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A Waterstones Exclusive Q & A with Samantha Shannon

Posted on 12th March 2017 by Sally Campbell
It must be daunting to begin your career already being compared with J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. In fact, Samantha Shannon has been making waves since she first burst onto the scene with her debut novel The Bone Season, the first in a fantasy series about a woman at the centre of a syndicate of dissident clairvoyants ruled by ruthless Mime Lords. Since then the series has grown with the publication of The Mime Order and now the much-anticipated third novel, The Song Rising; establishing the series and Shannon as an important new voice in contemporary fiction. We caught up with the author to talk to her about world building, the challenges of fantasy love stories and creating novels that break down the barriers of genre fiction.
Photo: Samantha Shannon

The book has been variously labelled as adult fiction, fantasy and YA, do you think there’s a tendency within publishing to over-categorise works of fiction? What impact do you think dividing fiction into separate genres has on reading habits?

I’ll admit to being a little conflicted on this subject. I do think the industry is far too category-driven, but I also think genres can help people discover more of the kinds of books they enjoy, and I’m not sure how else booksellers would impose order on the thousands of books that are published every year. When I first sent The Bone Season to my agent, I did say to him that I wasn’t sure that it would fit neatly into one genre and didn’t really know if it ought to be shelved as Adult or YA, as the narrator was nineteen – older than the average YA protagonist – and was only going to get older throughout the seven books. I was fortunate – more fortunate than I realised at the time – that this didn’t daunt him when it came to selling it. He believed in The Bone Season passionately and pitched it to editors without putting a label on it.

There always needs to be room for books that mix genres, break the rules, and shatter boxes. Instead of making writers afraid to try out big ideas in case they can’t affix a label to their manuscript, we need to seek out, reward, and nurture experimentation wherever we can. If we lose that need to boldly go to new and unexpected places, then fiction will stagnate.

  

To what extent do you think fantasy fiction is ghettoised by the mainstream media? How much do you think the success of The Bone Season series and the rise in popularity of other literary fantasy by women is important in helping to change that perception?

There is definitely more than a touch of bias against fantasy in so-called literary circles. It’s rare to see a fantasy win something like the Man Booker Prize. I remember Kazuo Ishiguro’s reluctance to admit that The Buried Giant was fantasy, even though it had the hallmarks of the genre; he worried that readers might be ‘prejudiced against the surface elements’ – yet there is no reason that I can see why anyone should be prejudiced against fantasy, or why we should prize realist narratives over genre fiction. In any case, you could argue that ‘literary’ is a genre in itself.

Reading prejudice also applies to Young Adult fiction. There’s this sense that once you hit your mid-twenties, you should abandon anything light or entertaining and only read Tolstoy and Austen and Shakespeare. You get these snotty clickbait articles every once in a while that disparage adults who read teen fiction. Reading should be a pleasure. Besides, there’s no reason you can’t read Young Adult fiction and Tolstoy.

I’m happy to let others categorise The Bone Season as they please. What matters to me is that people enjoy my work. Personally, I would feel uncomfortable describing it as literary, as the word implies that the writing is of a higher quality than it is in genre fiction, but that’s clearly nonsense –  there are some exquisitely-written genre books out there, in all the target age categories. It’s a meaningless and arbitrary divide.

Fantasy in general is dominated by women at the moment. We’ve come a long way since the all-male Fellowship of the Ring, and it’s right that the enormous contribution by women to this genre is being recognised and reflected in the success of female authors. I hope that continues, and I also hope that we will be seeing many more books in this category by and about women from marginalised backgrounds.

  

You’ve spoken about the frustrations of still answering ‘that’ question about your use of a so-called ‘strong female character’, why do you think having powerful and influential female characters in fiction is something that’s still being questioned?

Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I could talk about this topic all day, but I’ll condense this answer as best I can. My issue with the Strong Female Character label goes back to an interview I did in Madrid a few years ago. During the interview, the journalist asked me why Paige – my narrator – wasn’t ‘strong like Katniss Everdeen’. I think I was too stunned to give a proper answer at the time, but I’ve been frustrated by that question ever since. What was it about Paige, who endures a lot of suffering in this series, that made him think she wasn’t strong? Was it the fact that she had tried to have a one-night stand? Was it because she was heartbroken when she found out that the man she had loved for years was in love with someone else?

