As a child, Peng Shepherd loved studying the maps while her mom drove.
“My mom didn’t need it because she knew where she was going – it was our hometown,” Shepherd recalls, “But I’d take 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 searching for something more than their destination. “Even for maps of places really familiar to me, I felt that if I just kept looking hard enough, I’d see something I never noticed before – a road that I didn’t know was there, or a secret.”
Years later, Shepherd actually found what she was looking for: a map with an almost fantastical secret. In 1930, the General Drafting Corporation created a town in New York State as a “copyright trap” to catch larger competitors like Rand McNally that they suspected were plagiarizing their work instead of doing their own survey.
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Sure enough, this fictional place, Agloe, showed up on the next Rand McNally map. General Drafting pounced, taking them to court. But Rand McNally had a good defense: Agloe did indeed exist.
Someone had seen the town on a map and opened Agloe General Store on the spot. That inspired Delaware County to register the town as existing on paper. Even years after the store closed, the town still showed up on maps… including Google Maps until 2014.
“About seven years ago, I was in a conversation where people were talking about how they do this copyright trap in dictionaries, hiding a word, usually in letters like X or Z with a fake definition and then someone mentioned the story of Agloe in passing ,” Shepherd recalls.
For the author, whose debut was “The Book of M” and who likes writing about the world “tilted three degrees to the left,” this idea of a fictional town manifested into reality was “magical” and pure inspiration for a book about family and secrets and obsession.
“The Cartographers” revolves around Nell Young, the only child of two of America’s leading map experts. She was following her in her parents’ footsteps from her until her father from her inexplicably had her fired from their place of work at the New York Public Library and cut her out of her life from her. (Her mother de ella had been trapped in a fire when Nell was a baby.) Seven years later, her father de ella dies suddenly, and Nell finds that one of the old General Drafting maps may contain more secrets than ella anyone knew. She becomes obsessed with uncovering the past and the truth, drawn into a mysterious and dangerous world and drawing back in her parents’ oldest friends, The Cartographers.
Shepherd recently spoke by video about why she just had to add the speculative and supernatural to that original true story, why she uses real details to balance that 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 great dive bars, and real maps in the New York Public Library’s collection?
I write about the real world but tilted three degrees to the left, so when you can recognize specific details it makes the weird things more believable. I’m using the town of Agloe, which was real, because I want the magic to feel so so possible.
Q. In the dystopia of “The Book of M,” where people are losing their shadows, their memories and their souls, the world tilts way more than three degrees… and it does so from page one. This one is based on reality – family secrets and strife, New York City budget cuts and crime – for much longer. Was that a conscious choice?
I felt the story called out to be more subtle and to let the magic happen more slowly – that’s what happened in real life. It starts with mapmakers concerned about a competitor who put in a copyright trap, which is mundane and normal and it gets weird from there, with every detail becoming more unbelievable. 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 have a love and appreciation of literary fiction but during the program, everything I turned in was a little bit weird in this way and my professors would say, “This is good but can you just write something normal?”
It turns out that I can’t. Even when I try to be as realistic as possible.
But no matter how cool the premise and how neat a spaceship or a 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 all just look at our phones?
I did want to say something about the difference between the two. When you use a paper map, you look at it then you look at the world to compare it and you keep looking back and forth and it’s very interactive. With a phone, especially when people are walking, they just have their head down and don’t see anything until they arrive at their destination and they miss everything along the way.
That interested me – that we trust electronic maps more. They can be more up-to-date and we are gaining a lot but we are losing a little something when we don’t use paper maps so that’s why I didn’t have just one or the other but I contrasted them in the book .
Q. You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you love yaks. why?
They’re cute… and weird, definitely of this world but a little bit tilted.
They’re very tough and hardy but also fragile – in warm weather, they overheat and die. And they’re big but sweet and goofy.
Also, I have a theory that the bigger an animal’s nose is, the cuter it is. Mouse or bunny: The bunny is cuter because it has a bigger nose. Hamster or guinea pig? Guinea pig is cuter. Deer or Moose? Moose has a bigger nose. It’s cuter
Yaks have huge noses.