‘I think emotions are the key. It’s really important to make your reader care for the character, then they’ll be desperate to go on the journey with them – whether that’s supernatural or just navigating the ‘real’ drama of life – to make sure they come out the other end of it okay. That’s why I always want to keep reading when I find a book I really like.’
By Claire McFall
Kindle Edition – £1.99. All proceeds going to support food banks during the coronavirus
Your most recent novel, Making Turquoise, has a Romeo and Juliet feel and has been released as an eBook to help raise funds for food banks during the coronavirus. What was the inspiration behind both this written project and your act of generosity?
I wrote a first draft of the novel several years ago after a fatal stabbing of a friend’s boyfriend. It was senseless and based on nothing more than an argument that got out of hand. I wanted to show people what it was like to grow up in Central Scotland with sectarianism embedded so deeply in the culture, but I also wanted to show that, though life can be hard in these places, where industry has gone and left deprivation in its wake, it can be beautiful, too.
I decided to release it now during the coronavirus because the people who are central in the novel – hard-working, working class families – are likely to be the hardest hit financially by what’s happening. I’m not an essential worker, I can’t help people suffering in hospitals, but I could do this.
Your first novel, Ferryman, is a retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Charon. What was it about this particular myth that sparked your imagination?
I actually didn’t set out to rewrite the myth of Charon (I’ll be honest, I didn’t set out to rewrite Romeo & Juliet either – lol). Ferryman started with a dream of waking up alone on a train that had been packed. When I woke up, I figured, if I was the only one it happened to, it was probably something bad, and my mind immediately went, ‘Bet you were dead’. The ferryman myth was a very short leap from there.
Ferryman went on to sell one million copies in China. What was it about this novel that struck a chord with readers there?
Well, a few things, I think. They have their own death myths – the Black and White Impermanence – which is something similar (if a bit scarier), so there was that similarity. They also very much enjoy getting a glimpse into Western culture and seeing what life is like elsewhere in the world – again, something we share in common. When I talk to readers in China, though, the things that come up most often is simply the two characters and the strong relationship between them. They fall in love with the characters’ love.
Was Ferryman always going to be a series, or did its runaway success prompt you to explore Tristan and Dylan’s story further?
The first book ends, not on a cliff-hanger, but with the future still a question. I always intended to write more in the world of Dylan and Tristan, but when I finished, I really didn’t know how the story continued, so I left it and worked on other novels. I think Bombmaker was the book I wrote immediately afterwards. It was my mum who really inspired the plotline for the second book in the series. Whenever I’m doing anything she might remotely disapprove of (in that mum-like fashion), she’ll wag a finger and say, ‘Somebody always sees you!’ Annoyingly, she’s usually right. Anyway, that became the basis of Trespassers. When Dylan and Tristan did what they did at the end of Ferryman (spoilers!), another Ferryman saw them. And wanted to do it, too. They broke the rules and upset the balance, and Trespassers deals with the consequences of that decision.
Are you planning on retelling any other myths?
I’m not planning on it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen! I don’t tend to plan out what I’m going to write – or really make any kind of conscious decision about it. I just get grabbed by an idea and go away and write it. It’s a chaotic way to write, but it works for me! Black Cairn Point (which was just released as The Last Witness in the US) is centred around an evil spirit created through a massacre of Pagans when the Romans were advancing up Britain. The series I’m working on right now looks at witchcraft and divination. I like writing about our real world, but injecting a little bit of fantasy into it.
Your novels are full of adventure and twists and turns. What do you think is the key to a good pageturner?
I think emotions are the key. It’s really important to make your reader care for the character, then they’ll be desperate to go on the journey with them – whether that’s supernatural or just navigating the ‘real’ drama of life – to make sure they come out the other end of it okay. That’s why I always want to keep reading when I find a book I really like.
When writing your novels do you write in a straight line, do you jump around and then sew it all together later, or do you do something completely different?
I try to write in a straight line. I don’t outline in much detail (because I’m always so keen to just write), so I’m often feeling my way as I go. That can be disastrous: I’ve got more than one manuscript that’s ground to a halt at about thirty thousand words. But it’s the way I do it. If I outline every little twist and turn, I won’t want to actually write the story. The reason I write is for the discovery; I want to go on the same journey as the reader does, living it with the characters.
Sometimes, if I get really stuck or get a particular scene jammed in my head, I’ll jump ahead a bit and write it, then write towards it, but mostly I just start writing and see what happens. (Note: this is a terrible idea. If you want to be a writer, please don’t so this!)
What novels / writers have inspired you in your writing?
Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses really hit me between the eyes and got me back into reading (and writing) again when I was training to be a teacher after going back to university as a ‘mature’ student when I was twenty-five. I absolutely fell in love with Callum and oh man, the ending! If you haven’t read it, you should.
Another book that really inspired the way I write young male characters was Crossing the Line by Gillian Philip. I just love the way she crafted the main character, Nick, who’s a loveable bad boy.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished Alanna by Tamora Pierce. I think I might be the only person on the planet who didn’t read it when they were younger! I’m trying to decide whether I want to read the sequel (In the Hand of the Goddess) or the sequel to Alison Croggan’s The Naming (The Riddle).
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a new series about a curse created by a character who saw a vision of his own death and tried to avoid it. It’s set in the real-world present-day, but it spans six hundred years, which means yesterday I got to write about a plague in Edinburgh in the 17th century!
What books are you looking forward to reading?
I’m desperately waiting for the sequel to Grace Draven’s Phoenix Unbound. I’m very into high fantasy at the moment – I like the escapism it offers which, yeah, I think everyone could do with a little bit of right about now!