by Walter Mason
Whenever I teach travel writing workshops I always ask my students what their favourite travel books are. Partly it’s because I want them to start thinking about the kind of writing they want to do, and also because I want to be sure they have some kind of grasp of the genre. Certain books and writers are constantly mentioned (Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux and Norman Lewis), but one of the books that is brought up every time is Claire Scobie’s classic piece of travel writing, “Last Seen in Lhasa.”
This year Claire has published her first novel, “The Pagoda Tree,” to great acclaim, and she is one of the most in-demand creative writing teachers in Australia. I invited her to come up and see me at my Keneally lair at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts, and we got to chatting straight away. I asked her about any reservations she might have when it comes to writing about people and cultures not her own (a constant subject of discussion among travel writers).
“Sometimes I get worried when writing about somewhere else with no real authority whatsoever, except that I’m a writer and I’ve been there,” she said. “I found it bothered me more when writing my novel and I was writing as characters from India. What’s a twenty-first century English woman living in Australia doing telling the story of an eighteenth century temple dancer in India? It took me quite a long time to overcome that fear.”
But ultimately, she says, we need to take the risk and find the bravery to pursue our ideas and creative impulses. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you can write as other people,” she said. “That’s what I really wanted to do. As a journalist and as a non-fiction writer you’re always writing about people. But as a fiction writer you write as characters. To write about other people and zoom into their minds was a big leap, but very rewarding.”
Claire studied history at university but found her way into journalism before moving to Australia. Her passion for historical research never left her and was the source of “The Pagoda Tree.” “It took me back to an early love,” she said. “It was nice to bring the writer and the historian together through the book.”
Claire has established a name for herself as a creative writing teacher, so I dared to ask her the eternal chestnut: Can writing be taught? Has years of teaching aspiring writers convinced her either way? Claire is firm in her conviction that it can be taught. “I think it requires a combination of factors,” she explained. “A lot of the early stuff can be learned. But it requires tenacity and persistence…and a certain degree of luck. As well as some talent.”
The most common question creative writing students ask, she says, is “How do you get published?” What does she tell them? “By being very persistent. Know your publication and tailor your story. For a book you just have to keep writing. Bryce Courtenay calls it “bum glue.” A lot of people who come to workshops have no idea of the work involved.”
Is there a writing book that has really helped her? Claire nominates Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” and Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” which, she said, helped her at a particularly difficult point in her writing life. When I asked her if there was an obscure general title she’d like the world to read, Claire grew flustered. I have noticed that writers can get frustrated at this question – perhaps too much to choose from? When pressed, she finally volunteered a book I had never heard of called “Half of Man is Woman” by the Chinese writer Zhang Xianliang. “I read that while I was in my teens,” she said. “I went through a phase of Chinese authors and I thought I was going to study Chinese at university. It was the most fantastic read and very insightful about the awful realities of what some people had to live through.”
Being possessed of a reflective and meditative character, Claire is one of those people who always ends up asking more about me than me about her. I find her advice invaluable and found it so today. A wise soul and an inspiring writer.