The end of the world in Peng Shepherd’s debut novel The Book of M begins on Zero Shadow Day, a holiday celebrated in parts of the world when the earth’s rotation causes all shadows to disappear for a few minutes each year. Shepherd imagined what might happen if some of the shadows didn’t come back, setting off a mysterious plague that causes people across the globe to lose their shadows and then their memories. As more of the world forgets what a deer should look like or what happens when a gun fires, those things start to change, making everything more dangerous for the shadowed and shadowless alike. Shepherd spoke to Unbound Worlds about her fascination with shadows, the importance of names and what she’d pack if she has to leave Earth.
Unbound Worlds: What interests you about memory?
Peng Shepherd: My interest in the book didn’t start with memory. It was more about the shadows. As I started working, I felt like people couldn’t just lose their shadows. It had to mean something to lose your shadow. It had to cost something. I was thinking as I was writing “What is also like a shadow? What is something about a person that seems really integral and permanent?” What I came up with was memory. If you lost either one of those things, would you be yourself anymore? That’s how that connection came about?
UW: Where did the idea for people losing their shadows come from?
PS: I think I have always thought they were really cool and eerie. I remember being a kid when I didn’t really understand how shadows worked I used to play games with my shadow. I’d try to outrun it or trick it. I’d see if I could do something to catch it off and have it would do something different from me. After growing up I understand how shadows work and that it’s impossible for me to do that, but the idea and magical feeling that it could have done something different stayed. I always wanted to do something with that.
UW: How long did you live in Washington, D.C. and what was it like writing about its destruction?
PS: I lived there a little over two years. I don’t want to say it was fun because I was destroying the world, but it was fun. The two main characters are hiding out in an abandoned hotel, but the whole time I was imagining them being in my tiny old apartment. To this day, when I picture those scenes I still picture my apartment.
UW: Indian culture, Hindu mythology and a pair of elephants play a big role in the book. How much research into those did you do?
PS: I did a little. I wanted to make sure that I was as accurate as I could be. I read a couple of the myths and I researched quite a lot about the elephants to make sure I got their details right. I also did some research on Zero Shadow Day, which is a much more modern thing that also happens in India.
PS: How did you decide to integrate Zero Shadow Day?
UW: It was really the thing that kicked [the book] off. Until I read about that, I just had this idea that I wanted to do something about shadows because I thought shadows were cool but I didn’t have a story. I didn’t have characters. I was kind of spinning my wheels. I would write stuff and throw it away and write stuff and throw it away. I decided to go back to researching because I realized it wasn’t ready. Then I stumbled upon Zero Shadow Day and that’s what made me have a story.
UW: How did you decide to connect the loss of memory with the ability to do magic?
PS: It’s already kind of magical to lose your shadow and that’s causing you to lose your memories. I thought about what it would be like if you were a person in that situation, you were having pieces of you pulled away slowly and were still lucid enough to know that you were missing things but not know what you were missing, or maybe you know what you’re missing but not how it should be. When that happens in our own real life, usually we try to make something up to substitute or to explain it. I think that’s a really human, natural thing to do. I thought if you were in this magical, surreal situation where you were losing memories and then you were trying to replace them yourself what would happen? The magic ended up being that whatever you tried to replace it with by misremembering would kind of manifest that new thing.
UW: How did you keep track of your cast of characters and keep them feeling distinct and real?
PS: I kind of wrote one at a time for the four points of view in the book. As I was revising, I’d do a revision for each person and read only that point of view all the way through. That helped me make sure that they felt like a real, complete person because [the book] does jump back and forth so much.
UW: You have two love stories within The Book of M. How did you try to reconcile the way relationships work and the end of the world as we know it?
PS: It felt like it went together to me. If you were struggling not to lose your husband or your wife it kind of feels like the end of the world so the two situations felt like they mirrored each other really naturally and I just kind of went with it.
UW: How did you try to tie identity to names?
PS: That was really important to me. There are a couple of shadowless characters who, as they start to forget themselves, decide to give up or have already forgotten their names they used to have like Jennifer or Michael and they start going by a word that they think will remind them of the thing that means the most important to them. One renames himself Played Violin and another one renames himself Wifejanenokids. I think they just realize their names didn’t actually mean that much to them and it was other things in their lives that did. If they could hold onto something it wouldn’t actually be their name, it would be who they were.
UW: What made you decide to make New Orleans a very important destination for the book?
PS: There’s a fair amount of magic in the book and a lot of weird and wonderful stuff that happens and even through it starts in India, most of the action in the later story takes place in the U.S. When I realized as I was writing that a good chunk of the story was going to be set in the U.S. it just kind of felt inevitable, in a good way. There’s no other place that such magical strange things could happen in the U.S.
UW: Was being an author part of the inspiration for making the saving of books so important to the characters?
PS: I don’t know if it has to do with me as an author or just me as a reader. I love books so much. If I was in that sort of situation or on a spaceship leaving Earth for the last time, books are some of the things I would put in my tiny, tiny backpack of the only things I was allowed to take.
UW: What are you working on now?
PS: It’s a big mess. I have started a second novel but I’m still in the really early stages and it’s also a learning process for me. I’ve never written a novel while having another one come out. It’s been difficult to figure out how to divide my time and control my nervousness and excitement about the first book so I can focus on the second book. I am really excited about it and I hope to be able to finish the first draft soon.