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Autour de la saga

Interview with.. Samantha Shannon

Interview with.. Samantha Shannon

Pour la version française.

Dear international readers. Welcome on the French website La Garde de Nuit, a fansite for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. During the French fantasy convention « Les Imaginales », we had the wonderful opportunity to meet with the British bestselling author Samantha Shannon (The Priory of the Orange Tree, The Bone Season). We talked about her vision of Fantasy, and about her unique outlook on the work of George R.R. Martin. Interview was conducted in English, so we decided to publish our original transcript, as it might interest Fantasy fans all around the world. French version is available here. Sorry about the remaining mistakes the text might encompass… We hope you enjoy our patrol report ! And if you are learning French, don’t hesitate to go through our website, you’ll find lots of cool articles about ASOIAF 😉

GDN : So, first question : what’s your relationship to Game of Thrones and to George R.R. Martin’s work in general ?

I actually haven’t read any of the books but the first one.I heard about GRRM’s work through the show. So i’ve watched the whole show. I don’t think I watched it quite from the beginning but it was recommended to me by someone. So I think I probably started watching it from around when season 2 was starting. But I loved it, I was really fascinated by it. I think, based only on the first book (like I said I haven’t read the others), that it really is masterfully written, it’s really tightly plotted. And I really admire GRRM as a world builder because he builds very vast worlds but kind of delivers them in a very understandable way : it’s very accessible. I think with fantasy writing of any kind the great challenge is, when you build a large world, like how to convey it to the reader, cause you’re either going to confuse them or you’re going to overwhelm them. And I thought the first book did that very well. It just slowly builds your understanding of what’s happening. So yeah I’m a big fan of his.

I have actually met him as well. I met him in Adelaide in Australia a few years ago at the supernova convention. And I don’t remember a lot cause I was in kind of a haze. There were some Game of Thrones cast members there as well so I was slightly overwhelmed. I was like 21 or 22, I was absolutely terrified. I remember he was very nice though and I remember he had a very big signing queue.

GDN : Like your’s here !

Well… much bigger *laughs*
It was just very funny cause, you know, the rest of us, we had modest lines, we were mostly debut authors, and then George’s was out the door, around the building… THere was cosplaying. It was wonderful to see.

GDN : your book is new to the fantasy world in terms of feminine characters and presence. We were wondering if you deliberately wanted to cut from the old fantasy world, and for instance from Martin’s approach ?

I respect the work of the people who came before. I think what I was doing was perhaps a slightly different approach to Martin in terms of how I sort of discuss women in my work. Because I think some authors will show misogynistic worlds and they will show women overcoming the misogyny of the world. Like Daenerys for example, she keeps getting underestimated. Cersei is underestimated a lot. And I think the way that Martin and other authors do it is that they show all those women strength by, you know, giving them challenges like that. Where my approach is slightly different: I wanted to not have misogyny or sexism at all. So the women just get to exist and they just get to do things and there’s not people constantly going out saying “oh she can’t do that cos she’s a woman”.
So I think it’s just two different approaches and I think that especially when authors are inspired by history, they will often go with that route of having a sexist world, where you might see things like homophobia for example, using older rules. But I think it’s just two different approaches really. I respect what he’s (Martin) doing, I’m just doing something a little different in my corner.

The interesting thing is that I’m still inspired by history. People really talk about this relationship between fantasy and history and some authors will really stick to historical accuracy in terms of things like sexism. Whereas I didn’t feel like I was obliged to do that because it’s not history. It’s not a history novel, it’s a fantasy novel. You know : if I get a dragon, then I can definitely get rid of sexism. I like reading about stories like Daenerys where women are overcoming sexism and are destroying the men that are underestimating them all the time. There’s something empowering about that. But it can get a little tiring when you read the same thing over and over again, when every single time you open a book, it’s like “oh another world where women are being oppressed”. Sometimes I just want to read about women not being oppressed in fantasy, who are just respected for who they are.

There’s a book that I read when I was about 13 and it’s by an Australian author called Garth Nix and it’s called Sabriel. That was the first time I saw a woman in fantasy who was just respected, where nobody comments on her being a woman at all. And that is the fantasy that I prefer to write personally.

GDN : What you also do is you still have some obvious tropes from fantasy, like oppositions between east and west or the Chosen One and stuff like that, but you sort of play around with it.

Yeah I wanted to write a classic epic fantasy but I just wanted it to be focused on women and on a queer woman especially.

