GLASGOW, Jan 30 — A small-town Scottish schoolteacher has become an international literary sensation with more than a million sales in China and a Hollywood movie deal — but remains relatively unknown in her homeland.
Claire McFall has signed over the rights to her Ferryman series of teenage novels to Legendary Entertainment, the US production company behind blockbusters such as director Christopher Nolan’s Batman saga and Jurassic World.
The 35-year-old mother has also been mobbed in China, where her debut novel Ferryman, first published in 2013, has been a top 10 bestseller for more than two years.
“My agent calls it ‘Ferrymania’, which is slightly cringeworthy,” she told AFP.
“It’s mind-boggling how successful it’s been in China. They seem to be astonished that I would want to come to China to see them, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding? You love my book!’.”
McFall was teaching when her agent called in November to say she had been offered a film deal, prompting her to leave the profession to focus on writing full time.
“He didn’t actually drop in the name Legendary for about five minutes,” she said.
“That is when I realised it was actually quite a big deal, so I did a bit of embarrassing dancing round the classroom. It still feels quite surreal. I can’t imagine seeing it up on the screen.”
Scottish landscape inspiration
Despite being a huge hit in China, Ferryman has sold much more modestly in the UK — 30,000 copies by June 2017.
Ferryman, and its sequel Trespassers, published in September last year, follow a teenage girl on her journey to the afterlife following a train crash.
She is accompanied by a guide inspired by the Greek mythological figure Charon, who carries souls across the rivers Styx and Acheron.
The desolate wasteland between life and death was inspired by the sparsely populated landscape around Lesmahagow, a small town around 35 kilometres south-east of Glasgow, where McFall grew up and worked as a teacher.
“The idea came to me in a dream about waking up on an empty train,” she said.
“My commute to Lesmahagow was just fields, sheep and the occasional tractor.
“It is an absolutely beautiful, gorgeous landscape but it’s also very rugged, it’s quite dangerous and the Scottish weather can change at any moment, so for me it was actually quite a threatening environment.”
Ferryman has been translated into simplified Chinese for the China market, complex Chinese for Taiwan, Turkish and Vietnamese.
McFall has also recently signed a publishing deal in France.
She said she believed the book’s theme of the afterlife found particular resonance with Chinese readers.
“In China they have a belief called The Black and White Impermanence, two ghosts that take the spirits of the dead to the afterlife, and that has parallels with the themes in the books,” she said.
In China, the book was marketed for adults — unlike in Britain where it was targeted at teenagers — and a large part of the Chinese readership are women aged under 25, she added.
“The people I spoke to at signings also had a real love for British culture, the books and the landscapes, and they were really attracted to the male lead. He’s handsome, he’s charismatic, he’s brave, what more do you want?” McFall said.
The afterlife also has echoes of the Christian belief in purgatory, where souls undergo a gruelling purification before they are admitted into heaven, but the ebullient author stresses that she is no theological scholar or historian.
“I’m not an expert in Greek mythology — I literally know as much as I needed to write the book,” she said.
“I’m not a religious person and I’m agnostic in that I’m not quite sure what I believe. My idea for the book was that the afterlife would be like coming home — somewhere that you feel safe, but that you should also have to earn it.
“I’m not much of an outdoorsy person. I don’t like climbing. It’s wet, it’s cold, it’s hard work, so being forced to hill march, first of all by the school and then by my husband, just gives me bad memories, so when I was thinking of something tough and gruelling to go through, that was in my head.”
Her second novel, Bombmaker, set in a dystopian independent Scotland, raised a few eyebrows when it was released at the height of the independence referendum campaign in 2014.
“A lot of people asked me if that is what I thought would happen if we got independence,” she said.
“My answer was no: I was just taking it to an exaggerated degree. I just fancied the idea of writing something in a dystopian Britain that was still recognisable.”
The third and final novel in the Ferryman trilogy is due to be published in 2019.
Her success has inevitably invited comparisons with JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter series began in a tiny Scottish flat and grew into an international phenomenon.
McFall said: “I wouldn’t even hope to pin myself to her but I think she is someone who is really inspiring to show what you can achieve.” — AFP