Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Nonfiction

Interview: Connie Willis

This interview first appeared in December 2016 on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

Connie Willis is the author of novels such as Doomsday Book, Passage, To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Blackout/All Clear, as well as dozens of short stories including “Firewatch,” “Even the Queen,” and “The Winds of Marble Arch.” She’s won more major science fiction awards than any other author, and in 2011, she was named a Science Fiction Grandmaster by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. We’ll be speaking with her today about her new novel, Crosstalk.

Your new book is called Crosstalk. Tell us a bit about how the book came about.

The way I do my books is like an oyster. You get this little piece of grit, and then you start accumulating stuff around it. One of the first pieces of grit was that I was on a panel at Worldcon with a moderator I really couldn’t stand. The panel was on telepathy, because telepathy is sort of a subgenre of science fiction. There have been lots of telepathy stories and novels through the years.

We were discussing the pros and cons of telepathy, and I said I thought it was a terrible idea, and I certainly did not want anyone to know what I was thinking at any given moment, and the moderator said, “Oh, come on, when have you ever not said exactly what you were thinking?” I thought, “Oh, right now. Right this very minute. If you knew what I was thinking, this panel would be over.” That was probably the first piece of grit.

The second, as things started to accumulate around it, was just looking at our information society, which I basically have resisted my entire life. I’m being dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, and I was interested in how romantic people were about the idea of more and more communication. That this would solve all of our problems. That it would lead to understanding and world peace, and so on. I was not convinced at all. I’m still not convinced. The more I see of this endless stream of input that we get—there’s just been all this talk about fake news, for instance—is that we’re getting tons of data, but not necessarily any information, and not necessarily anything that helps us get along better or understand each other better, and, in fact, when you can date by swiping left and swiping right, I’m not convinced that really improves the depth and quality of our relationships.

So I just began thinking about all of the negative aspects of the constant bombardment, including the bombardment that hits me every time I turn on my email and see that I have 8,000 emails to answer, many of which are unnecessary, but all of which take time and have to be gone through, which cause more annoyance than they do communication, I think. Those were some of the things that made me think about it. Plus, the fact that I love romantic comedies, and I love to write romantic comedies whenever given the chance, being distinct from romance, they’re a completely different genre. I realized that nobody had ever written a telepathy romantic comedy, and thought that I might give it a try.

Right, you mention that there’s this long history in science fiction of telepathy as an idea, and you say you don’t think it would be good in real life, but in science fiction, do you enjoy it as a device?

Oh, I love reading stories about telepathy, but usually they don’t think it’s a good idea either. The telepathic characters always end up either trying to have world domination or blow up other people’s minds or something, or else they go mad from all the input and can’t deal with it. There are very few positive telepathy stories. James Smith, I think is the name, wrote a number of stories with a young female heroine who was just growing into her telepathy, and those tended to be shown in a more positive light, but most of the telepathy stories are really negative, and did not see it as a positive at all. They saw all the downsides, which I totally agree with.

I think our society is based on what we don’t say all the time, and the fact that our thoughts are private, and that we have the choice of sharing them or not sharing them when someone says, “Do I look fat in this dress?” or, “Tell me what you honestly think about me.”

One of the other things that inspired the book is that I lived through the ’70s, where they had all of these “let it all hang out” kind of philosophies, and I remember as a young teacher saying when we met for the first time, “Oh, we’re going to do some bonding exercises. 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.” I’m like, this is a recipe for complete disaster, and of course, it was. 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, and sobbing, and running off. I got my first real taste of what saying too much and communicating too much could do.

You had this idea to write a romantic comedy with telepathy. The form that this takes initially in the book is that there’s this new technology called the EED. Tell us about that.

The EED is this latest trendy thing—think plastic surgery, Botox, that sort of thing—and all of the celebrities are having it done. What it supposedly does is it helps you empathize with your partner. It only works if both you and your partner are emotionally committed, so it sort of serves as a kind of physical prenup because it won’t work, and you won’t be connected, unless you both are emotionally committed. It’s supposed to make you, not telepathic, obviously, but just empathic, and you’re going to pick up your partner’s feelings, and you’re going to be more sensitive to what the vibes in the situation are. You’re going to know that even though he says he’s willing to go to the Chinese restaurant, he’s not willing to go the Chinese restaurant. You’re going to have a more open relationship. It’s a dumb idea, and a ridiculous idea that people would agree to brain surgery just to get closer to their partner, although people have been known to inject deadly toxins into their skin just because other celebrities are doing it. I really don’t think there’s any limit to how stupid people can be.

