A new dispatch from Connie Willis, talking about BLACKOUT and how difficult it can be to answer the question “What’s your book about?”
(Read Part 1 here)
“What’s your novel about?” is one of the hardest questions writers get asked, partly because they don’t want to give the plot away and partly because if they could describe the words in ten words or less, they would have written it in ten words or less, instead of a couple hundred thousand. And saying it’s about time travel and World War II is like saying Hamlet is about a college kid who sees dead people. But here goes:
BLACKOUT (and its followup ALL CLEAR) are about several time travelers who are going on assignment to different parts of World War II. The book’s set in the same world as “Fire Watch,” Doomsday Book, and To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which Oxford University has access to time travel and can send historians to study the past “on-site.” Mr. Dunworthy’s in the book, and Colin, who is now seventeen and dying to go to the past, though Mr. Dunworthy won’t let him till he’s twenty and a third-year student. Colin doesn’t plan to let that stop him.
He’s assisting Polly, who’s going to study the London Blitz firsthand, posing as a shopgirl on Oxford Street. Her friend Eileen’s in Warwickshire, researching the kids who were evacuated from London during the war, and Michael’s going to Pearl Harbor to observe heroes.
Or at least he thinks that’s where he’s going. But the lab keeps rescheduling people, Mr. Dunworthy’s just cancelled a bunch of drops for no discernible reason, and things are about to get abruptly worse.
What are BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR about? They’re about Dunkirk and ration books and D-Day and V-1 rockets, about tube shelters and Bletchley Park and gas masks and stirrup pumps and Christmas pantomimes and cows and crossword puzzles and the deception campaign. And mostly the book’s about all the people who “did their bit” to save the world from Hitler–Shakespearean actors and ambulance drivers and vicars and landladies and nurses and WRENs and RAF pilots and Winston Churchill and General Patton and Agatha Christie–heroes all. I hope you like it.
More next time!