Like I said, when I was young, I was often seeing those kinds of fantasy novels about men, and they were quite straight. And I just wanted to see more of myself reflected in that. So it was intentional. It was basically the kind of story I wanted to read when I was a little girl.

Cause when I was little, I would really fixate on the women in those stories. Like LoTR : I loved Arwen, she was my favorite character, and before Arwen, I hadn’t really seen a woman do something like she does in the movies. Like when she faces the Nazgûl and that’s amazing to see. And I would always really fixate on the female characters, but they were never the center. It was always just side characters. So I wanted to write the book that would have made me happy when I was a kid. Where it was the women doing the cool stuff, slaying the dragon, taking power. And different ways of taking power. Some of them are more politically powerful, some of them can use a sword… Just lots of different types of women.

GDN : Your book is sold as YA in France (mettre une note de base de page pour contexte). Like you said, it’s the kind of book you would have wanted to read as a kid, but you also said it’s an adult book. How does it feel to be considered a YA author – that you’re not ?

It is interesting because my books are published as YA or adult depending on different countries. So Spain published the Priory of the Orange Tree as young adult for example. And I think maybe Brasil might be as well. Normally, I just let the country choose what they think is best for them, because I don’t know their audience the way they do. But when I spoke to my French publisher, he was like “you know we’ll publish it the way you wrote it”, which was as an adult book.

And to be honest, I didn’t think that a book with all of its characters being out of the YA age range, the question would be raised : because officially in America, YA is for 12 to 18, and the characters in Priory are 19, 26, 30 and 64, so quite a long way out of the YA range, and I was quite surprised when people shelved it as YA.

I don’t think it really matters, I love YA, I read a lot of YA myself. It’s more that I don’t want to set the expectation that this was written for teenagers. And it’s especially kind of a problem because YA is usually considered a subcategory of children’s fiction. I don’t mind my book being called teen fiction but it being called children’s fiction that’s a little bit different. Because it wasn’t written with children in mind. It’s violent, it’s a little bit sexy. So I don’t want people picking it up for their child ! That’s my main issue with it being called YA. If it was a category by itself, I’d be ok with it but it does bother me a bit when it’s called children’s fiction. That’s not why I wrote it. I really don’t think it’s suitable for kids.

And it is interesting with Martin because the kids in Game of Thrones, they are mostly quite young, Daenerys is like what ? 13 at the beginning of the 1st book, and the Stark children are all quite young. But I’ve never really seen him be classified as YA. Which is interesting. There’s a discussion about female authors being often put on shelves as YA, and it’s an interesting discussion, cause I do think it happens to female authors way more. It’s a really strange phenomenon. I can’t really explain it to be honest. It’s just the idea that maybe women can’t write so seriously.

GDN : Maybe it’s about the violence also. Because maybe the adult fantasy as we see it is very violent, and female written books are maybe more modern, with a different kind of violence. Differences in the approach.

Martin’s books are what I would call grim dark. Whereas I didn’t try to write a grim dark novel in Priory. Often grim dark tends to intersect with worlds that are more misogynistic, and so that tends to be called grim dark. But Priory is not set in a sexist world therefore it doesn’t really get called grim dark. It’s an interesting subject, and I don’t really have an answer to it. It’s just observations really.

GDN : In France, on the cover, your book is sold as a new Game of Thrones. How do you feel about that ?

It’s very flattering. It’s obviously lovely.
The thing with comparisons like that, is, I think : it’s always important not to take them seriously. Because it’s just a very simple way to sell a book to an audience who’s probably gonna like it. So GOT is the biggest fantasy around, especially the biggest fantasy with dragons. So it’s very easy to just say “Priory of the orange tree is a feminist GOT” or whatever. You might call it lazy in some respects. It’s a very superficial comparison, I really think that the 2 books are very different. But it’s just an easy way to say “ah you liked GOT, maybe you’ll like these dragons as well”. And when I first got a book deal – that was in 2012 for my first book The Bone Season – I spent the entire first year of my career being called the next JK Rowling before anyone had even read my book. The pressure was ridiculous. JKR is an actual billionaire and of course I wasn’t gonna sell that many copies. And it was really a very superficial comparison : there are both British women who are writing fantasy and that was it. I just don’t think that the book was that similar to Harry Potter at all. So I’m very aware of these comparisons. I just always say to people : don’t take them too seriously, it’s just a very very easy way to market a book.