Your main character is Briddey Flannigan, and she’s planning to have this EED thing done with her boyfriend Trent, and it doesn’t quite go according to plan.

No, nothing in fiction ever goes according to plan. If it went according to plan, there would be no story. After she has the surgery, which is against the wishes of her very Irish, very interfering family, who are dead-set against this, and against the stern warnings of the tech genius at the company who says this is a terrible, terrible idea, they’re going to harvest your organs while you’re in the hospital and unconscious, but she goes ahead and does it anyway, and finds that she is not connected empathically to her boyfriend. In fact, she’s not connected to him at all. She is connected telepathically to the genius geek guy, and neither of them are very happy about it.

You obviously did a lot of research, or it certainly seems like you did, on telepathy to write this book, the history of telepathy.

Such as it is. It doesn’t exist, so, yes, the history of faux-telepathy. I did do research into the Rhine experiments. I had already been familiar with them, and did some more research with them, and oh my gosh, they were supposed to be scientific, but a less scientific endeavor you have never seen. They cooked the data and cherry-picked the data, and did everything else they could with the data, and still couldn’t come up with anything very convincing.

One of the things, also, that intrigued me about telepathy from the beginning, or from paranormal stuff in general, is that I’m from Colorado, and we had Bridey Murphy back in the ’50s, I think, and she supposedly, under hypnosis, remembered previous lives, most notably the life of Bridey Murphy who had lived in Dublin in the 1800s. She recounted her life in 1800s Dublin in great detail until the reporters got ahold of it and started digging and discovered that, in fact, all of her facts were cooked, and there was no such person, and the song “Danny Boy,” which she kept singing as an Irish song, was not written until well after Bridey Murphy would have been dead, so her story fell apart. I’ve never known, for sure, I don’t think anybody’s ever known, whether it was an elaborate scam or self-deluded people and the highly suggestible aspects of hypnotism, which we know a lot more about now. I did research into that, and I did research into Joan of Arc, who’s my favorite person who heard voices, because she was so clearly not crazy. She was so clearly incredibly sane and yet heard voices. I looked into all those things.

You also came up with some more obscure people, at least to me, St. Bridget and St. Bega of Turan. How do you come across those sorts of people in history?

You just look and look and look. The history of hearing voices among saints is pretty common. I was specifically looking for Irish saints, since my heroine is Irish. The whole idea of hearing voices was not thought of in the same way that it is now. Nowadays, you hear voices, people immediately assume that you’re schizophrenic, and probably rightly so. But back in the Middle Ages, that was not the case. It was considered that you had a direct line to God. The attitude was very much different, and I have my explanation for that in the book. I’m not the only person who shares that theory, but it’s just a theory. Like I say, I don’t know what was going on with Joan of Arc, but I found no evidence at all of actual telepathy. These elaborate experiments, the Rhine experiments, where at the most you could send an image on a card, like a star or a wave or something, that doesn’t count. Telepathy is useless unless you can actually talk to each other and send complicated messages, you know? I found no evidence of any of that, in spite of friends I have who are convinced that they have had telepathic connections with other people, but not me. I don’t buy it.

In the book, it references this story where a girl in Nebraska supposedly heard a drowning sailor in the North Atlantic, and they met, and there were all sorts of details that were matched up. What do you make of those sorts of accounts?

I made that specific story up, but there are lots of stories like that. Who knows? There were dozens and dozens of people who claimed they heard crying and sobbing and “help me” voices when the Titanic went down, but none of them, as it turned out, ever said anything about it until after the Titanic had hit the front pages. They’re undocumentable. People have strange experiments. The brain does very strange things. But I don’t know. I found no convincing evidence for it. And, yeah, are there unexplained instances? Yeah, maybe. Just like there are with near-death experiences, which I explored in another book, Passage, and came to pretty much the same conclusion that this is the brain doing all of this, not other influences.

You mention that the protagonist is Irish, and you sort of suggest that there’s this connection between being Irish and paranormal abilities; was that just completely whimsical?

No, there’s a long history of the Irish claiming they’re psychic and having second sight and so on. That goes all the way back. I played on that. I’m part Irish, but I don’t know. It is a part of the tradition of the Irish people. If telepathy actually 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. The monks on the Skellig Islands on the far, far west coast of Ireland were basically the people who kept civilization alive, but that meant also that their gene pool was not integrating with the gene pools of the rest of Europe. If there is a telepathic gene, and if anybody could have preserved it, it would have definitely been the Irish. At least according to my theories, but I make up theories all the time for my stories.

In the book, you actually reference a specific gene, the R1BL21 gene; is that an actual gene?

