When Walker Books U.S. publishes Ferryman by Claire McFall—the first in a romantic YA fantasy trilogy reimagining the Charon myth—in October, it will mark the latest stop in the book’s unusual journey.
Ferryman was originally published in the U.K. in 2013 by Templar Books, where it had been acquired by editor Helen Boyle. McFall’s debut novel won that year’s Scottish Children’s Book Award in the Older Readers category and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal as well as for several other prizes. In 2015 Ferryman landed in China, where it became a runaway hit, leading to the trilogy racking up sales of more than four million total copies to date. Three years (and two sequels) later, worldwide film and graphic novel rights to the Ferryman trilogy were purchased in 2018 by Legendary Entertainment and a movie based on book one is in the works. Now, after this circuitous route, U.S. readers will have their own editions of the books, with Walker planning to follow up its fall publication of Ferryman with the release of the sequels, Trespassers in fall 2022 and Outcasts in fall 2023.
McFall, a former high school English teacher from Scotland, has recently made an Atlantic crossing of her own and now lives in Colorado with her family. “I was brought up in rural Scotland, and most of the books I read or films and television shows I watched were set in the U.S.,” McFall recalled, discussing her relocation. “I’ve always looked in this direction with big moon eyes and thought, some day, I want to live there. Well, now I do. I moved to Colorado at the very end of 2019—just before the pandemic hit, yay!—and so the U.S. is now my home. And now Ferryman is going to have a home here, too.”
In the book, McFall gives a modern backdrop to the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman of Hades who escorts the souls of newly deceased people across the river Styx to the underworld. The story follows Dylan, a teen girl who wakes up in the aftermath of a devastating train crash in Scotland to learn she is the only one on board who has died, and that the mysterious boy waiting for her is Tristan, her guide through a dark wasteland to the afterlife.
The idea for Ferryman “came from a dream—clichéd, I know, but that’s the truth,” McFall said. “I have a really vivid imagination and I keep a notebook by my bed so that I can scribble ideas in the middle of the night when I wake up from a particularly interesting or funky dream,” she explained. “Oftentimes, I look back and it’s nonsense, but this one wouldn’t leave me alone. In the dream, I woke up alone on a train that had been absolutely packed and had that awful panic of ‘Where is everyone?’ ‘Where am I?’ ” At the time, McFall said, she was teaching at a school in central Scotland and her commute took her through long stretches of quiet countryside. “I kept mulling the idea over and got a few lines stuck in my head—what’s now the beginning to chapter three,” she noted. “Eventually, I realized I really had to write them down so they’d leave me alone, and then I just kept on going.”
Getting words down on paper is something McFall had done since childhood. “I always wanted to be a writer,” she said. “I had a typewriter when I was young, and I would bruise my fingers bashing out the opening chapters to novels.” Writing the first draft of Ferryman was a personal challenge she put to herself. “I just wanted to see if I could,” she said. Though she was high on a sense of accomplishment, she was unsure about what to do next. “I didn’t know if I dared let anyone who wasn’t a friend or relative and therefore duty bound to say nice things, read it,” she said. “My favorite saying is ‘he who hesitates, is lost,’ however, so I decided to just do it.”
McFall queried roughly 10 literary agents about her project and two of them requested the full manuscript. But then things hit a snag. “No one wanted to take it further,” she said. With that, she put the manuscript in a drawer and moved on, but not away from her writing. “I’d been bitten by the novel-writing bug,” McFall admitted, “so I just kept going.” She estimates she was on her eighth manuscript when she finally signed with her literary agent, Ben Illis, and distinctly remembers one of their first meetings. “He invited me down to London for a posh lunch to talk and I told him about all the things I’d written previously,” McFall recalled. “He took them away and had a read, and found Ferryman. ‘That’s it,’ he said, ‘that’s the book we start with,’ ” she noted.
There was one sticking point, however: “He didn’t like the ending,” McFall said. “[Ben] had an editor—the lovely Helen Boyle—who he wanted to show it to on Monday, but he didn’t think the way the story concluded was quite right, and could I have a little think and get him something by Monday morning? This was around 5 p.m. on Friday night. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘I’ll have a look.’ ” From Friday night to Monday morning, in what is definitely the most intense weekend of my life, I added 30,000 words to the manuscript, and the final act of the novel was born.” Following that whirlwind, McFall said, “Helen loved it and we signed a contract shortly afterwards.”
