While many people at a young age are uncertain about what they want to do with their lives later on, Claire Scobie always knew that she wanted to be a writer.
“I started writing a diary when I was 9 and wrote every night, religiously, for about nine years,” the now 41-year-old recalls. “I also set up a local community newspaper when I was about 12, and then started writing short stories for a local paper where I lived near Oxford.”
Even though Scobie, who will participate in the 10th edition of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival running from Oct. 11 to 15, studied history, she dedicated much of her time to the university’s student newspaper and eventually became a journalist.
“Basically I’ve always been writing, and I’ve always wanted to do that,” she says. “As a journalist you’re taught at a really young age that you’re only as good as your last story, and writers, as a breed, never seem to be really satisfied. It’s rare to find a writer that says, yes, that was perfect. So I’m always looking to try and hone my craft and expand what I do.
“I think the best thing about writing, like with any of the arts, is that it’s always changing, so I never get bored of it.”
After working at the Daily Telegraph in London, Scobie took a leap of faith and relocated to India, where she worked freelance from Delhi while traveling, sending back stories to UK newspapers.
“I went to India when I was 24 and I just loved it,” says Scobie, who is now based in Sydney. “I wanted to do something completely different. I didn’t want to end up like the journalists back home, who stay at the same paper for 10, 15 years. I think when I was in my mid-20s, I had this feeling that this could be me in 20 years’ time, if I don’t do something different. And I’ve always loved traveling, so I decided just to go for it.”
Scobie also spent a lot of time in Nepal and Tibet.
“That resulted in my first book, called ‘Last Seen in Lhasa,’ which was about my friendship with this Tibetan nun and my journey in Tibet,” Scobie says.
“Last Seen in Lhasa” was published in 2006 and has been translated into German, Dutch and Korean. In 2007, Scobie was awarded the Dolman Best Travel Book Award in Britain.
While in Nepal, she met an Australian man, and that’s what brought her to the land down under.
“That relationship didn’t last, but then I met my husband — it was romance that brought me here, and then life had other plans for me,” Scobie says with a laugh.
True to her desire to always improve her skills and explore the unknown, Scobie then tried her hand at writing her first novel. The result, “The Pagoda Tree,” was published in June by Penguin.
“It’s a novel that is set in 18th-century India,” Scobie says. “It’s told largely through the eyes of a young temple dancer whose life is transformed and turned upside down by the arrival of the British. It’s about the meeting of two different worlds and cultures.”
Scobie says she wanted to shed light on this certain period of history by telling it from the other side, the Indian perspective, specifically Indian women.
“The Pagoda Tree” has won acclaim, with the Sydney Morning Herald calling it “a novel to be savored... Its layering, the unraveling of the story, the subtext of the fortunes made and lost on cotton and silk, the evocative descriptions of saris themselves are all part of [its] tapestry.”
After having written countless newspaper articles and “Last Seen in Lhasa,” Scobie found it challenging to switch into a different gear to write a novel.
“But that is exactly the reason why I did it,” she says. “It did take quite a lot of time to adjust to the freedom that fiction gives you. With non-fiction writing, you always roughly are sticking to what happened, even if you’re changing details, but with fiction, the possibilities are endless. So it’s quite easy to get lost, I think. It required quite a lot of learning about different fictional ways to craft a story and at times it felt very challenging.”
She says she initially worked at a much slower pace than usual, but after a while, it became much easier — and somewhat addictive. Her skills as a journalist helped.
“When I was writing [The Pagoda Tree], I thought, almost every day, I’m never doing this again, as I was squeezing out the words,” she says. “But once you’ve done fiction, it’s so exciting as well, and the characters have their own life. Once they start interacting together, you really just want to write more.”
In fact, Scobie is already at work on another travel memoir and has just begun to dive into a new novel.
She also teaches journalism classes and runs workshops on travel writing and creative writing. Because journalism has changed much since her time — Scobie used to fax her articles from India back to the newspapers in Britain — she says it’s most important for aspiring journalists to be as versatile as possible.
“I think these days it’s about learning how to tell a good story across different media. Because of the way technology is changing journalism, it’s so important for journalists to adapt what they are doing to online, print and visual media.”
She had to teach herself over the years how to adapt to the fast-changing environment in journalism in order not to be left behind.
“I have a regular writing blog where I post something each week on an issue connected with writing so I really try to just embrace the new technology,” she says. “The only problem is that you end up doing a lot of stuff for free.”
In the future, however, Scobie is leaning more toward writing books and novels rather than newspaper articles.
“This [writing books] will be the main thing, but I will also continue to work in journalism, I am just switching the balance,” she says.
For now, she is looking forward to traveling to Bali for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival where she will not only talk about “The Pagoda Tree,” but also chair a panel discussion and conduct a workshop on storytelling.
This will be her second time taking part in the festival.
“I was there with ‘Last Seen in Lhasa’ in 2006,” Scobie says. “I was just looking through my pictures of that event, and it was such a fabulous festival, for two reasons. Obviously, the setting makes it really unique. But also, it’s so culturally rich, so it’s more than just a writer’s festival. They always have cultural events, things like poetry slams in the evening.”
One of Scobie’s favorite memories was the festival’s fringe program called “Jalan Jalan” with some of the other participants through the rice paddies of Ubud to an organic restaurant, where they all shared stories over breakfast. The program has become a regular fixture on the festival’s agenda, and Scobie says she looks forward to doing it again this year.
Even though she has attended many book festivals throughout her career, the one in Ubud remains special to Scobie.
“I think it’s the combination of the event and the setting that makes it a real iconic festival,” she says.