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Newsletter: Connie Willis: Her Collection and Her Words

Connie Willis: Her Collection and Her Words

by Katie Shull, Archivist, UNC Archives & Special Collections
Willis with her 2011 Hugo Award. Picture by Cordelia Willis.
Willis with her 2011 Hugo Award. Picture by Cordelia Willis.

I’ve been working with Connie Willis for nine years now. That is, I’ve been working with her collection for nine years. Every so often, however, we meet up and chat about a myriad of things: her current writing projects, the political scene, cookbooks, and on occasion, blood splatter. These meetings usually occur in Michener Library, but due to Covid-19, that hasn’t been possible this year. Consequently, our conversation last week was via the phone. Before I share a bit of that conversation, let me give you a little background on Ms. Willis, her work, and her collection at UNC.

Connie Willis graduated from Colorado State College (now UNC) in 1967 with degrees in Early Education and English. Her intention was to become a teacher and spend her summer breaks writing. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, however, Willis began writing full time. That was in the late 1970s, and she has been writing steadily ever since. To date, Willis has published 11 novels, 80 pieces of short fiction, and 11 anthologies. Her work is exceptional. Willis is the most awarded writer in science fiction ever, having won eight Nebula Awards, 12 Hugo Awards, and 14 Locus Awards. Additionally, in 2009 Willis was inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and in 2012 she was presented with the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA), joining the likes of Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Ray Bradbury. Her latest honor, the Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. Service to SFWA Award, will be bestowed this June.

Willis established her collection at the University Libraries in 2010. In addition to the prestige this collection brings to UNC, there is definitely a “wow” factor about the collection. It holds items that intrigue scholars, students, and Sci Fi fans alike. Her friends read like a list of “Who’s Who” of the science fiction world. Consequently, the collection holds correspondence from people such as Jack Williamson, Isaac Asimov, Jim Kelly, Michael Cassutt, and George R. R. Martin.

Willis while attending CSC.
Willis while attending CSC.

Known for her hallmark quick wit and humor, Willis makes an ideal toastmistress and panelist at conventions. She has been attending them since the early 1980s and the collection holds a vast amount of convention ephemera: programs, nametags, speeches, and photos. There is a wealth of other materials as well: handwritten manuscripts, speeches, essays, galley proofs, and published works. The collection also holds VHS tapes, audio cassette tapes, photographs, awards, and a variety of artifacts given to Willis by fans. The collection continues to grow with bi-annual donations; and if all the boxes and books were lined up, they would extend 315 feet.

What is quite unique about Willis’ writing is that she continues to write everything by hand. Willis’ assistant types up her handwritten notes and drafts which Willis, in turn, edits in longhand. Researchers can follow the tracks of Willis’ decision-making processes from sentence and story structure to word choice. In a world that has been overtaken by technology, these processes are often lost but Willis’ will be forever evident.

Here is a snippet of our conversation.

KS: Congratulations! I heard that you’ll be receiving the O’Donnell Service Award in June, but the award ceremony will be virtual, right?

CW: Yes. It will be virtual. I’ve attended a few virtual conventions since Covid: MileHiCon, Bubicon, and Beskone. It worked out slick for Beskone because I didn’t have to travel to Boston this winter. It’s been great to see everyone again, even if it is online. I’ve been able to do readings, sit on a couple panels, and even attend a few coffee klatches.

KS: Yes, I saw the readings on YouTube. It was so good to hear you read a bit from Road to Roswell [her latest novel coming out 2022] and “Take a Look at the Five and Ten” [her most recent short story published November 2020]. I have included links to them in the research guide that I’ve created about your collection. Actually, you should check out the guide. It has links to your novels and anthologies along with videos of a few your speeches and panel sessions. I also included links to your all-time favorite novels.

CW: That’s great Katie. I’ll take a look at it.

KS: I’ve been wondering why you choose to give your collection to UNC and why you continue to financially support The Libraries.

CW: There are so many reasons. The first one being, that I have such fond memories of going to school there. I still remember the Lit classes I took with Dr. Princic, Dr. Forrest Frease and his wife Dr. Cynthia Frease. Oh and, especially enjoyed the short story class I took with Dr. Cross.

I also spent so much time in Carter, that was the library when I was a student. I would get the recommended reading lists from my classes and head to Carter. I spent hours upon hours reading there. Libraries are indispensable and at UNC, it’s the heart of campus.

Through the years, I’ve spent time on campus working with the English Honors Society and my husband, Courtney, taught physics at UNC for many years. Combined, all these reasons made UNC the perfect place for my collection. Also, it was handy. I live only a couple of blocks away from campus and my basement was full.

KS: [Laughter]

An artifact in the Connie Willis Collection
An artifact in the Connie Willis Collection


As Willis begins the convention season in earnest, she will be editing Road to Roswell and will most likely drop off a few boxes at the Archives.  No doubt, they will contain a mish-mosh of subject matter: England, aliens, Agatha Christie, the 2021 Williamson Lectureship, and who knows what else. I am looking forward to finding out!  You can find out what we already have by stopping by the Archives or following the links below.

UNC Online Resources:

The Connie Willis Collection

The Connie Willis Book Collection

2000 UNC Graduation Speech given by Connie Willis

The Connie Willis Research Guide