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:
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.
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 Gardner Dozois
and my friends
who've kept me from getting discouraged
and more than once talked me out of quitting altogether.
-- sitting in workshops with Ed Bryant
and Mike Toman
and George R.R. Martin
and Scott Edelman
and Walter Jon Williams
and Eileen Gunn
or Eileen Gunn
or Howard Waldrop said.
But most importantly, I need to thank
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.
You're supposed to talk about something significant in a guest-of-honor speech--
or the coming Singularity
or space travel
or tougher sentences for parole violators
or world peace.
I want to talk about books and what they have meant to me.
I owe books my vocation, my life, even my family.
You probably don't know this, but I only got married because of a book.
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.
Mary Stewart suspense
P.G. Wodehouse comedy
and Philip K. Dick how to pull the rug out from under the reader
"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.
Rita Mae Brown says, "When I got my library card, that's when my life began."
I read all three Oz books that night and took them back the next day
And then I checked out all the other Oz 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
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 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.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--
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 The Martian Chronicles
and A Canticle for Leibowitz
and the world exploded into dazzling possibilities.
Here, side by side, were the most astonishing short stories, and novelettes, and novellas, and poems
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
I was beyond hooked.
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.
Books can help you get through
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.
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,"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
and Peter Beagle's A Fine and Private Place
and Peter DeVries' The Blood of the Lamb to tell me the truth.
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"
taught me everything there is to know about death
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."I found what I was looking for,
what I needed,
what I wanted,
what I loved
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."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
who I really was.
I had escaped, but it was not from the real world.
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
When Kip and Peewee find themselves on trial for earth
And what better defense of us could you come up with?
Books can reach out across space and time
and give them help
In the words of Clarence Day Jr.,
Nothing else that he builds ever lasts.
civilizations grow old and die out,
and after an era of darkness,
new races build others.
But in the world of books
I never met Louisa May Alcott
saved my life.
And filled it with wonder.
And I just wanted to say thank you.
August 17, 2006
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