Samantha Shannon: the next J.K. Rowling?

LINDA MORRIS
Last updated 10:55 19/11/2013
Samantha Shannon
GOING UP: Samantha Shannon's mother hid rejection letters

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Samantha Shannon is not the youngest author in Britain to be rushed into print, but she might be the youngest to have a six-figure deal to publish the first three books in a seven-book paranormal fantasy series.

The deal has encouraged bullish comparisons between Shannon and J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter franchise, which was also published by Bloomsbury.

''I get asked all the time, 'Are you the next J.K. Rowling?', and it's always been an uncomfortable comparison for me,'' Shannon says by phone from her London home where she lives with her mother, Amanda, stepfather, Mike, and nine-year-old brother, Alfie.

''J.K. Rowling is one of my favourite authors and I really admire how she created this big wizarding world. But I think our books are very, very different and I don't think there can be a next J.K. Rowling. She is one of a kind.''

Shannon concedes, however, that 2013 has been a ''pretty surreal'' year.

Three weeks after she graduated in August from Oxford University, in a solemn ceremony held in the Sheldonian Theatre, her debut novel, The Bone Season, was published: a dystopian tale set in the year 2059 in which Oxford - and that same theatre - is transformed into a penal colony for a subclass of clairvoyants.

A week after publication, it was on the New York Times bestseller list, debuting at No. 7 on the hardcover fiction list and 11 for ebooks. It also became a Sunday Times bestseller.

The Bone Season has been sold in 21 countries and will be made into a Hollywood-backed film. At a recent speaking engagement, Shannon sat between Neil Gaiman and Margaret Atwood, literary giants she credits as major influences. Gaiman advised her never to read critics' reviews. Shannon was too terrified to speak to Atwood beyond a mumbled compliment.

This week on tour in Australia, Shannon turned 22 and made a guest appearance at Supernova, a support act to George R.R. Martin.

''I feel very much like a beginner and I have a lot to learn,'' she says. ''I don't consider myself a fully fledged author by any means. I'm always learning from my editor and I hope I can improve my writing as I go along.

''I have always been driven, I've always wanted to be published and I wanted to make that happen, so I worked very hard. Perfectionist would be a word to describe me.

''I was always more interested in my books and my writing than going out. It's OK to say I'm a nerd. That's me.''

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Her introversion and shyness as a child weren't helped by having braces on her teeth at age 13 and 19. ''My books are my boyfriends, apparently,'' she adds wryly.

Shannon's dystopian world is ruled by Rephaites, a supernatural race who set up a puppet government in London and kidnap, torture and imprison Paige Mahoney, a talented dreamwalker capable of breaking into people's minds. Their regular 10-year recruitment of clairvoyants into a mercenary army sees Mahoney come under the authority of the Warden, a humanoid with amber eyes and burnished skin.

Shannon came upon the idea in her summer job as a 19-year-old intern for literary agent David Godwin. His offices are near the junction of Seven Dials, where she locates Paige's London-based clairvoyant gang, headed by the eccentric Jaxon Hall. (Think Charles Dickens' cunning pickpocketer, the Artful Dodger.)

Shannon furiously worked on the novel while studying English language and literature at St Anne's College, Oxford, keeping it secret from family until the deal with Bloomsbury was sealed in 2012.

At the forefront of her mind was a failed first novel, Aurora, started when she was 15. While writing the alien-human love story, Shannon was so obsessed that her mother began to worry for her health. There wasn't a day when Shannon didn't plan or work on her novel.

She developed migraines and muscle spasms that still occasionally plague her.

It didn't occur to Shannon that her manuscript would be rejected, but all she got were ''cold, standard rejections'', she later blogged. Her mother hid rejection letters, fearing Shannon would have a breakdown.

Although Aurora's rejection was devastating, Shannon says she's glad it wasn't published.

''I was using too many perspectives and not properly connecting with any of the characters, whereas with The Bone Season I broke away from that and tried writing in the first person, in one narrator's voice,'' she says.

''I didn't obsessively edit it before showing it to someone and sending it to an agent. It was a fairly rough draft, but it had the original passion in there.''

Aurora has been packed into an attic box, where she insists it will stay, and she is saving for a deposit on a flat in London, determined her advance be put to her future and not be squandered. More than 50,000 words into her sequel, Shannon looks back on her first novel not as a waste of four years, but as a stepping stone.

''It gave me a handful of strong concepts for The Bone Season, including the idea of Warden, and when it didn't work out, it helped me rethink my direction as a writer and gave me the confidence to try something new.''

- Sydney Morning Herald

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