No. There are genes like that. The redheaded gene is very similar to that, and if there were a telepathic gene, it would be that sort of gene. Are you really disillusioned? Were you thinking I was on to something?

No, no, I’m a total hardcore skeptic, so I don’t accept telepathy at all, but I was just curious.

How far my research went? Well, you want to make it look as plausible as possible. I once wrote a story about my theory that Shakespeare was actually Marlowe and that the two had changed places and then Shakespeare had accidentally been killed, etc., and then Marlowe took his place in his life. I love that theory. I don’t really believe it, but I think it’s fun to make up conspiracy theories. I’m reaching the point where I’m realizing how gullible people are in buying conspiracy theories of all kinds. It gives me some pause, but I try to make it clear that these are fiction and not in my real life. I don’t spread these in my real life.

It’s funny, one of my favorite Tim Powers quotes is when he talks about how he comes up with all of these conspiracy theories for his books, and he says, “There’s always a point in the middle of research where you start to come across things that seem to confirm your theory, and you say, ‘Oh my god, maybe I’m onto something here.’”

Right, that’s true. That is true. Actually, when I was doing the Shakespeare story, I was using a whole bunch of actual lines from Shakespeare as dialogue in my story, and I thought it would be fun to use some Marlowe lines also and sprinkle those through. So I went and looked up the Marlowe commentary, and looking up key words that I had looked up before for Shakespeare quotes, and found almost identical Shakespeare quotes and went, “Oh, I’ve made a mistake. This must be a Shakespeare commentary by someone named Marlowe,” and then I double-checked, and no, it was a Marlowe commentary. There were so many lines that were exact copies or almost exact copies. At that point, I got very nervous. I was like, maybe this really did happen. Maybe Marlowe really was Shakespeare. There’s always that point, but I tried to resist that.

Speaking of conspiracy theories, because in the intro to The Best of Connie Willis, you say, “There was a conspiracy theory making the rounds on the internet a while back that there were actually two Connie Willises: one who wrote the funny stuff and one who wrote the sad stuff.”

That’s right. I don’t understand that. I’ve never understood that, because to me, well, Shakespeare wrote comedy and tragedy. I’m not comparing myself to Shakespeare, but no one had any problem believing that he could write the comedies and the tragedies. I don’t see them as very different in the way you write them. I don’t understand why people would assume when you wrote one thing that you can only write one thing.

I think part of that is in modern-day publishing so much emphasis is placed on the brand, and so if your brand is serious time travel stories then you shouldn’t be writing comedy, or if your brand is comedy, then you shouldn’t be writing something serious, but I like to write all over the place. That has never really suited me. I think that’s where that conspiracy theory came from.

There are actually two Connie Willises now. It’s very frustrating to me. There are actually three. There’s a Connie Willis who is a screenwriter, and you occasionally see her name flip by on the credits of various movies. That’s not me. But I don’t mind that, if people confuse me with her. But the other one is a co-host on the late night talk show Coast to Coast, and she’s a psychic, and she’s had past lives, and she’s maybe been abducted by aliens and all these things, and I’m like, “That’s not me.” I’ve had several people confuse us and say, “I heard you on the radio talking about how you were a psychic.” I’m like, “No, no, no.”

It’s very frustrating, because science fiction writers, people get very confused anyway. They often confuse us with the people who actually believe all of these kinds of things. We try to explain we’re fiction writers. We write science fiction. But, there is that idea out there that science fiction writers are actually like Whitley Strieber and believe all this stuff. I find that extremely frustrating. I never was bothered particularly by the conspiracy theory that there was one person writing the comedies and one person writing the tragedies, but this one bothers me. Especially because the other day, I was doing a speech over at a college and was introduced in the introduction, they put some of this stuff, and that was when I first found out about this other person and went, “No, no that’s not me.” The last thing you want is to be contradicting the person who is introducing you, you know? But, in this case . . . “And she herself is telepathic.” I had to rise up and say, “Nope, not me. Sorry.” It is a little frustrating. I’m sure you’ll keep that straight in your interview, that I do not believe in telepathy. I just write about it.

When I was researching interviews with you in preparation for this, I came across this other Connie Willis, and I was going to ask you, do you have people contacting you now to help them find Bigfoot and stuff like that?

No, I’ve never had that. But I realized, before I discovered this person, that a lot of people would say to me, “Oh, I heard you on the radio the other night,” and I never thought anything about it because I’m frequently interviewed on the radio, and I never know when those interviews are going to be on, so I assumed it was NPR or something I was on. Now, of course, I hasten to ask them where they heard me. I hasten to set the record straight.

Getting back to Crosstalk, I wanted to ask you, because the book is dedicated to Mary Stewart, I was just curious why that was.

