Interview: Samantha Shannon

Samantha ShannonSamantha Shannon’s debut novel, The Bone Season, is published on August 20th by Bloomsbury. Set in an alternate London and Oxford a few years on into the twenty first century, it follows the psychically gifted Paige, who’s trying to survive in a world where all those with such powers are persecuted. Shannon, who’s only a couple of years older than her 19 year old heroine, is still clearly amazed and delighted by the book’s reception – it’s getting multiple translations, and the film rights have been acquired by Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium – but was refreshingly down to earth chatting with Paul Simpson a couple of weeks before the book’s launch…


You’ve mentioned on Twitter that you’ve been getting quite nervous about the launch…

A little bit. The book’s already in some bookshops and I wasn’t expecting that, so that was quite scary – but quite exciting. It’s amazing seeing it on the shelf: it’s completely unreal.

How long have you been working on the story of Paige?

It kind of just came to me quite quickly when I was 19, in July 2011. I started writing it and built the world around Paige, rather than spending ages planning the world first.

I actually wrote a novel before The Bone Season which wasn’t published, and bits of it I guess started to develop in that novel – I started looking at the dreamscape in that, so there are bits of The Bone Season that have been in my head for a few years. The main story came to me pretty much with Paige.

Bone SeasonDid you know the story for all seven books – or just that first book?

I knew it was going to be a big story, and I knew it wasn’t just going to be one novel. The plot of the first one came quite quickly and I know the skeletal structure of the rest of them, and I know what I want to achieve in each book. But I think it takes the fun out of writing if you know every single detail. It’s good to leave some room to manoeuvre.

And gives space for characters to expand if necessary…

Yes, they write themselves to some extent!

Did any of them take more page count in The Bone Season than you originally anticipated?

Yes – I had to control how much time I spent on some of them. The Warden is a character I’m really interested in, but in the first book you don’t find out that much about him, so I had to think about how much information I was going to withhold. That was quite difficult. Also Paige has these flashbacks about the [gang she’s been working with, the] Seven Seals: I wanted people to get a sense of their personalities without giving too much about them away, because they will be back in other books, so most of their development will be in those, not the first one.

With a leader based on Benedict Cumberbatch, based on some of the art at Leiana Leatutufu’s blog

Yes, I would love him to play Jaxon, I think he’s perfect.

JaxonThe physical description certainly fits…

The cheekbones, yes!

You’ve updated the Victorian gangs as depicted by writers like Henry Mayhew; how much research did you do into what the real Victorian gangs were like?

I didn’t want to do too much because I wanted it to be my own. I didn’t want to exactly reconstruct the Victorian gang structure. It’s supposed to have a sense of being like the Baker Street Irregulars, something with a slight Victorian feel to it. I’ve read quite a lot of Dickens, although I haven’t read any Mayhew, oddly enough, but I did some basic research on gang structures, and types of Victorian criminals, like the kidsmen, who train the young thieves.

The next book is going to be a lot more about the Clairvoyant Crime Syndicate so there’ll be development of that there. In the first book, the most memorable thing is the slang, which I researched quite extensively online and updated the meanings to suit Scion London.

Are the books going to stay set in England, or are they going to travel around the world – Stockholm is mentioned as a possible location for Scion Three…

I would really like to go to Stockholm in the books; I’ve been there before and I’m visiting again this year. I’m going to have a look around and see if I can imagine it as a Scion citadel. I went to Paris recently as well so that’s also a possibility – I’m seeing which one appeals to me more.

I would like it to go international: I wanted it to be like a big story that escalates, not just thematically but also geographically. I do want it to go out beyond England into Europe, and maybe even beyond Europe. I’m just going to see where it takes me – but definitely expect it to move around.

PalmerstonWhy did you choose that particular divergent point for history? 1859 and Lord Palmerston aren’t standard pieces of British history to use as pivot points. They’re more obscure parts of the past that took me back to A Level History!

That’s actually where I first found out about Palmerston – we did Imperial British History at A Level! I found it horrendously boring when we did that module at school – it may have been the teacher who made it so boring – but I remember how obsessed my teacher was with Lord Palmerston, so I felt this strange need to put him in there!

I found out about the solar storm when I was researching my first novel –  which was called Aurora, so I was looking at auroras and solar storms –  and I remembered reading about it when I wrote The Bone Season.

It was visually driven as well: there are auras around the clairvoyants, and to me the aurora is sort of like an aura in the sky. I thought it would be fun to take a real world event which people can relate to, but then make it fantastical, so instead of just a solar storm, it’s this ethereal threshold thing, as I call it in the book.

There are forbidden recordings that the Warden has copies of, such as Frank Sinatra; did you work out which recordings could have continued under the Scion regime?

Sinatra’s songs are banned because he made the mistake of putting the word ‘ghost’ in one song. That’s just Scion being horrible. They’re very strict over singers that mention death. I thought about it: so many modern songs do talk about death. It would limit the songs that would be available.

