Claire Coleman on literary speculative fiction

Claire G. Coleman is a Noongar writer, born in Western Australia and now based in Naarm. Her family have been from the area around Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun on the south coast of WA since before time started being recorded.

She has written three works of speculative fiction to date - Terra Nullius: A Novel (2017), which was shortlisted for The Stella Prize, among many other awards, The Old Lie (2019) and Enclave (2022).  Her acclaimed non-fiction book, Lies Damned Lies: A personal exploration of the impact of colonisation was published in 2021.

Claire has appeared on The Garret before. You can find a detailed discussion of Terra Nullius here, as well as a discussion recorded live at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in 2019 here.

Claire Coleman on speculative fiction


ASTRID: Claire Coleman, welcome back to The Garret. You are one of my favourite authors to speak to because you always surprise me. So, first up, congratulations on Enclave, your third fiction work.

CLAIRE: Thank you, and it is always a pleasure to talk to you because you're always so nice.

ASTRID: Well, look, you write speculative fiction, and it is my preferred genre. It is my preferred way to read fiction. I am thrilled that you have now written three novels, plus Lies, Damned Lies, which makes four substantive works in about six years.

CLAIRE: Mm-hmm.

ASTRID: My first question, Claire, is that is a lot to have published in addition to all of the other shorter nonfiction and reviews that you publish as well. That feels quite prolific. How do you do it, but, also, did the pandemic affect your creativity or how much you wanted to write or what you wanted to write?

CLAIRE: I think I'm prolific because I'm quick, essentially. I've been known to knock together a work on a tram ride that I need to do. I mean, once I do that, I have to edit it for ages. This doesn't matter, how quick I write something. The editing process is long anyway, no matter what it is. But I've been known to knock together a first draught on a one-hour tram, and I think that might be the secret. I'm not sure.

Also, I don't have another job, which gives two superpowers in a way. It means that I have to work hard or I don't pay my rent. It also means I have time to get a lot of work done. They're both useful things. I'd say, of the two of them, when people ask me if there's an advantage to writing as a full-time job, I say the only advantage is it forces you to be prolific because you know you don't pay your rent if you're not. That's a fighting advantage but a good one. The pandemic did slow me down a little bit at times, but I wrote the entirety of Lies, Damned Lies during the pandemic and I wrote a novella that won the Griffith Review Novella Project during the pandemic. Yeah. Obviously, it hasn't slowed me down that much.

ASTRID: Look, that is in my own interest as a reader. All three of your novels, Terra Nullius, The Old Lie, and now Enclave, fall within the broad rubric of speculative fiction. Now, that means different things to different people and obviously includes dystopian fiction and science fiction and so much. But can you talk to me about what speculative fiction... How do you define it, and what does it mean to you?

CLAIRE: Well, I mean, speculative fiction has had multiple meanings through the history of fiction, and I'm, of course, always fascinated by the history of things like fiction genres. Originally, the term for speculative fiction referred to just any fiction that asks a question and then answered that question within the story. That was the original meaning. That's why it was called speculative fiction. Now, of course, the meaning has adapted over the years in that it's a broad umbrella term for all of what used to be called the fantastical forms of fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, anything that has any element that's not part of the real world. Then, of course, someone threw a spanner in the works by deciding there's such a thing as literary speculative fiction, which I think I would... It probably could be accurate to say that I'm the best-selling literary speculative fiction novelist in Australia, and I'm still not 100 per cent certain what that is. So best I can work out, literary speculative fiction is speculative fiction that your publisher wants to sell as literary fiction.


CLAIRE: It really is.

ASTRID: That makes me laugh, and that has just jumped to all these questions I had for you that I was going to save until the end of the interview. But now that you've just opened the floodgates, Claire, literary speculative fiction, I agree, I think that you are... Not that I have the numbers, but I would guess that you are the best-selling literary commercial speculative fiction writer in Australia. The tag of literary speculative fiction, I don't know how I feel about it, maybe a little bit irritated about it, because so much of the speculative fiction that we would find in what we used to call the canon was never tagged literary speculative fiction. It was always just considered literary. I think of H. G. Wells, War of the Worlds, which, of course, was one of the influences for you in Terra Nullius. No one ever calls that literary speculative fiction. They're just happy to say that's part of the Western canon and English literature in the 20th century.

