“Writing a novel,” says 21-year-old Samantha Shannon, “is like knocking on a door that will never open. You are so desperate to get in, you will say or do anything. You feel: please take my novel.” She knows about being rejected. Her first attempt at a novel, she explains, was a failure — no matter what she tried, she could not find it a good home. But she also knows about persistence.
Shannon’s phenomenal achievement is to have her dark, embattled, highly wrought fantasy, The Bone Season, taken on by Bloomsbury. Projected as a seven-book series, it has been bought for a six-figure sum (for the first three books). Rights have been sold on both sides of the Atlantic and in 20 countries (India is said to be especially keen). Film rights have also been fought over, but Shannon has not had her head turned by Hollywood, opting for Imaginarium, Andy Serkis and Jonathan Cavendish’s independent film company.
Independence defines Shannon nicely. Hype about “the new JK Rowling” is in the air, but her writing is in no way like JKR’s — she is her own woman. She has just come down from Oxford, where she was reading English. Her system there was: study by day and, after dinner, write (good coffee essential). Now she is on vacation — it must feel unreal. She admits the past months and having the book accepted have been “overwhelming”.
I’d assumed she would come across as super-confident but, although highly articulate, she is a disarming combination of poise and shyness. Tall, pale and pretty, she is, at first, visibly nervous, which makes her look even younger than she is.
Bloomsbury’s editor-in-chief, Alexandra Pringle Says she was captured by The Bone SeaSon, though not ordinarily a fantasy fiction fan, partly because the first book is plaited into reality (some of it is set in Covent Garden). “It combines a 19th-century Dickensian quality with the futuristic. It is about glory and beauty – she has a fairy-tale imagination that has links with Beauty and the Beast but also with Angela Carter. Her work reminds me of all three Brontës sitting round a table creating an imaginary world.”
The novel opens in 2059, in a London governed by a security force called Scion. Here, the 19-year-old Irish heroine, Paige Mahoney, is a clairvoyant, dreamwalker and informer – her special talent breaking and entering people’s minds. But disaster strikes: she is mugged, drugged and taken to Oxford… The Oxford connection alone means that comparisons with Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy are bound to occur.
Pringle alludes to an exhibition at the Bodleian this summer entitled Magical Books, which looks at Oxford-inspired authors including Pullman and Tolkien. She sees Shannon – the fact that she is a woman an additional satisfaction – as the newest link in that magical chain.
Yet Shannon (although a JK Rowling devotee) has never read Pullman: “I thought it best to keep his world out of my head.” Her version needed to be discrete — her Oxford is a penal colony, a contaminated place. It is run by “Rephaites” — unearthly creatures, the most charismatic of whom is the Warden, a sinister yet alluring donnish fellow with honey-coloured skin, amber eyes and scars aplenty. He lives in Magdalen Tower, where he keeps Paige captive – as if in some inescapable tutorial. You need the glossary at the back to keep up with the archaic vocabulary: Querents (persons seeking knowledge of the ether), meatspace (the Earth), flux (drug causing pain and disorientation in clairvoyants)...
She fills me in on her education taking another tack – her path to becoming published.
Writing her first novel, Aurora, was like “a drug I couldn’t stop taking”. Her father, a policeman, knew someone in touch with literary agent David Godwin and, after an email exchange, he agreed to look at her manuscript. He was “kind” about it but also turned the book down. Yet it was this connection that would not long afterwards lead to Shannon doing a two-week summer internship with his agency (in Seven Dials, Covent Garden), which was to prove illuminating about “how the industry works”. GNS