Last week I was given an amazing opportunity, and that was to interview Samantha Shannon ahead of her talk at Waterstones in Manchester! I’d already bought a ticket for the event so I’d been excited for that particular Tuesday for a while, but to then receive a message asking me if I’d like to do a Q&A before the main panel got underway? I was blown away.
Admittedly, I haven’t yet finished Priory (a fact I started the interview with for transparency) but I loved The Bone Season, The Mime Order and The Song Rising. Meeting one of your favourite authors is nerve wracking enough, but actually interviewing them? Let’s just say my glasses were steaming up due to the heat coming from my face I was that nervous! Within minutes though, I was totally at ease.
Listening to the audio file repeatedly while typing up the questions and answers, I have come to realise that I don’t speak in full, proper sentences! My questions were laced with “likes” and “erms” and “kind ofs” so I’ve attempted to tidy these up. The questions remain the same but I may have just neatened them up for the purposes of you reading them. Also I had to cut one question down as I literally used the word excited 5 times in one long sentence and nobody needs to read that. Anyway, rambling aside, let’s get into the interview!
A: If you had to explain Priory to those who somehow have not heard of it, what kind of words would you use?
S: Kind of single descriptives? Erm, thick [laughing]. I would say, I guess feminist. I mean it’s always a bit weird labelling your own work as that but I certainly attempted it to be feminist. Historically inspired?
A: Epic? As in the scale.
S: Yeah like the size. Maybe you could specify that rather than me saying my own work is epic!
A: I’m glad that you used the word feminist because that leads on to my next question. So at NYA Lit Fest I really enjoyed the discussion as a whole, but something that I found funny but also quite sad is that “people” will massively accept, for example Game of Thrones last night – dragons and dead people coming back to life and magic. But give them a book where the majority of the characters are women and they’re like “hm, not very realistic is it. I don’t think it’s for me, I’ll give it a miss”.
S: “It’s not historically accurate.”
A: I guess that for the majority of women, particularly myself, this is the first book of it’s kind I’ve read where most of the characters are women. Is there a particular message you wanted to give to the women reading it, or perhaps the men reading it, or is there perhaps a message to the industry that we may need more?
S: It’s a response in a way to my younger self, because when I was young I had this experience where I was very let down by The Lord of the Rings where I saw Arwen in the film fighting a Nazgûl and I got very excited about that because I never saw women being central, active figures in fantasy. When I read the book… she doesn’t have that scene in the book and it was heartbreaking for me and because of that it drove me away from fantasy for a little while until I discovered Garth Nix’s Sabriel quite a few years later. That meant that I didn’t discover a lot of female authored epic fantasy and I didn’t discover something like Alanna for example, and with Priory in a way I wrote it for women like me, the women who used to be the girls that didn’t see themselves in the genre and who didn’t see themselves as the heroes holding a sword, and actually Priory is designed to be quite a classic epic fantasy that does make use of fantasy tropes but it centres female narratives and queer narratives.
To me a trope is not a trope until everyone’s had a shot at it. Just because tonnes and tonnes of white straight men have been the one, the chosen one, or wielding a sword, that doesn’t mean it’s a cliche to me. I want to see everyone doing that before I call it a cliche.
In terms of a message I mean obviously you don’t want to infuse too much of a message into books. I didn’t exactly write a message into it but what I do hope it will do is perhaps cause people to question some of their assumptions and some of the idea of what they consider to be the “default” person in a novel. So it is interesting to see how a few male readers have reacted to it and I was quite pleased the other day because a guy said “when I read it, it made me realise what women reading fantasy must have felt like”.
A: I think I saw your tweet about “strong male characters”?
S: Well that was separate actually but this guy was kind of saying you know I’m not spiteful about the men being more passive, but they are more passive than the female characters. The female characters are the ones who drive the narrative and the men do make important contributions to it, but they are not the central figures, they are very much the supporting characters in the story. I liked that he had read that and realised that there was an experience different to his own that subverted his experience of fantasy.
Yeah and it was interesting to get a review that said that Priory lacked “strong male characters” and that tickled me because I’ve been having this issue with the “strong female character”.