I love Mary Stewart. First of all, Mary Stewart wrote a great novel about telepathy called Touch Not the Cat. It’s probably my favorite telepathy novel of all time. It’s just terrific. She wrote this series of . . . I don’t know what you’d call them. I guess modern gothic romance adventures, maybe? Where you have a young woman, she’s on vacation in the south of France or something, and she gets involved in a mystery and is endangered and in peril.

She started writing in the 1950s, so many of the girls are doing these things in high heels and bouffant petticoats, which makes it really difficult for modern young readers to read. They were always very plucky heroines and smart. They weren’t Nancy Drew intentionally going down creepy stairways and stuff. They didn’t get into trouble on purpose. They were dragged into mysteries not of their own accord, and once they were in them, they behaved very intelligently in trying to get out. They were just terrific.

That genre had been around, but it had been very badly written, and Mary Stewart and Daphne du Maurier basically raised that genre writing to a level where it could be taken very seriously. I have just always loved Mary Stewart’s books, and she has many, many fans. That’s one thing, where a lot of people have talked to me about that dedication, going, “I love Mary Stewart.” I’d never met anybody who’d read her before. She was just a terrific writer, and her writing was beautiful, and her plots were marvelously constructed, and I always really admired that. Especially plotting, because no one knows how to plot. I’m always very impressed when I see somebody whose plots just run like clockwork.

Are there other novels about telepathy you think you were drawing on? There was a little bit, to me, it seemed, of The Demolished Man in this. This idea of filling your head with nonsense to prevent people from reading your thoughts.

Right, Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man is the classic in the field. That and I would say Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, which is about a man who has been telepathic his whole life, and has used the power to further his own ends, but now is aging and is losing the power, which is a great book. I’m not really sure it’s about telepathy. It’s ostensibly about telepathy, but really I think it’s about any creative power that you have that you are no longer possessing or that you’re starting to lose. Terrific book.

The Alfred Bester idea of getting too much input and getting mad from the input, that’s been around in the telepathy stories since the very beginning, and it’s always a problem, because when you fantasize about telepathy, you always assume that you would be able to listen to whoever you wanted to whenever you wanted to, but that you would somehow be in control. But the truth would be that you would be the victim. You couldn’t go to Starbucks anymore. You couldn’t go to the theater. You couldn’t go anywhere where there were large crowds of people, and even if you were safely at home, you might have to listen to your dog’s thoughts, which is not a good idea. Or we might find that they’re not nearly as devoted to us as we thought they were. Or to our cats’ thoughts, and we might find out that our cats actually slavishly adore us, but are just too reserved to say anything. I’m not sure we would ever be able to control what we had, so I think that’s an essential part of talking about telepathy.

There’s a scene in the book where a character is subjected to the horrible uncensored thoughts of the people around her, and I was wondering if reading internet message boards had helped you.

Oh, no kidding. It’s a cesspool out there. The hero says that repeatedly about people’s thoughts, and certainly if you want to think well of your fellow man, the internet message boards are not a good place to go. I’m always amazed at how quickly things deteriorate from civil conversation to, well, Hitler. And then screaming and horrible misspellings of swear words. I think the misspelling of swear words are intentional so you can get them past the censors or the algorithms, but the other misspellings and grammatical errors are enough to drive you crazy. I don’t know what it is when people are not accountable, when they think they’re anonymous, or they think they’re alone or something, it’s not pretty out there.

One other technology you proposed in the book is the sanctuary phone, which has all of these tricks to help you avoid talking to people you don’t want to talk to. Is that something that you would like to have yourself?

I would love to have that, yes. We’re at their mercy all the time. We actually want some kinds of communication. We want important messages. If someone has broken a leg, we want them to be able to get in touch with us. I’m not against the information age. When our daughter lived in England before cellphones, it was awful, because she didn’t have a phone at her apartment, and we had to call every Sunday at a certain time, and she would be standing at a payphone ready to take the call, and that was the only communication that we could have. Now, we had one other number that we could call if someone died, but basically I kept thinking, “Oh my god, some terrible thing could happen to her on a Monday, and I would not have any way to know until the following Sunday.” Obviously, the information age has been great for that. Facebook, and Skyping, and just the cellphone have been wonderful.

But at the same time, when I was on vacation at Thanksgiving, there were several business things that I was involved in that would never have come up before, because they would have said, “Oh, we can’t reach her. It’s Thanksgiving. She’s away from home, so it’ll have to wait until Monday.” All the business in the world would have shut down from Thursday to Monday. I think that was a better world.

