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Creatives in profile: interview with Samantha Shannon

It’s been a busy decade for Samantha Shannon. A writer of dystopian and fantasy fiction, Shannon signed a six-figure book deal with Bloomsbury back in 2012, when she was just twenty years old and still studying at Oxford. Her debut, The Bone Season, the first in The Bone Season series, went on to become an international bestseller. In November of that same year, the film rights were optioned by Andy Serkis’ production company, The Imaginarium Studios. She’s had a lot going on.

Not least, actually writing her novels. Last month, she released the fourth book in The Bone Season series, The Mask Falling. Beginning in the year 2059, the series is set in a slightly-futuristic, dystopian Britain, ruled by the sinister Scion government. Scion have outlawed clairvoyance; Shannon’s novels follow Paige Mahoney, a ‘dream walking’ clairvoyant who, with the help of an eclectic group of allies, rails against the oppression of the world in the many forms it takes.

As the series progresses, Shannon’s lens widens. Set in Paris, The Mask Falling begins to show the impact of the Scion regime on other parts of the world. As this is only book four in a projected seven-book series, there’s plenty of room for the lens to get wider yet.

Born and raised in West London, Shannon has been writing seriously since she was fifteen years old. In an article in The Times, published shortly after the deal was signed, Shannon’s described as writing for up to fifteen hours a day. She was still studying for her degree, reading Hamlet, when she signed the deal for her debut. Almost a decade later, she’s now an established figure within the fantasy genre, within publishing in general. Alongside The Bone Season series, she’s also written a standalone high fantasy novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree.

We were lucky enough to have the chance to catch up with Shannon, and ask her about her writing practice, influences, and the books that keep her reading while she writes.


INTERVIEWER

Hi Samantha. Could you first tell us a little about yourself? Where do you live? What’s your background/lifestyle? 

SHANNON

Aside from my three years at university, I’ve lived in West London all my life – I love this city and don’t think I’d ever want to move away from it for good. I studied English Language and Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Writing has been my full-time job since I graduated. 

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you? 


SHANNON


Travel, music, the night sky, books with lyrical writing, history, mythology – the list goes on.  

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love or do you have another passion? 

SHANNON


It’s been my passion since I was about twelve. It was an all-consuming hobby, and I’m fortunate I now get to do it as my job. My side passion now is etymology – I love studying where words came from and how they’ve changed over time. 

INTERVIEWER

The fourth book in your Bone Season series, The Mask Falling, has just been released. What is it about this new book that you’re most excited about sharing with readers? 

SHANNON


The Bone Season series combines the hallmarks of dystopia with the scope of epic fantasy. In The Mask Falling, the world opens up on a whole new level, finally taking the reader out of Britain and into mainland Europe, and allowing me to show you the tyrannical Republic of Scion from a new, Parisian perspective. This is the point at which I hope readers will understand why this is a seven-book series. It also combines my favourite elements of the first three books. 

INTERVIEWER

Your fans include Andy Serkis, Ali Smith, and Susan Hill. Do you feel now confident with such famous admirers, or is the release of each book still a nerve-racking process? 

SHANNON

It’s always nerve-racking when you’ve spent years working on a piece of art, stitching your heart into it, agonising over every detail, and suddenly it’s out in the world. In the past I’ve often spiralled in the days before each book is released, doubting myself and fixating on certain sentences being ‘wrong’ somehow, but with The Mask Falling, I avoided that. I was reasonably calm throughout its release week.  


INTERVIEWER

Tell us a little about your main character, Paige Mahoney. You’ve spent a lot of time in her head. What is it like in there? 

SHANNON


Stressful, on occasion – Paige is a reckless and stubborn opportunist with little regard for her own safety, often acting first and thinking later – but I enjoy every minute of writing her. Paige is a kind of clairvoyant called a dreamwalker, with the rare and dangerous ability to possess other people and puppeteer their bodies. Clairvoyance is illegal in the Republic of Scion, where Paige has lived since her childhood, so by the time the first book starts, she’s become entangled in London’s criminal underworld to protect herself. She’s had to grow a hard shell to survive, but she still has a lot of compassion. 

INTERVIEWER


You’ve talked about the third in the series, The Song Rising, being your ‘difficult book’. What made it different from the others? How do you feel about it now that it’s complete? 

