We trawl Charlotte Square looking for a good spot, Daughter and I. In case it rains we want shelter, and if it doesn’t, we’d prefer to sit on dry chairs, and I forgot to bring a towel… We’re meeting Claire McFall to talk about her new book, and to find out quite how rich she is. Well, not really. A bit, maybe. After all, discretion is my middle name.
Anyway, we manage to insinuate ourselves onto one end of a table outside the big signing tent, and I go to see if I can find Claire, while Daughter ‘holds on’ to three chairs. I’ve checked online what Claire looks like, and apart from the fact that she has plaited her hair, I know it’s her when I see her across the box office tent. Claire has been told to look for a short fat grey witch, but she’s obviously far too polite to say that she can tell I must be me. We walk over to the signing café and Daughter goes in search of something to feed Claire.
We talk about Claire’s morning event in the Spiegeltent, and then Daughter returns with the requested orange juice and a Smartie cookie, which I fear might be suggesting Claire looks like a teenager, but she accepts with grace, admitting to being a bit juvenile.
She doesn’t come to Charlotte Square that much, because it’s some distance away from her home in the Borders, but this is her third time at the book festival [as an author]. She’s doing an event with Martin Stewart later in the day; both teachers, both with novels about death and crossing to the other side. It’s odd how the festival organisers can always find authors and books that share themes.
So, I’m here to talk money… and I dive in with my comment – question, really – about whether or not Claire is rich. She laughs, ‘I’m not really rich. The China market has opened up a lot more opportunities for us. Unless you are a super star in the UK it’s really hard. Apparently the average is £11,000, which is not enough to live on.
And most of that has to come from sales because at least in Scotland, schools can’t afford you. It is really great because Scottish Booktrust pays half the fee and they pay all your travel and they pay for hotel rooms. But schools still need to pay the second half of the fee which is less than £100, but when schools have no money… Also, I don’t know if it’s just me or if a lot of Scottish writers find this, but there’s not as much interest in England about Scottish writers, particularly for YA.’
‘I agree. I don’t know if the marketing isn’t aimed at England, or if they just don’t have much interest in Scottish books.’
‘And now China, it has meant a huge support to my career, but at the same time I’ve got that feeling it could all go at any minute.’
Accompanied by loud singing by Malcolm Donaldson next to us – singing to fans waiting for his wife Julia to sign their books – I ask if Claire has any idea how the Chinese market found Ferryman.
‘It was this funny fluke of circumstance, in that Caroline who was the foreign editor of the publishing company in China at the time, she read it, and said “we quite like it and has anyone bought the rights?” So I got an email from my agent and we took a small advance, and I thought that would be it. Then I was on Dangdang, it’s one of their biggest online sellers, just having a nosy to see if I was up for sale, and I had 50,000 reviews!’ We laugh. ‘Soon I was in their top ten! And it’s been in their fiction top ten since October 2015, and it’s still there. I think the thing is that there’s probably limited access to YA fiction, and they love all things British.’
‘And it’s a bit cringy for me to admit, but it’s a bit of an old-fashioned love story, and everyone loves a love story. It’s the same all over the world.’
‘Yes, and Scotland is very attractive to foreigners. Being a foreigner myself, I know this.’
‘They’ve got similar mythologies in terms of the afterlife, they have something called the black & white impermanence (an air of ghostly death figures). I keep having the thought it’s a stroke of luck… There is a kind of Brigadoon wistfulness I think, so they have tapped into that, and I think that maybe helped elevate it.’
‘It’s so fascinating. Before your publicist contacted me I’d had no idea. I only knew you won the Scottish Teenage Book Prize for Black Cairn Point, was it last year?’ I didn’t read Ferryman when it was first published. Now I’m about halfway through. Will China publish the sequel?’
‘Yes, they are. It’s being translated just now. The fans in China are desperate for it. Actually, an awful lot of them have got excellent English, so the book has sold really well in China – the original Ferryman – so I think a lot of them will try and get it in English first if they can.’
‘Did you perceive Ferryman to have a sequel when you wrote it or is this by popular demand?’
‘I deliberately wrote it with an open door, but quite frankly I didn’t know where the story was going to go. I knew I didn’t want to have a second book about Dylan and Tristan, because it’s quite isolated, so you are trapped with two characters, and I didn’t think I wanted a whole other book about that. Then I had the thought of actually introducing a second ferryman, who sees someone do something, and thinks “oh, I’d quite like that.” You know when one person deviates from something, and other people start joining in and it becomes a problem. The thought of the second book, is that there are consequences for actions, consequences for other people who want to get a part of that.’
Accompanied by ever more rousing guitar music from Malcolm Donaldson, I ask if Claire had started on this before the Chinese discovered Ferryman.
‘It made me think about it again after a long break. I honestly didn’t have an idea and didn’t want to write something that was going to be rubbish. I’ve written possibly six or seven books between Ferryman and this one. I’ve already got an outline for a third, though I might not write it.’
‘So you’ve written lots of books that haven’t been published. Because you have so much time?’
‘I’m really quite speedy. It takes about six weeks and I only write when my son’s in bed. I just let it all out and sometimes it is a bit crap (sounds happy) and that’s all right. But if I don’t try, the idea it will sit in the back of my head…’
‘Someone said in an event last week that “crap can be moulded,” but if you haven’t written anything…’
‘True. The kids say all the time “I don’t know what to do” and I say “well I can’t help you with an empty page.” There’s nothing worse than a blank page.’
