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Connie Willis' 2006 Worldcon Guest of Honor Speech by Connie WIllis
Essay  ISBN/ITEM#: CWLACONIV
Date: September 1, 2006 / Show Official Info /

A MIRACLE OF RARE DEVICE:
ON BOOKS, SF AND MY LIFE AMONG THEM
by Connie Willis

The thing that's so great about being a guest of honor at Worldcon is that it gives me the chance to thank all the people who helped me become a writer, like my junior school teacher Mrs. Warner who read Rumer Godden's An Episode of Sparrow out loud to us and first introduced me to the Blitz.

And my high school English teacher, Mrs. Juanita Jones, who encouraged me in my writing even though I showed no signs of talent whatsoever and forced her to read my story about how I'd met George Maharis of the TV series ROUTE 66, a story which includes deathless lines like, "His face lit up like a birthday cake," and in which the heroine, while driving in downtown Manhattan, manages to run into a tree--obviously the tree from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

It also gives me a chance to thank all those people who've helped me keep writing all these years.

    my long-suffering secretary Laura Lewis
    and my even more long-suffering family
    my miracle-working agents: Patrick Delahunt, Ralph Vicinanza, and Vince Girardis
    my extremely patient editors Anne Groell
      and Sheila Williams
      and Gardner Dozois
    my EXTREMELY patient readers
    and my friends
      my fellow soldiers in the trenches,
      who've kept me from getting discouraged
      and more than once talked me out of quitting altogether.
All my best moments in science fiction I owe to you guys--

    -- staying up all night after that first Nebulas with John Kessel and Jim Kelly, eating chocolate chip cookies and red pistachio nuts
    -- sitting in workshops with Ed Bryant
      and Cynthia Felice
      and Mike Toman
      and George R.R. Martin
    -- driving to Portales to see Jack Williamson
      with Charlie Brown
      and Scott Edelman
      and Walter Jon Williams
    -- gossiping with Nancy Kress
      and Ellen Datlow
      and Eileen Gunn
    -- laughing at something
      Michael Cassutt
      or Eileen Gunn
      or Howard Waldrop said.
    -- laughing at something Gardner Dozois said and snorting a piece of lettuce up my nose and nearly killing myself.
You guys are the wittiest, smartest, nicest people in the world, and I would not have lasted five minutes in science fiction without you.

But most importantly, I need to thank

    Robert Heinlein
    and Louisa May Alcott
    and Kit Reed
    and Damon Runyon
    and Sigrid Undset
    and Theodore Sturgeon
    and Agatha Christie
    and Jerome K. Jerome
    and Daphne DuMaurier
    and Philip K. Dick
    and Rumer Godden
    and L.M. Montgomery
    and Ray Bradbury
    and Shirley Jackson
    and Bob Shaw
    and James Herriot
    and Mildred Clingerman
    and P.G. Wodehouse
    and Dorothy Sayers
    and Daniel Keyes
    and J.R.R. Tolkien
    and Judith Merril
    and Charles Williams
    and William Shakespeare.
Which brings me to the subject of this speech.

You're supposed to talk about something significant in a guest-of-honor speech--

    global warming
    or the coming Singularity
    or space travel
    or tougher sentences for parole violators
    or world peace.
But I want to talk about something completely personal.

I want to talk about books and what they have meant to me.
Which is everything in the world.

I owe books my vocation, my life, even my family.
I'm not kidding.

You probably don't know this, but I only got married because of a book.
And no, I'm not talking about love poems.
NO, not Lolita.
I got married because of LORD OF THE RINGS.

To quote Kip Russell in Have Space Suit, Will Travel, "How it happened was this way."

I was flying out to Connecticut for the express purpose of breaking up with my boyfriend and I bought this set of three paperbacks to read on the plane. By the time I got to New Haven I was so worried about Frodo and Sam that I said to my boyfriend, "It's awful. They're trying to sneak into Mordor and the Ringwraiths are after them and I don't trust Gollum and..."

