mallet. It is just useless!
Nalo Hopkinson: Yes, there is one expression that you find
all through diasporic African culture that, thank God, the Trinidadians
have come up with a word for and it is that sound [like sucking a
lemon] -- If I make that sound and I get "Ughn!" from certain
members of the audience, then I know where I am. But there are so
many others that phtt, there is just no way.
Susie Lynn: I wanted to tell Connie about my near-death experience, but I guess she doesn't want to hear it. So my question has to deal with scientific stuff. I assume, although I shouldn't assume, that you are both not from scientific backgrounds. I was just wondering do you ever come across scientists or do you ever confer with scientists and do they have reactions to your work? Have you ever come across some random science person who tells you that something you wrote was just wrong and should not have been put in your book?
Nalo Hopkinson: The trick is to come across the scientist while you are still writing. There are a bunch of friends that I have who I will phone up at certain stages and say, "Okay, I need to know how to do this and you have the physics or you have the biology, Help!" It is important to me to get it as close to right as possible, often I am writing about technologies that don't exist yet, but I am still asking people all the time.
Connie Willis: Yes, I am married to a physics teacher and he is useless. It's awful. I mean I will say to him, "I need light to be directional so that it can go backwards for a little while." and he will say, "Light is not directional." "I know it is not directional, but if it were directional, I need it to go backwards for a little while!" And he'll say, "Light is not directional." "I know that but..." So I don't ask him anymore. Scientists do have varying responses. I did a story called "At the Rialto" for a collection for which they had asked you to write a story on a given scientific topic then they asked an expert in that field to write an essay on the same topic. So they gave me the topic of quantum theory and I said, "well I'll only write it if it can be a comedy because I think quantum theory is really funny." So I did write a comedy. And then the scientist who was assigned to my story was handed it and then told to write the essay and he refused to write the essay because in his words he said, "Quantum theory is not funny." And so I said, "I think it is." And he went on to refuse to write his essay and now I think he was probably right because he went on to win the Nobel Prize. In the meantime they found another scientist who did think that quantum theory was funny and he wrote the essay and then a number of quantum physicists have told me that they really like the story and that they think it is an interesting take on quantum theory.
You always have people who agree and disagree with your work. If you make egregious mistakes, then you deserve what you get.
Nalo Hopkinson: It doesn't happen only with the science. Karen Joy Fowler read the manuscript for Brown Girl in the Ring, my first novel, and contacted me and said, "I am so glad that you showed people feeding and changing the baby." And I went back and looked through it and saw that that baby gets changed once. The novel is three days long! Other people noticed that I hadn't changed the baby.
Connie Willis: They have super-super absorbent pampers!"
Nalo Hopkinson: The baby gets fed a whole damn lot! His dad changes him once! You are always going to forget something or at least I am.
Connie Willis: One of the problems with science fiction is that people are always very intimidated by the science. I don't know what your experience at Clarion was but when I taught Clarion I would get all these fantasy stories. I'd say, "Fantasy is fine but why aren't you guys writing science fiction stories?" And they'd say they were afraid of the science as if they needed a degree in that field in order to write a story rather than what I do which is use Discover Magazine a lot. It is only the illusion of science just like it is the illusion of everything else when you're writing. But I do think that people, even if they are writing about going to Mars, tend to feel so incredibly intimidated unless they are starting out by working at NASA already that they just don't want to tackle it and I wish more people would take on science in their science fiction.
Nalo Hopkinson: There's still a bit of a problem in getting
women hooked on the genre. I was talking with a group of other writers
and people interested in science fiction and someone put forth the
theory that it is that word, "science" But this is an MIT
crowd so it's not going to hold here. I still do readings in venues
that are not science fiction venues and have had a lot of women come
up to me and say, "Well that's not science fiction because I
got it." Or "because it's good" which is the one that
really drives me up a wall. But there is something to that because
if I had been told that what I was reading was science fiction I would
have probably stopped reading it. There is something about that word
that intimidates people. You learn the science as you are writing
it and then it finally does become fun. I will have to write a novel
about algebra and finally get that degree.
Janice Amenoff: I have a couple of questions for Nalo. First of all, I have never seen the Ananci stories you use in Midnight Robber. I was wondering just how much of the stories you have in there are the original Ananci stories and how much of it was mangled for the plot of the book?
Nalo Hopkinson: It depends. There is a story called "Ananci
and Dry Bone." The Dry Bone character is very much as I found
him and his nemesis is pretty much as I found him. What I have done
is replaced in that particular version the character of Ananci with
Tan Tan, my protagonist, and used the story to weave in all kinds
of things that have happened to her or will happen to her or things
that are seminal issues in her life because folklore is so rich that
you can do that anyway and still keep the kernel of the story. All
three of them are existing stories.
