50 Page Fridays: Connie Willis


Every Friday, we here @ Del Rey Spectra will place a 50 page excerpt of a selected title on Unbound Worlds. Whether it is science fiction, epic fantasy, alternate history, horror, urban fantasy, paranormal, the possibilities are endless.

This week, in celebration of her upcoming Grand Master Award at the Nebulas, we travel back to 1998, with sci-fi novelist Connie Willis. Willis, who is the author of several award-winning novels, most recently Blackout and All Clear, tells us below what inspired her to write To Say Nothing of The Dog, one of her earliest and most celebrated works.

“When I was thirteen I read Robert A. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, a science-fiction novel about a kid named Kip Russell who has a spaceship land on him and carry him and a little-girl genius named Peewee off on a wild adventure to the Moon, Pluto, the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, and parts west. So what does that have to do with To Say Nothing of the Dog, my time-travel novel set in Victorian England and a future Oxford?

Everything. Have Space Suit, Will Travel was where I first encountered Jerome K. Jerome’s comedy classic, Three Men in a Boat, the full title of which is Three Men in a Boat, To Say Nothing of the Dog. In the very first chapter of Have Space Suit, Kip is trying to talk his dad into letting him go to the Moon, and his father is paying no attention because he is reading the pineapple tin scene, so as soon as I’d finished reading Have Space Suit, I went to the library and checked out Three Men in a Boat. And fell absolutely in love with J, George, Harris, and of course, Montmorency the dog, who is in many ways the most intelligent and definitely the most sensible member of the group that sets off on a summer holiday rowing up the Thames.

I’d never encountered a book like it before, a story which had no plot, but you didn’t care because you were having such a good time getting lost in the Hampton Court Maze and battling swans and trying to open a pineapple tin without a can opener (with predictably disastrous results.) You didn’t care because you were too busy listening to J talk about the perils of packing and seasickness and taking a cheese home with you on a train. It, like Have Space Suit, instantly became one of my favorite books, and I’m still in love with it.

I was already in love with the Thames and Oxford through Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and in love with England through everything else I’d read, from E.M. Forster to Agatha Christie and especially the Victorian writers–Dickens and Trollope and Charles Kingsley and Wilkie Collins.

I love the Victorian era, with its vicars and parasols and pussycats and potted palms and butlers and séances, and I adore the Victorians. They’re just so funny–so worried about appearances and so certain of all sorts of things that aren’t true, so clearly out of their depth and yet so deadly serious, like children playing at dress-up in their parents’ clothes.

They discovered evolution and wrote some of the greatest children’s literature ever and produced some of the most hideous art in the history of mankind–clawfooted furniture with rosettes and garlands and cherubs, and sculptures of Leda Fending off the Swan and stags at bay, and statuary incorporating scientists, knights in shining armor, eagles, beetles, lions, Biblical scenes, assorted foliage, Greek columns, castles, and elephants. (If you don’t believe me, go look at the chapel at Windsor Castle. Or the Albert Memorial. Legend has it that during World War II Londoners put up giant arrows directing the Luftwaffe to the Albert Memorial in the hope they’d bomb it to smithereens.)

The Victorians remind me a lot of us. And their time reminds me a lot of ours. People tend to think of the Victorian Age as calm and settled and boring–tea parties on the lawn, chambermaids, croquet–but in reality, their time was as unsettled and upsetting as ours. The Industrial Revolution was rampaging through their lives, and they had all sorts of strange new technologies-new trains and aniline dyes and telegraph lines–to contend with. Just like us.

No wonder I wanted to write about them. And about the three men in a boat (who I’d always hoped I would meet), and about a hapless hero a little like Kip and a girl a little like Peewee who’s more than a match for him. And about butlers and tea parties and boating on the Thames and croquet and jumble sales and swans and séances and appalling Victorian art. To say nothing of the dog.

I hope you have as much fun reading To Say Nothing of the Dog as I had writing it.”

As always, feel free to give us feedback in the comments. Or let us know on Twitter via a direct message to our Twitter maven, Sarah Peed: www.twitter.com/delreyspectra. Or write on the wall of our Facebook page: Like us at www.facebook.com/delreyspectra

Please enjoy this excerpt of TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, available now wherever books are sold.

TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG by Connie Willis, Excerpt