When we consider novels about the apocalypse, we usually think of science fiction or dystopian sci-fi. But while those genres are applicable to Peng Shepherd’s debut novel, The Book Of M (hardcover, Kindle), in the following email interview about it, she revealed that her post-apocalyptic tale also has elements of fantasy, mystery, and thrillers as well.
I always like to start with a summation of the plot. So, what is The Book Of M about?
The Book Of M is set in the near future, and it’s about a mysterious phenomenon that’s causing people’s shadows to disappear all over the world, with terrifying effects. Those who lose their shadows gain magical abilities, but at the cost of a memory every time they use that magic, which plunges the world into chaos.
The story follows a husband and wife, Ory and Max, who have survived unscathed for two years by hiding…until at the beginning of the book, Max’s shadow suddenly disappears and they have to decide if they’re going to keep hiding or if they’re going to confront the nightmarish land outside in the hope of saving her.
Where did you get the idea for The Book Of M and how different is the finished novel from that initial concept?
The bookwas actually inspired by a real-life phenomenon known as Zero Shadow Day. It turns out, every year on a certain day in India, everyone’s shadows actually do disappear — for just a few minutes. When I read that, it was so fascinating, I couldn’t resist writing about it.
Looking back on it now, I’d say a little over half of the story is still very close to the original concept, but the biggest difference was that there was no magic — aside from shadows disappearing — in the first draft. In its final current form, it’s chock full of it.
Obviously, The Book Of M is a science fiction story. But are there any subgenres of sci-fi, or combinations of them, that you feel apply to this book as well? Because the whole “shadow disappearing” aspect makes it sound like there’s a bit of fantasy in the mix.
I definitely agree that there’s some fantasy in the mix. The book is actually being classified in a lot of different ways depending on the bookstore, which is kind of neat because it must mean the story has elements of all of those genres. So far, I’ve seen post-apocalyptic, dystopian, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and even thriller.
That’s cool. So, as you said, The Book Of M is set after an apocalyptic tragedy. In deciding how you’d depict this world, and how things would work in it, what post-apocalyptic depictions in books did you take influence from and why them?
I think the biggest literary influence on The Book Of M was probably The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin. It’s a beautiful book. In her apocalypse, there’s one man whose dreams sometimes come true, which is a terrifying scenario because we’re not able to choose our dreams, good or bad. Things start to spiral out of control when a psychiatrist trying to convince the man he’s delusional starts believing in his powers too. But instead of helping “cure” him, he decides to use him to bring about what he thinks might be a better world. The mastery with which Le Guin slips in and out of the dream and the waking world is mesmerizing, and the desperation the dreaming man feels is so raw and genuine. Every time I read it, I learn something new about craft.
Speaking of influences, are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on what you wrote in The Book Of M or how you wrote it, but not on anything else you’ve written?
Probably not. I think influence is a very deep, lingering thing that stays with you for a long time and inspires all of your work, even the things that aren’t stylistically similar. Writing is such an intricate art, and there are so many aspects to it: story, character, voice, description, rhythm…at least for me, if a writer or story is impactful enough to influence me for one book, it’s going to be a source of inspiration in some way for all my books.
How about non-literary influences, such as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of them have a big impact on The Book Of M?
Yes! For movies, I thought a lot about Inception. That film has such breathtaking surreal dream scenes, and my heart was in my throat for the characters the whole time. I imagined the magic in The Book Of M as very similar to the dream environments and events in Inception when I was writing; logical but slightly off, beautiful but terrifying.
I also found the video game Shadow Of The Colossus really inspiring. The reasons behind what’s happening in the story remain mysterious, and the landscape is mostly empty, but that made my emotional connection to the characters all the more intense.
And this is my last “influence” question, I promise: Prior to writing The Book Of M, you earned an MA in International Studies And Diplomacy from the University Of London, and worked in the private security industry in Washington D.C. and London. How, if at all, did those experience influence elements of The Book Of M?
It probably did influence the book a little. Not so much specific events, but rather I think knowing about and seeing what the people who lived in some of the countries where we operated had to suffer made me think more deeply about what it would be like to be trapped in a very dangerous environment and worry for yourself and the people you love, and what I might do and how far I might have to go to protect them. That reflection fed into The Book Of M, although in a much more fantastical way.
Now, as you may know, some sci-fi and fantasy novels are self-contained stories, while others are part of larger sagas. Which is The Book Of M?
I think of it as a self-contained story, though I’ve had quite a few readers ask me when the sequel is coming. I’m torn, because I love the characters, and the story definitely could continue — there is so much more of the world to be explored — but there’s also something to be said for allowing an ending to remain a little open and letting the reader draw their own conclusions.
We talked earlier about the movies, TV shows, and video games that influenced The Book Of M. But has there been any interest in adapting this novel into a movie, show, or game?
There have been some rumbles, but I think I can’t say more than that at this point. I’m not sure the book would lend itself to becoming a game very well, but a movie or a TV show would be fantastic. I’d love to see how the magic and the shadowlessness could be brought to life in a visual medium.
If The Book Of M does get adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you like to see them cast in the other main roles?
There are so many great choices, but I think either John Cho [Star Trek] or Steven Yeun [The Walking Dead] would play the character of Ory really well. They’re both so talented, and would capture the very fine line between fear and love that Ory walks throughout the book. For Max, someone like Zoe Saldana [Guardians Of The Galaxy] or Sonequa Martin-Green [Star Trek: Discovery], fierce and determined, and capable of striking out across a dangerous landscape on her own, would be perfect.
Finally, if someone enjoys The Book Of M, what would you suggest they read next and why that?
If what you enjoyed was the magic-tinged apocalypse, I’d recommend N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth series [The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, The Stone Sky]. It’s so original and fascinating. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. If the characters’ stories were what drew you in, I’d recommend Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel orThe Stand by Stephen King. Both of those novels have thrilling apocalypses, but what’s even more engrossing are the incredibly detailed and intimate lives of the characters you follow as they struggle to survive and rebuild in those circumstances.