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The next literary sensation
Being hailed as “the next J.K. Rowling” might weigh heavily on the shoulders of some. But as a 20-year-old student who hasn’t yet seen her name on a book cover, Samantha Shannon has more pressing issues.
Yesterday there was an essay on The Winter’s Tale to complete and tomorrow King Lear awaits her attention.
Landing a six-figure deal with Bloomsbury to write three books has already made this undergraduate a talked-about figure in both the world of publishing and St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she is a second-year English student.
But it turns out there is more, much more. Her urban fantasy is set in the Oxford of 2059 and she expects to be exploring this dangerous and nightmare world for the next 10 years or more — for her debut dystopian novel, The Bone Season, will be the first in a series of seven.
Bloomsbury — who, yes, are the publishers of the seven Harry Potter novels — promise us “a unique literary voice” delivering “a fully conceived, terrifying parallel world and a narrative pace that grips like a vice”.
And in a further demonstration of faith in their young signing, her publisher adds: “It marks the arrival of an extraordinarily talented British writer set to challenge the worldwide bestseller list domination of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games.”
Readers will not be able to judge for themselves until September, 2013, with editors still at work on The Bone Season.
But despite the demands of her Oxford University tutors — and William Shakespeare — she reveals that she has already completed the first five pages of the second book.
“I am in love with each and every character,” she says. “I’m in love with the story. Every writing session has been enjoyable. It is something I can look forward to — some peace and quiet after a busy day.
“I suffer from creative insomnia and often write late into the night.”
But she still tries to somehow ensure she gets seven hours’ sleep.
Such obsessive dedication to this futuristic world-of-her-own will come as no surprise to members of her family. They saw it long before Oxford and publishing deals.
At the age of 15, while a schoolgirl in West London, Samantha began work on her sci-fi romantic epic, Aurora.
The story — intended to be part of a trilogy — became an obsession, even impacting on her health.
She would write in her breaks at school, as soon as she arrived home and inevitably into the early hours.. “I was too exhausted to wake up in the morning,” she recalled. “I had panda eyes. I was pale and sickly. I shunned contact in favour of my computer and notebooks.”
Sometimes she would spend up to 15 hours hunched over her keyboard. Little wonder her mother urged her to go out more with friends.
Looking back, Samantha believes that she suffered from “social anxiety”, being painfully self-conscious about having to wear braces, only dispensing with them recently.
But there was more to it than teenage angst.
Samantha, the daughter of a Met Police officer who later retired to Banbury, wanted to see her story in print.
Aurora was sent to publishers. The letters of rejection left her in despair, with her mother eventually hiding the refusals to spare her.
“I’d never even considered the possibility,” she said. “In my eyes, three years of my life had gone down the drain.”
She even took an internship with a literary agent, reading book reports and other people’s stories to try to find out why she had failed. Aurora was consigned to history but at Oxford she dedicated herself to The Bone Season, only this time keeping quiet about her writing.
It is the story of a teenage clairvoyant named Paige Eva Mahoney, who suddenly entered her head one rainy morning, a character condemned to operate in the criminal world of London. She is attacked, abducted and taken to a futuristic version of Oxford.
“I chose Oxford because I know it well and it is a small enough city for me to be able to redesign it.”
It is a vastly different place to the place where she lives, only the shell of the university remains and it has become a prison city that has been kept secret for decades.
Not so much J.K. Rowling, as the new Philip Pullman, I suggest.
“I’ve never read Pullman,” she replies. “I have been told about him many times since I came to Oxford. I’m now conscious of the Pullman hotspots in the city like the Botanic Garden. I believe his books are set in a parallel universe, not a future universe. So it is not the same approach.”
Her big break came when her tutor urged budding writers at the college to submit their work to Ali Smith, the Man Booker short-listed author and a visiting professor of literature.
The author loved it, admiring its “huge vision” and urged her to submit her book to publishers. An agent was soon pitching it to publishers.
Others offered more money but she felt happiest with Bloomsbury, who have encouraged her to maintain a blog that takes her followers through every stage of publishing a first novel.
One of the aims was to encourage other writers to keep going. It certainly seems to have had some impact at St Anne’s College, where a number of students have begun work on novels.
Things went “pretty viral” she admits after national news stories appeared tipping her to follow in the footsteps of the Harry Potter author.
“Of course I’m not the new J.K. Rowling,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with the old one. My book is very different from Harry Potter.”
But like Rowling, she does admit to having mapped out the entire adventure in her head, already knowing how the seventh book will end. Nor does she rule out the possibility of her books one day being turned into a film series.
“It would be amazing having tangible characters and see them as people,” she said. “I try to write it in a way that feels like they are real people who I can picture in my head.”