As a child, Peng Shepherd loved studying maps while his mother drove.
“My mom didn’t need it because she knew where she was going—it was our hometown,” Shepherd recalls, “but I would pull the maps out of the glove compartment and follow where we were going.”
Shepherd, whose second novel, the supernatural thriller “The Cartographers,” revolves around maps, was looking for something more than their destination. “Even for the maps of places that are really familiar to me, I felt that if I kept looking hard enough, I would see something I had never noticed before – a road that I didn’t know was there, or a secret.”
Years later, Shepherd found what she was looking for: a map with an almost fantastical secret. In 1930, the General Drafting Corporation set up a town in New York State as a “copyright trap” to catch bigger competitors like Rand McNally whom they suspected of plagiarizing their work instead of doing their own investigation.
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Sure enough, this fictional place, Agloe, appeared on Rand McNally’s next map. General Drafting leaps, taking them to court. But Rand McNally had a good defense: Agloe did exist.
Someone had seen the town on a map and opened Agloe’s general store there. This inspired Delaware County to register the town as existing on paper. Even years after the store closed, the city was still showing up on maps… including Google Maps until 2014.
“About seven years ago I was in a conversation where people were talking about how they were doing this copyright trap in dictionaries, hiding a word, usually in letters like X or Z with a fake definition , then someone mentioned the Agloe story in passing,” Shepherd recalled.
For the author, whose first was “The Book of M” and who likes to write about the world “tilted three degrees to the left”, this idea of a fictional city manifesting itself in reality was “magical” and pure inspiration for a book about the family. and secrets and obsession.
“The Cartographers” revolves around Nell Young, the only child of two of America’s foremost map experts. She was following in her parents’ footsteps until her father inexplicably had her fired from their workplace at the New York Public Library and shut her out of his life. (Her mother had been trapped in a fire when Nell was a baby.) Seven years later, her father dies suddenly, and Nell discovers that one of the old general drafting cards may hold more secrets than anyone knew. She becomes obsessed with uncovering the past and the truth, drawn into a mysterious and dangerous world and falls back on her parents’ oldest friends, the cartographers.
Shepherd recently explained via video why she just had to add speculation and the supernatural to this original true story, why uses real detail to balance it out, and why she loves yaks.
Q. Why is it so important in a book like this to include real places like Jimmy’s Corner, one of New York’s best bars, and real maps in the collection of the New York Public Library?
I write about the real world but tilted three degrees to the left, so when you can recognize specific details, it makes weird things more believable. I use the city of Agloe, which was real, because I want the magic to feel so possible.
Q. In the “Book of M” dystopia, where people lose their shadows, their memories, and their souls, the world tilts more than three degrees…and it does from the first page. This one has been grounded in reality – family secrets and strife, budget cuts and crime in New York – for much longer. Was it a conscious choice?
I felt the story called for being more subtle and letting the magic happen more slowly – that’s what happened in real life. It starts with mapmakers concerned about a competitor who’s gotten into a copyright trap, which is commonplace and normal and it gets weird from there, with every detail getting more incredible. That’s what I wanted the reader to experience.
Q. What do you like about tilting the world to tell your stories?
I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy. I got my MFA because I love and appreciate literary fiction, but during the program everything I turned in was kind of weird that way and my teachers were like, ‘That’s fine, but can you just write something normal?”
Turns out I can’t. Even when I try to be as realistic as possible.
But no matter how cool the premise is and how neat a spaceship or dragon is, you still want to identify with the characters and feel their struggles.
Q. Were you worried about writing a book about the power of paper maps when we’re all staring at our phones?
I wanted to say something about the difference between the two. When you use a paper map, you look at it and then you look at the world to compare it and you keep looking back and it’s very interactive. With a phone, especially when people are walking, they just have their heads down and see nothing until they get to their destination and they miss everything along the way.
I was interested – that we put more trust in electronic cards. They can be more up to date and you gain a lot from it but you lose a little something when you don’t use the paper charts so that’s why I didn’t just have one or the other but I have contrasted in the book.
Q. You have mentioned in past interviews that you like yaks. Why?
They’re cute…and quirky, definitely out of this world but a little slanted.
They are very strong and robust but also fragile – in hot weather they overheat and die. And they are tall but gentle and clumsy.
Also, I have a theory that the bigger an animal’s nose, the cuter it is. Mouse or bunny: The bunny is cuter because it has a bigger nose. Hamster or guinea pig? The guinea pig is cuter. Deer or moose? Moose has a bigger nose. It’s cuter
Yaks have huge noses.