Multiple-award-winner and bestselling author (and let’s just say it: legend) Connie Willis has created a fresh, technology-based romantic comedy in her latest novel Crosstalk, serving up a take on telepathy unlike any other. Our signed, limited edition of the novel—which received starred reviews from Booklist and Library Journal—is now shipping, and our own Gwenda Bond had a chat with Connie about it
Gwenda Bond: So, let’s start with an easy one. Not that there are easy ones, when it comes to novels. Where did the idea for Crosstalk emerge from?
Connie Willis: (laughs) Novels come from lots of places. Everybody always asks where did you get the idea, as if it were one idea. Usually the original idea—whatever that was—is sort of lost in the mist of time, and then has all these other ideas attached to it. Or someone described it as a pearl gradually accruing gunk to it and I think that’s pretty accurate.
One of the places, of course, was looking around—I do a lot of my writing over at Starbucks and shamelessly eavesdrop on conversations. It has struck me over the last two years that all these communication devices that we’ve come up with, all these new ways of supposedly making communication better… Let me say first, I’m thrilled with them. My daughter lived a year in England before the cellphone and it was hell. So I’m not in any way dismissing the wonderful aspects of our communications revelation.
But. But what I see over at Starbucks is that it hasn’t really helped in terms of: we don’t get along better, we don’t understand each other better, our hearts are still broken, our romances still break up and, frequently, what used to be “he didn’t call me” is now “he didn’t text me” or “I’m trying to decipher the text that he sent me,” or all these codes, “Oh my god he didn’t change his relationship status on facebook.” For all of our attempts to communicate better, we’re not communicating any better obviously. Watching our current brand new administration, there’s a whole industry devoted to “what the hell do his tweets mean?” They decipher them as if they were some sort of elaborate code. Symptomatic of the whole communications problem. So that was the first thing.
The second thing, probably the trigger, was I was on a panel at a science fiction convention and we were talking about telepathy, because that’s been a theme throughout science fiction. People love to write telepathy stories. And I was the only person on the panel who thought it was just a completely terrible idea.
CW: Everyone else is like, “No it’d be great.” So I was determined to show everybody just exactly how terrible it would be. Because I certainly don’t want people to know what I’m thinking at any given moment. People have this sort of fantasy about it, that we think as coherently as we speak. We don’t, obviously. I think if you could hear thoughts, they would just be random and incoherent.
GB: I doubt it would be that different if you had telepathy with your pet. We’re all always thinking about food.
CW: Right. And with people, you’re not just thinking “I’m really in love with Tom,” you’re also thinking “I need to go to the bathroom or the grocery store and oh look, there’s a bird, and it’s clouding over and my feet are cold and my hand hurts.” You’re thinking all of those things simultaneously. For one person it would just be chaos. Let alone if you were hearing other people.
And that’s the other fantasy we have. We would listen to the people we wanted, but I see no reason why that would be the case. You would in fact have to listen to everybody and some people are terminally boring and some people are awful and I just don’t think you want that. I don’t think people even think about the true nightmarish situations. It’s bad enough you can have an internet stalker who can find out your address and come park his car across the street from your house and watch you. But to have that person in your head with you having no way to get them out of there would rise to the level of nightmare.
GB: You took this concept in a funny romantic comedy direction, but it could easily be horror.
CW: Exactly. One day I was sitting in Starbucks next to these two women who were terminally boring. I should say one was terminally boring and the other one was listening to her and making those appropriate “mmhmm mmhmm” noises; I would’ve loved to hear what she was thinking, actually. But the woman was going on and on about what she was going to buy over at the grocery store for dinner and it just went on and on and I would rather listen to my dog. And I think most of us—although I’m laughing—I’m sure I’m guilty of all those terrible boring thoughts also. And the endless fretting and stewing about things that we do, just going over the same territory all the time to no good end. It’s bad enough that we have to listen to our own heads doing that. It would be awful if we had to listen to other people.
GB: Switching gears… Romantic comedy is a favorite of mine, and this is dead-on a novel version of a classic screwball. I have a theory that one of the venues romantic comedy works best in now is SF where you can set up rules for the relationship to collide with. That’s one of the things that makes Crosstalk have that classic feel to me even though you’re using technology.
CW: There used to be many more societal barriers. Fantasy and SF are excellent places for romantic comedy, because then the barriers can be invented to keep the characters apart. In Crosstalk, the barrier is partly that they have this forced intimacy that they didn’t want and aren’t ready for—and especially that Briddey doesn’t want—and at the same time, they’re not connecting. In the real world, they never would have spoken.
GB: And now we have this fantastic story. Thanks so much for talking with me.