Connie Willis is famously versatile. Her novels range from light comedy (To Say Nothing of the Dog) to grim drama (Doomsday Book), and she’s won more major fantasy and science fiction awards than any other author. But though Willis has done many things in her career, hosting Coast to Coast on AM radio isn’t one of them. That’s a different Connie Willis.
“She’s a psychic, and she’s had past lives, and she’s maybe been abducted by aliens and all these things,” Willis says in Episode 233 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And I’m like, ‘That’s not me.’”
Willis first became aware of the confusion when she spoke to a group of college students and her introduction included some peculiar biographical details.
“The last thing you want to do is be contradicting the person who’s introducing you,” she says. “But when she got to the ‘And she herself is telepathic,’ I had to rise up and say, ‘Nope, not me. Uh-uh. No. Sorry.’”
Willis does enjoy writing about the paranormal, but as far as she’s concerned it’s pure fiction. For her new novel Crosstalk, a romantic comedy about telepathy, she did extensive research into the history of psychic claims, including the notorious Rhine experiments.
“I found no evidence at all of actual telepathy,” she says. “I don’t buy it.”
That’s a common stance among science fiction authors, who tend to be well-versed in science and to view paranormal claims with a great deal of skepticism. But the distinction between imagining strange things and believing in them is often lost on the general public.
“With science fiction writers, people get very confused,” Willis says. “There is this idea out there that science fiction writers actually are like Whitley Strieber and believe all this stuff, so I find that extremely frustrating.”
Listen to our complete interview with Connie Willis in Episode 233 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Connie Willis on communication:
“I lived through the ’70s, where they had all these sort of ‘let it all hang out’ kinds of philosophies, and I remember as a young teacher, when we met for the first time, they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to do some bonding exercises. So we’re all going to go in a circle and tell each person one thing we don’t like about them, and this will lead to more openness and honesty and communication.’ And I’m like, ‘This is a recipe for complete disaster.’ And of course it was. I mean, ‘let’s all sit in a circle and tell what we don’t like about you’ is not the way to achieve communication. And so people would end up in tears, sobbing and running off, and I got my first real taste of what saying too much and communicating too much could do.”
Connie Willis on Ireland:
“There’s a long history of the Irish claiming they’re psychic, and having second sight and so on. That goes way back. … And if telepathy had existed in the past, the Irish were a very isolated people, especially in the western counties. They were the last bastion of civilization during the Dark Ages, and the monks on the Skellig Islands—on the far, far west coast of Ireland—were the people who basically kept civilization alive. But that meant also that their gene pool was not integrating with the gene pools of the rest of Europe, so if there is a ‘telepathic gene,’ if anybody could have preserved it, it would have definitely been the Irish.”
Connie Willis on telepathy:
“Let’s say telepathy became the norm, and we could easily know what other people were thinking, the first thing that people would begin to do would be to attempt to stop that, for themselves at least. They would try to build barriers, mental barriers or physical barriers—I don’t know, tinfoil hats maybe or something—that would prevent other people from being able to read their thoughts, because it is so essential to not have people read your thoughts. I don’t think most relationships could survive if you knew virtually everything that flitted through the head of your partner.”
Connie Willis on history:
“History tends to focus on the kings and armies and stuff, but the truth is that so many things are simply the result of one person’s action or inaction at a critical moment. In the French Revolution, Louis XVI was heading for the border—he and Marie Antoinette were in a coach headed toward the border, and they got lost in the woods. They stopped to ask a peasant which way to go, and the peasant told them, and the king handed him a tip—a coin—and the peasant looked at the coin, realized that the face on the coin was the face that he was looking at, and turned them in. … This peasant changed the course of history, and history is full of those examples.”