If you’re not already following Claire Christian (@ClaireandPearl as she goes by on Twitter and Instagram) please do. You will not regret it. She will add a mountain’s worth of joy and wholesome goodness to your feed. Did I mention she also has the most adorable pug called Midge? If you’re not on social media you can check out her website https://www.claireandpearl.com
Claire’s first novel, Beautiful Mess is a moving and hilarious YA which has been translated into four languages across five different countries. Claire is currently working on adapting it into a film. In 2019 she secured a three book deal with Text. The first book, It’s Been A Pleasure Noni Blake, will be out in October 2020. Claire is also a playwright. Some of her works include ‘Talking to Brick Walls’ and ‘Lysa and the Freeborn Dames’. From 2017 Claire directed Michelle Law’s hit play, ‘Single Asian Female’, and is member of the theatre group, ‘The Mama’s Boys.’
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat to Claire about her life and work.
What inspired It’s Been A Pleasure Noni Blake?
“I’m a bit obsessed with Elizabeth Gilbert,” Claire says, before telling me how inspired she was by her advice to pay attention to the conversations you keep having, because there could be energy in them, or a muse trying to tell you something. Claire took this advice on board. It turns out the conversations she was having were all, or mostly all, with women in their mid-thirties and forties, saying the phrase, ‘if only I knew then, what I know now’, in specific reference to being in their twenties. These conversations were mostly to do with sex, relationships and body confidence. “They’d say things like, ‘if I felt the way I feel about myself now, then things would’ve been different,’ Claire says. So she decided to write about a woman navigating the decisions of her past. Noni Blake has ticked all the boxes society has said will make her happy, but she’s not, so what now? “That’s something I think we can all relate to,” Claire says. The story “grew more as I realised that I wanted it to be about pleasure and self-love and self-confidence. Someone described Noni the other day as like a coming of age story even though she’s a 36 year old woman. I love that… I hope we’re always coming of age.”
I asked Claire if she’s always wanted to be a writer. “Yes. Always. I wrote my first novels that we can tell, in grade two. But it was always a secret dream. I grew up in a migrant family who were working class and had no connection to the arts at all. My parents had no concept of what an artist’s life might look like apart from ‘you will be broke’. That message got through, well and truly, so I think for me there was no real reference point. You cannot be what you cannot see, so I became a teacher because I love theatre and drama, and that made sense and was a job my parent’s understood.” Claire still wrote creatively while she was teaching high school students, but she didn’t show her writing to anyone. “I decided to write a play for my kids at school because I couldn’t find one that I wanted to do. I was 25, and it was one of those lightbulb, life changing moments. I was like, why haven’t I been doing this? I submitted the play to Queensland Theatre Company’s 2008 Young Playwrights Award and was fortunate enough to win alongside a now very good friend of mine. He was a few years younger than me, but he had done theatre at uni, had already published work and had an understanding of the theatre sector. It was this whole lightbulb moment of all these other possibilities of what my life could look like.” Claire goes on to tell me that it was a weird moment when Beautiful Mess came out, because she’d become comfortable working in the theatre sector. Beautiful Mess started as a play, but Claire said it didn’t feel like one. It felt like a novel. “That kind of scared me, because it was like, you’ve decided you’re a playwright, you can’t write novels!” But being an author had always been Claire’s dream. She showed her manuscript to her friend and he encouraged her to pursue it. Beautiful Mess went on to win the Text prize. “The world makes more sense to me if I can write down what I’m thinking… Words make more sense to me than being in the world.”
Claire’s first love is storytelling. It doesn’t matter what medium. ”That’s what I’ve now become very comfortable with, particularly in the last 12-18 months, and particularly going from writing a YA to adult rom-com fiction,” she says. “I beat myself up about that too. I should have learnt from the jump from writing plays to writing a novel.” Once Claire had finished Noni Blake she sent the draft to her editor at Text. Their response was to invite her to a meeting. “In my head the conversation was, ‘why have you written adult fiction? We’ve published you as YA.’ I had the whole narrative played out in my head.” In reality, Text told her they loved it and wanted to talk about the possibility of a three book deal.
