Meeting Claire Scobie

Last night, we held another fantastic online event where we got together on FB to enjoy a conversation with the very talented Claire Scobie, author of the transporting The Pagoda Tree (Penguin).

In case you weren’t able to tune in on the night, here’s a transcript of our chat with Claire…

TBYL: Okay, my first question for Claire is this… I was wondering, why did you choose this story to tell as your first novel?

claire_scobie_headshot_mid-res_mediumClaire: After writing Last Seen in Lhasa I had that classic second book syndrome. My travel memoir grew out of my 7 journeys to Tibet and my friendship with this wandering Tibetan nun. It was unrepeatable. So what to write next? I’ve always been fascinated by India where I’ve lived and worked as a journalist. Then I read a story in the Sydney Morning Herald about the ‘last courtesan’ of India. I was intrigued. I didn’t know there were such women in India and I wanted to know more. While temple dancers or devadasis have been compared to the geishas of Japan it is their connection to the temples that make them unique and I was fascinated by their role in society. They seemed to operate between the worlds of sacredness, culture and sensuality. Initially I planned to write a non-fiction book about these women but with so few sources available – and a secret desire to write a novel, haven’t we all had that?! – I decided to take the leap to fiction.

TBYL: That combination of sacredness, culture and sensuality was really beautifully done in your book, I thought. Tell me, what do you think you would have done differently if it had been non-fiction book?

Claire: That’s an interesting question. I think I would have had that combination of the above in a non-fiction book but it would have lacked the sense of who these women really were. It would have been much more a history of the figure of the devadasi rather than an attempt to capture their inner lives.

TBYL: Do you think then that the character of Maya was vital to capturing that sense of who they were?

Claire: YesI think so. Funnily enough, Maya wasn’t the first character who ‘came to me’. It was Walter: the troubled English Reverend. It wasn’t until I’d gone back to Thanjavur (Tanjore) and retraced Maya’s footsteps that I began to get a sense of her. I also decided I needed to go back to the beginning of her life as a way to understand her development into adulthood. So yes Maya was vital.

TBYL: That’s interesting, I actually kept getting distracted away from Walter, I found the women so fascinating. Can you tell us a little of where the character of Walter came from?

Claire: I love that you found the women’s stories and complexities so interesting. But about Walter, I have a soft spot for him. He really came from this idea of someone who went to India a very closed, traumatised man (although he wouldn’t have seen it like that) and during his time there, the country seeped into his soul. I read about many Europeans like him who were transformed by India – despite their prejudices. So he was drawn from those individuals.

TBYL: I think India is still transforming for many Europeans (and others) seeking change. Would you agree?

Claire: Yes definitely. It seems to have a lasting impact on people.

TBYL: Following on from our first question, how did you go about learning so much about the temple dancers?

Claire: I made four research trips to India, starting with a visit to Thanjavur (Tanjore). On the exterior walls of the eleventh-century ‘Big temple’, the names and addresses of 400 devadasis are inscribed. As a writer I loved the fact that the presence of these women is still evident today. They were real people. Real women. I spent time seeking out where they would have lived. I went to the palace and interviewed the current Prince. As we were drinking tea he told me that we were sitting in the harem where my character Palani would have languished. I also spent weeks at the India Office Records in the British Library in London and at some Indian libraries. I took a dual approach – both doing the archival research and then ‘history with my feet’. That’s how my characters really came alive for me. I am a tactile person so I needed to go to where they went as a way to re-imagine their lives.

TBYL: I thought that your research must have been ‘with your feet’ as you put it – it was so detailed. Do you think you would have been able to put this story together without the visits?

Claire: I don’t think so. I know some writers don’t go to the places they write about but as a trained journalist, I’d find that hard. Nearly all of the homes in the book – for example where Maya lives with her patron Mudaliar and the grand garden house where Thomas and Maya live are based on real eighteenth-century houses that I visited. Once I had a visual of their homes, the characters also became more real for me.

pagodaTBYL: I’d love to see those!! Can you tell us, did you find Maya, Lakshmi or Palani’s names in the temple?

Claire: Yes, particular the garden house is very special. It’s actually a school now and I wasn’t really supposed to go there. I went anyhow and then got chased out by an irate fist-waving security guard! The things you have to do to research a book… I didn’t find either of Lakshmi or Maya’s names in the temple but the name Palani actually comes from ‘Muddupalani’ who was a real 18th-century courtesan who lived in the palace at Tanjore. That’s who this character is based on.

