The Dreamcatcher

If the name Samantha Shannon isn’t already on your radar, it soon will be. Samantha is the much-talked-about 21-year old author of The Bone Season, the absorbing debut about clairvoyants struggling against a totalitarian government in dystopian England in 2059, the first installment in a projected seven-book series. She scored the deal as a student at Oxford University and the rights have already sold in 20 countries. (Now pause for a moment and try to remember what you were doing at her age.) The Bone Season world feels both old and futuristic with elements of a bygone era interwoven with modern, almost steampunk-y details. Her heroine Paige Mahoney is smart, courageous, and resolute, cut from the same cloth as The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. In real life, Samantha Shannon may be a kindred spirit herself, as she navigates through her dark, apocalyptic universe for the next several years to come. I chat with Samantha (did I mention she’s 21?) and she reveals how she got the idea for her ambitious book(s) and how she feels about being called the “next J.K. Rowling.” (We feel her.) —Stephanie Liu

Tell us about how you landed this insane seven-book deal!  How did you decide to go with Bloomsbury as your publisher?
It’s actually a three-book deal, but with the hope of four more. I was fortunate that I submitted The Bone Season to my agent just before the London Book Fair 2012, where it was spotted by Bloomsbury. There were a few other publishers interested, but the Bloomsbury team were so passionate about the book and knew it so well, I had to go with them.

You wrote your first novel Aurora at age 15(!), which was sadly rejected by every publisher you submitted to. What was the most valuable lesson you took away from that experience that helped you with The Bone Season?
I’m not at all sad that Aurora was rejected – it wasn’t a great book, and its rejection eventually led me to write The Bone Season. It was a good experience in the end. It was really my ‘trial novel’, and writing it allowed me to learn a lot about the industry: how to submit to agents, how to put a novel into proper manuscript format, what worked and what didn’t. I think the most valuable lesson was simply ‘don’t give up at the first hurdle’. There was a period after Aurora when I was convinced I wasn’t a good writer and there wasn’t any point in trying again, but eventually, when I got the idea for The Bone Season, I made myself pick up my pen again – and it paid off.

Why do you think The Bone Season had such a strong and immediate attraction this time around?
I think I’ve been quite fortunate with the timing of the book’s release; there’s been a surge in interest in dystopian novels since The Hunger Games, and fantasy has retained its popularity. I’ve been interested in dystopia since I read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and it’s great that there’s a wider awareness of the genre now. I hope the mixture of genres in The Bone Season will give readers a fresh experience. It doesn’t really adhere to a single category. I think more writers need to mix up genres a bit; ‘boxing’ books with labels doesn’t encourage experimentation.

You’ve been hailed as the “next J.K. Rowling” all over the web.  How do you feel about these comparisons?
It’s been overwhelming, to say the least. The comparison doesn’t really stem from the content of the books, as far as I’m aware – it’s more the perceived similarity of the deals (seven fantasy books with Bloomsbury). Of course, it’s lovely to be compared to an author whose work I love so much, but I think it’s absolutely impossible for there to be a ‘next J.K. Rowling’, especially when J.K. herself is still active and writing. She’s irreplaceable. I’d much prefer The Bone Season to be considered in its own right – I don’t think it’s particularly similar to Harry Potter.


How do you go about mapping out the storylines for the next six novels? Have you figured all of them out yet?
I use what I call the ‘flesh-and-bones’ structure: I know the skeletal structure of the whole series, with the key ‘joints’ of each book, and I know what I want to achieve in each one, but I let the characters write themselves to some extent – they flesh out the story. I think it takes the fun out of writing if you have all the minutiae planned; I’d rather be a bit spontaneous and leave room for manoeuvre. I know how the last book will end.

You’ve created an intricate realm set in the future and occupied by distinct castes of ‘voyants,’ their ‘dreamscapes’ and auras. What inspired you to build this enchanted dystopian world?
I think the kernel of the world came from an interest in dreams, particularly lucid dreams, which in turn led to a fascination with spirits. I rarely dream myself and it’s always been a source of fascination to me. When I first thought of the mechanics of the world, I envisioned a person’s vital force existing within a kind of mental realm, the dreamscape. Then the word “clairvoyance” popped into my mind one day when I was working in Seven Dials – there are a few shops selling tarot cards, dreamcatchers and crystal balls in the area – and once I had that seed, I started putting together a whole society of people who were keenly aware of the spirit world and who could access it in various different ways. I started layering from there until I had a number of different planes: the æther, the Netherworld, the corporeal world, the dreamscape.

I found the relationship between Paige Mahoney and the Warden to be refreshingly realistic, but it’s a slow burn. Is that a conscious decision you made, to make the reader sweat out their romance a bit?
Yes, absolutely. I’m really not a fan of books that throw two characters together and have them fall in love at first sight unless there’s a very good rationale behind it. I wanted Warden and Paige’s relationship to have more depth than physical attraction. They’re from very different worlds and backgrounds – he’s a Rephaite, she’s human, two species that are entirely at odds with each other – and I’m aiming to explore all the challenges and problems that will bring in a realistic manner.

I poked around your Tumblr — you seem like a big fan of the gramophone! It also gets playtime in your novel, and music is a strong thread throughout the book. How did you select the pieces that play on the Warden’s gramophone in your narrative? What are some of your favorite musicians and bands?
I am a huge fan of gramophones. One of my dreams is to own a real antique one. I sometimes suspect I was born in the wrong era – I love Classical Hollywood and silent film, too. The music Warden plays are some of my absolute favourite songs. Tracks like ‘Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?’ were an obvious fit with the book; that song in particular seemed to have been written just for Paige. Others suited the tone of the individual scene, like ‘It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie’. I also used Frank Sinatra’s song ‘I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance (with You)’ to indicate Scion’s all-encompassing obsession with eradicating clairvoyance; the song is banned in London for having the word ghost in its title. Billie Holiday is probably my favourite singer. I also love The Chordettes, Ruth Etting, The Ink Spots, and many more. There’s also a fantastic Canadian band called Raised by Swans that I love – they deserve a lot more attention.

How do you feel about the film rights already been optioned to The Imaginarium [they produced The Lord of the Rings films] when The Bone Season series is still being written/developed? Do you feel a certain pressure or do you feel good about it?
I’m thrilled about the movie rights being sold, although film can be an incredibly slow process and I know it will take a while to happen. I don’t want to write the screenplay – I’ll leave that to a professional screenwriter – but it’s a huge relief to have consultation rights, and to know that my opinion will always be taken into account. Andy Serkis, Jonathan Cavendish and the rest of the team at Imaginarium are passionate, committed, and always keen to hear what I have to say. It’s incredibly exciting to be working with such a new, innovative production company, especially as it’s based in west London, where I live.

Lastly, can you share with our readers the last thing you read and absolutely loved?
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. It’s a beautifully written Young Adult book, with the same sort of darkly magical feel as Pan’s Labyrinth. Laini Taylor’s writing is lyrical and lovely without being pretentious.

Photo credit: Mark Pringle