I know that you like the history of literature, and so I sat down and thought... Enclave is dystopian fiction as well, and I thought, ‘All right, what's dystopian fiction’, and I went all the way back to my high school days, Claire, and in my final year of school, I was made to study, and I confessed I enjoyed it, Utopia by Thomas More. That was written in the 16th century. It was a satire. It was speaking back to the age of Henry VIII. Thomas More got himself in trouble, and he did get himself executed a decade or so later. I guess that was kind of the start of what we would call dystopian literature because while that was called Utopia, he was clearly not presenting anything that was perfect. How do you consider dystopian literature, and, of course, when we think about Enclave, what were you responding to in that genre?

CLAIRE: Well, interestingly about Thomas More's Utopia, I found this out a few years ago in doing some research into it, the original Greek word he wrote in English as utopia had the Greek sound which we would write now as O-U, whereas that when people wrote it down, people pronounced the word utopia they pronounced it the E-U Greek sound. Now, the E-U Greek sound means something that's good. If it was written that way, it'd mean good place, which is how we think it means. But Thomas More used the O-U version, which means a place that doesn't exist or a place that cannot exist. So, what it's really saying – and he was interviewed and asked about this later in a letter or something – he said that really what he's saying is the sort of utopia we like to imagine or nice, good place we like to imagine cannot currently exist. I've always found that interesting, that idea that a utopia can't exist as what we think of as utopia.

I'm also aware of a fact that most speculative fiction authors seem aware of but the majority of the public don't seem aware of, which is true in fiction and true in the real world, which is every dystopia is a utopia for someone, or they wouldn't allow it to be that way. If everybody hated this dystopic world...The difference between dystopia and a post-apocalyptic world is that dystopia is the world where human decisions have put people where they are, not a world ending, but a case of people are oppressed by another class or something. That's really what defines a dystopia, which means that there's an upper class that want the dystopia to exist for everybody else. Also, every utopia also has an underclass because if everybody has to do their own dishes and take out their own rubbish, that's not a utopia. Therefore, somebody has to be doing those horrible jobs. So, every utopia is a dystopia, every dystopia is a utopia. In reality, those concepts don't exist as we think of them.

Now, I was aware of that fact, and that was constantly in my mind when writing Enclave in that the utopia is a dystopia and that was done with intent. That's where I put it. It's a dystopia, but I've leaned hard into the conceptualization of what a dystopia is and gone with the most all dystopias are utopias situation I can get into.

ASTRID: I loved reading Enclave, and I am a captive audience for you, Claire. I really appreciate that you are... I don't know what the word is. You are just displaying the beauty that is speculative fiction in the Australian commercial market. Let's dive into Enclave. It is speculative fiction. It is dystopian fiction. What was the motivation for you for this particular story and going so hard leaning into dystopia?

CLAIRE: I can't remember which liberal party politician it was, but a few years back-

ASTRID: Plenty to choose from.

CLAIRE: Many to choose from. A few years back, there was this... Well, there was this energy among liberal party politicians about, I don't know, three or four years ago where they're talking about if people don't want to be near other people, they don't like then they shouldn't have to, right? So, in other words, if straight Christians don't want to be near gay people, it should be their right to avoid those people. I can't remember who it was. But there's this attitude among people now that freedom of speech and freedom of movement to them also means the freedom to exclude other people who they don't believe they want to have access to. For some people, they believe that they will only have their freedom if they can exclude all gay people from their neighbourhoods, right?

On social media, we've got a situation where increasingly people have getting into tighter and tighter and bubbles with firmer walls with the people who are like them and having less and less communication with people outside of their little bubble. I thought, ‘Well, those two factors, put them together and what do you got? You've got a world where there are people now who would if they could build a walled city and exclude everyone that's not like them’. I thought I'd write that story. Also, of course, I was interested in the fact that the knowledge of... For example, the modern electronic computer was invented by a gay man who was chemically castrated. His name was Alan Turing. He was chemically casted, and it muddled his blame so much that he committed suicide. So that's this idea of what if we have a so-called utopia where everyone not like us is excluded but the people not like us are maybe the people doing the interesting things in their lives?

ASTRID: Enclave in a way tells the listener, tells the potential reader what they might find. I mean, ‘enclave’ itself means a place of refuge, a place of safety, a place apart from other things. Without spoilers, because, like all of your books, there is a twist in here, can you introduce the storyline?

