A big break from the Borders

A big break from the Borders

Claire McFall is a rare beast: a global superstar author in the making who has recently clinched a “mind-blowing” film and graphic novel deal, based on her supernatural YA series, but who is still working as a secondary-school teacher and living in a village in the Scottish Borders. She is a sensation in China: her visits there have been described as causing “Beatlemania” and in the country her début, Ferryman, attracted some 90,000 reviews on one of its biggest online retailers, Dang Dang, within four months of being published in 2015. However, her books have never charted in the TCM Top 5,000 in the UK.

California-based studio Legendary Entertainment (behind such films such as “Inception”, “Jurassic World” and “The Dark Knight”) bought the film rights to the Ferryman Trilogy in a deal announced last month, so it seems McFall’s star is set to ascend in the UK and beyond, with the company also adapting the series into a graphic novel next year. A seven-way auction for the series recently closed in France, too, with various other foreign auctions ongoing.

The Scottish Children’s Book Award-winning Ferryman was published in the UK five years ago by Templar. It explores the aftermath of a train crash: lost soul Dylan discovers she was the only fatality, and learns the truth about the worlds of life and death. The novel is a modern retelling of the Ancient Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman of Hades who transports souls to the Underworld.

The first book “started off with a dream, strangely enough”, McFall reveals from her home in Scottish village Clovenfords, near the Borders. “I sleep with a notepad [next to the bed] because I have an active imagination when I sleep—often I wake up and think, ‘That’s weird’... I dreamed of being alone on a train.” Her 90-minute car journey to work also gives her time to “work up stories”. “Once I got the idea [for Ferryman], it grew arms and legs. If I plan too much, I lose the joy of it. Instead I sit down and bash out a first draft, then go away and come back to it later to see what it looks like.”

In the first novel-writing stint it took her three months to hit the 55,000-word mark, and McFall wrote a completely different ending to the one the published story has—later her agent would tell her: “That’s not the ending.”

The author reveals that it was “not at all easy” finding representation, partly because she did not know anyone or anything connected with the publishing world. “I did sign on with an agent, but they turned out to be a charlatan,”she says. The woman demanded money from McFall, who hesitated, unsure of the etiquette. Later it emerged several people had lost money this way. “When you’re trying something, you’re desperate to grab hold of things that come your way,” she says.

Fortunately, around this time literary agent Ben Illis showed interest and she became one of his first clients when he formed his own agency, BIA. “When I signed up with Ben, it was for my eighth manuscript . . . which is still sitting in my drawer. He went through everything else I had and said, ‘That’s the one we’ll start with: Ferryman’. I was surprised because it was the first one I’d written and I thought I had got better.”

McFall describes her publishing deal in China as a “huge piece of luck”. She says: “I was on holiday, in a caravan in Colorado in 2014, when [Illis] called me and said, ‘How would you like to be published in China?’ [Templar] hadn’t submitted it, but somehow the Chinese publisher, Beijing White Horse Time, had found it and asked if rights were available.” The author believes it may be linked to the fact that Beijing White Horse Time’s rights manager Caroline Kao had done an MA at Stirling University a few years after McFall. Ferryman was published in China in 2015, and stayed in the fiction chart’s top 10 for two years, with repeated periods as its number one.

On the road

In January 2017, McFall and Illis were taken to China by Beijing White Horse Time and shown the sights by Kao. The agent describes the trip as resembling “Beatlemania”. The second novel in the series, Trespassers, achieved similar success when it was published eight months later (simultaneously in China, by Beijing White Horse Time, and in the UK, by Edinburgh-based indie Floris). It shot to third place in the Open Book General Fiction bestseller chart in China, in which
Ferryman was still sixth. McFall is intrigued as to why her books have enjoyed such a “meteoric rise” in China, but believes the answer may lie in the country’s mysticism and culture.

She says: “I think it’s partly because they have the ‘Black and White Impermanence’ [Heibai Wuchang, two deities in Chinese folklore who are in charge of escorting the spirits of the dead to the Underworld], though they’re more terrifying [than the Ferryman character]. The majority of the audience [in China] are women under 25, and the romance angle has been quite strongly [pushed]. They also love things about Britain.”

She believes there is “more reverence towards authors in China”, adding: “In terms of responding to fan mail, there’s often quite a lot of astonishment that I would write to them, and I think, ‘Why not?’ I think [authors] are held in high esteem there. I don’t think there’s such a YA world in China; there’s children’s fiction and adults’ fiction [market], and my books are marketed as adult fiction, which seems quite strange. But I think [adult fiction in China is] everything that’s not for little kids. I’ve never really been treated like an adult writer before.”

She describes the film deal as “mind-blowing”, but also revealed apprehensions about the process and how to ensure the films remain “true to the books”. She says it as “scary, because you’re not the investor and this is a huge investment”, but the studio has approached her about being an executive creative producer. “I’m not quite what that would entail. Ideally it would involve having a look into some of the processes, such as storyboarding and scripting. I would like to be involved and watch, learn, and be comfortable with what is happening with the story,” she says.

“I would like the relationships between the characters to be well handled, and I think that can be difficult. Sometimes you read a book and then see the film [version] and think, ‘Well, that’s not how I imagined it’. I think it’s probably really hard to take a book with fantasy elements and turn it into a film. There are things you can do in your head that you can’t reproduce perfectly with CGI, or models, or whatever.”

The author acknowledges that while her success in China has meant she is “more materially comfortable and safe”, she “wouldn’t want to be someone like J K Rowling, who has got to guard her privacy”. Yet she would love more people in the UK to read her books. She says: “[My books are] in bookshops but you have to go looking for them to find them. My books aren’t out in the centre [of the shop]. Everyone wants their stories to be read, don’t they?”

The mother of one is working on two near-finished manuscripts in the spells when her three-year-old, Harry, is asleep. The final untitled instalment in the Ferryman Trilogy is slated for release in 2019. “I’m quite a fast writer, so I can get quite a lot written while he naps,” she reveals. One novel is a ghost story set in Whitby, and the other is a story about “an oracle in a carnival who tries to avoid their own death, [it asks if] you have a time to die.”

Although her day job has helped with channelling the “dialogue and realistic reactions”of younger characters—her pupils offer the “new version” of something she says—she is also planning to leave teaching to concentrate on her books. She says: “I want to say ‘yes’ to all the writing opportunities. And maybe it’s time to move on to the new ‘me’.”