And I completely forgot to break up with him.

And, as of yesterday, we've been married thirty-nine years.

I owe my daughter's name to a book, too. We named her after the good daughter in King Lear and she has lived up to her name in absolutely every way.

And I owe all the books I've written to books.

They taught me how to write.

    Agatha taught me plotting
    Mary Stewart suspense
    Heinlein dialogue
    P.G. Wodehouse comedy
    Shakespeare irony
    and Philip K. Dick how to pull the rug out from under the reader
Books also gave me all sorts of good advice on how to cope with everything from following the rules--

"There are three rules for writing a novel," W. Somerset Maugham said. "Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."
to stupid questions
"Heavens!" Harriet Vane thought. "Here was that awful woman, Muriel Campshott, coming up to her. Campshott had always simpered. She still simpered. She was going to say, "How do you think of all your plots?" She did say it. Curse the woman.
to coping with the pressure to write what your publisher--or your readers--want:
"The only thing you can do," Dorothy Sayers said, "is write what you want to write and hope for the best."
to feeling like you've made a hideous mistake in your choice of career:
"It took me 15 years to discover I had no talent for writing," Robert Benchley told me, "but I couldn't give it up because by that time I was famous."
They even showed me what to write and how to write it.

When I went to England for the first time, I remembered that book about the Blitz Mrs. Warner had read out loud when I was in the eighth grade, and it made me go to St. Paul's where I found the fire watch and Oxford's time-travelling historians and my life's work.

Above all, they taught me what it meant to be a writer.

"Storytellers make us remember what mankind would have been like had not fear, and the failing will, and the laws of nature tripped up its heels," William Butler Yeats said.
And books--

Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning.

I loved books from the moment I saw them, from before I could even read. And as soon as I did learn, I read everything I could get my little hands on.

You couldn't get a library card till you were eight years old when I was a kid.

    (These were dark, benighted times)
and you were only allowed to check out three at a time
    (Really dark and benighted times)
I checked out three of L.Frank Baum's Oz books.

Rita Mae Brown says, "When I got my library card, that's when my life began."

Mine, too.

I read all three Oz books that night and took them back the next day
and checked out three more.

And then I checked out all the other Oz books
and all the Maida's Little Shop books
and all the Elsie Dinsmore books,
possibly the worst books ever written,
and all the Betsy, Tacy, and Tib books
and the Blue, Green, Yellow, Red, and Violet fairy tale books.

No one else in my family liked to read, and they were always telling me to "get my nose out of that book and go outside to play," an order which had no apparent effect on me because I went right ahead and read

    all the Anne of Green Gables books
    and all the Nancy Drew books
    and all the Mushroom Planet books
    and Alice in Wonderland
    and A Little Princess
    and Cress Delahanty
    and The Water Babies.
When I was in 6th grade, I read Little Women and decided I wanted to be a writer like Jo March.

When I was in 7th grade, I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and decided to read my way straight through the library from A to Z like Francie does in that book..

When I was in 8th grade, my teacher Mrs. Warner read us An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden, a book about an orphan who plants a garden in the bombed-out rubble of a church, and I fell in love with the Blitz.

And then, when I was thirteen, I read Have Space Suit, Will Travel, and it was all over.

How it happened was this way.

I was thirteen and shelving books in the junior high library, and I picked up a yellow book--I can still see it--with a guy in a spacesuit on the cover.

The title was Have Space Suit, WIll Travel, and I opened it and read:

"You see, I had this space suit.
How it happened was this way:
"Dad," I said, "I want to go to the Moon."
"Certainly," he answered and looked back at his book. It was Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, which he must know by heart.
"I said, "Dad, please! I'm serious!"
There's a scene at the end of Star Wars. The Death Star has cleared the planet and Luke Skywalker is going in for one last run. Princess Leia is back at command headquarters, listening intently to the battle. All the other fighter pilots are dead or out of action and Darth Vader has Luke clearly in his sights. All of a sudden, Han Solo comes zooming in from left field to blast Darth Vader and says, "Yahoo! You're all clear, kid. Let's blow this thing."

