Peng Shepherd, THE CARTOGRAPHERS: A Novel

Peng Shepherd, THE CARTOGRAPHERS: A Novel

Zibby speaks to Peng Shepherd about her second novel The Cartographers, a “mystery novel with a touch of magic” that is a USA Today bestseller, national Indie Bookstores bestseller, and a GMA Pick of the Month! Peng shares the inspiration behind the book (it involves an obsession with maps and a library that she and Zibby both love), the chaos of writing a mystery novel without even knowing the mystery, and the leap of faith she took when quitting her job and starting an MFA! She also reveals the premise of her next book and shares her best advice for aspiring authors.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Peng. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss The Cartographers.

Peng Shepherd: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: I’m obsessed with your cover. We were just talking about the sign behind me. I would like a sign of this where you could almost even write your own maps to wherever you’re going. I just love it.

Peng: That would be fun.

Zibby: A cover full of books in blue, my favorite color; libraries, my favorite thing. It’s just pretty awesome.

Peng: Thank you.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what The Cartographers is about? What inspired you to write it?

Peng: I like to think of it as kind of a mystery novel with a touch of magic. It’s about map making and family secrets. It follows a young scholar named Nell whose career was destroyed by none other than her own father after a fight they have over a strange map that he claimed was worthless. Then when he dies and Nell discovers that very same map hidden in his things, she realizes that it contains a deadly mystery that involves their family. She sets out to uncover what both her father and this map have been hiding from her for decades.

Zibby: Where did you come up with this idea? Where did this come from?

Peng: Maps are one of those things that I think we’re somewhere on the spectrum from curious to sort of obsessed with. I definitely fall more on the obsession side. I had been wanting to write something about maps and libraries and archives and dark academia all rolled into one. I had been thinking about this for maybe seven years or something, but I couldn’t find a way into the story until this one day. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine. They were talking about this phenomenon in dictionaries where dictionary makers sometimes will insert a false word into the dictionary to basically protect against copyright theft. If another dictionary comes out and it has your fake word in it, the only way that that could’ve been possible is if they had copied your dictionary because it’s a made-up word. I was like, that’s so cool. How fascinating that there’s a word in every dictionary that isn’t real. If you’re lucky enough to come across it, you might not have any idea. You might go down a rabbit hole of research. Then somebody else in the conversation said, “That’s really cool. Do you know that they also do that with maps?” From there, my imagination just went.

Zibby: Wow. I wonder who the person’s going to be to go through the dictionaries now after listening to this to try to figure out which word in their dictionary is not the right word.

Peng: I know, right? Apparently, there are some hints. They say that they tend to be hidden in the Xs and Ys and Zs because those words are less commonly looked for. People don’t look up X, Ys and Zs. You should check those three letters first.

Zibby: I feel like those are the most thumbed through for all Scrabble references, though.

Peng: It’s true, if you play Scrabble.

Zibby: That’s a lot of points. These days, I don’t play as much Scrabble or even use paper dictionaries. I feel like for many, many years, our dictionary was very worn just for that reason. My kids probably don’t even know what Scrabble is. This is so sad. Onto the next. Part of this novel involves the New York Public Library, which is one of my favorite places. Talk about the inclusion of that, how the setting took place, and your feelings about libraries.

Peng: Of course, I just love them. I feel like I grew up in them. I was one of those kids who, we had to get all of my siblings library cards too so that they could check out double or triple the books that I wanted. We would all . They’d be like, “Okay, which ones do you want us to get for you and pretend they’re for us?” I would get to go home with just an armful of books every week. It was one of my favorite things. Then when I was older, I was living in New York and would go into that, the main branch of the New York Public Library all the time. I’m sure you’ve been in there a couple times.

Zibby: Yes, yes.

Peng: It’s all white or cream marble. There’s gold fixtures. Everything is kind of glittering. The shelves are this old, rich wood. They have all these cool lamps and reading tables. It just feels like exactly where you would set a dark academia mystery story. As I was building the plot for this book, and a lot of it takes place in New York City anyway, I thought, it’s got to happen in the New York Public Library, then. It’s just such a magical place.

Zibby: I actually — I never talk about this. My first wedding was actually at — the party was at the library.

Peng: That’s so neat. I bet that was beautiful.

Zibby: It was really pretty, I have to say. Maybe I can send you private pictures after this.

Peng: I would love to see it. Yeah, please. That sounds beautiful.

