An interview with Claire G. Coleman

by Australian Book Review
October 2021, no. 436

An interview with Claire G. Coleman

by Australian Book Review
October 2021, no. 436
Claire G. Coleman (photograph by Lily Marc)
Claire G. Coleman (photograph by Lily Marc)

Claire G. Coleman is a Wirlomin Noongar woman whose ancestral country is on the south coast of Western Australia. Her first novel Terra Nullius (Hachette, 2017) won a black&write! Fellowship and a Norma K. Hemming Award and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Aurealis Science Fiction Award. She writes poetry, short fiction, and essays, and has been published widely. Her latest book is Lies, Damned Lies (Ultimo Press, 2021)


If you could go anywhere tomorrow, where would it be, and why?

I think I would return to Country, to the low scrub, the grey stone, white sand, wind, and sea spray. Lockdown in Melbourne and a breakdown in Alice Springs have made me homesick: I just want to be where my family have always belonged. I would also like to return to Melbourne. As much as I love Alice Springs, my desire to be here is wearing thin.


What’s your idea of hell?

Loneliness. In a way, I have been there already. Last year was like being trapped in my own personal hell. If it wasn’t for work and electronic forms of contact, I think I would have lost my mind.


What do you consider the most specious virtue?

Faith, obviously. I can’t imagine why people call faith a virtue when it is anything but. Question everything and everybody. Faith, particularly blind faith, causes more evil than pretty much anything else.


What’s your favourite film?

Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 film, is thoroughly underrated and much more nuanced and powerful than most people realise. The Lord of the Rings (I consider the trilogy one film), problematically racist though the source material is, should be appreciated for its ambition and the power of the filmmaking.


And your favourite book?

This changes according to my mood, but a constant has been Benang by Kim Scott. It’s such a strong book, not just because of the strength of the story, but because of the power of the writing. In my opinion, Benang is the greatest work of fiction in the Australian canon.


Name the three people with whom you would most like to dine.

Binian, my Noongar great-great-grandmother who survived colonisation and had a family from whom I am descended. I would love to learn culture from her and hear the history of what she did to survive. My dad, because he would be so jealous if I was speaking to Binian without him there. H.G. Wells, so he can learn why his deus ex machina solution to the invasion in The War of the Worlds was so silly. The War of the Worlds was a parable for the invasion of Australia by the British, but the novel had a happy ending, while the reality of colonisation did not.


Which word do you most dislike, and which one would you like to see back in public usage?

There are a couple of words I hate at the moment, one of them is ‘that’, particularly when used as a conjunction. It just irritates me. The other word which seems to be increasing in usage but that should just die is ‘gotten’. Yuck. ‘Peri-colonial’ means during the colony or during the colonisation. It’s really a forgotten word, one that has never been in public usage but should be. In Australia, we often talk about pre-colonial and postcolonial (when we are not yet a postcolonial society), but we lack the language to discuss the reality, that Australia is still a colony. Peri-colonial is the word we are missing.


Who is your favourite author?

I have so many it’s impossible to choose one.


And your favourite literary hero or heroine?

Perhaps Johnny Star from Terra Nullius, though choosing someone from one of my own books seems cheeky.


Which quality do you most admire in a writer?



Which book influenced you most in your youth?

The Lord of the Rings. It was that tome that made me want to be a writer, while also teaching me the fundamentals of storytelling. Shame it was so racist.


Name an early literary idol or influence whom you no longer admire – or vice versa.

In my youth, there was no stronger influence than the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. His books were the reason why I decided to be a writer. When I read them again as an adult, I realised they weren’t as good as I remembered. I was also shocked by the deep colonial racism in the work. Tolkien was so racist it angers me.


What, if anything, impedes your writing?

Back pain and exhaustion. I also take on too much work and sometimes find myself burned out. This, of course, is entirely my own fault.


What qualities do you look for in critics, and which ones do you enjoy reading?

The most important quality in a critic is honesty. I like criticism that speaks of what the critic likes in a work, but also unpacks what is wrong with a work. I may not like it when people dislike my work – no author does – but I would rather the critic be honest. I enjoy reading criticism by First Nations critics. We need more First Nations writings critiqued by our own people. It would also be great to read criticism of non-Indigenous works by Indigenous people. Our cultural context is so different.


How do you find working with editors?

I have a love-hate-love relationship with editors. How we get along is largely determined by the stage of the editing process in which we find ourselves. Early on, being edited is kinda fun. I like seeing someone else paper over the cracks in my work. Later on, during the third or perhaps fourth edit, I tend to get a bit prickly. When the edit is finished, however, I love my editors for making my work better than I could have on my own.


What do you think of writers’ festivals?

Writers’ festivals are pretty much my favourite thing. I am not bad at speaking, so it’s fun and people respond well. There’s one thing about writers’ fests that many people might not know: many authors who prefer the company of others have their only opportunities to socialise at the writers’ fest. I often think of writers’ fests as months of Friday-night drinks with your workmates crammed into one weekend.


Are artists valued in our society?

Not enough. Art is the very thing that makes us human. It defines our culture and is important to our understanding who we are. Which is why I got so angry when the arts were completely disregarded in any Covid planning. The first things closed were arts venues, the first things cancelled were arts events, and the arts were the only industry not to have a specific financial rescue package. It was disgusting.


What are you working on now?

As always I am working on too much at once. This includes developing my first play, Black Betty at the End of the World, editing my third novel, Enclave, some art criticism, a bespoke script for an app, and a huge public-art project, Child of Now, on which I am lead writer. I really should learn to say no!

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