claire scobie

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!





Colour and Dance: The Pagoda Tree

This month’s TBYL Book Club book has been the stunningly crafted The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie (Penguin). I’m very much looking forward to chatting with Claire this evening (join in here) but in the meantime I thought I’d share with you my review of this beautiful novel…

pagodaThere are a many adjectives that I could use to describe Claire’s novel – it is rich, complex, exotic and erotic, bloody and beautiful. Each individual word can be used to describe a particular scene in The Pagoda Tree, but it is only when these elements combine that you experience the true intensity of this story. Its rich colours and aromas leap from the page, the horrors visited upon the characters that you grow to love tear you apart, and of course, the complexity of relationships, traditions and cultures draw you completely into Maya’s story…

Maya dances like no other. She becomes the dance . . . Her dance can steal a man’s soul.

Tanjore, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples of this ancient city in the heart of southern India. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become adevadasi, a dancer for the temple. She is instructed in dance, the mystical arts and lovemaking. It is expected she will be chosen as a courtesan for the prince himself.
But as Maya comes of age, India is on the cusp of change and British dominance has risen to new heights. The prince is losing his power and the city is sliding into war. Maya is forced to flee her ancestral home, and heads to the bustling port city of Madras, where East and West collide. 
Maya captivates all who watch her dance. Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman who has travelled to India to make his fortune, is entranced from the moment he first sees her. But their love is forbidden, and comes at enormous cost.

Maya as protagonist is a beauty, destined from birth for great things. But, as is foretold, her path is unclear and all throughout this novel neither she nor the reader is entirely sure where the future will lead her. She is lead, with little say in her own life, to what would seem a chosen position in favour with the Prince. She is honoured but unsure, and is left shaken when the path that had been laid out for her is destroyed by politics and conflicts well outside of her control.

The women in Maya’s life are complex, her mother Lakshmi loves her but is committed unerringly to her role in the temple, and in turn to the role which Maya must play – she bears the signs of the goddess . She is caring but harsh. Interestingly, this harshness makes Maya love her no less, as if she is aware in some way of the protection that her mother is to her…

She began to wash her daughter. She ground dried turmeric root and mixed it into a paste with gram flour, sandalwood, milk and honey. She smeared the mixture over Maya’s back and neck, rubbing it hard under the ears and down across her narrow frame, her roughed hands scratching her most tender parts. By the end Maya glowed deep yellow.

Palani, mentor to Maya and once courtesan to the King is enlivened by Maya’s presence, draws great satisfaction from her ability to teach her apprentice the art of dance (and service) and shares a deep connection with the young girl. That does not stop her from lashing out with great vitriol at times, as Maya represents in no uncertain terms the fact that Palani must relinquish her position to this younger, more virile royal companion. Still, as Palani struggles to accept her own progression from court to cave, she seems to take comfort in the transference of her skills and duties to Maya.

For me, these complicated female relationships are by far the most compelling element of this story.

Further to this though, The Pagoda Tree bears undeniable evidence of meticulous research. No detail has been left unconsidered, from the colour, the sound, the smell of the landscape and homes, courts and people. The emotions, conversations and reactions of the characters appear incredibly authentic, as does the history woven throughout this tale. It was honestly transporting, ensuring that I closed the book wanting to find out more about this time and place.

I hope you’ll read this novel, it is an incredible experience. Likewise, I hope you’ll join us on Facebook this evening (Monday, 28 Oct 7:30pm EST) for a chat with the author, Claire Scobie.

If you’d like to find out more about Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree, visit the Penguin website here…

October TBYL Book Club and a Chat with Claire

Oh my god, it’s ten days into October!! How did that happen?

Were you wondering what book we’re reading for this month’s TBYL Book Club? Well if you were, it’s a beautiful book that I’m sure you’ll love! This month we’re going to be reading Claire Scobie’s The Pagoda Tree (Penguin)…

pagodaMaya dances like no other. She becomes the dance . . . Her dance can steal a man’s soul.

Tanjore, 1765. Maya plays among the towering granite temples of this ancient city in the heart of southern India. Like her mother before her, she is destined to become adevadasi, a dancer for the temple. She is instructed in dance, the mystical arts and lovemaking. It is expected she will be chosen as a courtesan for the prince himself.
But as Maya comes of age, India is on the cusp of change and British dominance has risen to new heights. The prince is losing his power and the city is sliding into war. Maya is forced to flee her ancestral home, and heads to the bustling port city of Madras, where East and West collide. 
Maya captivates all who watch her dance. Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman who has travelled to India to make his fortune, is entranced from the moment he first sees her. But their love is forbidden, and comes at enormous cost.