And the third one is a Jamaica legend about a man who actually existed called, Three-fingered Jack, who killed his plantation owner and who became this sort of figure of terror on the island for a few years. That was the sort of story that began me thinking about the whole novel. Think about this man who is being hunted down by his own people, because they hired freed Africans as body hunter. He has killed the plantation owner as revenge for something the man did to his mother, but they turn him into this boogie man. And I was thinking what must it be like in your own lifetime to be turned into something you're not, and have people telling stories about you that are not true? And because I usually start with a woman heroine, I started playing with that.
Janice Amenoff: Okay, my second question is a little more complicated, having read Midnight Robber, I think you have written the first world that I've seen that hasn't been colonized by a typical Western European culture. There are novels in which the entire northern hemisphere is nuked out of existence and people come up from Brazil and colonize the world and it's still the stereo-typical western civilization! Did you think about this at all when you were writing it?
Nalo Hopkinson: I think you write what you know, so I just used the material I had at hand. I have seen one other author who does that and that's Ian MacDonald. He has a novel called The Terminal Cafe. You write what you know, so for some reason it hasn't been that difficult partly because I was able to use language as a hook. And I was thinking about the ways in which language forms thought and thought forms language. In terms of technology, technology is largely owned and created by the Western world and we have this paradigm that we use that is Greco-Roman mythology so all our words that we use, you know, you name your spaceship "Apollo," you call the thing that you use to call people up a "telephone," you devise a science of understanding emotions called "psychology" and then you name complexes "Oedipus." We've got this mythology that is just tied right through our technology and I thought, "What if we used other myths?"
I've got this whole wonderful rich source of myths which in part I grew up with, but mostly I have to go look them up. I sort of understand how they work. And starting from that and going back and thinking "well, okay if you've got this sort of paradigm what would you call something like a telephone? what would you call a spaceship? And that puts you in a different place automatically. If you stick with that language then you stick with that paradigm.
Advice for Wannabe Writers
Jim Isaac: A very simple question for us budding writers: how did you first get published? What did it take? What route did you go?
Connie Willis: I have some sad stories to tell him. You're not one of those people who just... are you?
Nalo Hopkinson: I will let you go first.
Connie Willis: I am always happy to hear these stories, I just don't want you people to give up. I actually sold the first thing that I ever tried to submit which was an article about teaching science with no equipment in the elementary school. I sold it for $35 to the Grade Teacher and that was pretty much it for 8 years, while I tried to sell science fiction stories. My policy was always to have everything out and ready to go again when it came back. So I'd address an envelope to Omni because they paid the most and then I'd address the next one to Asimov's and the next one to FNSF and so on. I'd have it all ready because I was too depressed when it came back to do anything except shove it in another envelope. The worst day was when I lived in the mountains and we didn't have mail delivery we just had a Post Office and I had gone up to the Post Office and found this yellow slip which meant that someone had sent me a package and I was so excited! So I went up to the desk and found that everything that I had out had come back. There were something like nine manuscripts! Before that I was always able to comfort myself with the false hope that although this one didn't sell, that one which was still out was going to sell. And I stood there for a long time in the Post Office thinking: "This would be a really, really good day to quit altogether. -- There is nothing wrong with giving up. -- You know, there is honor in defeat sometimes." -- All those things went through my mind, but I had all those envelopes addressed at home already so I sent them all out again. And eventually something sold.
I like telling that story, except that when you tell that story from the perspective of where I am now, it's charming and fun. It is part of your mythology of how you got started and what it's like to be a struggling writer. But when it is happening to you, it is not fun, because you have no guarantee that things will ever be any different or that you will ever sell anything and those were really, really hard times. I sympathize with all of you who are attempting to do anything and not just in writing, but attempting to do anything on the planet. Everything that is worth doing is really hard to do and requires a lot of effort and then, if things do go well for you from the start that's lovely and that is a nice bonus that you can hope for, but just because it doesn't, doesn't mean that you should quit or that there's anything wrong with what you are doing.
Well, there was something wrong with what I was doing. You should
have seen some of those stories! Have you ever seen Harrison Ford
in the first movie he was in? He was a bellboy, he was in a James
Coburn movie. You've seen it, haven't you? You know Harrison Ford
is really cute, but when he walks on the screen and he does his bellboy
thing, you don't think, "Hey man, there's a star!" You're
thinking, "Why did they get him for this role?" He wasn't
any good and eventually he got better. And then he got really, really
Sometimes you have to serve a very long and painful apprenticeship and just hang in there. If I can do it, anybody can do it.