Last year, our daughter was trying to buy a condo, and we were standing in Kinko’s in Santa Fe at six p.m. the night before Thanksgiving faxing papers to her realtor because there are no days off. There are no holidays. There is no time when you are not accessible to the rest of the world, and so those aspects, I think, are not good. I think part of our problem right now is that we’re living in a transition world. We’re not living in a society. We’re living in a transition to whatever the society is going to be. We’re dealing with these endless changes, and the minute we adapt to the cellphone, along comes that smartphone, and when the smartphone comes along, we know that something else will follow it which will be very different from that, and we’ll have to adapt to that. And the driverless car and everything else.

We can’t really formulate any new societal norms until the society stops changing so radically and so quickly, because we’re still in transition. I think that’s part of where all the frustration comes from, because I remember when the cellphone first arrived, there were all sorts of breaches of propriety. Then people kind of worked that out. They got that settled. But then, of course, the next big thing came along, and they needed to work it out again, and again, and again. I think that’s partly why we behave so badly. Eventually, we’ll work all of this out. It’s just hard living through it.

It’s funny because, speaking of your daughter, recently my mom asked if I could turn on this thing called Find my Friend on my phone so that if she was ever wondering where I was she could just look at her phone and see where I was.

Oh my gosh. Terrible idea.

The thing is, fifteen or twenty years ago, I would have thought that that was so weird, and these days I’m kind of like, eh, why not. Google knows everything I do, and the government knows everything I do, at least my mom can know everything I do, too.

Well, sure. Obviously while my daughter was in England, that was during the IRA bombings, and I would have loved to have that feature. Not so I could track her every move and demand what she was doing out so late, but just simply so I would know that she wasn’t at the site of the bombing. That would have given me tremendous relief, and I’m sure that’s what your mother is thinking. We have different ideas about privacy, and different ideas about things.

One of the reasons I have Maeve in the book is because I think parents . . . these helicopter parents, that the new information age has given them so much control over their kids, and kids need, I think, a certain amount of space, and freedom, and privacy, and respect. I see these parents, and they literally do want to track every second of their child’s life, and the kids really are fine if they just leave them alone, because I always think kids are way smarter than adults think they are. I understand that parents don’t want their kids kidnapped by some horrible stranger, but on the other hand, they’re not allowing their children to breathe either, so that’s a problem.

What I wonder is, because it seems like there is going to be telepathy in the future with technology, right, because I’ve talked to various people on this show who say that with fMRI technology, you’re basically going to be able to read people’s thoughts within a decade or two.

I totally disagree.

Oh, really?

Oh, yeah. The fMRI is nothing. So you use an fMRI, and you say, “Think about something.” I think about something, and you see a picture of a bird, okay? It’s a very blurry image of a bird. Okay, so maybe the bird will get clearer, and maybe you’ll get it highly refined, but what are you thinking? What exactly are you thinking about it? Are you thinking, “Oh, there goes a bird. I just saw a bird.” Or I’m looking at the TV, at an image of a bird. Or I’m thinking about a bird that I saw yesterday. Or I’m thinking about the Philadelphia Eagles. Or I’m thinking about a car named after a bird. Or I’m thinking, “I hate birds,” just because I’m a totally paranoid person and the birds, the birds are after me. Or I’m thinking about Hitchcock’s The Birds.

How do you translate an image into the sophistication of what we really think? We don’t think in images. We think in words, and that’s why we have language, because our thoughts need to be more complicated than just, “Ooh, bird.” We need the language so that we can say and think all these different things about birds: adjectives about birds, memories of birds, hopes for birds, wishes and dreams and paranoid fantasies about birds. I don’t see that we have any technology anywhere close that can decipher that.

I interviewed an author named Kara Platoni, who wrote a book called We Have the Technology, and she spoke to some researchers who thought that this was going to happen, that they were going to be able to read out your inner monologue using fMRIs.

Really? But there are people who think we’re going to be immortal in ten years. That the singularity is going to happen in ten years. And I never find any of those convincing. When the computer first came along, I was told, “Oh my god, the computer is going to revolutionize the novel. You’re going to have these incredible novels with amazing, interlocking plots. With clever, unimaginable techniques. It will revolutionize the novel.” It has not revolutionized the novel in any way except for the worst, because people tend to type so much more easily than they used to be able to.

The thing I’m always most skeptical about is technology. Not that the technology won’t do amazing things, but that there are always going to be side effects and unintended consequences to every single technology, and that the rosy hopes and dreams that everybody has for it are pretty much assured either not to come true or to come true with a really heavy price that nobody thought of.

