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Claire Corbett discusses writing her debut novel When We Have Wings


It has taken me ten years to write When We Have Wings though I did have a few years off during the process. When I began I had no idea how difficult were the technical challenges I’d set myself: two narrators, two points of view, one in first person, one in intimate third, plus unravelling a mystery set within a speculative fiction world.

It took me a long time to realise that I was having trouble with the beginning of the book because a mystery demands you sprint forwards, with economy, yet I’d created an intricate world that needed some description and explanation. These demands are diametrically opposed and it took much drafting and redrafting to intertwine these strands and make them flow. My editor helped greatly with this during the structural edit.

I knew I had to research flight. Sometimes it seems that every second literary novel uses flight and wings as a metaphor. I needed the opposite of the romantic use of flight; if I didn’t convince the reader of the reality of the characters flying the book would fail.

The key came to me one day while watching pigeons on the street and wondering why they scurried out of my way: you’ve got wings, why don’t you fly? And the answer came: because it’s hard work. Far from being easy and free, as flight is in our dreams, if you had wings flying would be the hardest work you’d ever do. But like surfing or marathon running or indeed writing a novel the moment comes when the impossible becomes possible, intoxicating, addictive, the only thing you want to do. Peri, the young woman at the heart of When We Have Wings, moves from a tormented relationship to her own flying to mastery and only through this movement can the reader soar too.

When I started writing When We Have Wings my husband gave me a copy of Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight by Pat Shipman. This book is an incredibly detailed account of the technical realities of bird flight; I needed this level of detail to make my fliers credible. I still remember how disappointed I was as a child when I was told that wings would not be enough to allow me to fly, that I’d need hollow bones as well. But even hollow bones, I found, were just the beginning.

It ended up that I had to research many more things than bird flight. I needed to know about slums to describe aspects of my City and that was several books’ worth of research for what ended up being a few lines in the completed book. I needed to know about clouds and extreme sports such as paragliding, which led to more books as well as online research. I needed to know about falconry and unearthed excellent material online about this.

One scene in the novel has incidental characters dressed as Russian cosmonauts and this required several days’ worth of research; I even joined an online community obsessed with Soviet-era medals and uniforms.

All the research in the world won’t give you a novel, of course. I had to absorb the information until it could permeate the book naturally, creating its own connections and resonances within the story. Because this novel in particular is such a flight of fancy, it needed to be grounded in respect for the real. What I hope the reader takes from the book is wonder and awe at the variety, beauty and fascination of the world as it truly is as well as exhilaration at the possibilities that unfold in our imaginations.

Visit Claire Corbett at clairecorbett.com

Read a Q&A with Claire at the Booktopia blog

Read a Q&A with Claire the My Four Bucks blog

Read a piece on Claire from the Herald Sun

Read a review of When We Have Wings

Spotlight:

When We Have Wings

by Claire Corbett

'This book is intoxicating; it made me imagine things I never imagined before. The world of flying is so complete, so detailed and real, it was as if I was flying, as if I could feel my wings. This is an addictive mystery, clever and compelling.' Jane Campion, director of The Piano and Bright Star

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