GDN : Would you still say that there are some similarities with ASOIAF ?

Oh yeah for sure : dragons.
I also think that with this sort of binary conflict between Ice and Fire, I do a sort of similar thing with fire and water as two different types of magic. And yes, obviously dragons ! My dragons talk. His don’t. But I love talking dragons !

And then obviously big worldbuilding, with lots of different countries. I think we both draw from history quite a lot. I’m drawing from a slightly later period : I feel like Game of Thrones is more like a medieval period, whereas I was drawing more from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But we’re both certainly paying a lot of attention to history. Martin does quite a lot of research for his books. And I did too. I love history. But I wasn’t quite at the point where I wanted to write a historical novel. The amount of research one would have to do is mind boggling, especially if you were writing about multiple countries. You’d have to do years of research, really !
So I wanted to include my love of history in a fantasy novel. I decided to kind of write about historical events, but imagine “what would they be like in this world ?”, “how would have things happened differently in a secondary fantasy world ?”. So I did do a lot of research. But it was also nice to not have to stick exactly to the reasons, it was nice to kind of play with the bits of history I liked but leave out the bits I didn’t like.

GDN : And in your book, one of the main points is the difference between what happens and what history tells us about what happened.

Yes, very much so. The power of storytelling and the fact that a story told wrong can change the course of history. I was actually interested in religious conflicts. Because I had taken out a lot of things like sexism and homophobia, the main source of conflict in the books is religious conflict. So I was very interested in that. And I think GRRM does that as well. There’s a lot of Ancient mythology that he builds into GOT, and he’s clearly mirroring that within the context of the books.
That’s definitely something I tried to do. And I think you can tell a rich fantasy world by that : some fantasy worlds, I just feel like it’s just built for the character and the story. It doesn’t feel like the world really exists beyond where the character is going. Whereas I think with Martin fantasy world, you can really tell that there were characters who existed before. There’s 10 000 years of history and it doesn’t feel like it’s just being constructed for this story. It feels like this story is just one of many that could take place in that world. That’s an admirable thing for a worldbuilder.

GDN : Do you have some plans to adapt your books as TV series or movies ?

I’d love to. I can’t say anything about what’s going on with Priory, cause we have taken a very small step towards adapting it. But it’s at such an early point that I can’t really say anything. There’s nothing set in stone. My other series, The Bone season, we are developing for TV. I’m working with a screenwriter. Again it’s not guaranteed, it’s always a little bit fragile until it gets greenlit. But I’m working with a producer and we have a screenwriter working on screenplays, so that’s exciting.So hopefully, something will happen with both ! Things are happening that I can’t talk about anyway.

GDN : How is it to write with a screenwriter ? Is it different to write screenplays, is it hard for you ?

I did actually try to write a screenplay for the Bone Season and it was interesting : it’s a very different form of writing. I quite enjoyed it cause I like dialogues, and obviously screenplays are basically just dialogues with bits of description in there. But I actually found it quite hard not being able to describe things and not being able to do a character internal monolog. The thing about screenwriting is : I know when I’m writing a good piece of prose, I can feel that this is good or if I need to work on it more. With a screenplay, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad. I have literally no idea, I just don’t feel like I have the education to understand if what I’m writing is a good screenplay or not. So I’m always a bit nervous when I’m writing. I took it to Hollywood, we spoke to some studio people, and I got some praise for it. But I didn’t feel comfortable writing it in the end, because I’m too close to the story and I just don’t know if I’m the right person to adapt it. And I’m not an expert in what works on TV : I don’t have the education. Whereas I feel like giving it to an actual screenwriter is probably better. I don’t want my first screenplay to be my own book. I’d like to be more skilled before I try to do that. It’s definitely a different type of writing, I had fun, but I’m also glad that I’ve given it to somebody else now !

GDN : So you differ from GRRM in that regard : he wrote a screenplay per season until season 5 for GOT.

He has a lot more background in TV than I have, yes ! I do very much admire him for being able to adapt it.

GDN : Maybe giving up on your characters is hard also ?

A little bit yes. For me, it’s kind of the fun of selling it to TV. My own version of the story is the book. That’s the version I wanted to write, that’s the version in my head. Whereas with TV, I kind of like that it’s a team’s version of your book. We’re all working on it together. And I want to hear from other people on stuff like “What do you think the character would do in this situation ?”. Obviously there’s things that I would draw the line on. Like this or that has to happen for me to be comfortable. But I really like the idea of working with a team. And interestingly, with the screenwriter who was working on the Bones season, I’ve been giving feedback and the last thing I said was “you don’t have to stick this closely to the book ! Be free.” The book works as a book, and TV is a very different medium. Sometimes you do have to change stuff to make it work.

