Welcome to the next Author Interview.  Today we feature Claire Corbett, author of When We Have Wings, a novel about humans genetically and surgically engineered to be able to fly.  An interesting premise to a very interesting book that I enjoyed thoroughly.

It was published by Allen & Unwin in July 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award.  When We Have Wings is also being published in Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and Russia.

Claire is Canadian born, but now makes the Blue Mountains home, making her truly international.  Her answers are a fascinating insight into this author.  I hope you enjoy.

What genre would you like to write a book in (that you haven’t yet)?

I have begun two YA novels, which I love writing. I will finish them once my second novel is written. My second novel has spy thriller elements as well as being speculative fiction. My current novel, WHEN WE HAVE WINGS, fits into at least three categories – speculative fiction, crime and literary. I detest the way genre is used to box writers in; marketers are guilty of this but some readers are too. They use genre as a content filter, to ignore whole categories of work. Is Edgar Allan Poe a horror writer? Yes. A mystery writer? Yes. A speculative fiction writer? Yes. A literary writer and poet? Yes. Where would you shelve him in a bookstore, for heaven’s sake? He’d be in Classics or Literature now but publishers would tear their hair out trying to market Charles Dickens or Robert Louis Stevenson now.

Come on, Charlie, the marketing department would plead, as satirised by journalist David Thomas (Article here), write more comedy like Pickwick Papers! That sold well. Why are you writing social issues/women’s fiction (Oliver Twist), legal thrillers (Bleak House), gothic horror/romance (Great Expectations), children’s paranormal (A Christmas Carol) and historical romance (A Tale of Two Cities)? Readers won’t know which shelves to find you on, they would cry.

Where do your ideas come from? Do you have a standard formula for plots or do stories come to you as a whole construct?

I doubt any writer would say they use a standard formula for plots and certainly I don’t. The key distinction here is between plot and story. Story is the deeper thing and good writers rarely get to choose the stories they tell. My ideas come from images and feelings. Something triggers a strong feeling in me, like the feeling you get when you see a lighted window when you’ve been walking at night and you want to weave a story that will give a reader the same shiver of delight.

When you start a new story, do you have a title for it? Does that trigger the story?

I tend to get the title about the same time as the idea. Sometimes I toss around other ideas but often go back to the original title. I can’t work on something without at least a provisional title, just as I can’t write characters without knowing their names. There’s a great Pixar story about this. Apparently Toy Story was just the working title, as you might say ‘this is a horse story’ or ‘this is a love story’. And then it stuck and now it’s hard to imagine it being called anything else. Wonderful simplicity. Of course there was a rather famous romantic book just called Love Story too.

What themes are being overused?

It’s not for me to say, really. It doesn’t seem to matter how tired a theme is, there will always be an author who can bring something fresh to it. I thought space opera didn’t interest me until I read Iain M Banks’ Culture novels.

Are movies of books ruining the book?

No. If a film is great, such as the LOTR trilogy, its greatness is a tribute to the source and brings it new readers. If it’s mediocre, it publicises the book and hopefully sends readers back to the book. At the very least we hope the author makes some money from the deal.

Do you see ebooks threatening traditional publishing?

That is certainly happening. It’s hard to see how traditional publishing models can survive on the pricing models being established for ebooks. The demise of traditional publishing is not something that fills me with joy; as Laura Miller said in her famous article for Salon, welcome to the slushpile. You won’t like it and the value of the gatekeepers won’t become apparent till they’re gone. People will continue to buy books, perhaps more books than ever, but it seems fewer will make a living from them. I see non-fiction authors are now told that a book is just a kind of business card that exists in order to sell public talks, courses, etc.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent there are key things we can’t afford to lose from the traditional publishing model; professional editing, obviously, and also the long training that traditionally published authors get in handling criticism and working with it. It takes literally years for some people to learn how to hear, evaluate and apply even the most constructive criticism. It is hard; I think every author trembles as they open their editor’s report. So the traditional firewalls between authors, readers and reviewers are breaking down. That’s exhilarating at times but now we’re starting to see there were good reasons for those firewalls.

