Saturday, March 26, 2022

Peng Shepherd

Peng Shepherd was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where she rode horses and trained in classical ballet, and has lived in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, London, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, and Mexico City.

photo credit: Rachel Crittenden
Her first novel, The Book of M, won the 2019 Neukom Institute for Literary Arts Award for Debut Speculative Fiction, and was chosen as a best book of the year by Amazon, Elle, Refinery29, and The Verge, a best book of the summer by the Today Show and NPR On Point, and was optioned for television by Twentieth Century Studios.

Her second novel, The Cartographers, was named a Pick of the Month by Good Morning America, Real Simple, Bustle, The Millions, and Goodreads, a best book of the month by Amazon, Apple, and Buzzfeed, as well as an “Indie Next” Independent Bookstores Pick and a “Book of the Month” Book Club Pick.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Titles are so important to me. As a reader, I’ve bought books based off of just the title. It’s your first glimpse into the story, sometimes even before the book cover, and it sets the tone for everything. Even with a title as simple as The Cartographers, it already tells you that this book 1) is about maps or mapmaking, 2) probably has dark academia vibes, and 3) it’s also the name of a group of seven friends within the novel, so once you reach them in the story, you know that they’ll be a very important part of the plot.

Sometimes I come up with a title for my work in progress right away, and sometimes it comes later, but I will spend the entire drafting and revision process nitpicking my tentative choice and coming up with lists of alternatives, to make sure it’s perfect.

What's in a name?

The sound of it is the most important thing. Does it sound strong, weak, graceful, intelligent, funny, sweet, etc… I want a name to match a character’s personality, as well as harmonize with the rest of the names in the book. And I have to know a character’s full name, even if I only use part of it in the text. Often, in one of the last drafts, I’ll change one or two of the names before sending the final manuscript in, which always makes my editors’ last reads very entertaining.

I chose the name “Nell Young” for the main character of The Cartographers because “Nell” gives me the impression of a very bright, studious, determined person, which is exactly my Nell’s personality. Interestingly, once the book went on sale in mid-March, I’ve since received a lot of messages from real-life Nells who loved seeing a main character named after them, so it’s been really fun to read those!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings are so much easier than endings—but oddly, once I write an ending, which usually occurs very early on in the first draft, it never changes. But the beginning will change a lot in every revision. I’ll often go through three or four different potential beginnings before settling on one. Maybe it’s because at the beginning of the story, there’s so much possibility, and you can really go anywhere you like. But with an ending, everything that comes before has to be building to that satisfying, meaningful moment. It has to feel somehow inevitable, even if it’s unexpected. By that point, if you’ve done your job well, there are far fewer ways an ending could turn out than a beginning.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

A lot of travel, which is always so refreshing and helps refill the creative well, and also a lot of video games. I love movies and TV shows too, but there’s something really fun about being in a lush new environment, but instead of just watching a character explore, you actually get to do that exploring yourself, in whatever direction or order you want to go.
Visit Peng Shepherd's website.

Writers Read: Peng Shepherd (June 2018).

--Marshal Zeringue