Peng Shepherd’s post-apocalyptic epic is elegaic in tone and striking in its originality. Most dystopias are a thought experiment in climate change scenarios, nuclear war devastation, or mass contagion. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd offers a mythic departure from these well-worn approaches, choosing a magical devastation instead: around the world, people have begun to lose their shadows—and with them, their memories.
I recently spoke to Shepherd about her magical approach to apocalypse, her literary inspirations, and more.
What was the genesis of The Book of M?
It all started with shadows. I really wanted to write a book that had something to do with shadows either disappearing or coming alive or something eerie like that, and had been trying for a while, but the ideas never came out right. Something was missing. I went back to the drawing board, and started researching the concept of shadows across cultures’ art and folktales, thinking that maybe what was missing was a link to the real world, and that’s when I came across the real life phenomenon in India known as Zero Shadow Day, when for a few brief moments, everyone’s shadows there actually do disappear. It sounds like something out of a fantasy novel, but it’s completely true. As soon as I read that, I knew it was my link to the real world, and the way into the story.
Post-apocalyptic fiction is on the rise, but it tends to be inspired by scientific and political concerns—climate change, plagues, nuclear war. The Book of M is unusual in exploring a post-apocalyptic landscape determined by elements that border on the mythic, even possibly magical. Much of the story takes its tone from this choice, with the world taking on a fantastical edge as people’s distorted memories change the landscape around them. Can you talk about your decision to take a more fantastical approach to a post-apocalyptic future?
I love reading post-apocalyptic fiction, especially when it’s combined with something otherworldly or possibly fantastical. The world we live in now is so regulated, on every front—money, data privacy, security, surveillance, even social media. These things seem so pervasive and impossible to escape that I wonder if maybe it sometimes feels like the only way we could imagine it all collapsing so completely is through magical means—that these systems have become so advanced and interconnected that maybe only something supernatural could ever be strong enough to free us from their control.
Often when we work in a tradition or genre, there’s an impulse to do something different, deliberately. Were there elements common to post-apocalyptic fiction that you wanted to avoid in your own work?
When writing the initial draft, I actually didn’t think about it at all! I’m definitely more of a pantser than a plotter or outliner, so I find that in the beginning, because I know very little about what’s going to happen in the story, trying to put constraints on it ahead of time makes it very difficult for me to write. So I just give myself permission to try anything and everything, and then see what of that works and what doesn’t when I go back through to revise.
Upon revision though, which is where I can think about the project from the outside a little better, the only two common elements of the genre I consciously wanted to avoid were 1) the killer virus/flu pandemic as a trigger for the fall of civilization (no problem there) and 2) a cult that rises from the ashes (oops, that one made it in). But as worried about falling into tropes with the cult as I was, it also felt wrong to take it out. If the world was devastated and only a few survivors were left to rebuild from the ashes, I think there would just be no escaping a few cults. Humans need something to believe in and some kind of hope to cling to in difficult times, and post-apocalyptic cults, when you strip away the costuming and drama from whatever story they’re in, feel like a very true expression of that need in all of us. So I ended up leaving the cult!
Love and memory are deeply intertwined in The Book of M, and stripped to its essentials, that seems to be what this epic novel is about. What drew you to these particular themes?
It’s really hard to write about memory without touching on love, or about love without touching on memory. The two concepts are very closely linked. When I first started drafting the book, I was mostly concerned with what losing one’s memory would do to the characters as individual people—would they still be themselves or not? But the more I wrote, forcing those characters into situations time and time again where they had to choose between keeping their memories or giving some of them up in exchange for something else, I found that in most of the instances when they did give them up, they weren’t giving them up to win something for personal gain, but rather giving them up to save someone they cared about—even as they lost the parts of themselves that connected them to that loved one in the first place. Love in that moment was simply more important. And that led me to the question, could you still love without your memories, or conversely, could your memories alone keep that love alive, even if nothing else was left? At the end of writing the book, it made me think that maybe even though love and memory are closely linked, one of them does transcend the other.
Does New Orleans have a special place in your heart, as it does in the novel?
It does now! The novel is what made it special to me. At the time that I was writing the first draft, trying to figure out where the characters were all heading, I needed a place that felt strong and resilient so that it could have survived the apocalypse, but also vibrant enough to be able to support and sustain the magic in the novel. Once I realized that, New Orleans just felt inevitable. It’s a city with a long, rich history and unique culture, but even more than that, it’s a city that really symbolizes hope and survival. Several times in its history, New Orleans or its heritage or people have faced seemingly impossible obstacles or adversity, and every time, New Orleans has triumphed. I hope I’ve conveyed that spirit of the city in the book.
Who are your literary influences?
Ursula K Le Guin has always been and will probably always be my greatest influence, as a writer and a woman. Her books are some of my favorite in all the world, both because they’re breathtakingly wonderful and because they helped pave the way for many of us who have come after her. I also love the work of China Miéville, NK Jemisin, Lev Grossman, and Jeff VanderMeer. Their science fiction and fantasy is so imaginative and unique, but always has one toe in the real world, whether it’s through the location or an event or the science, which makes it feel that much more believable and immersive to me.