SHANNON

Every author I know has had a Difficult Book, which took them a very long time to get right. With hindsight, what made The Song Rising difficult was that I’d written it chiefly as a bridge between the second and fourth books, rather than giving it a strong backbone of its own, and that reflected in the reading experience. I had to dismantle it, bit by bit, and rebuild it from the ground up. Every scene felt like it was being wrenched out of me. I’m very proud of the finished book – it’s tightly plotted, action-packed, pacy – but it does feel like the least me book of the series. I naturally lean towards slow-burn plots, and I really don’t relish writing action.

INTERVIEWER 

You’re also writing another series. The first in that series, The Priory of the Orange Tree, came out in 2019. Featuring fictional countries based on historical versions of real nations, it sounds like that series must demand a lot of research. How do you schedule that? Do you get to know everything you need to know before you begin, or do you research as you write? 

SHANNON

I do ‘groundwork’ first – enough to get me started – and then continue to as I go along, allowing the plot to guide my research. I start with the basics, getting to grips with a topic using online secondary sources, and then I go deeper, using books from the British Library, visiting museums and galleries, sometimes going to a place in person, if I can. Where possible, I like to use primary sources for historical research. 



INTERVIEWER

Which fantasy writers should we be paying particular attention to at the moment? 

SHANNON

Aliette de Bodard, Amanda Joy, Ava Reid, Ciannon Smart, Helen Corcoran, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Laure Eve, Nghi Vo, P. M. Freestone, Tasha Suri, Zen Cho. 

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank screen to completed manuscript? Do you plan the plot before you write or do you just dive in? 

SHANNON

I write a detailed synopsis, breaking the plot down into chapters, and follow it as closely as I can, figuring out by instinct if I need to move away from it or change it.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel a sense of responsibility as a writer? 

SHANNON

To a degree, yes. Not to the point that I think all my characters need to be role models, but I feel a responsibility to research my books well, and to make sure my readers are getting my best work every time. I always put quality over quantity or speed. 

INTERVIEWER

What was the first book that made you cry? 

SHANNON

I think it was Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman

INTERVIEWER

What is the hardest thing about being a writer? 

SHANNON

Writing battle scenes. I find it mind-numbing. 

INTERVIEWER

Name a fictional character you consider a friend. 

SHANNON

Lazlo Strange, from Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor. 

INTERVIEWER

Did getting published change your perception of writing? 

SHANNON

Not massively, but the publishing industry is different to how I’d imagined before I got my book deal, when it was all quite vague to me. Editing is far more collaborative than I’d realised, for example. I used to have this notion that a faceless editor would just take your book away and turned it into something publishable. 

INTERVIEWER

Which book deserves more readers? 

SHANNON


Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft. It’s inventive, perfectly paced, and unlike any other fantasy I’ve read.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any friends that are writers? If so, do you show each other early drafts? 

SHANNON

I showed Priory’s very first draft to three of my friends who are writers – Melinda Salisbury, Lisa Lueddecke and Katherine Webber. Their enthusiasm gave me confidence that this was a story worth telling. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you? 

SHANNON

Right now I’m finishing the first draft of a story set in the same world as The Priory of the Orange Tree (I’ve sold it, but it’s not yet been announced). Then I’ll be drafting the fifth Bone Season book. 

QUICK FIRE ROUND!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book?

SHANNON

I’m not sure I have one favourite . . . 

INTERVIEWER
 

Saturday night: book or Netflix? 

SHANNON


Book. 

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic? 

SHANNON

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents? 

SHANNON


I can sing reasonably well. 

INTERVIEWER

Any embarrassing moments? 

SHANNON


I once had a ‘phantom period’ on stage in front of several hundred people – as in, I had a kind of anxiety-induced hallucination that I was on my period when I actually wasn’t. No, I still don’t understand how or why that happened. 

INTERVIEWER

What’s the best advice you ever received? 

SHANNON


‘Don’t forget to enjoy yourself’ – from Neil Gaiman.

INTERVIEWER

Any reading pet peeves? 

SHANNON


Aggressive love interests. 

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a theme song? 

SHANNON


Not yet. 

INTERVIEWER


Your proudest achievement? 

SHANNON


Probably getting into Oxford – I worked very, very hard to get the grades I needed. Looking back, I’m still not sure how I did it. 

INTERVIEWER

Best advice for writers just starting out? 

SHANNON

Don’t listen to too much advice. A lot of it is prescriptive, but there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to writing. You should treat most advice as a guide, not a rule. 


You can buy The Mask Falling from Bookshop.org here, and follow Samantha on Twitter @say_shannon. She also has a blog, samantha-shannon.blogspot.co.uk, which she updates with information about her writing and upcoming events. For more information about The Bone Season, follow @theboneseason on Twitter.

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