Connie Willis continues talking about her new book BLACKOUT, with some further observations on what inspired her to write it.
(Read earlier dispatches from Connie Willis here)
I said in my last post that the idea for my double-decker novel, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, came from the attack on the World Trade Center. And Pearl Harbor. But that’s only partly true. It really started long before that, the first time I saw St. Paul’s Cathedral. No, wait, it was even before that–in the eighth grade. My eighth-grade home room teacher Mrs. Warner read aloud to us everyday after lunch, and one of the books she read was Rumer Godden’s AN EPISODE OF SPARROWS.
It’s not really a YA book, and I think I’m probably the only person who listened to her as she read the it, but I loved the book. It’s about a girl in post-World War II London who makes a garden in the bombed-out rubble of a church, and it was my first introduction to the Blitz. So when I finally got to go to England years later, I was fascinated by all the signs and scars of the Blitz and especially by St. Paul’s, where the priests and choir members had slept in the crypt during the day and put out incendiary bombs all night on the roofs.
We saw the famous fire watch stone, “dedicated to the memory of St. Paul’s Fire Watch, who by the grace of God saved this church,” and the north transept where a bomb had crashed through, and then went up to the dome and outside. I had expected a sort of Mary Poppins view of Victorian roofs and quaint chimney pots, but the scene was completely unromantic–gray concrete buildings and parking garages. I thought, “Well, this is disappointing,” and then it hit me–all these buildings were built in the 1950s. Because everything had burned down. Everything. On all sides as far as the eye could see. Except for St. Paul’s. And for the first time I understood just how much of a miracle it was that St. Paul’s had survived.
I immediately began taking notes for the story I wanted to write–“Fire Watch”–and when I got home looked up everything I could find about the saving of St. Paul’s and the Blitz. And the more I found out, the more stories I wanted to write about it.
I wrote “Jack” about a rescue squad, and “The Winds of Marble Arch” about the Underground shelters, and put the bombing of Coventry and the burning of its cathedral in my novel, TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, but I still hadn’t even scratched the surface.
So now I’ve written BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, and hopefully I’ve finally gotten the Blitz out of my system.
But you never know.