CLAIRE: Well, it follows Christine, who's... The story starts a month before her 21st birthday. She's incredibly privileged, awash in social media, with the wealthiest family in the neighbourhood, living within the enclave Safetown, and she should have a perfect life, but her best friend is missing. Things don't feel right. She's starting to notice, I suppose, cracks in the world around her. Through circumstances, which are one of the twists, because I think there's more than one twist, really, if you think about it... Through circumstances that are actually one of the twists, she is thrown into conflict with her community, and the rest of the story goes from there. It's basically, in a way, a coming of age, a coming into yourself story embedded within a dystopia.

ASTRID: At the beginning of Enclave, you quote ‘The Second Coming’, the famous poem by William Yeats, and then you do reference the poem quite heavily throughout the entire novel. It's a great poem.

CLAIRE: It is.

ASTRID: But it did make me think back to what you did in The Old Lie and also what you did in Terra Nullius. The Old Lie starts with a reference to Wilfred Owen's World War I poetry, and, of course, The Old Lie in one way is an exploration of war. Terra Nullius also, as we spoke to before, refers back to War of the Worlds. I guess that's three novels and three times that you have gone back to famous works from what we used to call the canon. What's the driver there? What are you doing to the reader?

CLAIRE: There's a couple of drivers there. One of them is I think it's... There's something people say about my books, which I became aware of after Terra Nullius, because a bookshop asked where The Old Lie should be shelved, whether it should be shelved in science fiction or literary fiction. On social media, one of my fans replied, ‘Shelve it in literary fiction because science fiction fans will go there to look for it but literary fiction fans won't go to the science fiction’. So part of it is an overt attempt to show a bit of literary chops so that the literary fiction fans know that I'm just not some uppity speculative fiction writer. I'm a poet and fan of poetry and literary fiction who happens to also like speculative fiction. I think that's important that people understand that's my being and that's my market as well, people who like literary fiction and like speculative fiction.

But the other reason I do it is that when I'm trying to conceptualise a new literary work, I will... One of the first things I do sometimes is pull a book of poetry off the shelves and I'll start flicking through poems. Every now and then, a bit of imagery from my poem will just hit me and I'll go, ‘Well, that's an image that I think exemplifies some of what I'm trying to say’. I'm not saying I steal ideas from poems or from other people's works. I find that they can be an interesting way to get into what I'm writing. If I find them an interesting way, I reference them so that people can trace back my sources and can trace back where it all came from. That's often why if I do use a poem a lot, I'll normally try and mention it at the start or the end so that people will know that I'm not actually just plagiarising because I just hate the idea of plagiarism anyway.

ASTRID: And we've had a recent example of that. Yes.

CLAIRE: Yeah. I mean, to an extent, I do use other people's works in inspiration like he did, but I don't copy and paste them into my manuscript. That's a bit of a difference. Also, I like people to be able to unpack further the concepts by finding the works that I've referenced and going to them as well. Sometimes I've done that with mentioning songs because I read poetry and I listen to music when I'm writing novels. I can't read a novel while I'm writing a novel. I find it hard to watch movies when I'm writing a novel. But I read poetry, I listen to music, and I watch cooking shows when I'm writing novels. When I can't handle writing a novel anymore, I'll sit back and watch a zombie movie. But, generally, I'll, yeah, read poetry, listen to music, and watch cooking shows because they're not narrative and they're relaxing. So all those influences always slip into my books.

ASTRID: So, at the beginning of this interview, you mentioned that you have been known to knock out the structure or the plot of a novel on an hour's tram ride. Once you have that idea and you're drawing on poetry or music to get that image or imagery, what is your writing process?

CLAIRE: It depends on what I'm writing and on my personal circumstances at the time. I used to have a process, and that's kind of fallen by the wayside a bit lately because I've always got other stuff on, like the last nine weeks I've been into state at least once every week. So you don't really get to have a firm process when that's happening. When I wrote Terra Nullius, my process was get up at five in the morning, put music on my headphones, and write for two hours every morning. I don't do that anymore. But now what I'll do often is if I've got something ongoing, I'll do... I suppose you call it a burst. I sit down and I'll write for 12, 16 hours solid. I don't set a word count. I write until I can't write anymore, and then sometimes that'll be great, that'll come out, I'll get chapters and chapters finished, and other times I'll write for hours and then go back the next day and go, ‘That was garbage’, and delete it.