Now when he does this, Princess Leia doesn't look up from the battle map or even change her expression, but my daughter, who was eight years old at the time, leaned over to me and said, "Oh, she's hooked, Mother."

And when I opened that yellow book and read those first lines of Have Space Suit, Will Travel, I was hooked.

I raced through Have Space Suit... and then--after a brief detour to read Three Men in a Boat--

    I read Citizen of the Galaxy
    and Time for the Stars
    and The Star Beast
    and Double Star
    and Tunnel in the Sky
    and The Door Into Summer
    and everything else Heinlein had ever written.
And then Asimov
    and Clarke
    and The Martian Chronicles
    and A Canticle for Leibowitz
And then, oh my God, I discovered the Year's Best short story collections
and the world exploded into dazzling possibilities.

Here, side by side, were the most astonishing short stories, and novelettes, and novellas, and poems

    "Vintage Season"
    and "Lot"
    and "The Man Who Lost the Sea"
    and "I Have No Mouth but I must Scream"
    and "Flowers for Algernon"
    and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?"

    stories by Kit Reed
    and William Tenn
    and James Blish
    and Fredric Brown
    and Zenna Henderson
    and Philip K. Dick
    all in one book

    nightmarish futures
    and high-tech futures
    and marvelous Shangri-Las
    and strange distant planets

    aliens
    and time travel
    and robots
    and unicorns
    and monsters

    tragedies
    and adventures
    and fantasies
    and romances
    and comedies
    and horrors

    "Surface Tension"
    "Evening Primrose"
    "Day Million"
    "Continued on Next Rock"
    "When We Went to See the End of the World"
    "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon"
    and "One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts"

Stories that in only a few pages, a few thousand words, could turn reality upside down and inside out and make you look at the world, at the universe, a whole new way, could make you laugh, make you think, break your heart.

I was beyond hooked.
I was stunned.
I was speechless with wonder, like Kip and Peewee looking at their own Milky Way from the Magellanic Clouds, like the two hoboes in Ray Bradbury's "A Miracle of Rare Device," gazing at the beautiful city in the air.

And I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading and writing.

I stopped reading my way through the library from A to Z and started reading all the books I could find with the little atom and rocketship on their spines.

I had only gotten as far as the D's on my plan to read my way through the alphabet when I stopped, but, as it turned out, it was a good thing I'd gotten that far.

Because when I was 12, my mother died suddenly and shatteringly, and my world fell completely apart, and I had nobody to turn to but books.

And they saved my life.

I know what you're thinking, that books provided an escape for me.

And it's certainly true books can offer refuge from worries and despair--

As Leigh Hunt says, "I entrench myself in books equally against sorrow and the weather."

I remember particularly a night in the hospital at my 5-year-old daughter's bedside waiting for tests to show if she had appendicitis or something even worse, clinging to James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small like it was a life raft.

During the Blitz, in the makeshift libraries set up in the tube shelters, the most popular books were Agatha Christie's mysteries. In which the murderer's always caught and punished, justice always triumphs, and the world makes sense.

And when I'm anxious about things, I reread Agatha Christie, too.
And Mary Stewart.
And Lenora Mattingly Weber's Beany Malone books.

Books can help you get through

    long nights and long trips
    through the wait for the phone call
    and the judge's verdict
    and the doctor's diagnosis
    can switch off your squirrel-caging mind
    can make you forget your own troubles in the troubles of Kip and Peewee and Frodo and Viola and Harry and Charlie and Huck.
But it wasn't escape I needed when my mother died.
It was the truth.
And I couldn't get anyone to tell it to me.

Instead, they said things like:

"There's a reason this happened,"
and "You'll get over this,"
and "God never sends us more than we can bear."
Lies, all lies.

I remember an aunt saying sagely, "The good die young," not exactly a motivation to behave yourself.

