For the last ‘Creative Conversations’ before reading week, Louise Welsh was joined by novelist Claire McFall
A Guardian headline from January reads “Hollywood buys film rights to debut novel by Scottish teacher”. The mysteriously unnamed Scottish teacher, whose Ferryman novels just received Hollywood’s approval stamp, is Claire McFall. The author of three young adult novels, which are embedded in real (or realistic) settings and at the same time permeated with the dark, the eerie, the fantastical, was this week’s guest on ‘Creative Conversations’. McFall, who seemed both humble and almost giddy with excitement, discussed the stories she likes to tell, her approach to writing, and why all the characters in the novels are, in a sense, herself.
Host Louise Welsh kicked off the discussion by asking about Ferryman and its conception. Right away, McFall was eager to point out that she is “very much not an expert in Greek mythology”. Her debut novel reworks the existing fable of transportation to the afterlife over the river Styx, and introduces the ferryman, Tristan, as a central character.
“To me, it was about humanising the death character.” McFall wasn’t interested in the classical conception of the ferryman as merely dark and menacing and chose to give him human qualities, including the ability to love. Indeed, love in its many forms is a common theme of McFall’s work, and she explained that she was not just interested in the merely platonic versions of it. Leaving sex out of the equation in young adult fiction, to her, would seem illogical. Rather, she feels that reading about sexuality can, in a sense, be educational. McFall, like many others, sees fiction as a crucial tool for “experimenting with feelings” and experiences, a way to discover facets of oneself in a setting away from the harrowingly awkward realities of being fifteen (or indeed thirty).
British readers and critics enjoyed Ferryman but Chinese audiences went wild for it. For more than two consecutive years, McFall’s debut novel ranked among the top ten bestsellers in Chinese general fiction, and its sequel Trespassers is continuing this trend. When asked about her recent trip to China, the author laughed, still visibly stunned by the extent of her novel’s popularity there. “Everyone somehow knew who I was. It was like being JK Rowling for a day”. In an especially memorable instance, one school even put on a Ferryman play and performed it for McFall during her visit, which the young writer described as “probably the greatest moment of my life”.
McFall’s debut novel has been her most successful to date, and still, one should not overlook her other published work. When asked to read an extract from one of her novels, she chose Bomb Maker and cheerily announced that it was “much better than Ferryman”. In a dystopian version of Britain, England is isolating itself from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, making it illegal for any of their inhabitants to enter England, and executing anyone who gets caught twice. Scottish national Lizzie manufactures and deposits bombs under the protection of a London gang leader, Alexander. (Unluckily for Lizzie, Alexander is also a psychopath and exploits her in a variety of ways.) McFall described her protagonist as “careful and calculated, which doesn’t mean she is not also a strong character”. The novel closely follows Lizzie’s relationships with two male characters, both of which McFall says she “actually quite likes” even though many of their actions are morally reprehensible.
“Everybody likes a bad boy,” she joked, and said she wrote mainly because it gives her the opportunity to live inside a story. “I get to pretend to be the main character, which I know is a bit silly but…” McFall also explained that her characters often represent facets of herself, and if not that, then versions of herself she would like to be in a different life. She writes what catches her interest, she writes what she likes, and when the idea is there, McFall finds herself able to write around 30 000 words in a single week. She never plans any of her narrative strands out, though. “When it’s clear what will happen, I get bored very quickly.” Her approach to writing is “get an idea, sit down, [and] go,” which she considers terrible advice for anyone aspiring to write. “I get asked, generally, how do you write a novel? Well, not like me.”
McFall does not have a structured approach to fiction, instead she seems to be practically pouring her ideas onto the page in a bout of excitement, creating the worlds she would like to inhabit. The resulting stories equally rich in excitement, mystery and feeling, transporting the reader seamlessly into a place that is at once both familiar and uncanny.