But I don't tend to edit myself. I tend to do that, what is that, write drunk, edit sober thing. I'm not literally drunk, but sometimes I do. I'll admit it. I generally tend to sit down and write fast and freely and loosely and fix any problems later. I don't really write down my plot. I have it in my head, but I don't write it down, so that means I can freely change it. People always say that you have to plan your books in advance so that you don't crash into a fault in your plot that doesn't work out. Well, you can because using Word for Windows or LibreOffice or [inaudible 00:17:07] or even Scrivener, you can go back and you can fix things that don't work out later. So you don't have to do what Tolkien did when he wrote Lord of the Rings. He didn't plan it either, but he started again and rewrote it from scratch seven times. We don't have to do that these days. We can go back and edit.

ASTRID: Absolutely. Now, Claire, I am sitting next to all three of your works. This is, I don't know, 1000 pages of fiction. When you look at them on a shelf, when you consider this... I mean, this is now a body of work, right? This is not one novel. This is three. What do you think it represents? If I was to give this to a teenager, what would I be giving them?

CLAIRE: Well, particularly if you include my nonfiction as well and my other bodies of work, but if you include all my work, what it really comes back to is a demonstration of a career in sociopolitical activism or a life of activism. I write for fun, sure. But, generally, the things I'm interested in writing about is finally change people's perspectives about things. My writing is mostly about showing people where things have gone wrong in our society and trying to show them a way to fix it. Sometimes it's overtly didactic. I don't think I'm some sort of guru that everyone should just follow what I say.

It's more case of, as I've said to other people before, when it comes to saving the world, I'd like to... I chuck two cents in the pile, and so other people may chuck two cents on top, and that's kind what it's about. It's about bringing my obviously quite left-wing politics into a form that people can absorb without too much conscious thought about what they're doing. Speculative fiction is always political. It always has been. It probably always will be. Mostly, speculative fiction is left-wing political. The only exception I can think of who sells well is Ayn Rand, and her works are monstrous. Her works were basically the foundation for the neo-liberalist hellhole we're living in right now, and that just demonstrates how powerful speculative fiction is as a political tool.

ASTRID: Ayn Rand has a great deal to answer for.


ASTRID: Tea Party, Republican Party, all of it.

You just said that speculative fiction is always political, and it is often on the left side of politics. You and I were both at Omar Sakr's recent book launch for Son of Sin, and he is currently writing a fantasy book. He is a lover of speculative fiction and fantasy, and he made a fascinating comment that I keep coming back to in my daily thinking, that fantasy is the perfect form, mode, genre to talk about social commentary and specifically to write back against Colonisation. I guess I wanted to ask you a broad question about speculative fiction, about fantasy. Take it where you want, Claire. But what do these genres that are often dismissed by people who only read literary fiction... But what does the form enable you to do that realistic fiction doesn't?

CLAIRE: Well, the most important thing is all fiction involves world-building. I want to make that clear, that realistic fiction, it also involves world-building because they're building... Sure, they can't change much in the world, but they can change the world a bit. But speculative fiction in all its forms, be it fantasy, science fiction, horror, literary spec fic, whatever that is, it's always about writing in a constructed world, and the superpower for speculative fiction forms is that your world itself can be didactic. The whole structure of your world can be the story. In the novel, The Handmaid's Tale, the story of June isn't a lesson. All her story does is unpack the world for the reader so that we can see the world, and the world is the story, not the narrative.

I suppose Enclave is... Although the story is important to the narrative, to the lesson, the world-building is every bit as important, and that's something that in realist fics you can't do. You can't shape a whole world around your story. You can't shape the whole world around the lesson you're trying to teach or the point you're trying to make. That's why I think people would be ill-advised to ignore speculative fiction. I think the problem with people ignoring speculative fiction stems back to the '80s when bookshops first started putting fantasy and science fiction in a different section of the bookshelf, on a separate shelf, because before that they weren't.

Of course, then there became this belief that it's only science fiction and fantasy, so it doesn't have to be well-written. A lot of it is very well-written, but I have to be honest, a lot of science fiction and fantasy is of a quality of writing that wouldn't get published in other genres like literary fiction or contemporary realist fiction, all those. There's fantasy out there that would not be published in those environments, and I don't think they should be. I think we should aim for fantasy and science fiction to have a much higher quality of writing.

