Because I closely follow Hallmark actors, writers, producers, directors, etc., I do my best to apprise myself of the “new kids in town.” When I discovered that Ella Fairlie wrote the book upon which The Christmas List was based, I knew I had to contact her at once for an interview. Previously, I was not even aware of her existence, but Ella had been observing my interviews, and she agreed immediately to answer a few questions about how she got started as a writer and the “fairytale” story of her first book becoming an instant Hallmark classic. (Yes, that is my opinion, but the feedback from this film is that this was the funniest of the “Countdown to Christmas” movies so far in 2016. And who couldn’t love Alica Witt and Gabriel Hogan?)
RH: Why did you decide to become a writer? What kind of training have you had?
EF: I’ve been around books most of my professional life–first as an editor and then as a writer. For a long time, I was happy just to work with authors behind the scenes to make their writing the best it could be (and I still love this), but a few years ago, I realised I wanted to listen to my own “voice” and see what came out. I didn’t go in with high expectations – I think you have to write for the joy of it – but I’ve been really fortunate so far. The first thing I did was submit a story for a collection called Sunlounger, and ended up being named joint winner, so I got to have my story published alongside many women’s fiction writers whose work I love and admire. Some of the authors I met through that have always been so supportive, and that helped give me the confidence to keep writing.
What was your first book and when did you publish it? How long did the process take to get it published ?
The Christmas Bucket List was my first novella, and I wrote it not long after the Sunlounger story came out. I decided to go the self-publishing route since I felt that it best suited what I was trying to achieve. The whole process only took about six months since I had control of every aspect myself – all that publishing experience came in handy!
Where do you get your ideas for your stories? What kind of research do you do for writing your books?
I try to write the kind of stories I want to read. I LOVE Christmas, everything about it, so a festive novella was an easy choice. I’d lived in London for almost fifteen years and just recently moved back to South Africa when I wrote it, so it was a sort of love letter to the city (and I was definitely missing cold weather Christmases!). I had the idea for the “hook” (the bucket list) and built a story around it, pulling together ideas from all over the place, including a few elements from my own life (and yes, I have actually done a Christmas bucket list myself!). With everything I write, I spend a long time thinking about character, because it’s only once I feel like I’ve managed to get inside my characters and know what they would do in any given situation that the words flow better. I also try to get a really good sense of place – that was especially true when I wrote a sequel to The Christmas Bucket List, set in Venice. I’ve been there several times, but I spent hours mapping out the city and poring over travel pieces and pictures until I felt that the picture in my head was complete.
With The Christmas Bucket List, tell us how your book got optioned for a Hallmark movie. How long did the process take before it became a movie ?
I first heard from the producers just a couple of months after I’d published the book, but it wasn’t until a year later that it was optioned. After that, it was about seven months until filming started and about nine until the Hallmark Channel premiere. No time at all, really!
Once Hallmark went ahead with the movie, what was your involvement in the process? Were you able to visit the set at all?
Not very much – I trusted that my “book baby” was being well taken care of. I’m a big believer in stepping back and leaving talented people to do their thing, and as I have no film experience, I wasn’t about to try and get in the middle of a process I knew little about. That said, I knew that my story was in great hands, especially since Paul Kaufman, the producer, was also the director of the movie. Moving the setting from London to Oregon meant that a lot had to change from book to screen, but I feel that the screenwriter, Duane Poole, kept the characters and values of my story alive. As I mentioned, I live in South Africa, so it was a little too far for a set visit, but I was able to keep up with filming via the production team and social media (I also discovered how great the Hallmark fans are at following developments!).
Any other upcoming works you can mention?
My newest novella, A Married Little Christmas, is due for Amazon release on December 2nd. It’s about a wedding planner called Faith, who gets booked to create a last-minute Christmas Eve wedding at a cozy little New England inn. She has to spend time with a Grinch-like (but gorgeous!) photographer to pull it off. There’s lots of festive fun and wedding shenanigans!
What genre of books do you prefer to write? To read? Any genre you hope to write one day that you haven’t?
I read quite widely in terms of genre, but in terms of writing, I’m focused on romance at the moment. I’m a huge fan of magical realism, and I’d love to bring more of that into my work. I’d also love to write a cozy mystery at some point. (I think I secretly want to be Jessica Fletcher, actually.)
What author(s) do you see as influential in your career and/or writing style?
So many! I think everything you read influences you in some way. I especially adore Pat Conroy’s lyrical prose, Alexander McCall Smith’s sense of place and the gentle way he treats his characters, the laugh-out-loud humour of writers like Louise Rennison and Sophie Kinsella, everything about Sarah Addison Allen’s work. I’ve also learned a lot from established and up-and-coming contemporary women’s fiction writers like Sarah Morgan, Holly Martin, Lisa Dickenson, Belinda Jones, and Rebecca Raisin.
What is your advice to other authors who hope for their books to become films/shows?
I think I’m proof there’s no magic formula! I feel very lucky that the producers and Hallmark took a chance on my story as a self-published author, since this is particularly unusual. I think the bottom line is, just write the very best story you can, send it out into the world, and see what happens!
Ella’s story gives me prodigious hope. I mention this because all too often, people will overhear supposedly outlandish dreams, such as “I want to write a book that will become a Hallmark movie,” or “I want to interview and befriend actors,” and they will treat those ideas with abject scorn. After all, that doesn’t happen to middle-aged school teachers who are single mothers. Nor does it happen to South African writers who decide it’s time to spin original tales. In Ella’s case, she did not acquiesce, and in spite of what some would say is “overnight success,” it is clear that Ella has spent a wealth of time honing this gift of hers in preparation for where she now finds herself. Although Ella chose a nontraditional route (okay, this woman and I have far too much in common), she has witnessed her dreams come to fruition in ways of which she may never have thought possible. But lest one think that such “instant success” has made her cocky, the reverse is true. She is aware of the fickle and unpredictable nature of this business–whether literature or film–and she is determined to not rest on her laurels. She is committed to expanding her horizons and potentially attaining new heights that no one may believe yet exist. Ella is aware of the sweet path she has trod to arrive where she now resides, but she is only in the inception of her writing career. I am certain many more works are either on the horizon or even now finding life on her computer or scratch pad. Therefore, be sure that you follow this lovely and supremely talented lady as no one knows what her next step on her personal ladder to success may be, but you can bet your bottom dollar that you don’t want to miss it!