“Dystopian literature especially appeals to me because it’s a genre that lends itself well to exploring what it means to be human.” ~~Peng Shepherd
As I Wrote The Idea Grew
An interview with Peng Shepherd by B. Lynn Goodwin
Author Peng Shepherd starts The Book of M with a factual premise: There is a place in India, where shadows disappear in the marketplace one day a year. Then she launches into a fantasy on the East Coast of the United States. What if shadows began disappearing all over the world? What if memory dissolved when your shadow took flight? How would you cope and interact with the world? Who would keep you safe? Is there anything you could do to save yourself from death within the month? These are some of the questions Shepherd’s readers will ask themselves as they delve into a possible dystopian world that could make humans extinct.
In the Q and A below she talks about everything from speculative fiction to the writing process to an agent’s wise advice. Peng Shepherd is a wise woman offering excellent advice.
BLG: Tell me about the writing journey that brought you to this point. What attracted you to writing?
P.S: I’ve always loved writing! I used to write very short stories for my mother as early as kindergarten. I grew up on science fiction and fantasy, so there was always magic or some other strange element in my own early work (and probably always will be!). The older I got, the longer my ideas got—I enjoy reading short stories, and did manage to write a few and have them published, but it’s a difficult form for me to work in.
By high school, I had naturally gravitated to writing novels, although I spent those years, plus my time in university, compulsively beginning but not finishing anything. I definitely had the passion, but lacked the discipline.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I got really serious about it. I had no formal training in writing and thought that the structure of a program might help me learn how to finish drafts and revise them, so I applied to graduate school and attended NYU’s MFA in Creative Writing program. While in my second year there, the inkling of the idea for The Book of M came to me, but I didn’t start writing it until a year after I graduated.
BLG: Speculative fiction is a relatively new genre. How much is reality, how much is fiction, and how much pushes the boundaries?
PS: Speculative fiction could be described as a literary genre encompassing any fiction with supernatural, fantastical, or futuristic elements. What happens in a speculative story is fiction, of course, but what’s most important is that the speculative world and its unique aspects are real to the characters in it; and more importantly, the emotions those characters experience are also real.
Family is always family, love is always love, and hope is always hope. Sometimes, even for all its creative bells and whistles—or rather, because of them—speculative fiction can do a better job of getting to the heart of the human condition than a perfectly realistic story can.
BLG: How did you invent such an intricate, unique plot? Why does dystopian literature appeal to you?
PS: To use the popular terms, I think I’m more of a pantser than a plotter, so my plots come to me in tiny pieces that slowly weave together. When I first sat down to write The Book of M, I actually thought it was going to be a very slim, taut narrative about two married characters, set almost entirely in their small hideout! But as I wrote, the idea just grew. Other characters crept in, far off locations revealed themselves, and subplots started snaking off, begging to be followed.
Dystopian literature especially appeals to me because it’s a genre that lends itself well to exploring what it means to be human. By collapsing society, or imagining an entirely new system that functions so differently than our current laws and government, the characters can really explore the possibilities of who we could become.
How do you organize three plots and so many characters?
I was actually just discussing organization and planning with another writer friend who’s working on a post-apocalyptic novel himself. He’s very systematic about it; before even starting the first draft, he had outlines, timelines, excel spreadsheets, character notes, folders, etc.
I’m completely the opposite. I didn’t write an outline for The Book of M at all! I didn’t even have a timeline document until the last round of edits, when I quickly dashed one off for my editor to prove to her that all the events over the 3 years of the novel actually do make sense chronologically.
I sometimes wish I could use these kinds of tools from the start, but having extra planning material like that confuses me more than if I just hold it in my head. I think of The Book of M as one big plot rather than three smaller plots, but an outline and timeline would force me to divide the story up that way, which causes too much separation for me. But planning definitely does work for some writers (like my friend above). Whatever works for you is the best way.
BLG: I am so glad to hear you say that. You legitimize my process. Were you working through any of your own issues or problems as you wrote? How did the setting and circumstances help? How did you keep so many characters authentic?
PS: A lot of us wonder about the end of the world with some frequency—whether it’s just a bored daydream, or a response to a stressful day at a job we might not like that much, or a fantasy about experiencing more adventure or danger, or a desire to feel more acutely alive, or even a fear about what or who we might lose. Writing The Book of M made me think about these kinds of questions very intensely.
It takes anywhere from a few months to two years for me to finish a book, and it was eerie to inhabit this “end of the world” world I had created for so many hours a day for such a long time. I’d wake up and have my coffee and say goodbye to my husband as he went off to work, and then just disappear into a reality where there was no safety, no laws, people were vanishing, and dangerous magic was happening, and my characters were desperate to protect each other.
As for keeping characters authentic, I think it helps to always let each of them lead their story. Forcing a character to do something in service of the plot will always feel false or wooden, so whenever I came to a moment and the characters surprised me by wanting to do something I hadn’t anticipated, I trusted them and let them lead me.
BLG: What would you do if something happened to your memory? Do you see any threats to our memories in the real world today?
PS: It might sound corny, but I would start writing down everything I could, immediately! I don’t anymore, but I used to keep a diary, and it’s so fascinating to go back and read moments from that time. There are plenty of things I’ve forgotten and would never otherwise recall, but when I read a passage, it comes back with such vividness it almost feels like magic.
In our real world, I think there are definitely threats to our memories. The speed of our modern news cycle and the ease of our access to information is astounding. We have so much data streaming past us at every moment that it’s become a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s amazing and inspiring how accessible knowledge is, but on the other, it’s also becoming harder and harder to remember what it was that we have learned, because there’s so much new material clamoring for our finite attention and memory.
BLG: What is the best suggestion you ever got from an editor or agent?
PS: When The Book of M went on submission to agents, I was terrified, as is pretty common. One agent replied to tell me that he loved the novel, but wanted major changes before he could consider representing it—changes that would have made it a completely different story. But in that same email, he also told me that I didn’t have to listen to him. I didn’t have to make those huge changes—and most importantly, that if I didn’t agree with his ideas, it didn’t mean that I was wrong and he was right, or that the book wouldn’t be good if I didn’t rewrite it. That at the end of the day, it was my book, not my agent’s book, or my editor’s book, and so it had to be the book that I had wanted to write, not the book someone else had wanted me to write.
It sounds a little silly written down like this because it should be so obvious, but when it’s your first novel, you don’t have much experience, and can be so desperate for the approval of an expert or professional, you’re potentially very vulnerable to radical, book-changing suggestions. Later, you learn to accept that not everyone will connect with your book, and that it doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, just not the right book for that reader. But at that crucial moment, when I could have been talked into changing my book into something else, I’m very grateful that this agent didn’t use his clout to push me into a deal, but rather used his wisdom to give me valuable advice.
BLG: How did you find your agent and your publisher?
PS: I found my agent the old-fashioned way—querying! Once the final draft of The Book of M was nearly finished, I did a lot of research into which agents worked in my genre and represented other authors I love, and submitted my manuscript according to each of their guidelines. Once I had my agent, and we both felt manuscript was ready to go out on submission, she did the heavy lifting of pitching it to editors and negotiating the deal.
BLG: What are you working on now and where can readers learn more about you?
PS: I’m in the middle of the first draft of my second novel! I’m still figuring out exactly where it’s going, but having a lot of fun.
My website is www.pengshepherd.com, and readers can find me on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook @pengshepherd. I’m most active on Twitter!
Thanks for sharing your story with Writer Advice. You are an inspiring writer and we wish you all the best with The Book of M and your next novel.