ASTRID: I'd agree. I would also say from my many decades' experience of a reader, those covers in the '80s and early '90s really did the genres a disservice. Naked men and barbarians and dragons didn't help people take it seriously. On that note…

CLAIRE: And barbarian women in chain mail bikinis.

ASTRID: Yes. That, too. That, too. On that note, Enclave is a beautiful cover. Have you had the same illustrator or artist for all three of your novels?

CLAIRE: Yeah. All three of my novels have been... The art's been done by who at the time was emerging cover designer called Grace West. I think the success of Terra Nullius and the popularity of that cover helped her no longer be quite so emerging, frankly. Her and I may not be emerging anymore either as well, so it's kind of helpful like that. Her name's Grace West, and she has done all three. What I love about her, not only is... When I asked her to have a recognisable style across my books, she's achieved that. I think they are recognisable stylistically. But she also isn't afraid to make changes when I request them, when I get sent the mock-ups and I say, ‘No, I don't like that’, and then I make a suggestion and she'll change it. I have had 50, 60 mock-ups or more in a day from her when we're designing. She's really good. I really appreciate it. Hopefully, if all goes well, she'll do my next novel.

ASTRID: So next novel. Is there anything that you could tell us about that, Claire?

CLAIRE: No, not yet. I've only got the concept so far. With me, with novels, I think I can write nonfiction to specifications. If I need to write on something, I can do. But, with fiction, I hold a whole bunch of ideas in my head, and then at a certain time, one of them will be ready to go and it will gain momentum and come out. I've had a bunch of novel ideas percolating, and abruptly a new one... Not long ago, a new one popped into my brain, a new concept that was so much better than all of the others, so all of the others just got drowned of water and... They got starved of water and died, basically. I haven't even started writing it yet. I'm just, I'm at the process of thinking it through. But I've also got Australia Council funding to write a nonfiction book, so I've got to do that now. When you're funded, that's more urgent.

ASTRID: Yes, you do need to deliver on that one. So my final question for you, Claire, and this is not meant to make you reveal anything about one of those ideas that didn't make it or the current idea that you're going to run with in terms of your next novel, but when I think about speculative fiction, in the last couple of years, people have been saying, and it's kind of jokey, often online, ‘We're living in a dystopia, speculative fiction is now irrelevant, satire is irrelevant because the world is so too much’. One of the things that used to always be relegated to speculative fiction was pandemics and plagues, and that obviously is now part of our reality. Would you ever include pandemic or plague in any kind of fiction that you wrote in the future, or is it just no longer doable?

CLAIRE: I don't know. I wrote that novella. I don't know if you read that, but I wrote a novella for the Griffith Review Novella Project last year, and that's available online if you want to read it. That was set in a future pandemic lockdown, and I wrote it during the pandemic. I've written a novella on that topic. Also, I've also had a couple of short stories for commissions during lockdown as well about the pandemic. I think at the time there was a case of, ‘I want to write things, what do I write about?’ Well, my life sneaks in. The pandemic was everybody's life. Therefore, it snuck in. The reason I had pandemic works out is because I write faster than most people and I got them out during the pandemic.

I don't think anyone in the next 10 years wants to read a pandemic novel. That's my opinion. I certainly don't want to write one. I wouldn't necessarily never mention a pandemic again. I don't think that it's ever going to be outside of a dystopian world I might write. But I certainly will have no intention of currently writing a book entirely about a pandemic. It's not that it's so close that it would hurt to write. It's more that it's so close that it's, to me, a little bit boring. It's like my life sinks into my novels, but my life is never the core topic of my novels. In my life, I lived through a pandemic, and therefore it seems weird to write about a pandemic when I've lived through one.

ASTRID: That was a very eloquent answer, Claire. Thank you. I am sorry I haven't read your novella. I have all of your books sitting in this room with me, and I haven't read that, and normally my research doesn't fail me. I know what I'm doing this weekend. Claire, it is always such a pleasure to talk to you. I think I've said this to you before, but thank you for writing speculative fiction and making it so darn well. I love it. And thank you for talking to me again.

CLAIRE: Thank you for talking to me. Hearing you, such a skilled writer yourself and such a brilliant academic or intellectual about writing, loving my work, it actually is one of the things that makes my life worth living, really. So thank you.

ASTRID: Oh, Claire, look, I am here for every single novel you write, and I'm going to go find that novella now.