Peng Shepherd

Novelist and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow
Peng Shepard

Photo by Rachel Crittenden

Jo Reed:  From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed.

Peng Shepherd:  For me a map, on the face of it, it is something that gets you from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible, and that's what we mostly use them for, myself included, but one of my favorite things about maps is that even though they're a reference chart essentially they're also in a way kind of a story, in a very similar way to books, because even though their primary purpose is navigation they still were drawn by a person who had something that they were trying to tell you, and that something may be about that moment in history, or it could be where that cartographer was from, it could be telling you something about the political situation or about a boundary of the territory. There's always something that map maker is trying to tell you or not tell you, and so I just love looking at a map and trying to figure out what the story is about that piece of art.

Jo Reed:  That’s novelist and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Peng Shepherd. Her recent book, a work best characterized as a speculative mystery, is called The Cartographers, and it has, at its heart, the wonder and possibilities of map-making. The main character is Nell Young, a cartographer who is the daughter of two cartographers, and the mystery and magic centers on a seemingly inconsequential gas station map and a group known as The Cartographers who have an obsessive interest in that map.  Like Peng’s first novel, The Book of M—a highly acclaimed work of post-apocalyptic fiction, elements of the magical set in motion recognizable consequences—as the author says, she likes writing about a world “tilted three degrees to the left.” And that she does with a magical gas station map of all things. I’m loathe to say too much more about The Cartographers other than it begins with a death and a discovery.  Peng Shepherd can take it from here.  

Peng Shepherd:  I describe it as a story about map making and family secrets, and it follows a woman named Nell, she's a young cartography scholar and, as you said, she discovers after the death of her brilliant but estranged father who is also a cartography scholar that a seemingly worthless map that's hidden away in his belongings actually contains a deadly mystery, and so she sets out to uncover both what the map and her father may have been hiding from her for decades.

Jo Reed:  The mystery that map contains is a phantom settlement.  What is a phantom settlement?

Peng Shepherd:   Phantom settlements are fascinating.  A phantom settlement is a somewhat obscure cartography term, and it means an error on a map, but it's not a mistake or a miscalculation, it means an intentional error specifically, and they can be anything from a little dead end road that isn't there to a bend in the river where it's actually straight to even sometimes like a whole tiny town in a very far out of the way place that no one's actually going to run into, that isn't real and isn't there, and these phantom settlements are used by map makers to essentially copyright their work in a kind of sneaky way.  So they function sort of like traps, so if a cartographer puts a phantom settlement on their map, hides it somewhere, and then that phantom settlement turns up on some other map maker's map, that is a way for them to prove that their map was copied rather than the other map maker doing their work essentially.

Jo Reed:  Now, The Cartographers is inspired by a true story as you say in your end notes, that in and of itself is fascinating. My mouth was on the floor as I was reading it. Tell us about that, please.

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah.  So I first heard that story about 10 years ago in grad school, and it is truly just as unbelievable as fiction.  So the story goes, this real life story, back in the early 1900s there was a very small map making company, it was just a couple of guys in an office, called General Drafting Corporation, and they had cornered the market early on those foldable gas station highway driving maps that we all used to use, probably are still stuffed in our glove compartments, that we never refer to now because we all have Google maps, but they had sort of invented those and had started selling them before bigger companies like Rand McNally and H.M. Gousha had caught onto the trend, and so once Rand McNally and H.M. Gousha had caught onto the trend, these two small time map makers were terrified that those bigger companies were copying their work to catch up quicker and get a bigger slice of the profits, and so what they ended up doing was inserting a phantom settlement on one of their maps in order to see if they could catch these two behemoth companies, and so when they were out in the middle of nowhere in rural Upstate New York in the early 1900s they picked a spot of land that was totally empty, just vast, uninhabited countryside, and they placed a tiny town there, and they named it using a combination of their initials, and hid it on their map, and then a couple months or about a year after that, Rand McNally's map of the same geographical area came out, and these two map makers got a copy of it, and they were shocked that they found their tiny town that they'd made up on Rand McNally's map, and so they sued them immediately of course, and they claimed copyright infringement because they said that the only way that their tiny town could have appeared on Rand McNally's map is if Rand McNally had copied them because if Rand McNally had gone out to the land and had been doing its own land surveys of that area they would have seen that there was nothing there because the town wasn't real, and Rand McNally, when it was their turn in court, they got up and they said, "But the town is real.  We did do our work," and so these two map makers got their lawyers and they got in a car, and they drove out of New York City into Upstate New York to go to this empty field and take photographs of just, you know, grass <laughs> and claim their victory in court, but when they got there instead of nothing they found a gas station, a general store, a fishing lodge, houses with people actually living in them, and in the county logs, the administration logs for that area, there was a record of that town in that place with the exact same name that these men had given it from their own initials.  So there was this town that was not supposed to exist it at all, it was a figment of their imagination, and somehow it was there.

Jo Reed:  So the map created the town.

Peng Shepherd:  Essentially.  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  And the name of the town is Agloe—you can google it as I did and read all about it.

Peng Shepherd: Yes.

Jo Reed:  Before we go on, why don't you read a little bit from The Cartographers.

Peng Shepherd:  Sure, I think I'll read from the beginning of the book, that'll probably be best, and I think the only thing you probably need to know is that it's from the beginning, it's after Nell's father has died, she's been called to the New York Library, where he worked, to talk to police, and talk to his boss, and I think the only thing you need previously and has multiple narrators. What was your writing process?  Do you plot meticulously?

