Clara Challoner Walker (Chemistry 1985) is one of only a handful of women to have ever worked at a senior level for a government-owned organisation in Saudi Arabia. She called upon her experiences there to inspire her first novel, a thriller called A Tapestry of Vice and Virtue. Clara tells us about life in the Middle East, the writing and publishing processes, and how she uses her scientific background to improve her creative writing.

After graduating with a BSc in Chemistry in 1985, Clara Challoner Walker pursued a career in financial services and technology, working for IBM for 11 years before being seconded into one of the largest government-owned institutions in Saudi Arabia.

What was it like working in Saudi Arabia?

"The workplace was not set up for women at all. Saudi women weren’t able to work alongside men and there were no other women in the office apart from me. Because they needed my skills, an exception was made to allow me to work in the same office as the local male staff and to make that work day to day; the fact that I was a woman was simply ignored. The senior management I was working with were able to manage that, as many of them had travelled or been educated internationally and were used to interacting with women. It was more difficult though for the middle management and some of the more junior workers. The tea boys refused to serve me and I wasn’t allowed into the canteen at lunchtime. When I first arrived, there were no women’s toilets in the office so I had to call a car to take me back to the hotel.

There have been big changes since then, however, with huge investment made in educating young Saudi women, sending them abroad to study and offering them professional opportunities on their return, albeit within the constraints of remaining restrictions on women working in the country. Towards the end of my stay, the first of these women were starting to return to Saudi.

Socialising was difficult as there were no cinemas, galleries or theatres and nothing to do. In the evenings, Saudi families often go out in groups for picnics by the side of the road and I was asked along to some of these gatherings by Saudi women on the workforce towards the end of my stay, but even that was risky as it meant socialising with their male relatives which was strongly disapproved of by the authorities. I spent a lot of time reading and writing about what I saw and heard, material which would later become useful for the book. It was wonderful to have had the unique experience of living and working there and to see it all first hand."

Tell us more about the book, ‘A Tapestry of Vice and Virtue’

"It’s a thriller, set in Yorkshire, Saudi Arabia, the Far East and Africa. It’s the story of a group of very different people, different in terms of sex, faith and nationality, who all come together, following a horrific miscarriage of justice, with huge implications for the future.

On one level it is the story of the central character Gabriel and her lifelong friend Shylah, with whom she fulfils her dream of opening a delicatessen in Yorkshire. On another, it is the story of Gabriel and a ‘friend’ from university, Mubaarak, a Saudi man struggling to come to reconcile his religion with his sexuality."

What’s it like working on a long-term solo project like writing a book? Is it hard to stay motivated?

"I had strong discipline that came from having completed my degree and from working in a corporate environment. You need to be good at time management and to set yourself goals.

Writing is very different from the corporate world and Imperial, where you get constant feedback and are given things you can react to and change. Shut away in France, where I went to write the novel, you don’t get feedback.  What you write could be codswallop but you just have to keep going forward and be led by what the characters want to do. The characters feel like real people, and even now I ask myself how they would react. I’m always thinking about ways to take them into the next novel."

You’ve always been interested in writing, so what made you choose to study science?

"Balancing my artistic and scientific interests was difficult at times. School plays always seemed to clash with science fairs! I thought there would be more job opportunities along the scientific route though, and chemistry seemed to be a particularly creative type of science, a combination of the accademic and the practical.

The educational quality at Imperial was streets ahead of anywhere else I have encountered. In my professional life, I’ve done lots of interviews of Imperial graduates and it really shows – Imperial trains you to use your mind in a very special way.

If anyone is trying to make that decision between arts and science, I’d say that if you have the capability to do science and technology, and also have creative talent, science will give you the tools to be better at both."

What’s your fondest memory of Imperial?

"I was so young when I was there! I had only just turned eighteen! I remember Mining House in SW7, owned by the College. That area was the ‘best of London’, down the road from Harrods, the Science Museum etc. Coming from suburbs it was a great place to be with fantastic surroundings, great friends and interesting stuff to do and learn – I woke up in wonderment every day.

I’m still in touch with many friends from Imperial. I was a member of the Operatic Society which was a really vibrant group of people, mostly from Imperial but some from the RCA and RCM. I was in the Mountaineering Club as well and on a Friday evening a group of us would drive a minibus to Wales, the Peak District or the Lakes and climb up and down things during the day, then go to the pub in the evening and sleep under canvas."

Do you have a favourite quote or saying?

"There’s one right at the front of my novel: “Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue”, by Francois de La Rochefoucauld, a seventeenth century French writer. The title of my novel came from that and was also inspired by the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice’, a religious police organisation in Saudi Arabia."

What advice would you give to students and fellow alumni?

"Don’t limit your ambitions. Don’t assume you have to follow a predestined path that you can’t deviate from. Follow your ambitions and it will all work out in the end."