Zibby: It was lovely. That was many, many moons ago. When you sat down to tackle this story and make it a mystery, I am always curious if when you do that you know how everything is unfolding when you start out to do it? Do you have to go in and go back and put little clues in afterwards? How did you structure it when you were writing the story?

Peng: Oh, my gosh, it was pure chaos the whole way through. It turns out it’s really hard to write a mystery if you don’t know what the mystery is. I’m not a plotter or an outliner or a planner or anything like that. I just fly by the seat of my pants. I am discovering the story as I write it. Most of the time, my first drafts are in a shape that nobody can see it. I can barely even see it. It’s so messy. That kind of works when you’re writing some other kind of books. When you’re writing a mystery, it makes it — you just have so many rewrites because every draft, you figure only one thing out. Then you’ve got to go back and change everything else. You figure one more thing out. Then you’ve got to go back and change everything else. It was a lot of extra pages. My editor and I joke, but it’s not really a joke, that the book — I think the book is five hundred pages. We have five hundred more pages of stuff that I was trying that didn’t work out. I basically wrote the book at least twice to get everything working and locked into .

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Part of this story sets off with the death of Nell’s father. What is your relationship like with your father? Is he alive? What is that like? I feel like if I were to have written a novel and the mother had passed away, my mother would be very upset about that, selfishly.

Peng: Yes, there’s kind of a funny — there’s some drama in it, but it’s kind of funny too. My father is alive. We have a great relationship. It’s nothing like Nell and her father, Dr. Young’s relationship in the book. They’ve been estranged for seven years by the time the story starts. Then he passes away before she can even say anything to him, let alone reconcile. They have had a super strained relationship. My relationship with my dad is great. Everything’s fine. In the very, very first draft, I had named Dr. Young, David Young. My father’s name is David. I didn’t quite make the connection at the time. Also, in the beginning, I thought that David Young and Nell Young were going to be friends and teammates. They were going to discover their mystery together. I didn’t realize until many, many drafts later that, actually, it was their fight and their estrangement that causes a lot of the mystery. In the beginning, everything was great. David and Nell were friends. David was a great guy in the book. Then as the drafts kept going, he became more and more of a difficult — I don’t want to call him the villain at all. He becomes kind of an antagonist, in a way, because there’s this secret, and he’s hiding it out of love. There’s a big secret that he’s keeping from Nell. It’s the source of a lot of their problems. He dies of a heart attack in the book. Then my own father had a heart attack.

Zibby: No!

Peng: Yeah. He’s fine. He made it through. Everything is great. He’s healthy now. That’s when I realized, I got to change the guy’s name. It was too many things. There was no way that I was ever going to be able to say to Dad, it’s just a name. It has nothing to do with you. David Young’s name is now Daniel Young. My father will hopefully be none the wiser because Daniel Young is not based on him.

Zibby: That sounds like the idea for the next novel, where everything the writer writes ends up happening in real life. What does she do about that?

Peng: I know. It’s sort of like that movie. Was it called Stranger than Fiction? I think with Will Ferrell and — what’s her name? Emma… It’s a great movie. It’s about a guy who starts to think that, that everything in his life is being kind of narrated to him. It’s happening to him outside of his control. At the same time, a best-selling author is writing a book about a man with the same name, and the same things are happening to him in the book. He becomes convinced that he is in her book. It’s such a great movie.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m going to watch this weekend. I’m writing it down.

Peng: You’ve got to. He goes to this literature professor for help. He’s like, I know this is going to sound nuts, but I think I’m in a novel. The first thing the literature professor does is start asking him about what genre he thinks he’s in because they’re going to solve it in a different way depending on if he’s in a murder mystery or a fantasy. It’s really cute. It’s very cute.

Zibby: I love that. Great. Thank you. Excellent tip. How did you get your start? Where was this library you went to growing up? Where did you grow up? How many siblings did you have? Then how did you end up writing? How did you get here?

Peng: I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona.

Zibby: Oh, I knew that. I did know that, yes.

Peng: This was one of the branches of the Phoenix Public Library. I have three siblings now. Two of them are sixteen years younger than me. At the time, I had only the one brother. We got him a library card. We got my mom a library card. My dad also had a library card. That was our weekend plan. I was one of those kids who, I think I learned to read a little bit earlier than average. I just read everything. There comes a moment where you realize that somebody is writing the books that you’re reading. At first, they’re just books. They’re just stories. Then I had this, wait a minute, somebody is making these, which means I could make these. I told my mom that it was what I wanted to do when I grew up. It always remained that way even when — we all have detours. I got a university degree and then a grad degree in something that was not creative writing because at a certain point, you panic. You think, I don’t know how I’m going to afford groceries. I have to have a “real job,” even though writer’s a real job, but it’s such a difficult thing to get started. There’s not really a path for it the way that there’s a path to being a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant.