Say the automobile for instance, which was a great idea, and did revolutionize the world, and certainly made tons of things possible, and the side effects did not become apparent for years, and years, and years, and now it’s killing the planet. I think futurists, for some reason, always have this very rosy view of the future, as though all the previous technologies, all of which came with huge disadvantages, and huge side effects, and huge unintended consequences, that those rules will be suspended regarding this next technology.

Years ago at a convention, I saw Joe Haldeman on a panel, and he was talking about his book Forever Peace. There was some sort of telepathy technology in his book, and he was saying that he thought if you could really get inside someone else’s head, and completely understand them and how they got to be the way they were, that you would not be willing to kill them, and that that would be the end of war.

Oh, interesting. I think you might be more apt to kill them, honestly. I think you would be . . . “Okay, that’s it. You’re out of here. I thought there might be some redeeming quality in you, but I was totally wrong.” So, yeah, I don’t know. Joe is usually as much a skeptic as I am. Certainly the more we know about other people, the harder it is. I do think, in spite of current events, that our getting to know people all over the world, our being able to Facebook, and Skype, and everything with people all over, has made a huge difference in our understanding, in our inability to view people as the other or as the enemy because you realize, “But I have a friend over there, and they’re just like me, and they love Hello Kitty just like I do.” It does make it where you realize that we’re all people and we all have feelings. It’s less easy to demonize them, or I would have said that before November, that it was less easy to demonize them and get away with it. I think generally that is true, and we’re moving in a direction where better understanding is making that true. I’m not sure telepathy is required. I think good old-fashioned talking to each other is probably sufficient.

I was thinking about, if there is going to be this telepathy technology in the future, if we’ll just stipulate that, it makes it very hard to tell stories then. I was thinking about how to tell a story, there’s The Demolished Man, but in a society where everyone knows everyone else’s thoughts, it seems to kind of obliterate everything that we think of as drama, because almost all drama depends on a character not knowing what another character is thinking.

Except, I would bet you, 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 mental barriers or physical barriers. Tinfoil hats 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, because there are times when you’re furious and ready to kill them, and those are better left as moments that you can leave unsaid. With telepathy, you wouldn’t be able to leave them unsaid. The stock market would immediately crash because we would all be inside traders to the max. There’s just so many things that could go wrong. I think the very first thing that would happen would be that people would attempt to reverse it. At least for themselves or in certain ways so that you weren’t open to everybody.

If we think it’s bad that you can have stalkers on the internet right now, and that people can find out where you live and go stand outside your house, and it’s really, really creepy, think how creepy it would be if they could get in your head. You really don’t want Charles Manson in your head, and I think society would go to enormous lengths to prevent that from happening, or, once it happened, to stop it immediately from happening. I just don’t think we would ever be able to tolerate a society in which we all knew all the time what we were thinking.

I don’t think there’s any question that if people living today suddenly all became telepathic that civilization would collapse overnight, but I do wonder if a hundred years from now, if people for one hundred years had been telepathic and everyone had no living memory of ever living any other way, if society would find some new equilibrium. Or do you think that’s just impossible?

Maybe. But it would certainly not be a society that looked anything like ours, because our society is totally based on the fact that all kinds of things are private, and I know there have been all these articles about how the internet has destroyed privacy, and that people don’t care about privacy anymore, and there’s a totally different attitude toward privacy, but the truth is that it hasn’t extended very far, and that we have still have vast areas of our lives which are private, which people want to keep private and go to extraordinary lengths to keep private. I don’t ever guard what I’m thinking. I guard what I’m saying, but I don’t guard what I’m thinking. I would have to begin to behave in a totally different way if I also had to guard my thoughts and be careful what I thought in the presence of others at all times, and that would be a very different society from what we have now.

Anything is possible, and of course I love speculating about those ideas. But, for me, let’s say if I speculate, sure telepathy had suddenly become universal, maybe not suddenly, but over the years society has become completely telepathic, I would always be looking for what are the unintended consequences, because they’re always there, and they’re always more interesting than the actual technology itself.

The book also has little quotes before each chapter. I was just wondering if you could talk about how you picked those or why you wanted to include those.

I loved including those, because they’re, first of all, I think when people are reading the book, they just read right past them, that’s for the reader the second time through, or for the reader the many-eth time through. Mary Stewart always did that. She always had fascinating quotes, which did not seem to be related to the story at all, but which later, if you go back and read them are very much related to the story and offered clues. Dorothy Sayers did the same thing and I think it’s a lost art. I love doing it. I do it in almost all of my novels.

A couple of the quotes are from the TV shows Primeval and Syfy’s Alice.