Weaving together the uneasy meeting of two cultures, The Pagoda Tree is a captivating story of love, loss and fate.

If you’d like to join in, the discussion will be happening on our Facebook page, starting Monday 28 October through to 30 October. Plus I’m really excited about the fact that we’ll be chatting with Claire too!

Our next TBYL Event is a live Facebook chat with Claire herself. I can’t wait, it’s happening on Monday 28 October, 7:30pm (EST) and you can RSVP here…

I hope you’ll join us!

Pick up a copy of Claire’s book here, and click here to get a reminder when we start chatting about this wonderful novel.

MWF 2013 Take 2

I’ve finally caught up on everything that I’d put to one side while I was at the MWF, which means I’ve got time now to give you a run down on my second weekend at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

With Oscar now at school, I was able to swing into the city for a few Friday sessions, a first for me.

20130909-133130.jpgWith barely a minute to spare, I found a seat just in time to listen to Eric Beecher, Pamela Willams and Mark Forbes in the session; ‘The News About News’ (as part of the New News Conference). This incredible panel, filthy rich with journalism experience, provided a level of insight into the workings of media that I’d never thought I’d get. It was a rare opportunity and one I relished.

Eric provided a vital, impartial and slightly rebellious perspective to the conversation, whilst Pam and Mark spoke passionately about the future of Fairfax, the nurturing of quality journalism and the economic challenges facing traditional media, particularly as it struggles to find a new, workable business model. It was even suggested at one point that newspapers may in fact need to be run as not-for-profits or charities in order to ensure their survival. They are that important.

The panel was trying to communicate hope, whilst at question time, the audience brought to bear a far greater degree of scepticism. It was difficult to know whether Pam and Mark spoke positively from a position of employee-loyalty, professional passion or blind optimism. It was, nonetheless reassuring to hear that individuals working at top levels of the media game are still talking the talk, and hopefully also walking the walk.

I finished up at this session and headed to ‘The Politics of Sex’ featuring Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel and Anna Krien, author of Night Games. It was chaired by Sophie Cunningham who added her own experience and intelligence to the topic.


Shereen spoke of her experience of sexuality in the Arab world and Anna concentrated mainly on her investigations into sexuality as found in amongst the sporting clubs of Australia. Their contexts were different, as were their experiences, but the central issues were similar – the balance of power between genders, the perception of women – positive, negative and indifferent, and the overall conversations occurring within these environments (or in fact, the lack thereof).

I found this session frightening, and at times confronting. Still, it was quite constructive, with both writers suggesting ways that they believed change might come about and communications that might aid in addressing the current disconnect between the genders and help us all to behave a bit better towards each other.

I travelled home pondering on some pretty big topics.

Saturday morning was an absolute highlight for me, as I attended a seminar called ‘The Art of Literary Criticism’ with Jeremy Harding, contributing editor and Mary-Kay Wilmer, editor of the London Review of Books.


As you know, I love to review books – to read them, to reflect on their content, their context, and their purpose. I enjoy putting them into place within my own experiences and to consider who might love them and why.

This session provided some incredible advice regarding evaluating a text, describing it to a reader, essentially telling the story of the book. Mary-Kay and Jeremy offered advice as to how best approach reviewing a book, should you not like it, treating it in such a way that a constructive and readable account can still be created.

The London Review of Books are publishers of the fine art of long-form journalism, and as such, I was thrilled to hear more of what it takes to put three, four, or five thousand words together on a bookish topic, how it is then edited and finally the joy that comes of having it read and appreciated by many.


After this session, I put aside my pride and had Jeremy and Mary-Kay sign my copy of London Review of Books and had a little chat with Jeremy about That Book You Like. I hope I came across okay…

Finally, before heading home I had the privilege of having tea with the very talented Claire Scobie, author of The Pagoda Tree (Penguin). We had a great chat about her book, which I’m reading at the moment, and tee’d up the next TBYL Event. Claire will be joining us online in October as part of the TBYL Book Club (The Pagoda Tree will be our book for October!)… keep an eye out for full details later in the week.

All up, the Melbourne Writers Festival 2013 has been fantastic. I’ve learnt so much and meet some really wonderful people. I’m already counting down the days until next year’s program…