Connie Willis talks BLACKOUT (Part 3)


New musings from Connie Willis about her new book BLACKOUT, this time talking about that oft-vexing question for writers: “Where’d you get this idea?”
(Read earlier dispatches from Connie Willis here)


Many have asked me where I got the idea for BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR. Usually, I have trouble with this question because A) books don’t usually come from a single idea, they come from dozens of ideas which sort of coalesce; and B) it takes me so long to write my novels that the thing that sparked the original idea is lost in the mists of time.
But in the case of BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, I know exactly when and where I got the ideas that set me thinking about the book–September 11, 2001. Or, rather, the days right after 9-11, listening to people talk and reading survivors’ accounts of the attack and the stories of heroism from ordinary people, like Wells Crowther, the young stockbroker who gave his own life leading person after person to safety. And the elderly man who stepped out and gave his place in the last elevator down to two young women.
I was also struck by how much the assault on the World Trade Center was like Pearl Harbor–an attack seemingly out of nowhere on a beautiful morning. People in New York were buying lattes at Starbucks and taking their kids to the sitter, and people in Hawaii were eating breakfast and getting ready for church. When wham! their lives were turned upside-down, and they were thrust into a world of chaos and uncertainty and danger. A world where a few moments or a few inches made the difference between whether they died or survived.
There was also a similarity in how little the people in the middle of the attacks knew what was happening to them. As one of the Japanese Zeroes zoomed by at Pearl Harbor, a naval officer yelled, “Get that guy’s number! I’m putting him on report!” And at the World Trade Center a delivery guy found himself stuck in an elevator that wouldn’t open. A fireman called to him, “We’ll get you out!” and the guy sat there for nearly an hour, waiting for somebody to come, with no idea that the tower was about to collapse around him.
I tried to put all those things in BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR–the sense of being whacked suddenly in the back of the knees (or the back of the head) with a two-by-four, the finding yourself unexpectedly trapped in the middle of a war, with no idea what’s going on. And most of all, I tried to look at the extraordinary things ordinary people can do when they have to.
I hope you enjoy the book.
Connie Willis
P.S. The guy in the elevator finally gave up waiting for the fireman to come back and began pushing buttons again, and miraculously, the door opened. He shot across the lobby and out moments before the tower collapsed and only later found out why the “door open” button had finally responded–because the cables keeping the door closed were already melting as the tower began to fall.