Do you prefer to read established authors or debut authors? How do you choose which ones to read?

I have no preference for established or debut authors, though I naturally have some favourite authors whose work I will always read: AS Byatt, Alice Munro, Rohinton Mistry, Ursula LeGuin, Malcolm Knox, Joan Didion. How we choose what to read is a fascinating question; a mix of recommendations, serendipity and deciding to read in a particular area. I am reading Indigenous women writers a fair bit at the moment; Marie Munkara is brilliant. It’s a bit different for writers because a lot of reading is research. Not just factual research but learning about different styles and techniques. The worst thing any beginning writer can do is read too exclusively in the genre they think they want to write. You have to bring new techniques and ideas and fresh approaches; you can’t do that by reading in one genre. Look at Terry Pratchett, for example; much of his humour comes from mixing styles and tropes from a range of genres.

Can I get an autographed book? (lol)

I don’t know. Do you buy books? If so, it’s possible, and even comes with a pretty silver sticker. If you don’t buy books, there’s not a lot of point writing them…

Do you have a group of people that you show a new story to? How much impact can they have on the whole story?

I only have one beta reader, as the phrase goes – my husband. He is a brilliant editor and his advice has been critically important to me. Only then will my agent and publisher and editor see the work and their input is crucial.

Do you set yourself a word limit for each book?

No. I write the story as long as it needs to be and have learned that at that point I must cut hard. Many speculative fiction and fantasy novels are too long. Here’s why: in speculative fiction the writer has to write themselves into believing and seeing their own world. That’s a huge challenge; very different from describing the real world around you. So you’re going to end up with 50,000 or more words than you need. Then you must cut as much of that as possible, only leaving enough to intrigue the reader rather than fatigue them. Too often the scaffolding is left on show, obscuring the beautiful lines of the story; it’s as if an actor were to read you all the backstory they wrote for their character and the director’s notes instead of embodying that person. Your story must embody your world, not describe it relentlessly.

Alan Garner is a remarkable example of a fantasy writer who cuts to the bone. Some readers don’t like that but it’s the reason he’ll be read in a hundred years and today’s doorstoppers trying to imitate The Lord of the Rings won’t be.

Do you have a target each day?

No. Between 1-3000 words a day is good but I’m not consistent. Many days I don’t write anything. The market is forcing writers to become too productive. Many books don’t need to be written. I understand authors are trying to make a living but it’s important to only publish good work.

Do you write constantly or have breaks between books?

I have breaks. The well has to fill up for fiction. I do write non-fiction in the breaks so I guess I don’t stop writing for too long. I have a lot of ideas; that is not the problem. I’ve got four or five good ideas for novels but they have to mature in the sub-conscious for awhile. Or maybe I’m just excusing laziness. I don’t know.

Do you have characters running around your head? Do they dictate events and their histories to you?

No, characters don’t dictate. They do come to life over time but I am in charge. Having said that, when I’m deep into second and subsequent drafts, I am really living in the world of the book. My mind is there, I dream it, it is a second life and the experience is rich and exhilarating.

What is your biggest (self-imposed) time waster?

Reading the entire internet every morning before work is time consuming.

Do you remember the first time you saw your book in a shop?

Yes, though perhaps the more exciting moment was when the first box of books, with such a gorgeous cover, arrived from my publisher. That was a moment like no other and I’m grateful to have had a book actually published, designed and printed. Holding a physical book is a thrill that uploading a file will never match.

Having said that, at least two bookshops that I know of, including my local bookshop that I’ve had a relationship with for over twenty years (*waves at Megalong Books*), did entire window displays on WHEN WE HAVE WINGS. That was thrilling and touching. The LoveThatBook display was handmade by the owner!

Claire’s post on the first day release.

To finish off here is Claire’s bio:

Claire Corbett crewed on feature films before becoming a policy advisor in the NSW Cabinet Office. She was a senior policy adviser on water and genetically modified organisms for the Environment Protection Authority and child and family health for NSW Health.

Claire is celebrating worldwide release of the audiobook from Bolinda Publishing by hosting a giveaway on Goodreads. Her website is here.

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