The Big Idea: Shannon Fay
Location, location, location: Often where an author is can inform the stories that they eventually choose to tell. Location mattered for Shannon Fay for her novel Innate Magic… and not just because of the landmarks.
A big inspiration for Innate Magic came from London itself. I wanted to show what it is like to be cash-poor and time-rich in a place that has so much to offer but costs so much to live in.
I moved to London in the spring of 2015 with nothing but a suitcase and backpack. About a month into this grand adventure, my suitcase was stolen. I had no clothes but what I was wearing, no job lined up, and nothing but a cache of weak Canadian dollars which were dwindling by the day. But I was ecstatic. So what if I couldn’t afford to take the tube and had to bus everywhere—the top flight of a double decker offered the best view of the city anyway. So what if my job was a zero-hours contract café gig—I got free food. So what if most of my pay cheque went to the exorbitant rent I was shelling out for half a room in an overcrowded house—the museums and galleries were free.
Eventually I got a job at the National Portrait Gallery, which was a godsend—I was much better at giving talks about paintings than I was at making lattes (to everyone whose order I got wrong, I’m sorry. I had no clue what I was doing). At the NPG, I learned so much about British history, which inspired me to set my historical fantasy novel in 1950s England. In the UK, the post-war years were a time of scarcity. Rationing was still in place late into the 1950s, and many cities were still rebuilding after the damage done by the blitz. Even though it was over fifty years ago, I felt many of the same issues were still resonant with present-day London—the concern about smog and pollution, constant construction, the friction that comes from so many people living so closely together.
At the gallery, one portrait that caught my eye was Cecil Beaton’s oil painting of a man called John Vassall. John Vassall was a gay man who, in the 1950s-1960s, was blackmailed by the KGB into handing over British naval secrets. At the time gay men were very much prosecuted in England, another example of this being when the codebreaker/mathematician Alan Turing was convicted of indecency after it came out that he slept with other men. For myself, a white cis woman living in the year 2015, London was one of the first places where I felt comfortable enough to be out as a queer person—I have a lot of happy memories of the talks and events I did with the gallery’s LGBT+ Employees Network. But even today gay people are still harassed in the city, and transgender people in particular have to deal daily with being vilified by the media.
The main character of Innate Magic, Paul Gallagher, is queer—specifically, bi, like I am. Growing up I had so rarely seen people like me in the books I read, so I wanted to put that into the world. Paul might live in a time and place that is hostile to him, but being an optimist, he weathers it the best he can, focusing on the people he loves rather than the people who hate him.
In Innate Magic, the main character Paul deals with many of the same things I went through while living in London. Like I did, he shares a room with his best mate. Every jaunt across the city comes with the calculation of how much it will cost. Food is precious. But despite his meagre living, Paul loves London. For him it is a city full of opportunity, a place where a Liverpool lad like him can learn magic and maybe even rise up in the world.
But it’s not as easy as just showing up. For all it has going for it, London does take a toll on you, and by the time my two-year visa was up, I was ready to leave. But London will always by one of my favorite places in the world. In Innate Magic, I tried to do justice to it, both its good and bad, what it offers and what it asks of you in return.