Quiet Heroes Theme of Alumna's Latest Novel

Connie Willis

Connie Willis, winner of an unprecedented 10 Hugo and six Nebula awards and member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

UNC alumna and award-winning science fiction author Connie Willis spent time on campus writing her latest time-travel thriller that captures the heroism of ordinary people during World War II. She read from the novel Feb. 9 at a campus reception and officially announced a donation to UNC Libraries.

During a recent visit at the University Center, against the backdrop of a panoramic view of west campus, Willis surrounds herself with sheets of handwritten notes from a spiral-bound notebook.

The internationally known author is in familiar surroundings at the UC. She splits time writing there, at Michener Library and a Greeley coffee shop.

She’s poring over her latest work ’’ this one for a blog to promote "Blackout," the first of two volumes released this week. The World War II novel is set during the London Blitz, when the city and its residents endured nine months of Nazi air raids.

Acts of heroism among everyday people during the attacks on the World Trade Center inspired Willis when she started writing the novel. She was moved by the story of a stockbroker who led groups of people out of the building before dying as Willis observes: "being the firefighter he always wanted to be."

She uses another 9/11 story to describe her book. A messenger trapped in one of the World Trade Center’s elevators on his way down, not knowing what had happened, managed to escape when the doors opened as he simultaneously tried the buttons and the elevator’s cables began melting.

"The whole time in the elevator, he had no idea of the catastrophe around him," Willis said. "That’s the kind of situation my characters find themselves in. They’re trapped in the past and can’t get out."

Her main characters are historians who travel back in time to observe the Blitz.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which Willis has previously written about in "Fire Watch," figures prominently in "Blackout" and serves as an example of the quiet heroes. Clergy and volunteers, credited with miraculously saving the church, slept in crypts during the day and were up every night on the roof to put out bombs, Willis said.

"So often it’s the little ordinary person, the Rosa Parks or the shop girls in London, they hold the future in their hands," Willis said. "That’s the serious point in book, letting people know what it’s like to be living through other really difficult times."

The Blitz piqued Willis’ interest in junior high when her teacher, Mrs. Werner, read passages each lunch hour from a book about the conflict. During her research for "Blackout," Willis reviewed accounts from a "mass observation" project. Before the war, the English government paid people one shilling a week to keep diaries, Willis said. The project lasted through the war. "No one thought to shut it down," Willis said. "Suddenly people became these terrific eyewitnesses to history who would never have had ordinarily written down what they thought but they kept collecting their shilling a week."

Willis also collected "unplanned" firsthand accounts of the Blitz thanks to her husband, Courtney, a UNC professor and last year’s winner of UNC’s top faculty award, the M. Lucile Harrison Award. They were visiting the Imperial War Museum in London when Courtney found a group of a dozen women who had worked during the Blitz on a day when the museum was offering free admission to former workers.

"They were telling all these funny stories," Willis said. So she asked why they were so cheerful. "’Well, we were young, we were on our own for the first time and around all these men,’" Willis recalled, laughing. "That gave me a lot of insight into how you survive and a lot of times are very happy even in dire circumstances."

The women appear in Willis’ second volume, "All Clear," due out in the fall.

Willis spoke on campus Feb. 9 and officially announced a donation of her manuscripts, library books and awards. Much of the written material will be digitized and made available online, in part, to help other budding writers better understand the writing process - one of the reasons Willis donated the collection.

Willis future plans include writing about Roswell and Area 51.

"I don’t really choose books," Willis said. "I just get so involved with periods of history and then I just want to write about them."

- Nate Haas