The Most Important Book Ever: The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis



I have read more than 900 books in the 23 years since I started keeping a life list around mid-1989. That excludes my entire childhood (when I took piles home from the library), high school (when I read Harlequin romances faster than they could write them), college (when I took lit classes every semester), and graduate school (when I read my friend Loch’s massive sci-fi collection, five books a week). I’ve also read a few hundred books aloud to my kids over the years. For most of that time, believe it or not, I had no idea that I would become a writer.

In 1995, recently retired from hospital administration to be a stay-home mom with a three-year-old book lover and a one-year-old toddler, I first read The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. This wonderful novel had come out in 1992 and won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, sci-fi’s highest honors. The story combined alternate history and time travel, future Oxford University and the Black Death, comedy and deepest human tragedy. This is the single book that made me dedicate my efforts to becoming a writer, for real.

Up to that point, I had dabbled in short stories; I had taken a correspondence course with the Institute for Children’s Literature; I had won twelfth place in a contest with a 600-word story about a girl who pretends to be a cat; I had even completed one young-teen sci-fi novel manuscript (so that I wouldn’t waste my deathbed moments regretting not having tried). In 1995, Connie Willis inspired me to get serious, to submit my work for representation and publication, to hurry up and write another novel. How did she do this? It wasn’t that I imagined I could write an award winning novel like hers. It was that she provided a role model, a middle-aged woman like me starting a mid-life writing career. Shoot, I was only 33 and she had published her first novel at 42 and this miraculous breakout novel at 47. It wasn’t too late! I had loads of time.

As it turned out, I left 42 and 47 in the dust along the way to selling my first novel. But I kept my eye on the prize, my nose to the grindstone, and other hardworking clich├ęs driven by three ideas. (1) I had to be more than the maker of the best macaroni and cheese and apple pie to my kids. (2) I wanted to offer my kids a living example of unremitting persistence in the face of failure and rejection. (3) Connie Willis started in mid-life and has been successful beyond measure in bringing amazing stories to the world. Why not aim so high?