Five questions for Claire Corbett, author of When We Have Wings

Claire is a local author, whom I first met at Conflux, when we shared a panel about science in fiction. The reason that she was on the panel was that her novel, When We Have Wings, deals with how much modification human bodies would need to fly. Here are five questions for her. Enjoy!

You recently sold your novel WHEN WE HAVE WINGS to Allen & Unwin. When did you first hear of their interest and what did you do first when you heard that you made the sale? Tell us a bit about that incredible euphoria.

My agent ringing me on a Sunday to tell me how excited she was about the book was the real start of it. Till then I wasn’t sure I even had an agent. When she loved the book I was pretty sure it would be sold. Still, there was more work to do, then she pitched it; we didn’t hear anything for a few weeks, then I got the phone call. Hard to say exactly what I did then. There would have been champagne (OK sparkling wine) that night. The main thing was that I was thrilled it was Allen & Unwin. They are perfect for me and completely grasped the unusual nature of the book, that it didn’t neatly fit genre boundaries.
There was incredible euphoria there but it took time to sink in. It was more that each milestone on the way to publication was exciting (and nerve-wracking, as with the structural edit) and the book became more and more real: cover design, book trailer, poster and finally the arrival of the physical book. Having the book become real to other people was a wonderful process and new to me. How much longer will new authors be able to look forward to the arrival of a printed book they can hold in their hands?

The euphoria continues when your agent rings to tell you you’re going to be published in other countries – I have three international deals so far: Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal, all of them impressive publishing houses. I saw a cover rough for the Dutch edition the other day; it was very different to my Australian cover but I loved it.

In the process from writing the novel to publication, what did you find the hardest?

Three things: getting the right agent to read my book and take me on; the ongoing discipline of improving my writing, especially as I took on the distinct challenge of writing SF and crime in a literary way; and just the sheer persistence and hard work it took to get published, far beyond anything I’d imagined.

You studied film at UTS. How does working in film relate to writing a book?

The challenges of storytelling in film are more similar to those of novel-writing than some screenwriters or novelists care to admit. Mainstream feature films are all about narrative structure and character. I worked in the cutting room on features so seeing the way in which scenes were played around with, trimmed, or even deleted altogether taught me a lot about the importance of dealing with structure in a flexible, creative way. I had to do a lot of re-thinking structure through various drafts of When We Have Wings because there are complexities in the plot.

Also when cutting films you can lose a character or clarify and strengthen one in a short scene, just a few seconds of screen time. Watching Jane Campion work was an education; she was always asking ‘what does the film need?’ I don’t believe she was ego-driven regarding her work and I learned from that discipline: what does the book need, not just what do I want to say?

You have worked as a speech writer/policy adviser. What is the most unexpected thing you learned from working with politicians?

The single most unexpected, and frightening, thing I learned was that governments are just made up of people, mostly trying to do their best but without magic answers. I learned that many public servants are honourable and hard-working. Some are dreadful but you get that everywhere.

The last remnants of childish fury about how ‘they’ should fix everything fell away. I’ll never forget an elderly woman writing to the Premier complaining that a child had visited her and broken a doll the old lady loved. Could the Premier replace the doll for her please? She’d included a photo so he’d get the right one. I don’t think we sent her a doll but that letter made me wonder what people think government is for.

Standing between us and chaos are some ordinary – and some extraordinary – people! We don’t value good government as much as we should; if we all looked hard at a failed state or two, maybe we’d comprehend what we have and be determined to make it better.

Two other things: I learned how to smash writers’ block because we had to produce large volumes of work to strict deadlines, so that was priceless. The other aspect was broader and deeper, which is that policy work was an extraordinary education in how society functions. All organisational politics is much the same, from a big corporation to a government department to a small non-profit – people are people.

I love having that confidence; I know how government agencies work, I know the difficulties politicians face. It’s fantastic for writing novels, which demand a bit of a broad canvas. It doesn’t matter if your committee or government is in Ancient Rome or on Alpha Centauri – the realities of political self-interest, conspiracy and compromise will be much the same. It’s why Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is still so relevant. The conspirators to kill Caesar could be the mafia or they could be any number of contemporary politicians and there’s no easy right or wrong, good or bad when it comes to any of the characters in that play.

Is there anything you’d like to say to your newbie-writer self years ago?

Work a hell of a lot harder and faster! Read about Hemingway’s early years and write so much more. Unfortunately I can’t do anything about that now.

About the book:

When We Have Wings

In a dystopian near-future, genetic engineering, radical surgery and a regime of drugs can give you something humans have always dreamed about: the ability to fly. If you have the money, you can join this self-created elite: the winged.

These fliers are not only given wings; they have their own architecture, fashion, religion and politics, and build floating towers in the sky. Those who live outside The City in the rural slums of RaRA-land can only look up at this new species of human in wonder and despair.

Except for one remarkable girl, Peri, who is prepared to sacrifice everything to get her own wings. When she kidnaps a rich family’s child, the investigation threatens to undermine the glittering world of fliers and reveal its ruthless secrets.

“This book is mischievous with scientific meddling in a way that echoes Margaret Atwood’s dystopian fiction Oryx and Crake. Corbett creates a world where cars have artificial intelligence ….plants glow at night.. spliced with jellyfish genes and… lions are shrunk to the size of a cat….Corbett’s prose has the clarity, luminosity and beauty of a well-cut diamond…. this flight of fancy deserves to soar.”
– Thuy On. The Weekend Australian

“This is what makes When We have Wings unsettling–the realisation that this is a metaphor for today’s world….Humanity is still the force that matters and endures.”
Mary Philip – The Daily Telegraph

“..a thoroughly convincing, immaculately researched account…. this wonderful new author unerringly explores the social consequences and the strains between fliers and non-fliers.”

Crisetta MacLeod, AurealisExpress

Buy When We Have Wings at Amazon