And more than one person telling me, "It's all part of God's plan," I remember thinking, even at age 12, What kind of moron is God? I could come up with a better plan than this.

And the worst lie of all, "It's for the best."

Everybody lied--relatives, clergymen, friends.

So it was a good thing I'd reached the D's because I had

    James Agee's A Death in the Family
    and Peter Beagle's A Fine and Private Place
    and Peter DeVries' The Blood of the Lamb to tell me the truth.
"Time heals nothing," Peter DeVries said.

And Margery Allingham said, "Mourning is not forgetting. It is an undoing. Every minute has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the past."

When I discovered science fiction a year later, Robert Sheckley said, "Never try to explain to yourselves why some things happen and why other things don't happen. Don't ask and don't imagine that an explanation exists. Get it?"

And Bob Shaw's "The Light of Other Days"
and John Crowley's "Snow"
and Tom Godwin

taught me everything there is to know about death
and memory
and the cold equations.

But there were also hopeful messages in those books.

"There is a land of the living and a land of the dead," Thornton Wilder said, "and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning."

And Dorothy, in The Patchwork Girl of Oz, said, "Never give up. You never know what's going to happen next."

"If you look for truth," C.S. Lewis wrote, "You may find comfort in the end. If you look for comfort, you will not get either comfort or truth, only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair."

I found what I was looking for,
what I needed,
what I wanted,
what I loved
in books
when I couldn't find it anywhere else.

Francie and the public library and books saved my life.

And taught me the most important lesson books have to teach.

"You think your pains and your heartbreaks are unprecedented in the history of the world," James Baldwin says, "but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me where the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who have ever been alive."

And the narrator in Matilda says it even better:
Matilda read all kinds of books and was nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships onto the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: "You are not alone."

I told you about falling in love with books that day I got my library card, that day I opened Have Space Suit... and read that first page, that day I discovered the Year's Best collections.

But it wasn't just that I fell in love with books, with science fiction.

It wasn't just that they were there when I needed them. It was that when I found them, I also found, like one of Zenna Henderson's People, or the Ugly Duckling, or Anne of Green Gables, or Harry Potter -- my true family, my "kindred spirits," as Anne calls them, my own kind.

And, finding them, for the first time I knew
like Ozma released from the witch's spell,
like Dekker in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
like Bethie and Jemmy and Valancy

who I really was.

I had escaped, but it was not from the real world.
It was from exile.

I had come home.

Just like in a story.

And I lived happily ever after.

Books are an amazing thing. Anyone who thinks of them as an escape from reality or as something you should get your nose out of and go outside and play, or as merely a distraction or an amusement or a waste of time

Is dead wrong.

Books are the most important
the most powerful
the most beautiful thing
humans have ever created.

When Kip and Peewee find themselves on trial for earth
and trying to defend it against the charge
that it's a danger which should be destroyed, Kip says,
"Have you heard our poetry?"

And what better defense of us could you come up with?

Books can reach out across space and time
and language and culture and customs
gender and age
and even death
and speak to someone they never met,
to someone who wasn't even born when they were written

and give them help
and advice
and companionship
and consolation

In the words of Clarence Day Jr.,

    "The world of books is the most remarkable creation of man.
    Nothing else that he builds ever lasts.
    Monuments fall,
    nations perish,
    civilizations grow old and die out,
    and after an era of darkness,
    new races build others.

    But in the world of books
    are volumes that have seen this happen again and again
    and yet live on,
    still young,
    still as fresh as the day they were written
    still telling men's hearts of the hearts of men centuries dead."

They are a miracle of rare device.

I never met Louisa May Alcott
or Robert Heinlein
or Rumer Godden or L.Frank Baum or Philip K. Dick
or Thornton Wilder or Dean Matthews of St. Paul's,
but they reached out to me
across time,
across space,
and spoke to me
encouraged me
inspired me
taught me everything I know

saved my life.

And filled it with wonder.

And I just wanted to say thank you.

    Connie Willis
    August 17, 2006

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