Today we’re chatting to Australian author Claire Corbett about her new book, Watch Over Me. Described by Tom Keneally as “a tale of pilgrimages and adventures, all beautifully textured and lovingly narrated”, this is a story that Claire feels very strongly about telling.
Hi Claire, can you describe your new book for those who haven’t read it yet?
“It’s a dark romantic thriller about contemporary war and the compromises and betrayals of occupation. It references the history of war, especially in the West but is very much about what is happening now. That is, the terrors experienced by the women under siege in Troy are not so different from women in World War II or the Balkans or Ukraine now. It deals with the dilemmas of love and treachery and the truth that we can’t always control what happens to us, we can only respond and adapt. And sometimes prevail in unexpected ways.”
Sounds fascinating. So why did you choose to write about women and war?
“Where’s the statue of the unknown woman? This is a fundamental question asked by a journalist whose book about living under occupation in Gaza formed part of my research. Where’s the statue of the unknown woman, he asked, as the missiles rained down, the sisters and aunts and mothers and grandmothers who do so much work to hold their families together. There’s no praise or respect, no monuments to the incredible tenacity, strength and hope of women enduring war and occupation, keeping their families alive.”
So this book is kind of your statue to all the women in war?
“I wrote this book partly as my tribute to the unknown women, their indomitable courage and spirit and in recognition of how difficult, if not impossible their choices are. We hear about modern war mostly from the perspective of soldiers, mostly men, because in the affluent West we are now the invaders. But it’s mostly women and children who are the victims of war.”
It’s obviously a subject you care deeply about. So what were some surprising things you discovered about the role of women in war?
“For this book, one of the things that shocked me was how badly women and their children are treated by occupiers. Most of us have probably seen the photos of French women having their heads shaved and being paraded naked through the streets after the end of the German occupation of France.
“But I didn’t realise that Norwegian women who had relationships with German soldiers were also treated dreadfully after the war – and most shockingly, their children were victimised, so much so that some of them had to flee. One of those people was Anna-Frid Lyngstad, the dark-haired singer in ABBA.
“She was persecuted as a child because her father was a German soldier and her family escaped to Sweden. As the Guardian reported: ‘Now the group of up to 12,000, of whom many are now in their sixties, plans to fight for compensation in the European Court of Human Rights.’”
There was clearly a lot of fact that fed your fiction in Watch Over Me – and no doubt you wanted it to feel as realistic as possible, yes?
“The numbers of civilians who die is staggering especially if you factor in deaths due to famine, destroyed health care systems, etc caused by war. If we thought more about this I do not believe we would be so ready to send our troops off to war with no public or parliamentary consultation.”
Let’s talk quickly about the writing process itself. Do you have a typical day or writing routine?
“I try to start early and work for as long as I can. That’s it, really. When I’m writing first draft, which is the hardest phase for me, I tend to set targets and try to force myself to do about 3000 words a day. Some of the day will often be spent on research too.”
And what’s next for you? What are you working on?
I’m trying to finish my PhD and another novel that I am part way through about the oceans around Australia and a woman who falls in love with a ship. I am aiming for that beauty and mystery of the sea.