Oh, my favorite television show ever. Everybody who knows me knows that Primeval, I adore, and proselytize all the time. It was a BBC show. Five short British seasons. It’s the dumbest premise of all time. It’s dinosaur hunters in modern-day London, basically. There are these rips in time, which at first are from the distant, distant past, and creatures are able to come through and threaten London. A team is formed. Somebody called it The A-Team with dinosaurs, which is probably fair, except that the reason I loved it is that it was so well written, and it had such great plot ideas. I could not figure out the plot, and I can always figure out the plot. I always see it coming from miles ahead because I spend so much time plotting myself and dealing with plots, so when I can read something or watch something that I cannot figure out, I am in awe. I’m so impressed. It had great acting and terrific, funny dialogue and lots of irony. They knew how to do romantic comedy plots, which nobody knows how to do. It was just a great show all around. And, it had an actual ending, so that you watch the five seasons and you got a satisfying ending for all of the characters, which I found the most impressive thing of all, because TV so frequently just dies, and then you’re left wishing you hadn’t watched it at all because there wasn’t a decent ending. Or they screw up the ending like in Lost. And so you want a good ending, and this had a good ending. I push Primeval whenever I can.

I haven’t seen that one or Syfy’s Alice. Do you recommend that one as well?

Oh yes, very much so. Nick Willing has done several literature-related things. He did one, I think it was called just Neverland, and it was about Peter Pan before he became Peter Pan and Captain Hook before he became Captain Hook. His first one, and the most famous, was called Tin Man. It’s an interesting reworking of Wizard of Oz.

Syfy’s Alice, it was a mini-series where a modern-day Alice returns to Wonderland, and it is much more dystopian, what Wonderland would have become under the reign of the Red Queen, and very much a dystopian science fiction landscape, and very clever ways of working in all of the things in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but in totally new context. I just absolutely loved it, and I hate the new Alice in Wonderland, the Johnny Depp Alice in Wonderland, which I think tried to steal from Syfy’s Alice, but Syfy’s Alice was very low-budget and had very pathetic special effects, but just really outdid it, I thought.

I didn’t like the Johnny Depp one either. Speaking of dystopianism, you mentioned that you were more sanguine about humanity prior to this most recent election.

I am never sanguine about humanity. Ever. We always stand on the edge of the abyss. Always. It’s always a miracle that we don’t pitch forward into it. Let’s say I thought we got way closer to the edge here with this last election.

You said on your blog, “America handed the One Ring to Sauron, and now all hell is about to break loose.”

Yep. And I have not changed that opinion in the three weeks since I wrote that, particularly since watching what’s going on with Taiwan, and watching the random tweets, and the fact that the other day at this rally, he said, “I had no memory at all of ever saying that I would rescue Carrier and keep them from leaving the United States,” which I found absolutely terrifying. It’s a bull in a china shop. The reason we have that metaphor is because valuable, fragile, wonderful things will get broken and cannot be put back together again. I’m very frightened. Really frightened. More frightened than I was two weeks ago. No, that’s not true, I’m just as frightened as I was two weeks ago. I thought this is what was going to happen.

You did talk on your blog about how you researched London during the Blitz a lot for various stories that you’ve written, and that you feel like you are able to draw inspiration from surviving that experience.

Right, it’s a little different because that was a threat from outside. This is a threat from inside, so that makes it different. Although London had its threats from inside. During the ’30s, there was a ton of pro-Nazi sentiment: Mosley and his gang, and the Duke of Windsor. All of those people were very pro-Hitler. The situations are a little similar. I think the main thing is that the ordinary person tends to think, “Oh, there’s nothing I can do. What can I do? The thing I was going to do, vote, that didn’t work, so what else is there?” That is simply not true.

When I wrote Blackout and All Clear, my World War II novel, it was so clear that every single person play a vital, critical role in the war, and that every single person doing their bit, the British attitude of “do your bit” was absolutely the right one, because you had no way of knowing which person, which action was going to be the important one. I think that’s always true in history. History not only is always at the edge of the abyss, but it always is balanced on a knife’s edge. There’s always one tiny little thing that can make all the difference in the world, and it almost always is just an ordinary person.

History tends to focus on the kings and armies, but the truth is that so many things are simply the result of one person’s action or inaction in 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, and they stopped to ask a peasant for the way, 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 same face that he was looking at, and turned them in. They didn’t make it to the border, as you know. They ended up on the guillotine instead. This peasant changed the course of history. History is full of those examples.

I think the worst thing for people is that despair and to say, “Oh, there’s nothing I can do except hunker down and not watch the news.” Instead, I think everybody needs to do their bit. They need to fight for what they believe in. They need to feel as though they can make a difference, because they can.

