Choose your own adventure
UTS alumna and author Claire Corbett, shows that the life of a writer can take you to unexpected places.
In the fictional alternative reality of Claire Corbett’s second novel, Watch Over Me, the world’s last remaining fossil fuel reserves are being guarded in northern Europe by an occupying military force. She does not mention where this army comes from so as to avoid preconceived notions of who is good and evil; but she also does so deliberately to promote a different perspective.
“When it comes to the history of warfare as prosecuted by the West since World War 2, we have tended to focus too much on the experience of soldiers,” explains Corbett. “We’ve sent solders to other countries to kill people in Iraq or Vietnam, and we tend to look at what they have to say about their experiences when they come back.
“Civilians suffer a lot more in war than soldiers. Soldiers make choices about what they do, but civilians don’t get to make any choices about how they are affected by war.”
It’s a dramatic change of scene from the crime styling of Corbett’s first novel, When We Have Wings, which was shortlisted for the Australian Crime Writers’ Association’s Ned Kelly Awards in 2012.
Corbett, who completed a Bachelor of Arts in Communications in 1989 and then a Master of Arts in Writing in 1997 at UTS, has been writing her entire life. At the age of four, the Canadian native's early work was featured in a book of collected poems written by children, published the University of British Columbia.
“I’d taught myself to read before I was in school,” she recalls. “I wanted that power right away – the power to be creative and world-creating. It was the only power a child can have.”
Her stepfather’s fear of nuclear oblivion following the Bay of Pigs invasion brought the family to Australia, where she nurtured her passion not just for writing, but also for film. “My mother was interested in creative writing and my father was a television director. I went on a lot of television sets as a kid, which was all about creating another world, so the two things aren’t all that different.”
That led to a stint with the crew of the Australian director Jane Campion film, Sweetie, while she was completing her undergraduate degree; and then later to a role as assistant director on Campion’s Academy Award-winning film The Piano.
“At the time UTS had something like $20 million in public liability insurance for all their film students, so it meant they were able to take me on their production without worrying about liability,” she recalls.
But her main takeaway from UTS is the mentoring relationship she has developed with then UTS academic Amanda Lohrey, whom she credits with guiding her through her formative stages as a writer. Lohrey also encouraged her to undertake a Masters degree at UTS, and the two have maintained that relationship ever since.
“To me, she exemplifies what I’m doing here at UTS as well,” Corbett says of her role as a casual academic in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “That is, UTS brings in people who have real experience in the industry.”
Beyond the academic experience, however, Corbett has the following advice to offer young, aspiring writers: “Get a different job. I’m not just being cynical, though you will need it; but you need to know about the world in some way.
“Thomas Hardy was trained as an architect. Kenneth Grahame, the author of The Wind and the Willows, worked at the Bank of England. I worked in a cabinet office as a policy advisor, so I know how government works, I know what goes on behind those doors, and I know how power operates.
“If you want to write, you need to bring something more to it. Professions feed into writing, so you have to have done some other work as well.”
In fact, Corbett did just that for Watch Over Me, writing as a journalist about defence policy and strategy for magazines such as The Diplomat and The Monthly.
“I can see how that surprises people,” she reflects. “I chose to start writing about that field as a way of learning what I needed to learn for my next book. It was also great that I could get paid to learn about things that most people don’t have access to.”
Watch Over Me is published by Allen & Unwin in May 2017.
Story and photography by Kevin Cheung
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