I’m fascinated by how GRRM must feel about the whole GOT TV project. The TV show got ahead of the books : I can’t even imagine how it must feel like, it must be so strange.

GDN : I guess it’s very stressful for him.

Yes I imagine !
I have some thoughts about the ending… I won’t express them. I mean… I really liked the show overall. I think it was a genuinely fantastic piece of television. Some of the dialogue in there was just extraordinary. For instance, the conversation between Jaime and Brienne in the bath : the intensity of that was just incredible ! Or Tywin’s Lannister dialogues : totally brilliant writing ! And I think the show was strongest when it was still sticking closely to the books, because so much of the dialogue was clearly from the books – and again I haven’t read all the books but it was clear. I feel like the point at which it didn’t have the books anymore, it started to go a little bit wobbly. I definitely prefer the earlier seasons for sure.

GDN : Do you have a favorite character ?

It’s difficult because I like so many of them for different reasons.
I’m tempted to say Daenerys, because you know, the dragons ^^ And I like aspects of her overall journey. She’s incredibly broken and powerless at the beginning and she rises to be very powerful. But then I didn’t like the ending in terms of Daenerys’s ending at all.
So I’m not sure : there’re so many great characters in GOT and I like so many of them for different reasons. Like :I love the Hound. I think he’s probably one of my favorites overall. I love everything about him, and I love that completely hilarious chicken scene. That’s honestly one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, it was insane.

But Tyrion is probably my favorite overall though. If I really had to choose. I just love him as a character. And I understand he’s quite different in the books, which is interesting. But I liked him very much in the first book. I think that he’s really empathetic. I love that he’s not perfect but he was my choice for the Iron Throne. I was really quite upset with the outcome of that ! But at least Tyrion is alive, that’s all I can ask. I really worried he was going to be killed. So I was like “okay I will just accept that Tyrion is alive and I’m happy with that. I have to be at peace with that.”

GDN : To go back to your own work. How do you regard the translations of your books ? Do you follow it closely ? How does it go ?

It’s difficult for me to know obviously, because I don’t speak French. So I kind of have to trust other people. It’s a strange thing, translation, because you just don’t know what people will be doing with the book, and you have to have a good trust with your publisher to know that they’re getting the right person. And it is interesting because sometimes the translator will not contact you at all. That’s always a bit strange because I normally assume they’re gonna need some kind of input from me because my books are quite weird and complicated, and the langage I use is often a little bit strange. I use old-fashioned language for example. So some of my translators really keep in very close touch with me. I use Victorian slang in my novel “The Bone season” and my Czech translator actually found an old fashioned Czech slang, and she uses that instead, which I thought was a really cool idea because obviously that would work for the Czech audience much more than it would for the Victorian slang. But then some translations just land in front of me and I’m like “oh okay I didn’t even know that was being translated yet!”. I kind of prefer it when the translator asks me about my book. I make it clear that I’m available to talk to if they want to. My French translator was actually in close contact with me. We have a very long history, my French translator and I : I was originally published in France in 2013, and the book kind of sank, nobody really read it, it wasn’t really marketed or anything. And I have a new publisher now, who relaunched my whole backlist in French, but I had the same translator. So I was like “oh hi it’s you again !”. And he is great. Especially because one of the books is set in France so we had this interesting thing where I was discussing what I was doing with French in the book. Because I had to make some changes just based on worldbuilding : the genderedness of the langage, for instance,, I had to look at that as the world just didn’t suit that basically. SO then we had to discuss how it was going to work in English and then how it’s going to work in French.

So I like being in touch with the translators. I don’t want to be breathing down their neck, I don’t want to say “oh you have to do this like this” : I don’t know the language, I don’t know the country, there could be a whole list of things that I just don’t understand. But I’m available to them if they want to speak to me. And it’s always nice when I can meet them and chat with them. They are doing brilliant work, and I think they need to be paid more.

GDN : That’s funny cause Martin actually has no contact at all with his translators.