A: I was going to ask you about that but I know we only have like ten minutes so I thought…
S: Well we’re going to discuss that in the panel later I’m sure! But that made me wonder what does “strong male character” mean? Is it that Loth and Niclays are not aggressive and masking their masculinity, and well I hope they don’t portray toxic masculinity basically. They’re not sexist, they’re not constantly thinking about sex and degrading women. I tried to write them as complex people and I wonder if male characters have more traditionally feminine traits, for example Loth is quite compassionate, does that make them weak in some people’s eyes?
Basically it’s not so much the message I wanted to send with Priory, it’s the questions I wanted to raise and hopefully people will think about those questions.
A: I saw last night that The Bone Season has been optioned for TV, congratulations!
S: Thank you, it’s nice to be able to talk about it!
A: While The Bone Season did have a lot of fantastical elements it was in a location that was to an extent quite similar to us, it was familiar. Whereas Priory is in this whole new world that you had to invent. How did you find the transition between writing the two books? I believe you were working on them both at the same time for a while, which is… well that sounds very stressful!
S: It was a bit!
A: Did you approach them differently or did you follow the same kind of writing process for the two?
S: Interestingly Priory required more research, because with The Bone Season it is set in our world which would indicate that it needed more research because it’s a real place, and I did need to do a degree of research. Not so much with London and Oxford because I’m familiar with those places but I’ve never lived in Manchester or Edinburgh so I had to do more research to create. I was also building versions of Manchester and Edinburgh that were more based on their Victorian inclinations rather than modern so I did have to do a bit of historical research.
Strangely though, Priory actually involved more historical research because although it is a secondary world that is separate from ours, all of the countries have a loose real world counterpart and the only way that you can know how to bring aspects of a country into a fantasy novel is if you already know enough about that country to be able to pick and choose which parts you bring across because to do otherwise is appropriative.
So I had to do a lot of research on 16th and 17th century history of a number of different countries which was a lot to do because I was looking not only at my own country because I wasn’t overly familiar with the Elizabethan era, I was also looking at Inquisitorial Spain and Edo Japan and the Dutch Republic and so that actually required more research because I had to know the places before I knew how to defamiliarise them.
A: Which leads into my next question… was there a piece of research that really sticks out to you? Maybe the strangest thing you uncovered or the most interesting finding that you made?
S: I guess that… so there are these creatures in Priory called the ichneumons and they are essentially very large mongooses that you can ride like a horse and that comes from medieval bestiaries, and there’s a lot of weird animals in medieval bestiaries like the cockatrice and a lot of them appear in Priory. But the ichneumon I found fascinating because what is draws on is the fact that mongooses are are very plucky and will quite happily fight snakes. Snakes have been historically associated with dragons, in fact the word is often interchangeable – serpent, dragon, it’s the same thing. So the ichneumon is a mongoose that is presented in bestiaries as the enemy of the dragon or the cockatrice and so I thought that would be kind of fun to transpose into Priory.
And weirdly I don’t think ichneumon are supposed to be particularly large but I couldn’t cope with the idea of just a tiny mongoose being the enemy of the dragons so I turned them into these large, deadly creatures essentially. That was kind of a fun find.
A: Well I am excited to meet them, because they sound like my kind of animal. I feel like if I was an animal I would probably be more of a mongoose than a dragon!
S: They’re very, very loyal. There’s one called Aralaq who I just adore. I want my own Aralaq!
A: Do you think you would have been able to write Priory as your first novel, or do you think that you needed the time and the experience to develop the story?
S: That’s a great question actually, I’ve never been asked that before. I think I did need some experience of previously writing novels because it was a lot to juggle – doing four perspectives, it happens over a quite a long time and trying to balance the timelines. I did need several years of experience, well in writing novels, and weirdly Priory is actually a return to my pre-Bone Season writing style because when I was a teenager I always used to write in third person. I wrote a novel called Aurora when I was 15 that was all in third. So I do think I needed some time almost doing something else, so writing The Bone Season. Then returning to third person I felt like I was refreshed and I could almost approach it from a slightly different angle than I did when I was a teenager.
And I’d done a lot more reading by then as well. Of course reading is one of the main things that informs writing so I definitely think that I had more of the necessary skill to handle it. Well, I hope I did!
A: Did you have this story for a long time and only start writing it… was it the last three years you’ve been writing it?
S: Yeah so I started it in 2015. Priory actually I can trace back right the way back 20 years because when I was at a Christian primary school that’s when I first encountered the legend of George and the Dragon. We used to sing this hymn called When a Knight Won His Spurs which is just about a very brave Knight killing a dragon, and when I was little I used to refuse to sing the bit about the Knight killing the dragon because it upset me so much.