More importantly, why do we insist on comparing all our young female characters to Katniss Everdeen? I love Katniss, and I admire Suzanne Collins for creating her – she broke moulds and challenged norms – but we don’t compare all male characters to Sherlock Holmes or Harry Potter. It does Katniss herself a disservice, too, because it ignores her moments of vulnerability, which were part of what made her such a believable character in Mockingjay. The way I see it, a female character either has to conform to this aggressive, all-guns-blazing Strong Female Character cast, or she gets dumped with the ‘weak’ Bella Swan-type protagonists who pursue more traditionally feminine goals, like marriage and children. This Katniss-Bella dichotomy just doesn’t exist for male characters. It drives me up the wall.

The definition of the word ‘strong’ is tenuous in this context, too. I’d wager that if you challenged someone on what they meant by Strong Female Character, they wouldn’t be able to define it themselves. What I personally want in fiction is complex female characters. Downright unlikeable female characters. Female characters who make mistakes. Female characters who fall in love, and who don’t fall in love, and have sex, and don’t have sex. Female characters who want kids, and who don’t want kids. I want female characters who are portrayed as fleshed-out human beings. What I don’t want is for them all to be in a constant state of ass-kicking, forbidden from having a complicated interior life, for fear of being called ‘weak.

  

The Song Rising has a darker feel to its predecessors. There are some striking parallels between the segregation of the world of The Bone Season series and current debates over immigration and social equality, has this influenced your vision of the world of Scion; how much has your portrayal of Scion changed as you’ve developed the series?

All good dystopias take their cue from true events, whether current or historical, and The Bone Season is no exception – but there are some chilling parallels with recent news that I didn’t anticipate when I started writing The Song Rising in 2015. The debate on the morality of waterboarding resurged, and as you’ll know if you’ve read it, The Song Rising contains a scene that portrays waterboarding as a very real and very ugly form of torture. I conceived that scene long before the debate returned to the public eye under Trump.

My portrayal of Scion has remained quite steady for the first three books, but I’m very excited to finally be approaching the second ‘arc’ of the series, starting with Book 5, when Scion must change its public face due to an event that happens at the end of Book 4. I can’t give much detail on this without spoiling it, but several real-world events have fed into my vision for the last few books.

  

Did the history of Spiritualism and its association with 19th century protest movements, particularly the promotion of women’s rights and the campaign for the abolition of slavery, have any influence on your decision to link it with a story so closely focused on issues of discrimination and emancipation?

The political history of Spiritualism is certainly appropriate for the subject matter of The Bone Season, but my original inspiration to use clairvoyants as the scapegoat had more to do with the Salem witch-trials and the phenomenon of mass hysteria, which I find both fascinating and disturbing. Without a shred of evidence, thousands of people – mostly women – were murdered in pursuit of nothing, based on nothing, because of herd mentality and a fear of people who reject societal norms.

Nowadays, in the age of xenophobia and so-called fake news, I can see more and more parallels to the witch-trials. Once again, it’s becoming mainstream for those in power to develop and promote dangerous beliefs about huge, diverse groups of human beings, and to make people believe that strangers are responsible for their troubles. The desire to assign blame to the Other is something that Scion encourages in the world of The Bone Season. 

  

The origins of Spiritualism are closely linked with literature, with authors from William Makepeace Thackeray and Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Lewis Carroll and Arthur Conan Doyle all influenced by the movement to some degree. Yet whilst other supernatural tropes seem to be thriving within popular fiction, Spiritualism appears to have fallen out of favour. Why do you think it’s been neglected by writers for so long?

I’m not sure, as it’s a fascinating subject. My best guess is that writers might be mentally categorising Spiritualism with historical fiction rather than fantasy, since its halcyon days were in the nineteenth century. When I first conceived the idea of The Bone Season, I wanted to write a book which had a magic system centred on clairvoyance, as I realised I had never encountered one before and it was brimming with potential. I’m having a lot of fun building a world on that concept.

  

Your books come with playlists and each of your Bone Season novels include references to specific songs and pieces of music, how does hearing this music help a reader to understand and become part of the world you’ve created?

Music is integral to my writing process. In The Bone Season, I wanted to include the gramophone both as a reflection of the clash between past and future in Scion and as a way for Paige to subconsciously understand Warden, her Rephaite keeper, as she finds him difficult to read in other ways. It’s only when she hears Warden playing an instrument near the end of the book that she finally understands his capacity for emotion. Since then, I’ve always included at least one song in each installment, ranging from Victorian music-hall classics and parlour music to American jazz standards. I put all those songs on my Warden’s Gramphone playlist on Spotify. I also have ‘author playlists’ for each book so readers can see the sort of music that influenced my imagination as I worked. I hope  that, for those who seek them out, it helps set the scene and adds an extra dimension to the reading experience.

