Samantha Shannon at the Oxford Literary Festival

Published by Emma Lee-Potter in on Monday 30th March 2015

The Bone SeasonThe one thing that puzzles me about literary festivals is the way they stick several very different writers together under a title like Writers’ Roundtable and wait to see where the discussion goes.

That’s what happened at the Oxford Literary Festival last week when the organisers teamed up Samantha Shannon, Jesse Armstrong and Eliza Robertson.

They are a highly accomplished trio but as writers have very little in common. Samantha Shannon is the author of The Bone Season and The Mime Order, Jesse Armstrong is best known for writing Peep Show and Fresh Meat with his co-writer Sam Bain and Eliza Robertson won the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

The only common theme I could think of was the influence of their university years but that didn’t come up in the discussion at all. Samantha Shannon began The Bone Season (there will be seven books in the series) while she was an undergraduate at Oxford, Jesse Armstrong embarked on his writing career by doing an MA in novel writing at Manchester and Canadian writer Eliza Robertson is currently doing a PhD in creative and critical writing at the University of East Anglia.

That whinge aside, the writers gamely chatted for an hour, giving a bird’s eye view of how their careers have developed.

Samantha Shannon, who’s still only 23, said that she had always had a vivid imagination and “roughly” knows what’s going to happen in her series, the first two of which are set in Oxford and London. When she first submitted The Bone Season to her agent she wasn’t sure what her genre was. The main character, Paige, is 19 at the start of the series but even though that’s at the top of the YA age range “the audience is quite wide.” She has always been drawn to fantasy novels and liked the idea of “world building.” She got the idea for the series when she arrived in Oxford in 2010 and was so inspired by the city’s historic buildings that she thought they would be the perfect backdrop for a novel about a group of “elitist, supernatural creatures.”

Shannon revealed that it takes her six months to write the first draft of a novel and another six months for editing. She was due to finish her third novel the weekend after her appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival. Quizzed about her writing routine, she said she has “times when I am extremely prolific and times when nothing is happening. The whole process is a bit like looking after a child. You never see it in an emotionally clear way. You always think it’s the worst thing ever or the best thing ever.”

Eliza Robertson, whose collection of short stories, Wallflowers, has been highly praised, is now working on a novel. Meanwhile Jesse Armstrong was there to promote his first novel, Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals, which is out this week. The book is a laugh-out-loud comedy, set in 1994 and featuring a group of characters who set off for Bosnia in a Ford Transit van armed with several sacks of rice and a half-written play.

Armstrong agreed that the subject is “an unexpected area for comedy” and declared that writing prose is “more terrifying” than scriptwriting, largely because there’s no collaborator and while the number of words in a half-hour script is around 6,000 a novel is more than ten times that.

Leave a Reply