Is Scion’s battle against clairvoyants affecting America yet?

It’s not reached America, but I had to think about what would happen if the British government announced they were persecuting clairvoyants. Some cities might have gone along with it, some wouldn’t have done; some might have been neutral – similar to a wartime situation. I then had to bend reality a bit: would Sweden really agree to it? I don’t know, probably not, but in the book, they have this particularly horrible leader.

So what realistically would America say? It’s going to be a very political issue: there are going to be some people who believe in it, and in the book, it’s still being discussed in America. No politician wants to commit to Scion: they don’t want to be the one who does it. I envisage it being a long drawn out process in America.

There are parallels with the Nazi regime…

The amaurotics wear a grey triangle: that’s drawn from Nazi Germany.

OxfordImageHow did you balance your degree and the writing?

I don’t know, looking back at it. There were some students who were crazily into drama, and they’d spend all their time writing and producing, so you wonder how they did it as well.

I had to be really strict with my time: I had to get up in the morning, do my essay, then write The Bone Season. In my first year I was a really lazy student, and would lie in till 11: English students don’t have to go to lectures unless they really want to, but most of my friends were biochemists and geologists who had to go to 9 o’clock lectures. Writing the book helped with my degree in a way, because it made me have to properly balance my time, and get up and get on with it.

What are you doing now? Full time writing?

To be honest, I genuinely don’t have time to get a job at the moment: I’ve been so busy with book stuff.  I’m fortunate that I am in a position where I can just write book two at the moment. That’s really nice.

Bloomsbury have been really good about promoting it: I wasn’t expecting them to get as strongly behind it as they have, but they seem to really believe in the book.

There’s a passion in the writing, which means there’s a passion in the author which they can harness to benefit everybody.

Yes, they are very passionate about it as well. That showed in the editing process as well. I did have interest from other publishers as well but when I went to Bloomsbury they were so passionate about it; they knew all the characters and were like, ‘Oh my god, we love Warden and Paige and Jaxon’… They were so into it.

My editor Alexa knew all the characters so well and it got to the point where she would argue whether Jaxon would really say something – and I’d think that maybe she was right. You know they’re real characters at that point: they have a very distinct personality. It’s good to hear my editor say that sort of thing.

How much rewriting did you do before you gave it to Bloomsbury?

Not that much, actually. I wasn’t expecting it to be taken on. It all happened very quickly. I was writing it at college, and Ali Smith, the Scottish writer, came in as a visiting professor. My tutor said that if anyone was a writer, they should send some work to Ali. With trepidation I handed her the first chapter of The Bone Season, and right away she said I had to send it to an agent because it was really good.

I sent it to David Godwin, who is now my agent, who I had previously done an internship for, asking him to take a look at it to see if anyone might be interested. He said he was interested, and he’d take it on. I was like, okay, and then he said it was going to London Book Fair. I said it wasn’t edited yet, but he said that didn’t matter. Bloomsbury picked it up there.

The process of getting an agent and getting it published was very fast, so I didn’t really have a chance to do an edit on it. Which was embarrassing because it was full of mistakes.

But that meant you were working with the editor from the start – an editor’s job is to help you write the book you thought you’d written…

I think that was the problem with the first novel I wrote before The Bone Season: I just edited it too much. I think I edited the rawness out of it. I think it’s good to work with raw product: I wrote The Bone Season super-quickly so it still had a lot of passion and charge in it but with the old novel, I edited it so much that it became surgically edited, and bland and crap.

So what’s the timetable for book two?

I don’t want to say because I can’t really tell. I wish I could say I had done more of it than I have: I wrote about 50,000 words of it a few months ago, but I decided I hated them all so I deleted them. I’ve started again now, and I’m on chapter nine, but I’ve been so busy in the lead up to publication I haven’t had the chance to sit down and work on it. I’ve been working on it in little bits, and the manuscript is becoming quite fragmented. I just need a solid week to smooth it out, and then start building on it from there. Hopefully around Christmas, I’ll have a month to get a good chunk of it written. But Bloomsbury are quite flexible on my deadline, so it’s not like they’re pushing me. They don’t me to pump out product, they want me to nurture my creativity, so tell them when I’m ready. ‘Aim to get it in early-ish next year if you’re ready but let us know if you can’t…’

It sounds as if you’re still having fun with it, which is the key thing…

I really am, yes. It’s very nerve-racking, but I feel very lucky. I know what it’s like to have a novel that gets repeatedly rejected as well so I feel that I’ve seen both sides of it. I feel very fortunate.

Author image by Mark Pringle

Read our review of The Bone Season here

Click here to order The Bone Season from



  1. Pingback: Sci-Fi Bulletin Interviews Samantha Shannon | The Republic Of Scion-A Bone Season Fansite - August 18, 2013

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