TBYL: I read in another review of your book, about the tradition of ‘shaking the pagoda tree’ – could you tell us a little more about what that means?

Claire: The title of The Pagoda Tree is inspired by a phrase popular among the English in the eighteenth-century. The word pagoda had a double meaning. It was both a temple and a gold coin. When Englishmen went to India they went to make their fortune. Literally to shake the pagoda tree or the tree of money. In my novel I explore the theme of currency. The book is set at the start of global capitalism and the free market. It was a time when everything was up for grabs, everything could be bought and sold – including the local women.

TBYL: I found that theme really interesting, particularly the difference between the notion of wealth to foreigners vs locals. I got the feeling that the ‘natives’ were very much looked down upon by the English, despite having their own quite impressive wealth (or access to others with wealth) Was this deliberate?

Claire: Yes it was deliberate. What’s fascinating about that period is the meeting point between cultures and that was central to the book. I really wanted to look at the slant of history – history from the Indian perspective (as much as I could). And part of that was this contrasting view of success and wealth. Maya’s Indian lover was incredibly wealthy and well-connected but from the English perspective, they couldn’t often get past the colour of his skin. So it was about inverting traditional ideas of ‘us and them’.

TBYL: Your book is proving very popular with book clubs. I was wondering, if there was just one question you’d like a book club to ask after reading ‘The Pagoda Tree’ what would it be?

Claire: That’s great to hear, Mandi! Since I wrote it, quite a few readers have asked me if there will be a sequel – or if I wrote it with that in mind. I have to say I didn’t. Only at the very end did I see that as a possibility. So my question to book clubs would be … What do you think might be the next chapter in her story? All suggestions welcome!

TBYL: Oh, that’s an incredible question! It really ends at the start of a whole new story doesn’t it?!

Claire: Yes it does. I thought that would be a really fun question to ask people. I know that some authors write like this – can’t remember the name for it – where they get their fans and readers to suggest the next plot event.

TBYL: Mmm, do you mean fan-fiction maybe? Not sure…

Claire: Yes that’s it. I wouldn’t want to do that, but I know when I finish a book, the characters often live on in my head and I imagine scenarios for them – so I would be interested to hear what scenarios readers might imagine for Maya.

TBYL: So do you think you might write about Maya again?

Claire: I’m not sure at this stage. She is still ‘with me’ as a character but I want to have break for a while. I get a sense though that there are things still to be said… and written… which involve her. Does that sound weird or what?!

TBYL: No, I think that makes a lot of sense, she was such a beautifully developed character.

Claire: Thank you!

TBYL: Claire, can you tell us, what do you like to read?

Claire: I tend to go through phases of different authors. For a while I was mad on magical realism, then on Chinese authors, then on historical fiction. I read a fair amount of Indian authors while researching The Pagoda Tree. I also read lots of travel memoir as I’m interested in the moments when cultures meet – I think it has as much relevance for the eighteenth-century as it does for us today. It is all about how we project ourselves into the world and how we look at others – and how we are reflected back. That’s another theme in my novel.

TBYL: Do you have a favourite?

Claire: Favourites are hard. A few that come to mind – Half of Man is Woman, The Kingdom of this World, 100 Years of Solitude, Tracks.

TBYL: So my last question for tonight is this (as usual)… Claire, do you have any other projects on the go at the moment? What can we look forward to seeing next?

Claire: Yes I do. I’m working on another travel memoir and have already started planning out my next novel. It’s historical fiction again and I’m excited about it! Not so much India this time… I am normally quite shy about what I am writing until I am well into the project.

TBYL: Fair enough, I think most writers are that way. Anyway, it’d ruin the surprise if you gave too much away.

Claire: Exactly. There’s a lot of ‘brewing’ and ‘cooking’ that goes on in the process.

… and with that we hit 8:30pm and I thought we’d better wrap it up, although I’m sure we could have chatted all night. I’m hoping she might visit again and share some of her travel stories with us!

If you’d like to read my review of Claire’s book, you’ll find it here. I’d also strongly recommend that you follow Claire on Twitter – she’s got lots of lovely things to say.

Thanks to everyone who tuned in last night, and to all, stay tuned for further information about TBYL’s next event!