Nalo Hopkinson: Yes, I think it is persistence and I realized
listening to Connie talk that I have gotten into the habit of believing
that my stories are things that people reject. That's what my stories
are for. So when you open the envelope you assume that the next thing
you do with your story is send it to the next person. Even though
I started getting published fairly early on, I still get rejections
about as often as I get stuff accepted. And it's persistence more
than anything else. Persistence not just in continuing to send the
stories out, but in continuing to look at your own work and trying
to improve it. And continuing to believe that your writing is not
necessarily gold; that you must learn to develop that editorial eye
that allows you to go back after you have written the work and keep
trying to figure out how it could work better.
Connie Willis: I think it is a really difficult balancing act. Because when you set out to do this you have to have all the arrogance in the world. You have to say, my stuff is worth publishing just like Shakespeare's stuff and you have this arrogance that you belong out there in the world with all the other literary greats. And at the same time you have to have this incredible humility because otherwise you will never improve if you can't believe that your stuff is dreck and you have to get it so that it is better. You have to have both of those all the time together and they don't go very well together. We all know people who have fallen over on the side of arrogance and of course we never hear about those who fell over on the other side because they never tried to sell their stuff. But you need both and it's a real difficult thing.
Nalo Hopkinson: I found that showing people my work was a big step, but you have to choose who you show it to. You want it to be somebody informed and someone who doesn't think that good criticism is cutting you up. But all through the process I have found people who were willing to be mentors and that has been probably the best help I could have had.
The Writing Process
Elaine Isaac: I am also one of the budding writers out here. Could you talk a little bit about your writing process? What do you do during a day? How do you begin a story?
Connie Willis: Well, I have an ideal day: I get up, I have breakfast, I go to Margie's Java Joint because they have cafe lattes, I get started there and then I move on to the library or the student center or any place where I can't get my phone and I work there. The real day goes something like this: you get up and while you're having breakfast the dog throws up on the bed and then you've got to call the vet and the vet can't back to you so then you waste half the morning waiting for the vet to call and in the meantime you realize that you are 9 weeks behind in the laundry and you do that for a while and then it's time for Burden of Proof on CNN and it is really good today because it's about the Ramsey case and then pretty soon it's noon and the vet still hasn't called back....
So it's difficult to come up with a schedule that really works. I try to work away from home because when I work at home, I am one of those people who ..., I'm not schizophrenic but I am psychotic, people say to me, "Just don't answer your phone." But then the phone rings and I think, "Oh God, it's my husband and he's at the hospital and he is dying in a few minutes, but I will not answer the phone because I was working and then they will tell me later that he died while waiting for me to come to the phone." So then I answer the phone and of course it is somebody I do not want to talk to who then takes an hour and a half of my time. So I do best if I go away and I go to the student center. Or we have three libraries in town and I hit one of those. I have learned that I like working where there's a little bit of white noise. I had trouble today when I was trying to work in my hotel room and it was just too quiet, but then I turned on CNN and I was real interested in McCain so that didn't work. But when I went over to the student union here, the one with the gorgeous murals on the wall, it was full of people and they were all talking, so then I did just fine, because I do best with a little background noise. So that's kind of the process that I use. I write long hand on a Red Chief tablet.
Nalo Hopkinson: I can't have any noise around me. I haven't owned a television in about 8 years. I use the radio as an alarm clock the few days that I need to wake up on time.
Connie Willis: How do you find out about the Ramsey case?
Nalo Hopkinson: Who is Ramsey? Oh, I have email!
Connie Willis: Then you might as well say something. Yes, I think there is a tremendous amount of avoidance that goes on while writing. People used to ask me if I got writers block and I'd always say, "no" because I have never had that thing where you just sit and stare at the blank page and nothing comes. But then I realized that I did have writer's block it just didn't take that form. The form was this incredible avoidance and I could think of so many things to do, and they were all totally legitimate things. I mean your taxes have to be done, right? All the things that interfere in life. I once made an experiment, if I quit writing would I have a lot of spare time? And after three weeks I realized that I could just quit and never notice. The time would just vanish like throwing a stone into the water, it would leave no trace. So unless I was willing to just carve out this time for writing, I was never going to get anything done. It is a dilemma that I think everyone faces.
