author of The Pagoda Tree
Ten Terrifying Questions
1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I was born in Newbury, England, and brought up near Oxford. We always lived about an hour from London so in my teens I’d go shopping on Carnaby Street and buy ridiculously uncomfortable winklepicker shoes (it was the eighties).
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At 12, a journalist; at 18, an interior designer; at 30, a writer. I wanted to be a journalist because I thought it was a way of making a difference in the world. I gave up on the idea of interior design when I realised I was hopeless at drawing. By 30, I’d worked as a journalist for eight years and wanted to write something more substantial than tomorrow’s fish ‘n chip paper.
That you can have everything, do everything, be everything you want.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
Changes by David Bowie as it still reminds me to keep things fresh and new. After all, as the saying goes, the only constant thing in life is change . . .
Anna Karenina introduced me to the complexity, drama and melodrama of fiction. It was one of those perfect reading experiences when for days the ‘real world’ fell away, leaving only the fictional world.
The swirling patterns and midnight blue of the Starry Night painting by Vincent van Gogh capture the magical quality of creating worlds within worlds that writing offers.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
I love the audacity of this question. I wish there had been innumerable artistic avenues open to me. If I could I’d have been a painter, first, then actor, then writer. In fact, I’d like to be all three! As it was, the only thing I could do was write and after publishing a travel memoir, Last Seen in Lhasa, I was looking for a new challenge. A novel gave me that opportunity.
The Pagoda Tree is a novel about forbidden love, loss and fate set in eighteenth-century southern India. It traces the story of Maya, a young girl destined from birth to be a temple dancer, or devadasi. Maya is talented and beautiful, and it is expected that she will have an extraordinary career as a courtesan for the prince of Tanjore himself. But India is on the cusp of change and the city is sliding into war. When tragedy strikes Maya’s family she is forced to flee her home and heads to the port city of Madras where East and West collide. It is there she meets Thomas Pearce, an ambitious young Englishman who has travelled to India to make his fortune. However, their love is forbidden and comes at enormous cost.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they’ll feel their time was well spent and they were entertaining and moved. Personally I enjoy carrying characters with me after I’ve put down a novel, so I hope that readers do the same with mine.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
I can’t name just one author here. Albert Camus for his sparse prose. Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his influence in shaping the genre of magical realism. Hilary Mantel for being so gutsy in her writing. Tolstoy for painting the big canvas. Salman Rushdie for never giving up. All those writers and journalists in countries like Myanmar, Syria, Russia and Pakistan who face persecution and yet continue to write.
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To embrace the world with all its fabulous opportunities and not just write about them. To be truly satisfied with what I write, and to be read.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
To follow the breadcrumbs of a story. Writing fiction is like using a divining rod in your prose. You need to sense where it’s hot, where the juice is, and to trust your own instinct. Most of all, to be true to what you want to write as everyone will have a different opinion, but ultimately it’s your creation.
Claire, thank you for playing.