Your talking about the One Ring and Sauron, that makes me think of one of the things that Tolkien said that I thought was really wise, where he said basically that you would have to be omniscient to know what’s going to happen, and since none of us are omniscient, we don’t know what’s going to happen, so despair is never rational, because no matter how hopeless things seem, you don’t know there isn’t hope.

That’s right. Tolkien speaks with great authority, because he lived through World War I. He lost all of his best friends at the Battle of the Somme, and said later that he based the Dead Marshes, that awful scene in the Dead Marshes, on the Battle of the Somme. Which, when I read that, I was like, of course, that makes perfect sense. He definitely had been in situations where despair would seem like the rational option. How many people died at the Somme? 60,000? In far more nightmarish situations than any of us alive has been in, and yet, he didn’t believe in despair. I’m totally with him. I get very upset with the people who do despair, because, no, that doesn’t accomplish anything. I had a button made, one of the “Keep Calm” buttons. It says, “Keep Calm and Fight On.” I’ve been passing them out to all my friends.

Speaking of not giving in to despair, on a slightly lighter note, I was wondering if you could tell your story about how you got eight stories rejected in one day and thought about giving up writing.

Okay, that’s not really a light story. It is in retrospect, but not at the time.

When I was first starting writing, the first eight or so years, I wrote completely in isolation. I didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know the science fiction community existed. I didn’t know anybody, and so I would write my stories, and I would send them out, and they would get rejected.

We lived in a little mountain town which didn’t have mail delivery, so you had to have a post office box, and when I would buy my stamps, and my manila envelopes and things, I would always buy well in advance, and I would buy not only the envelope and the stamp to send it out, and the self-addressed stamped envelope, but also for the next time I was going to send it out. I would usually even address it in advance. I’m sending it to Asimov’s, but I’m also addressing the envelope to Analog for when it comes back from Asimov’s. I was always fairly pessimistic about my chances, and rightly so.

I would get stories rejected, but it wasn’t too bad because I would say, “Well, this story was rejected, but in the meantime, I have this story at Omni, and it’s really good, and I know they’re going to take it.” Then by the time the one from Omni would come back, I would say, “Well, they rejected that, but I have a new story out at Asimov’s, and I have this other story out at F&SF, and they’re going to buy those.”

This one day, I walked up to the post office with my dog, and there was a pink slip in my mailbox. I assumed that it was a present that my grandmother had sent me or something, and so I went up to the desk to get it, and it wasn’t a present. It was all of the manuscripts I had out. Every single one. There was nothing that I could say, “Oh, but this is still out. They’re going to buy it.” These were all stories that had been rejected multiple times. Some of them, I had nowhere else to send them. They’d gone through the entire gamut of publication.

I picked up all of these manuscripts and started home, and thought, “You know, this would be a good day to quit. God is trying to tell me to quit here.” That’s always a danger for writers, because on the one hand, you have to have this incredible cockiness that other people actually want to hear what I have to say. They actually want to read these stories that I make up. Then on the other hand, if you’re too cocky, you never improve, because how can you improve? You’re already perfect. You’re never going to sell that way. You have to walk this balancing act.

So I walked home and seriously did think about quitting, getting my teaching certificate renewed and going back to work, and just giving up on this. But, I had all of these self-addressed stamped envelopes already ready to send out, so I thought, “Well, I’ll just send it out one more time.” And I didn’t really feel anything but despair at that point. I didn’t really honestly think any of them would sell, but I sent them all out again in their new envelopes, and one of those did sell, and then that kept me going until I was able to sell some more. I think, eventually, all of those stories did sell. I’m not sure, but I think almost all of them did, which was good.

And, the best part was, walking home from the post office with my dog was when I got my idea for “A Letter from the Clearys,” which was the story that was kind of one of my breakthrough stories, so it all worked out great, and now it makes a great anecdote to tell, but at the time, it was pretty awful. I really did almost quit. I always tell that story because I think that writers, they do reach moments of despair when they really could quit, and they should know that other people have had that same moment. That that’s not abnormal, and that it doesn’t mean that you should quit. On the other hand, some famous writer said, “All famous writers are people who were too stupid to know when they should have quit.” So I may fall into that category also. Too dumb and too unwilling to waste those stamps to know that I should have quit that day.

We’re all out of time, so finally, do you want to say what you’re working on now? Or is there anything else you want to mention?

I’m working on a new story about a mysterious bookshop. I love mysterious bookshop stories. I’m almost done with this one. I’m also working on a new novel about UFOs, and Roswell, and alien abductions. I think it will be kind of a road picture book.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.