I spent high school, university, grad school studying other things. Then I started working in the corporate world. At some point in my mid to late twenties, I realized that I was at the point in my corporate career where if I stayed on longer, I would get promoted to a certain point. The money would be good enough that I would be too afraid to ever leave and to risk it. I hit that moment of, I’ve got to try now because if I don’t try now, I’ll never try. I ended up quitting my job because I don’t know how to do anything halfway. I couldn’t just take night classes like a smart person. I had to just, quit job. I quit my job. I applied to and got into NYU’s MFA and creative writing program. I moved to New York. I attended that program. It was a big gamble. It made all the difference in me because it was the first time in my life that writing was the priority. I felt like I had been given “permission” to make it that priority because there were professors and other students in my workshop waiting for my draft that I had to turn in for a grade and to keep my student funding and all of that. I think it taught me how to be a professional about writing instead of a hobbyist. It also taught me how to finish things, which was really important.

Zibby: That is important.

Peng: It’s very easy to start things.

Zibby: I feel like, also, once you finish the novel, then at least you know you can write a novel, but that doesn’t mean that that novel is actually a good novel. First, you just have to learn how to do it, or most people. Maybe I’m just excusing myself.

Peng: No, I think you’re exactly right. I remember on the first day of our first workshop, my professor of that workshop — his name’s Darin Strauss. He told the class that, “You think it’s going to be the book that you’re writing right now that is going to be the one that’s published. I’m here to tell you it’s not. You’ll finish this book. That’ll teach you how to finish something. It’ll be the book you start right after you graduate that is maybe the one that gets published.” We all were like, no, that’s not true. This is the one. We’re going to get it published. Then one by one, it turned out to be absolutely true. We all managed to finish and then discard the thing that we were writing in the grad program. Then there are at least four or five of us now who, it’s the thing that we started right after we graduated, just like Darin said, that became the thing that got published. He was right.

Zibby: Darin Strauss and I worked together on something for the Jewish Book Council.

Peng: Oh, really?

Zibby: Yeah. We had all these regular meetings.

Peng: He’s lovely. He’s just the greatest.

Zibby: Wait, who are the other people who wrote books? Are they good?

Peng: Yeah. Let’s see. We had Linnea Hartsuyker, who wrote a historical fiction with a touch of fantasy. It’s a Viking saga. It’s called The Half-Drowned King. We had Jaroslav Kalfař, whose first book was called Spaceman of Bohemia. I think his next one’s coming out soon. We had Rebecca Dinerstein, who wrote The Sunlit Night. Then her second book, Hex, came out last year or something like that.

Zibby: I interviewed her.

Peng: Did you?

Zibby: I think I interviewed her during the pandemic times, right? Didn’t it come out during the —

Peng: — It did.

Zibby: I feel like I did, maybe through this Instagram Live show I used to do the first year of the pandemic or whatever. Yes, interviewed her. Awesome. Wow, that’s really neat. So great to have that whole crew to talk to. Do you all keep in touch? I feel like that would be such a huge value of the program in general.

Peng: It is really. Yeah, we do all keep in touch. It was a really special time for the debuts. I think most of us are on our second or third book now. When it was all of our first books that were coming out, we were all still reading each other’s drafts at that point even though we had agents. It was like a tiny little family that came out of that MFA program. We all still talk to this day and sometimes even pass drafts back and forth. It’s really nice.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Tell me about your first book, The Book of M.

Peng: That was the one that I started writing right after I graduated, just like Darin said. It was a really wonderful and super different process from this book, The Cartographers. With The Book of M, it was really, really, really fast. It came out very fast. Very little changed from the first draft to the final. There was a lot of rewriting and cleaning it up, but very little about the story changed. Because you have to finish your first book completely before you can sell it, which is different than subsequent books where you just sell an idea or a pitch, at the time that we sold The Book of M, I was really sure what the story was about. It was very close to being finished and polished. It felt very fast. I just feel very lucky about that, that it went pretty smoothly and pretty quick. Then I got to see the other side with the second book.

Zibby: Amazing. What did you do differently? Is there anything you did in terms of marketing or publicity or any decisions you made the second time where you’re like, oh, yeah, if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have known X, Y, Z? Thing you said, I should do more of this or less of this?