For Paige, music is a connection to the world beyond Scion. A lot of the songs are American jazz classics. Paige romanticises the free world, and in her mind, America is a sort of utopia where you can express yourself freely. She hears herself in these songs in a way she doesn’t in music produced by the government.

  

There’s an obvious joy to the way you appropriate and adapt language, particularly Victorian slang, in your novels. Why was it important for you to create a very specific lexicon for The Bone Season? Do you have a favourite Scion word?

I’m glad that comes through. I was inspired to create the lexicon of The Bone Season after reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess – Nadsat injected so much colour and energy into the narrative. Unlike Burgess, I don’t have the linguistic expertise or patience to create an argot of my own, so I decided to lace Paige’s language with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slang. That period was teeming with vibrant words and phrases – and insults! (Oh, the insults.) Language was particularly important in creating the character of Jaxon Hall, who was denied the means to educate himself for a long time and now revels in using words as his weapons

My favourite Scion word is probably mollisher, which is where the term gun moll stemmed from. It originally referred to the female partner of a male criminal, but I made it gender-neutral and applied it to the second-in-command in a gang in the clairvoyant underworld.

  

Alongside your use of language is a complex and intricate classification of clairvoyance. This is a world where symbolism is important: colours, flowers, brands, totems, all have their own significance. How important is this symbolic language to building a complete picture of a fantasy world?

Stitching symbolism into a world is one of the joys of writing fiction. The Victorian language of flowers, for example, plays a significant role in both The Mime Order and The Song Rising. I adored the idea that in a world of rigid propriety, you could say what you really meant in secret. Symbolism adds that critical extra layer to a fantasy setting – it gives it depth and texture, makes it feel alive, and allows you to weave in subliminal messages about the plot and characters.

  

There’s a brilliant and vibrant theatricality to your descriptions of places, people, costumes and ceremony in these novels, how much is that indebted to the legacy of the history of Spiritualism as an elaborate and dramatic performance?

Definitely. It was important to me that there was a theatrical feel to the world – first, because Scion is a puppet government, so it struck me as appropriate that the seat of its power should feel like a stage; second, because Scion has erased all trace of the monarchy, and I liked the idea that a new ‘monarchy’, with all its associated ceremony and regalia, would rise from the underworld. I wanted the reader to feel as if the whole series is a kind of performance, and that Paige is drawing back the curtain to expose the rot beneath the beauty. My desire for theatricality came out most strongly in the performers in The Bone Season and during the climax of The Mime Order, when Paige must fight to the death for the crown of London. There’s a risk with action that it can be dry and mechanical, so I was determined for that battle to feel like a dance – a dance with death.

There’s also one scene in The Song Rising that owes a huge debt of inspiration to the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony; I was listening to ‘And I Will Kiss’ by Underworld feat. Dame Evelyn Glennie – the music used during the fantastic Pandemonium sequence – when I wrote it. I’m having a lot of fun creating this aesthetic for Book 4, which is set in France and draws on the country’s pre-Revolutionary days.

There are complex relationships at play in these novels; particularly the one between Paige and Warden, which cleverly evades well-trodden narrative pathways. How important is it to you, when describing their complex and passionate relationship, to evade some of fantasy fiction’s traditional romantic tropes?

Developing the relationship between Warden and Paige is the best thing about working on this series. I’m very fortunate that my publisher has allowed me seven novels in which to explore a slow-burning connection between an immortal and a mortal, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. In Warden, I wanted to present a character who really felt immortal – a little distant, a little cold, and sometimes very difficult to understand, but with a hidden depth that the reader slowly unlocks as they read. Each book chips away at his armour. Paige, on the other hand, is reckless, passionate and impulsive. Bringing these two wildly different personalities together was a risk, but they sparked immediately when I put them in a scene. Their dialogue flows easily and is always a real pleasure to write.

I knew that forbidden love was a cliché in fiction, so it was important to me that this relationship was unique enough to keep the reader invested. Paige spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to define her connection to Warden. She resents it bitterly at first, and her feelings towards him, and towards their friendship, will continue to fluctuate as the story goes on. It certainly isn’t love by the time of The Song Rising. They are strongly drawn to one another, but they both have other priorities and loyalties, and there’s a history between them that makes it hard for them to let their guards down. Their relationship will continue to be tested by what they both go through in the rest of the series. 

  

  

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