It’s interesting that they wouldn’t have to ask him though ! I feel that there are elements to his work that would need context for translation maybe. For example the word Dracarys : that feels to me like it’s based on the latin word Draco. I guess that would be easy to just put into a translation but maybe not. I think it’s interesting that he doesn’t have contacts with the translators. For the Priory of the Orange Tree for example, we had an interesting one where I wrote a song but it was in old English.So then the translators had to contact me, and were like “Okay what does this actually means ?”. Then some of them wrote it in an old version of their language. I think it uses some old French in the French translation. So I find it interesting to talk to them. But I also understand Martin just giving it to them and trusting them. You just have to hope you get the good translator basically. It’s interesting cause obviously you do want it to sound natural in the language that you use, overwise it sounds quite stilted. It’s a mix of being faithful and using your own creativity so I can see how it can be controversial. But I don’t get a lot of feedback about it, I guess since I don’t speak the language, people complain directly to the publisher if it’s the case.

GDN : You’re British so you’re able to write for a huge audience of english-speaking people. But is it difficult to work in an american-dominated publishing world ?

Obviously I’m lucky that I’m in the anglo sphere. I can write in my native language and I have the privilege that many people will be able to read it regardless of whether it’s being translated. But indeed I would say that the publishing industry is still quite american dominated. Aand it’s interesting to see things like the New York Times bestseller list : you don’t often see British authors on there, which is quite interesting because it’s in the same language and often they are published over there. But I think it’s probably easier for Americans : they can go to festivals more easily, they can get to the book shops more easily. It’s maybe just that sense of connection across America. But I’m certainly not going to say that it is terribly hard to be British ! I’m still able to reach an international audience quite easily. But I am very very grateful to my translators because it’s incredible to know that your words are being taken and just reaching people that you could never ever read by yourself. Just being in France now it’s just like a dream come true : it’s wonderful. I love France. It’s amazing being able to come here and know people can read my books in their native language, or in english. It’s a wonderful thing.

But yeah, overall I’d still say that publishing is a bit America dominated. It depends on the genre. I feel that YA is particularly American dominated. It is taking off in other places, it’s taking off in Britain. But often, British publishers when they do YA will promote American YA rather than pushing British YA. I guess it’s because they know it’s already famous and well known, so it’s easier to push what’s already selling. But AMerica has more YA festivals, much more YA published, I think they get more of a marketing budget as well. It’s just bigger in America.

GDN : We get kind of the same in France with English written books being pushed more by publishers than the ones by French authors.

I can imagine it’s really frustrating. I’ve met some French authors, and their books sound amazing, but it’s not translated in English, so I can’t read them. So annoying !

GDN : Do you plan on reading the next ASOIAF books ?

Yes ! I recognise the irony of me saying this because I write books that are very long, but it’s a little bit long, and at the moment my brain is only digesting short books. Especially since the beginning of the pandemic : first of all I just stopped being able to read digital books, and then I needed to read short books. They’re was so much happening in the world, it’s hard to concentrate. I would like to go back to big books. I would really like to read the next one, cause I’ve heard it’s a really good installment. And I miss Tyrion ! I know he’s more complex and morally gray, so I’m interested to see book Tyrion versus show Tyrion.

GDN : What other influences do you have ? You told us about Sabriel.

Yes Sabriel by Gath Nix. Basically, like I said, he kind of reinvigorated my interest in fantasy when I was a kid.

Who else ? Margaret Atwood was a big influence. Not so much for Priory but just for my books in general. Because I didn’t really know about feminism before Margaret Atwood. I read the Handmaid’s Tale when I was about 18 and that was a really big influence on me.

Tolkien as well, especially in terms of language. I was very intimidated though : I was asked by the Guardian newspaper to do a review of an exhibition on Tolkien, and so I went, and you could see he drew this incredible tree of tongues. He studied how all of the different languages developed. And it was really intimidating because I kind of play with old languages to make names for characters, and I thought myself pretty cool, and then I looked at Tolkien. He was inventing languages when he was 15 ! It’s intimidating but inspiring. So, in terms of language, he’s one of my big influences as well.

There’s others that I completely love. I really like NK Jemisin’s work : the fifth season is one of the best fantasies I’ve ever read. I don’t even want to read the sequels yet, because I’m scared to finish it. It is also how I felt about Lany Taylor’ Strange The Dreamer, I just didn’t want to finish that duology. I feel really lucky to be in a Golden Age of fantasy at the moment. And especially in terms of more diversity, way more women writers, and writers of color, and queer authors : it feels like a good time to b writing fantasy. It’s just so cool to be working with so many amazing authors who are doing such amazing things.

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