A: You wanted the dragon to live!
S: I wanted the dragon to live! And then when I was older I started to question the legend more and obviously then I started to take issue with the passivity of the damsel in the George story and how she just stands there looking holy while George kills the dragon and that really got on my nerves after I discovered feminism. I wanted to write a dragon story for a very long time, in fact when I was 10 I started writing a novel called Inferno which is about dragons in Area 51, so yeah it was cooking for a long time. Then it really triggered when I started to research the history of the legend of George and the Dragon and I found out that it was deeply, deeply problematic in many ways. It’s not just sexist it’s also xenophobic and just a very, deeply ugly story.
A: I feel like a lot of people don’t really know.
S: They don’t. They know nothing at all and I didn’t either. But many, many aspects of Priory come from the George legend, so for example there’s this enchantress called Kalyba, or Kalyb in the legend, and I had never heard of her before I did that research and so I decided to expand on her character. When I read it I was just filled with this desire to tear it apart essentially so that’s what I did!
A: That’s interesting. It’s something that I’ve never really thought to research but maybe I need to look into.
S: I’ve actually written an essay about it that I can retweet again because it’s a really detailed essay about how I took aspects of it and where the legend comes from and stuff like that.
A: Were you nervous releasing this whole new story out to everyone?
S: Oh yeah, god, because I was only known for The Bone Season at that point and it was such a departure from The Bone Season both in terms of it went from first person to third person and it went from urban fantasy to epic fantasy, so it was like being a debut again because it was a totally different thing.
A: I suppose it was a whole different market.
S: And a whole different market! Priory is much adult, it’s more of a literary epic fantasy. The Bone Season more easily sits in the crossover section between YA and adult. I mean, some people have still said Priory is YA even though one of the main characters is nearly 70 years old.
A: It doesn’t read as YA either. It’s like ‘it’s got one teenage character in it so it must be YA’!
S: It’s got one teenage character in it! I don’t mind that, it just made me laugh a bit. So yeah it was like re-debuting and that’s how I felt the whole time as we were building up to publication because I mean a lot of people thought it was my debut because they hadn’t heard of me before.
A: I bet it was exciting as well to finally release this huge work.
S: I’ve been just talking about it for years. “Oh yeah I’m writing this dragon book… I’m still writing this dragon book… still going”. It’s still weird that it’s on shelves now, it’s very surreal.
A: Well it’s very exciting to have it, because it’s been built up and obviously being on book Twitter we’ve seen so much of it. I am, admittedly, a little bit scared but also really excited because everyone that I know who has read it has just had nothing but good things to say!
And my last question, because I want to give you some time before you have to come and to the panel, do you have any other highly anticipated reads for the rest of the year? Because I always like to have more books!
S: Oh god so many. I’ve just received an arc for a book called Kingdom of Souls by Rena Barron which is a West Africa inspired fantasy about a girl who starts to trade scraps of her lifespan for magic, which sounds really interesting. It literally just landed on my doorstep about two days ago and I’m very interested to start reading that.
I’m looking forward to reading We Set the Dark on Fire which I have with me I haven’t started it yet. I love The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s probably my favourite book, and it sounds like a sort of Handmaid’s Tale-esque dystopia and I always love dytopians that specifically explore feminist issues, so that one sounds really interesting. Ooh there are so many!
A: There are SO many good books coming out this year. I feel like I say that every year but there are!
S: It feels like there are more and more every year, like my to-read pile panics almost because I’ve just got so many.
A: I’m really looking forward to, I don’t know if you’ve read any of Margaret Rogerson’s books, she wrote An Enchantment of Ravens?
S: Oh I’ve seen that cover, it’s beautiful!
A: Sorcery of Thorns is coming out this year which is about a girl that works in a library which I was like “ok, that sounds like my kind of book, I don’t need to know any more”. I’m looking forward to that!
Huge thanks to Samantha Shannon for such an awesome interview. I had so much fun despite the whole glasses + steam scenario. Samantha was lovely and as you can see gave some really in depth and interesting answers which made the interview feel much more of a discussion rather than just a Q&A. I am beyond grateful to have had this opportunity and can’t thank Samantha, Philippa at Bloomsbury and Kimi at Waterstones enough for making this happen! Now, I need to read Priory…