Willis was born on December 31st in Denver, Colorado. She was introduced to science fiction through the Year’s Best collections featuring authors such as Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, James Blish, and Fredric Brown, as well as the works of Robert Heinlein, when she picked up his juvenile novel Have Space Suit, Will Travel.
“I happened to see a copy of Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel,” Willis noted in the introduction to her 2013 collection of short fiction, The Best of Connie Willis, “thought it had a funny title (for you young’uns, there was a TV show in those days called Have Gun, Will Travel – and yes, we had TV back then!) and checked it out. And fell in love with the very first line: ‘You see, I had this space suit.’”
She immediately read all of the other books by Heinlein that she could get her hands on, and moved on to any other book like it.
She went on to graduate from the Colorado State College in 1967, earning dual degrees in English and Elementary Education. Her career as a writer began with the publication of a short story in Worlds of Fantasy in 1970: ‘Santa Titicaca’. Her next came in 1978, ‘Capra Corn’ in the March issue of Galileo, which kicked off a steady stream of short stories from her in Galileo and anthologies over the next couple of years, earning her a handful of award nominations.
By the 1980s, she became a full time writer, publishing a number of notable short stories, which demonstrated a considerable range of topics, from particularly challenging topics such as sex and the treatment of women
In 1982, she received considerable attention for her novelette Fire Watch, which had been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in February 1982. Willis had visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and learned about the building’s experience during the Blitz. She recounted how she came to the story in the afterword in The Best of Connie Willis: “But when I actually saw the cathedral and learned how near it had come to being destroyed, I knew I had to write the story that eventually became ‘Fire Watch’. The story followed a historian who travelled back in time to the London Blitz, where he took part, watching for fires atop St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The story earned Willis a Hugo and Nebula award for her work, and would be the start of a longer sequence of time travel stories which would help to establish her as a major author in the field. In it, she introduced a time travelling history department at Oxford University, in which her historians travelled to such times as the Black Plague and the London Blitz.
As Willis rose to prominence in the early 1980s with her short fiction, she collaborated with Cynthia Felice in 1982 to publish her first novel, Water Witch, which The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction described as “relatively lightweight,” a label which would also apply to their second collaboration in 1989, Light Raid. However, her first solo novel, Lincoln’s Dreams, “aimed successfully at a very much higher degree of seriousness,” when it was published in 1987, earning her the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. As with her other time travel novels, the book was notable not only for its story, but for the detail of the past world, a feature in all of her time travel novels.
Her next major breakout hit came in 1992 with another time travel novel: Doomsday Book. The novel once again utilized the Oxford University’s time travel department, and followed a team as they travelled to the 1300s during the time of the black plague. The novel won the 1993 Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel, the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and received a handful of other nominations. Her next time travel adventure came in 1997 with To Say Nothing of the Dog, which earned her another Hugo and Locus award (and a Nebula nomination). This novel concerned the Victorian era, as her historians were conscripted into helping a wealthy woman recreate the Coventry Cathedral in the year 2057.
In 2010 and 2011, she published one of her best known novels to date: Blackout/All Clear, a single story published across two volumes. Set in the year 2060, a group of historians have their assignments shifted around, and after they’re sent to England during the early months of the Second World War, they find that they can’t return to the present.
While Willis’ time travel novels are best known, she noted in the introduction to her collection that “There was a conspiracy theory making the rounds on the internet a while back that there were actually two Connie Willises, one who wrote the ‘funny stuff’ and the one who wrote the ‘sad stuff’, which I don’t understand at all.” She noted that she attributes this split to the number of authors that influenced her writing – the greats who introduced her to science fiction. Science fiction is a larger world that encompasses many forms: “A realistic story about a man walking across the moon on foot stood between a lyrical remembrance of things past and a nightmarish take on the ‘good life,’ and there were tales of tidal flats and amusement parks and department stores and spots in the Arizona desert where it was possible to see ‘a miracle of rare device.’”
This observation helps to demonstrate why Willis has attained the reputation that she has: one of the more beloved figures writing in the genre today. Part of this comes from her personality, described by Gary K. Wolfe as “the erstwhile stand-up superstar of SF conventions – having her as your MC is like getting Billy Crystal back as host of the Oscars,” as well as the words that she puts to the page.
This variety of styles, and the mix of deeply serious and deeply comedic works has earned her the eleven Hugo and seven Nebula awards (the most of any other writer out there) that she’s received over the years. It explains her induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2009 and her title as SFWA Grand Master, earned in 2011.