Asking Claire what she’s working on now, she says that it’s been frantic getting Ferryman and Trespassers ready for publishing. She’s mostly been editing. ‘I’m literally ready start the next thing and there are three possibilities, one of them being the third book in the Ferryman sequence, and I’m just waiting to see which one grabs me.’
‘And you are still a teacher, and you are the mother of a small child, which takes a lot of time.’
‘I do take big long breaks from writing. The last thing was a year ago now. I just felt tired.’
‘I prefer to get it all done in one go. I just do intensive writing and then I have to leave it, because if I try and read it again I’ll hate it, and I won’t be able to really see what’s there. If I go away for long enough it’s like I’m reading someone else’s book and I can see if it’s any good or if it really is dross… I always say to the kids “just keep going. When you’ve finished we’ll read it over, and it’s probably not as bad as you think.” Everyone’s their own worst critic.’
We talk about Claire’s work teaching English at High School, and I wonder how much time there is to let the students write. ‘It’s part of the course, so with National 5 and for Higher and Advanced Higher English, they have to do two writing pieces and one of them is creative. I like them to write stories; I say “just make up a world.” And I teach the Advanced Higher English for creative writing, where they get to write drama, for instance.’
‘Do the children know about your other career? Do they read your books?’
‘They’re a bit confused because in the classroom I use my married name, but the books have McFall on them. But they do know. “You’re that woman that wrote those books aren’t you?” I get fan art sometimes, and I’ve got it on my classroom wall. Quite a few of them have read the books. They’ve been kind… I think that it shows being an author is an actual job.’
We talk about how Claire will say they are going to write a story, and there’s a whole chorus of “uuhhh” and she tells them “this is the best thing we’re going to do all year!!! We’ll be analysing poetry next week, and then you’ll be sorry.”‘ We laugh.
‘There’s a funny line in Trespassers, that I put in deliberately; Tristan talks about going to school, and how he liked English because the teacher read a poem and it really moved him, and she then proceeded to dissect it like a wild animal on the butcher’s table. As we do – we take a lovely beautiful poem, and they ask you about it in an exam, and it just destrays the joy of it. So I put that in specially,’ she laughs, ‘because that’s what we do! Because the education system is ruled by exams and results. I destroyed Othello for the children last year!!’
‘Well, it’s only a tragedy,’ I say. I enquire whether it worries Claire when nosy interviewers just want to know about her Chinese money.
‘I get really embarrassed. It’s that Scottish thing, an inherent modesty, talking about oneself. So I pretend it’s about someone else, and that’s fine. I don’t get to speak to adults very often. I go to schools and talk to pupils, so it’s more terrifying if it’s going to be adults.’
‘I believe we’re generally impressed by authors when we meet them. The glamour of talking to a real writer.’
Claire mentions that evening’s event, which will be chaired by Lari Don. She has read Mind Blind, and will want it signed. ‘Fan-girling,’ she calls it. We talk about the advantages of having a chair, and how at school events children can be too shy, and she says if they don’t ask questions, she will threaten to ‘just keep talking. “I can talk all day,” and all of a sudden they won’t shut up.’ Claire laughs.
She finds being a teacher helps a lot in doing events. ‘I know how to read young people, if they’re enjoying it, or if they don’t want to be there, and have been pulled out of double PE. Maybe they wanted to play rugby today. And I’m not intimidated by that.’
I say I’ve been trying to place where the train accident [in Ferryman] takes place.
‘Mostly I want it to be Stirling countryside, because I went to Stirling university. I was so familiar with the shape of things. But the tunnel is a slight invention. I do like to try and be geographically accurate when I can.’ Black Cairn Point is based on a camping trip near Stranraer. For Bomb Maker Claire was on Google maps [of London] a lot, ‘ah, that looks like a sufficiently dodgy street, that’s where their headquarters are going to be!’
Somehow we stray back to the Chinese money again. And Malcolm Donaldson is still singing behind me.
‘The Chinese royalties have put me into a different ball park. My husband and I were still living in a maisonette, in Innerleithen, wondering how we could ever afford a house. How do people do this, and we have two full professional jobs? It has meant us moving from the maisonette into a nice house, and a bit more space and freedom. I don’t have to worry about things.’ It means Claire can afford to work a two and a half day week, spending time with her son.
‘I used to think that goods in China were too cheap for it to make a difference.’
‘I have an agreement in my contract that I’ll get 8% of the cover price,. It doesn’t matter what they sell it for, which is a bit more reassuring. And the ebook is very cheap.’
‘You hear about all these pirated Chinese translations.’
‘One of the first things they say in reviews is “it feels good quality print, looks sound, a genuine product,” and that’s what they comment on, before they start saying what they thought [about the story].’
‘It’s a real book…’
‘They want to be sure they are getting the author’s true words, and I think that’s why quite a few of them have branched out and tried their English by reading the original. They’ve bought into the story and they want to make sure it’s what they get.
When I was in China in January, they asked me “what Chinese fiction have you read?” and I had to say we don’t have it; there is literally no YA Chinese fiction. I have been reading something now, because I asked, and they gave me a few suggestions. It’s really different, a different way of telling, and they have different expectations.’
We decide we have boiled Claire for long enough underneath the plastic café roof in the sunshine, so we say goodbye and she joins the signing queue for Julia Donaldson, bearing her son’s book. And Malcolm is still singing…