Sailing to Success
Ferryman’s trajectory since its U.K. release has been “a bit bananas, honestly,” McFall said. “I was so delighted simply to hold the book in my hands and see my name on the front. My aspirations really didn’t extend beyond hoping readers liked it.” She was “ecstatic” when the book was well-received and garnered award attention. But as she characterized it, “Things really took off when it was released in China. I remember receiving the email from my agent when I was on holiday in Colorado, having breakfast in a travel trailer. ‘How would you like to be published in Chinese?’ Yes, please! Again, my hopes were very humble.”
Once the Chinese edition of Ferryman (Baihuazhou Art & Literature) hit shelves in June 2015, McFall said she was curious about whether it was being reviewed or was being sold in online stores. “I found it on a website called Dangdang, which is one of the largest online booksellers in China—and it had 48,000 reviews. Wowsers,” she said. “I rang my agent and told him, and we both did some frantic research—thank you, Google Translate—and he found a website called OpenBook which lists the top 10 fiction sales—among other things—in China. I wasn’t on it, but I was the next week.” According to McFall, Ferryman stayed in the Chinese top 10 for 18 months and spent three years in the top 30.
That success, she said, led to Legendary buying the film rights. “It is very surreal sitting in your classroom in the Scottish Borders and talking on the phone to a Hollywood movie producer in L.A.,” she said. The book’s performance in China also sparked interest in additional foreign language editions—there are 21 in all, so far.
McFall said she has been fortunate to visit China a few times and connect with readers there; from those experiences she has some anecdotal evidence about why the book has been such a hit. “There are a few answers that come up most frequently,” she explained. One aspect of Ferryman’s appeal, she said, “is that it is set in Britain. There is a real love of and interest in U.K. culture in China, and the book provides a window to a slice of British life. There’s also a similarity in the mythology in the book. Ferryman is a retelling of the Greek myth of Charon, who brought souls to the underworld. In China, they have the Black and White Impermanence, two ghosts who perform a similar service.” But, McFall adds, “The biggest reason is also the simplest. Readers tell me what they love the most is the relationship between the two main characters, Dylan and Tristan.”
Though she’s grateful for all the international attention Ferryman has stirred up, McFall said, “The U.S. publication is so much more than the cherry on the cake. It’s the culmination of what I’ve been working towards.” And in fact, the book’s travels are part of what prompted Susan Van Metre, executive editorial director at Walker U.S., to acquire the project. “As a young person, I thought—worried!—a lot about the afterlife and have always been drawn to books on the topic,” Van Metre said. “And this is such an elegant reimagining of the Charon myth, featuring a distilled romance that focuses on two characters and immediately shows the incredible odds against them. Also, their isolation feels timely though this was first published long before our present circumstances! Its unusual publication arc appealed too. It’s really found its own way around the globe.”
Walker U.S. is officially on board to publish the trilogy so far, and Van Metre said, “We would love to continue working with Claire. She’s a great, high-stakes storyteller and I think high-stakes is what we are all living with these days.” For her part, McFall admits she’s a bit nervous about American readers meeting Dylan and Tristan for the first time. “I feel like that new student standing on the playground and hoping the other kids will like me!” However, some Stateside readers may already know McFall’s novel The Last Witness (Sourcebooks Fire, 2020), which won the inaugural Scottish Teenage Book Prize when it was initially published in the U.K. as Black Cairn Point (Hot Key, 2015).
Not surprisingly, McFall is mostly sticking to her favorite advice and not hesitating when it comes to looking ahead and writing new material. She is eager to prep the other two books in the Ferryman trilogy with her U.S. publisher, and beyond that she said, “The pandemic has been a really weird time. I’ve vacillated between being super productive and doing absolutely nothing. In that time, though, I’ve managed to get four new manuscripts to the stage of submission. I have a paranormal thriller, a high fantasy, a time slip ghost story, and an oracle story. Something for everyone!”