I asked Claire what her favourite food or drink is to enjoy while working. “I think it changes,” she says. “I’m one of those people who get obsessed with something, and eat it every week, and then won’t have it again for a year. One of my obsessions at the moments is snickers pods.” Claire also loves Twinnings Rose Lemonade cold brew tea. “You put it in sparkling water to make iced tea… It just makes you feel a bit fancy,” she says.
I asked Claire what an ideal writing day looks like for her. She tells me she works best in the morning, so she tries to get started first thing. If she’s pushing a deadline she’ll write to a word limit a day. “At the moment I’m writing the next manuscript and trying to finish that draft. I try to write a 1000 words a day.” Claire says she normally goes over this, typically writing between 1500-2000, but as long as she hits 1000 words she says she feels like she’s done her job. “If I’m not on a deadline or if I’m just waiting for something to happen then the notes app in my phone is where I’ll write down grabs of dialogue and things will bubble away for a while,” she says. When Beautiful Mess was finished and Claire began having the idea for Noni Blake, she says she didn’t feel ready to commit to writing another novel. Despite this feeling, Claire tells me that there’s something disconnected about notes being stored in an app rather than on Microsoft word. “So I would just jot down scenes …. or something I saw on the street or a conversation I’d overheard in a café.” When Claire felt ready, she opened her notes app and found she’d accumulated 5000 words. “I was like, okay this is a thing.”
The process of writing Beautiful Mess was quite sporadic, Claire tells me. Noni Blake happened similarly, but having the deal with Text meant she had to come up with a plan. “I’m very much a pantser. I’d normally have an idea of the broad plot…and then would spend my time trying to connect the dots. Which I now understand is not a functional way of working. But I love editing. I’m happy to do that work. I end up cutting a lot, because I have a heap of stuff I don’t need anymore, but I don’t know that I don’t need it until I see the big picture. So what I try to do, and what I’m currently doing with the next book, is to have a really clear plot plan. I spent the first two months of this year working on one….so I know where I’m traveling very clearly scene by scene.” This, Claire tells me, enables her to write whatever scene she wants because she knows what needs to go where and what’s coming.
Claire Received a Queensland Writers Fellowship in 2019 to work on her next novel, which explores my next question: what is the biggest challenge young people face today? “The curation of public and private self,” she says. “I find it fascinating that young people are having to make bigger decisions, having to curate who they think they are online when really the whole point of being an adolescent is trying things on, seeing how things feel… So when I found out that young people have to curate their public self online, but also have private accounts where they only allow a couple of people to follow them and experience …the quirky things they’re obsessed with that they don’t want to share with everyone … I thought, how stressful.” The positive to that though is I think young people are more political than they have been before. It’s made them have to draw really clear lines around how they feel about issues. They also have access to more information and more community than ever before.”
What’s the best thing about teaching young people? “I always think about this because… being an introvert, I need to recharge, but I find working with young people energises me, and I don’t know whether it’s connected to my own adolescence, or the idea of me feeling like I didn’t belong.” Claire describes this feeling as a mild anxiety, a question of, is this what life is? But she says she had a brilliant drama teacher in grade 11 and 12. “She just saw something in me and affirmed who I was. She saw the quirky bits in me and was kinda like, mate, you’re going to be fine, you have no concept of how okay things are going to be. I knew I wanted to do drama teaching at uni and it was the same course that she had done, and she was like, you’re going to go off at uni, just trust me, everything’s going to be okay. Having an adult ally who’s just there to tell you you’re okay, I think we underestimate the power of that in a young person’s life.” Claire feels responsible for making sure the young people she teaches “know that they are powerful. It’s so important for them to hear that their artistry is important. That what they have to say is important.”