Peng: On the writing side, it was very different because my agent and I ended up selling The Cartographers to my editor on — it pretty much was a one-page proposal. It barely even had a premise. It was just sort of like, maps are neat, right? You want to read a book about maps? I had no characters. I had no story. I just had this premise about a map that had a secret on it. I didn’t even know what the secret was. It was so bare bones. If there’s something I learned between the two of them, it’s that there’s a difference between a story and a premise. You can make a story out of a premise, and I did do that with The Cartographers, but it takes so much longer. It’s especially stressful when you’re writing it on contract. With The Book of M, I just wrote it until it was ready. Then we sold it, and it was ready. With The Cartographers, we sold a premise and not a story. Then I had to build the whole thing while on deadline and make it a mystery on top of that. It was a very different process. I think I have learned my lesson because we’ve recently sold my third book to my editor, but I was halfway through the first draft before we sold it to her. When she said, “What is this one about?” I could actually say something about a story rather than just, maps are cool, right?

Zibby: What’s the third one about?

Peng: The third one, it’s set in the near future. It’s kind of got sci-fi, thriller vibes. It is a futuristic reality TV show. It helps improve your life by altering the fabric of reality to make whatever you’re choosing actually real. If you imagined that you’d had a different job, you suddenly will really have that different job. The story follows a woman who’s chosen to be the season three contestant. She’s over the moon. Her life is going to change. She can’t wait. Once the filming starts, things take a dark turn because she realizes that she may not be as in control of the choices as she thought she was going to be.

Zibby: Interesting. Excellent.

Peng: It’s still early days. I’m not quite even done with the first draft yet. I’m approaching the end. We’ll see if that premise holds. It’s been more like the first book than the second book because I think I just had a better idea about it when I started it versus the second book.

Zibby: What is your life like aside from writing? Once you put down the microphone today, what are you doing next? What do you do for fun? What’s your other stuff in life? I don’t have a sense of what happens else.

Peng: I’m laughing because when I put down this microphone, I’m actually going to go write more of the book. I have to finish the first draft by August 31st. Because my writing style is so chaotic because I don’t plan anything and I don’t outline, I’ve found that the more that my routine is more of a routine, I think it helps me. I really do treat it almost like an office job. At nine AM, I’m in front of my computer. I write or work on revisions or whatever on the book until probably two PM, sometimes three PM. Then after that, that’s when things get a lot more flexible. Either I’m reading a book I like or I go out into — I recently moved to Mexico City. We’re having this Zoom from Mexico City. I’ll go out and explore the city, get some good food. That’s really what I’m doing now. I write in the morning. Then I try to take care of whatever other admin. Then in the afternoons and evening, I go out. I just walk the streets and try a new coffee shop or try to learn something about the city. It’s been a lot of fun.

Zibby: Wow. Who knew? See, I would never have known. It’s just a blank wall. You could’ve been anywhere.

Peng: That’s because the rest of this room isn’t unpacked yet.

Zibby: Why did you move to Mexico City?

Peng: First of all, the city’s just — it’s so wonderful. It reminds me, in a lot of ways, of Mexico City. It’s got vibe. It’s just huge. It’s got millions and millions and millions of people. Every neighborhood feels very different the way that every neighborhood in New York City feels very different. It has a different vibe. On top of that, it is so much cheaper than New York City, which is really good for a writer. I’ve been really, really enjoying it.

Zibby: Good for you. Just go off and trying something new, I love that. It took me forty years to even change my neighborhood, and I basically still haven’t. I take inspiration from people more adventurous than me. Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Peng: That’s a good question. I would say to get to the end of your first draft as quickly as you can, even if it’s messy or even if you know that it’s not right, the direction you’re going, because there’s something really important that happens when you finally have the whole thing. Even if you have eighty percent of your draft and you’re trying to fix it, somehow, you just have less of a view of the whole thing than if you get all the way to the end and you write the ending, even if it’s a bad ending and it’s going to change. There’s just something that happens about having that whole draft that makes it a lot easier to work with. If you can make it there, make it there as quick as you can.

Zibby: So then you can go back and write another five hundred pages. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I really appreciate all your time.

Peng: time.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Peng: Bye. Sorry, I think we had an unstable connection there.

Zibby: That’s okay. We made it. We made it all the way through. Bye

Peng Shepherd, THE CARTOGRAPHERS: A Novel

THE CARTOGRAPHER: A Novel by Peng Shepherd

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