Claire Corbett crewed on films before becoming a policy advisor in the NSW Cabinet Office. She worked on water and genetically modified organisms for the Environment Protection Authority and child and family health for NSW Health.
Claire has had stories broadcast on Radio National and published in Splash (Penguin), Picador New Writing and The Sydney Morning Herald, among others. She completed a Varuna Mentorship in 2000.
When We Have Wings, a novel about humans genetically engineered to fly, was published by Allen & Unwin in July 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award. It is also being published in the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Russia.
1. Your recent debut novel, When We Have Wings, is about a world where society is divided sharply into those who can fly and those who cannot. What is it about flight that caught your imagination so strongly? Given the choice, is this something you would want for yourself?
I used to have powerful flying dreams; it was as if I knew how it felt to fly. I wanted to escape aspects of my life. The desire to fly was a yearning for freedom, which I imagine it is for most people. As a child I lived in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where there were many hawks and eagles. I was transfixed by, and so jealous of, they way they could just launch themselves off cliffs and soar effortlessly. I don’t know if I’d go through the trouble and effort of becoming a flier now but at age five, twelve, seventeen, twenty-five? You bet I would! There are always people eager to push the envelope in any way they can. At a CSIRO tweetup for the launch of the Mars Rover Curiosity, we were asked how many of us would volunteer to travel to Mars if we knew we wouldn’t come back. Many people, perhaps the majority, put up their hands.
2. What did it mean to you to be shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis Prize?
It means so much to me. To be shortlisted from 55 books for my debut novel with five of Australia’s most acclaimed writers – Frank Moorhouse, Georgia Blain, Gillian Mears, Anna Funder and Gail Jones – feels like ‘arriving’. To have judges as formidable, experienced and discriminating as Sophie Cunningham and Debra Adelaide really ‘get’ my novel made me feel that I’d achieved everything I set out to do.
3. Is your next project also science fictional? What can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
Yes. It’s daunting to tackle because it’s another complex book that is going to take a lot of research. I can say that it deals with the sublime, the idea of beauty and terror, which I also worked with in When We Have Wings. There are no fliers in it as far as I know but it is set in the near future.
4. What Australian works have you loved recently?
Great question. Since being published last year I’ve read more Australian books than I have in years. There’s so much good work around that we seem to be entering a golden period. Recently I’ve read and really enjoyed Charlotte Wood’s Animal People, Margo Lanagan’s Yellowcake and Red Spikes (and looking forward to Cracklescape and Sea Hearts), Gillian Mears’ Foals’ Bread, the Coeur de Lion collection Anywhere But Earth, Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man, PM Newton’s The Old School, Kirsten Tranter’s A Common Loss, Marie Munkara’s Every Secret Thing, Ruby Langford Ginibi’s Don’t Take Your Love to Town and Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River (hardly a recent book, I know). I also thought Peter Docker’s The Waterboys was one of the most interesting and ambitious Australian SF novels I’ve read. I’ve just finished reading Meg Mundell’s Black Glass and I loved that; it’s beautifully written, touching, believable and also has interesting ideas and images.
5. A lot of your writing experience is in feature films. How is writing a novel different to writing a film script?
My experience in feature films is mostly in the cutting room as an assistant editor, which taught me a lot about structure and story. I’ve always worked as a prose writer first and foremost; writing scripts never used to appeal to me. There’s not much beauty in a film script and I was all about the beauty of a sentence.
Now that I’m more experienced I realise how much I’ve learned about structure from film and that the gulf between writing novels and making films isn’t as vast as scriptwriters and novelists would have you believe. Character and story are key, as is good dialogue. I picked up a book by a famous novelist the other day and quickly put it back when I saw it had almost no dialogue. You lose so much if you don’t write good dialogue, including humour, and the ability to show your characters’ relationships economically. When Jane Campion read the book, she told me she particularly loved the dialogue and that meant so much to me, coming from a film director.
Of course one of the great differences between the forms is that it is so easy to ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ in film and this particularly relates to SF and fantasy. SFF books are often long because the wild and wonderful aspects of their invented reality have to be described. In film it’s so easy and economical to show these fabulous worlds. Virtually every review and comment I’ve had has said how visual the book is, how much they’d like to see it as a film, and I guess this could be partly a result of my training, both in thinking visually and in paying attention to how people speak. You spend most of your time in the cutting room listening to dialogue and music – it’s an aural environment almost more than a visual one. I describe that in an essay (‘Cutting it Fine’) in Piano Lessons, a book of essays on The Piano published by Southern Screen
I’ve wondered if this is why SFF is one of the most popular film genres and yet still disliked by so many readers. Somehow the wonder is experienced through film without being alienating. Film, like Robert Heinlein’s Moon, is a harsh mistress. The Piano was an arthouse film but its running time had to be no longer than 95 minutes
including credits. There’s pain and whole scenes are dropped on the way to a fine cut. I learned a lot about discipline from that. Jane focused on ‘what does the film need?’ and when I write, particularly when editing, I try to focus on ‘what does the book need?’