Samantha Shannon, the 21-year-old with a six-figure book deal, talks about writing dystopia, building new worlds, and being compared to J.K. Rowling.
Samantha Shannon is 21, has a degree from Oxford University, a six-figure book deal from Bloomsbury, and a movie adaptation of her debut novel in the offing. She is also, in the now oft-repeated words of a journalist, the ‘next J. K. Rowling’.
Already a buzzword on the literary map, The Bone Season, the first instalment of Shannon’s seven-part dystopian sci-fi series, was released worldwide on August 20. The word on the block suggests that another Hunger Games-like frenzy might be expected and, already, The Bone Season has its fair share of fans. Excerpts from an interview.
Let’s start with the numerous comparisons to J.K. Rowling and the hype surrounding your debut novel, which can be seen as both good and bad. How do you see it?
Honestly, I’ve gotten used to it. The comparisons to J. K. Rowling started early, and the reasons are obvious. I’m writing a seven-part fantasy novel too, though that’s where the similarities end.
I’m uncomfortable with the comparisons, really. She is one of my favourite authors and to be called the new J. K. Rowling is flattering. But it also seems to imply that there was something wrong with the old one, which is of course not true. I’d rather be the first Samantha Shannon, instead of the next J.K. Rowling.
A three-book and six-figure deal for The Bone Season is as good as it can get for a debut novel. But this isn’t the first book you’ve written; that was Aurora. Tell us a little about your journey from your first attempt at writing a novel to getting The Bone Season published.
Aurora lacked something that The Bone Season has. I think, in Aurora, my style was still underdeveloped, and the story was a little like Twlight with aliens. It was clichéd; a romantic sci- fi with not much else. I remember my agent once said that Aurora was an unanchored book.
In The Bone Season, though, I think I’ve found a strong voice as an author. Changing the narration from third person to first person also helped make the story flow much more smoothly.
For young, aspiring writers, a lot of typing and deleting happens. Sticking with a story and seeing it through is difficult. Did it happen with you?
In this novel, there were no tough moments. I finished it in six months; just sat down, started writing and didn’t find it difficult at all. I had a plot in mind; I could see where I wanted the story to go.
I was also in university while writing this but, strangely enough, combining the two didn’t feel overwhelming. I was mostly an indoors girl at university. Where other students did drama or music or sport alongside their degrees, I wrote. I used to work on essays and class work during the day and The Bone Season in the evenings.
Things were different while writing my first novel though. Aurora was challenging and I faced many tough plot moments. I think if you know where you are going with your story, and you know what you want to write, it happens much more easily.
Paige is only a few years younger than you. Is there a little bit of you in her? What about other characters? Have you borrowed from real life?
Paige definitely has a far more exciting life than me. I don’t think we’re particularly similar people: she’s a lot more hot-headed and impulsive than I am, and her sense of danger is pretty much non-existent. She’ll quite happily leap between buildings and taunt people who are three times her size.
I live vicariously through her. There are aspects of me in many characters and situations, but I’d rather not say where exactly. I think an autobiographical reading can detract from the reading experience.
World building isn’t easy. Perhaps the detail that you’ve poured into Scion is one of the reasons for being called the next Rowling. Give us a little insight into this world you’ve created.
I wanted to create a world that was both fantastic and futuristic. The starting point was Seven Dials, based on the small district in London of the same name. That would become the criminal underworld stronghold of Scion.
Then I created Paige, the protagonist, and put her in the midst of it. From there, she took over and the world kept getting built, block by block.
The novel begins in 2059 — 200 years after the day that triggered its events — but 1859 still shapes the world of Scion. The way I handle this in the book is through anachronism. You’ll see gramophones, Victorian clothes and herbal remedies in the same space as oxygen bars, data pads and advanced painkillers.
I’ve tried to find a word that fits what I’m doing with the novel in this respect. One of the guys at Bloomsbury suggested ‘penny farthing futurism’.
I did quite a bit of reading about classical and Renaissance impressions of augury, soothsaying and so on. After that I moved on to 19th century spiritualism, mainly using The Book on Mediums by Allan Kardec. I also integrated Native American legend for Paige’s gift. Although I did a lot of research, I wanted to put my own spin on each type, hence the Seven Orders classification system.
What was your reason for choosing to write dystopian futuristic fiction? I read that The Handmaid’s Tale, A Clockwork Orange and Nineteen Eighty-Four are some of your favourite books. Is that part of the inspiration?
Yes, I have loved reading quite a few dystopian novels, and I wanted to create a world that would bring together dystopia, fantasy and sci-fi. I think fantasy and dystopia are two distinct genres — dystopia tends to veer more towards science fiction than fantasy — but both crucially allow the reader to escape from reality.
Personally I like writing and reading dystopian fiction because it takes its characters to the edge: the edge of sanity, of safety, of survival. They’re in extremis, and that allows you to see a side of them that you wouldn’t be see if they were in, say, a kitchen sink drama, which is pure realism.
Fantasy provides a more luxurious escapism. It can often be as gritty as a dystopia, but instead of being woven from nightmares, it plays with the stuff of dreams. In that way, I think what The Bone Season does is quite unique, and hopefully something that will make it stand apart. It isn’t just a fantasy. It’s a fantasy placed in the future, but with elements of the distant past.
I was inspired by many dystopic novels, but I only read The Hunger Games halfway through writing The Bone Season. It’s very lucky for me that the interest in Young Adult dystopic fiction is back, and people are reading and experimenting with the genre.
Authors don’t have it easy. There is criticism, harsh reviews, opinions that you must face every day. As a young author, what are your hopes from this book?
I don’t read too many reviews on the book. The wonderful part about literature is that it’s so subjective. There are bound to be people who won’t like my book, but I think that’s part of being an author. Criticisms also mean that your book is available to the reading world to pick up, and that’s the biggest thing for me. I’m just happy that it’s published and out there in the world.
You’ve started work on your next instalment. How is it going?
I wrote around 60,000 words and found that I didn’t like them, so I deleted the whole thing. Then I started again and I’m 30,000 words down. I hope this time it’ll work.