What are three pieces of advice you would pass on to your 16 year old self? “I’m always thinking of her,” she says. Claire contributed to the Women of Letters anthology in 2017. “I decided to write to my 16 year old self. One thing was around body confidence and self-love, because there were no examples of quirky, fat, queer women anywhere in the images and contemporary media of the early 2000s. That’s why representation is so vital across the entire spectrum of our world. I didn’t see anyone who liked the same things that I liked or looked like me, so the bullshit that I then imposed on myself, the way I felt about my body or the way I felt about who I was, was so unnecessary, but it came from the fact that I just didn’t know that there were people in the world who were like me. That can be very isolating, which is why I think social media can be amazing. We can see examples of ourselves.’ To young people struggling with body image, Claire says: “There are million dollar industries who are built to make you feel shit so that you buy stuff, that’s literally their business plan. You are okay, you look fine, you can wear whatever you want, your body is great.”
“The other message would be about instinct, trusting your gut,” she says. “The idea that you already know that your opinion is valid, and to trust that inner knowing.” For Claire this meant learning to trust her draw to writing. “You wonder what things would have looked like if you’d just trusted your gut all along, Claire says, but “you have to have that life experience. I get to benefit from it now. I get to go, thank you for that learning!”
“You are enough,” is Claire’s third message. “We have have a mentality of only believing we are enough when we achieve certain things.” This means “we’re missing out on the life stuff that’s happening right now.” In Noni Blake it takes a tragedy for the protagonist to have this revelation. “Tragedy is what defribulates you – makes you realise that this is all very short and nothing is guaranteed and everything can change in a second,” Claire says. “Why would we not be privileging our joy, why would we not be privileging our own opinion? I hate that it takes a tragedy to make us realise those things.”
When it comes to books that have inspired and influenced Claire, she says she adores Come Together by Josie Lloyd and Emlyn Rees, a dual narrative about a couple falling in love in the 90s. “My uncle bought it for me for my 16th birthday, and it was the first book that simultaneously made me laugh out loud and had a sex scene in it … so I was like, books are amazing! I was a big reader, I read all The Babysitter’s Club books, I’d read Goosebumps, I was always reading something. But that book stood out to me. It’s the book I’ve read the most in my life. If I’m ever having a down moment I’ll go back and read it again. I say that it’s the reason Beautiful Mess is a dual narrative, because I loved being able to hear both perspectives of the same moment. It’s comedy gold.”
Claire also loved Rosie Waterland’s memoir The Anti-Cool Girl. “I love her management of honesty and comedy when discussing tragedy. Her ability to play with light and shade. I found that fascinating.” Claire is also madly into audiobooks. “Because I’ve been so busy I feel like I can’t focus if I sit down with a book in my hand. An audio book I’ve loved recently is In At The Deep End by Kate Davies. It’s her debut – a queer coming of age.” Claire also loves all of Brene Brown’s books, and anything by Mhairi McFarlane, a British rom-com writer. “Discovering her made me think, this is the kind of rom-com I want to write.”
“I wish there was some high literature in there…” Claire says. What follows is a conversation on the double standards and sexism present in the book industry, particularly when it comes to Romance writing. “Mills and Boon sales skyrocketed when kindles/ebooks became a thing, and I find that fascinating but also not because we shame women about everything so of course we’ll shame them about the kind of books they read… I am unashamedly happy to say that Noni Blake is a rom- com,” Claire says. “It’s funny and uplifting. We could all use a little more joy, … especially right now.”
Coming to advice for aspiring writers now and Claire says. “The biggest thing that I’ve learnt is that we feel like we need to have achieved certain goals to feel we can use the title of writer. But the only thing that makes you a writer is writing. So, my advice is, if you are a writer and you want to write, put your but in the chair, and write the bloody thing. You are a writer.”
I think it’s appropriate to end this interview as we started, with a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert that’s pinned to Claire’s board above her desk – “I’m not going to quit, I’m going home, I will always be safe from the random hurricanes of outcome, I will never forget where I rightfully live,” and that is at her computer, writing stories.
TasWriters thanks Claire for taking the time to chat with us. We can’t wait to see what you come up with next.