Nalo Hopkinson: I have heard that Octavia Butler just tells people, "Write, write everyday!" and that sounds so wonderfully disciplined and simple. But in practice it is not what happens to me and I do the same kind of writing avoidance and I can tell how badly I'm into the writing avoidance by what kinds of housework I am willing to do. I hate housework and one time I got a phone call from someone in my writing group and he asked, "What are you doing?" and I said, "The dishes." And he said, "You've got a deadline, don't you?" Because otherwise the dishes will molder happily in my sink. So just keep pulling out whatever you write on, and eventually you will have no choice but to write on it.
Connie Willis: I think that the reason it is so hard is that writing is a difficult business. It is not a simple process. And it is one that I think takes quite a heavy emotional toll, if you care about what you write. You are trying to get in touch with your subconscious, you are trying to get these very clumsy words to say what you want to say -- quite complex things that you want to say-- and it is one of the hardest things to do. So it doesn't surprise me that people avoid it so much. Actually, the dishes look really good compared to trying to deal with this stupid thing. Somebody said once that you should always stop your writing in the middle of a sentence then the next time you sit down you'll have that half completed thought. I have never been able to get that to work. But I have learned that one of my biggest problems is when I move from scene to scene and I have learned never to stop with the end of a scene because the transition is always the hardest thing to do. I can write an entire dramatic scene in nothing flat only to spend 6 hours on the two lines that get me out of the bedroom and into the living room for the next scene. So if it's getting to be 5:30 when I have to stop and fix dinner, I will try to get past that transition and into the next scene and then stop. So if you can spot some of these places where you tend to get stuck, wherever they are, work past those or work around them or figure out a way to fight yourself. I use to bribe myself, "Okay if you finish nine pages then you can have a candy bar." Things like that. You just have to treat yourself like the child that you are.
Nalo Hopkinson: I use dialogue sometimes when I get stuck. I just decide to have people start talking about anything, "Oh the sky is really blue today" "You know it was a little less blue yesterday." That uses up a lot of pages so you feel good. And you can always go back and fix it, but you find you have moved yourself on to the next bit without realizing it.
Connie Willis: Tom Wolfe always uses notes. He would have trouble writing some of his nonfiction and he started just taking notes because he found the notes far less intimidating than the actual prose and he found that within four or five sentences he would be into the actual writing and he would no longer be taking notes. I have found that to be true too. If I am stuck, I'll say, "Okay she needs to go over and talk to Kit." And I will make a list of the things she needs to tell Kit. And then before I know it, I am into the middle of the scene and all I have to do is go back and fix that first paragraph.
Nalo Hopkinson: The irritating thing for me is that when you get into to it you realize how stupidly simple it is to get into it. I've spent weeks avoiding that screen and avoiding going on with that scene.
Karen Robinson: I have another question about the writing process. When you go to write a story, how much of it do you have determined before you start writing? And how much of it develops as you go?
Nalo Hopkinson: I'm still pretty new at this so for me I find that if I know what the ending is I don't feel much pushed to write the story because it is already in my head. It doesn't need to be anywhere else. So often I have no clue where I am going. Sometimes I start with an image or a word or a phrase and I just try to marry things that don't seem to fit at all and see what happens. Often the ending is a surprise to me and that usually happens when I have my writing group look at it and they go, "Huh?" And I think, "Yeah, that would work!"
Connie Willis: I am one of those people who usually has the whole thing plotted in my head before I start. But when I have talked to other writers and really grilled them about their process, I think it is the same process except that some of us do it in our heads a lot before we start the actual writing and the others do it all on paper and do all their rambling around and all their false starts and all that after they've started it. So I think the process may very well be similar. I always feel very uncomfortable starting a story until I know where its going because I love foreshadowing. "Foreshadowing, your key to quality literature," as Opus said, one time. And I love lines that you use harmlessly the first time and then secondly you use them with a resonation and the third time they take on this incredible aura and you can't do that if you don't know where you're going. My plots are almost always mystery-type plots where there is something that people don't know and they need to slowly figure out the clues. Those have to be written with some idea of what it is you are looking for. But it's just whatever works for you -- whatever you feel comfortable with. I know lots of people who never finish the story if they already know the ending. Cynthia Fleece needs to use that as a goad for herself. And some people always write in order. I write all over the map. Right now, all that's missing in my novel is the second to last chapter and a chunk in the middle. Everything was written completely out of order. People write all different ways you just have to figure out the ways that work for you.
Nalo Hopkinson: I end up back shadowing.
Connie Willis: Right, I do that a lot too.
Connie Willis: I only have one more thing to say and that is, I went into writing because basically it was that or become a serial killer. Especially if I had to go to one more committee meeting. So if there are those of you out there who are aspiring writers or serial killers, I do recommend it as a good way to vent your spleen on various subjects. So thank you very much.
Michael Burstein: Thank you both for coming!