Peng Shepherd:  So I do not plot before I start writing.  The only way that I can figure out what a story is is just by writing through it, as you can imagine with this because I think there are seven narrators, and there's two timelines, and so the first draft was understandably pretty confusing and messy <laughs> is how I would say it, but it's really I can't plot because I feel like if I don't write it down and I don't explore that way I don't know how to keep going forward and planning the story because I don't know the characters so I don't know what they would do, how could I plot something forward without knowing what they would do, and the only way for me to know what they would do or who they are is to write them down.  So there are a lot of discarded pages.  I joke that the book is think almost 400 pages, and I definitely have at least 400 pages of material that I tried that didn't make it in, but it's all part of the process, and it's just the way I work, but I think if I recall correctly, I think what happened was I built the modern story first, which is when Nell who is the main character is an adult, and her father who is-- 30 years in the past when he's younger-- he is one of those seven friends of The Cartographers, but the modern story is when he's much older, he's in his 60's, and then he passes away and Nell finds the map in the present day and sets out to try to figure out what happened 30 years ago, that frame got built first, and then I started refining the story that was within that which is everything that happened 30 years ago when Nell's father was younger, her mother was still alive, and they were part of that friend group.

Jo Reed:  So I'm hearing you say you tend to begin with character first rather than plot?

Peng Shepherd:  I would say I begin with premise, which I think is a little different than a plot because a premise is just something, yeah, it's just something cool and shiny, and it doesn't necessarily have a story attached to it.  So a lot of times what hooks me first is the premise, and then that's where a lot of the pages come from that end up getting thrown out, because I just start writing, and I'm trying to find a story, or I'm trying to find a person in that story that I can grab onto, and so it's, I don't know, 50 or 100 pages of just brainstorming and exploring until something jumps out at me like Nell or like the group of friends that were the cartographers.

Jo Reed:  In both your novels, you have major Asian American characters, you have Ramona Woo in The Cartographers, and Orlando Shang in The Book of M, and they're not in the book to give history lessons or impart cultural touchstones or to provide easy stereotypes, they're characters who happen to be Asian American, and are major, major characters in the book. 

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah.  For me, as an Asian American, there are a couple of different ways that I could write Asian American characters, and one of them is that I could write about their identity as the point of the story, and explore that, or like in The Cartographers and the Book of M I can just have characters that are Asian American but the story isn't concerned with their identity, it's just concerned with something else, like the mystery that they're trying to solve or the apocalypse that they're trying to survive, and for me personally, I mean I love reading both of those kinds of stories, and I'm really glad that we have more and more of them now, but I really like writing the kind where it's more than representation for representation's sake, like I don't wake up <laughs> and spend my day eating breakfast, while being  to know is that seven years before this moment, before his death, they had a huge falling out over the seemingly worthless map that I mentioned earlier, and the fight was so bad that her father ended up firing Nell and sort of destroying her professional reputation over it.  So they have not seen or spoken to each other for seven years before he suddenly dies.  "The library's back offices swirled quietly around Nell as she sat huddled at the edge of her father's desk.  Librarians were finally getting back to work in their cubicles, turning on their computers, and shuffling through their mail, and past the staff door patrons were browsing the stacks and choosing seats at reading tables, clicking on lamps, and pulling out notebooks, and flipping pages.  Children were running through aisles and sneaking around the lobby.  Taxis were pulling up and dropping off passengers outside.  Nell tried to think about all of it out there and nothing in here.  Gradually, she realized her hand was resting on the corner of the desk where the hidden lock was.  Ever dramatic, her father long ago had a secret compartment built into his desk that only he and she knew about.  He kept especially valuable maps inside while working on them, "For security's sake," he'd said, even though they NYPL had never been robbed in the history of its existence.  But when Nell was young, and he'd been a slightly gentler version of himself, he had hidden little notes to her there as well, and she would reply with childish drawings of maps she'd copied or created herself.  All she had to do was push her index finger forward a little bit.  The dullest, quietest thud told her the compartment had opened.  Slowly, without moving anything but her hand, Nell reached inside. 

Jo Reed:  That was Peng Shepherd reading from The Cartographers.  Who are the cartographers?

Peng Shepherd:  So they are a group of seven friends, they met in undergrad, and they've stayed together for their whole undergrad, graduate, and PhD education, and they're all cartographers, they all have the PhD in cartography, and they are this incredibly close group of friends that feels almost more like family than friends, and they are I think the heart of the mystery really, because 30 years before the events of the novel start these seven friends go on a little bit of an adventure together, and they end up discovering this map that becomes the central focus of the mystery, and they are the first ones to figure out that there's a secret on it, and that revelation ends up slowly sort of tearing them apart as they try to either embrace or reject or control the secret, because all seven of them have a different take on it, and they want to do different things with it, and it's sort of the first time that this group has ever not all been on the same page about something, and it was really a lot of fun to write about that moment in life where you're fully an adult, you're done with school, but you're also so very young and very innocent, and you have some experience in the world, but you haven't really gotten out there yet, and you also a lot of times believe you are invincible, or your friendships are invincible, and they're going to last forever, and nothing could ever tear you apart, and then something like this comes along.

Jo Reed:  Your book shuttles between two timelines, one in the present day, the other thirty years Asian American, or like going to the store while being Asian American, I just am Asian American, and so I also enjoy stories a lot, writing them and reading them, where characters can think about other things and do other things that aren't necessarily, you know, their identity isn't the point of what they're doing, they're allowed to exist and be themselves and want and do other things.

Jo Reed:  And Ramona Woo is such a vivid character, I think she was my favorite of the cartographers, too.  I mean so it's not like you're blunting edges anywhere.

Peng Shepherd:  She was I think the key character for me because, as I said before, I had built the modern frame with Nell and her father in the present time, and I was having a lot of trouble figuring out how to start that central mystery that happens 30 years ago, and it was Ramona's character that helped me get in there.  She was the first one of the seven friends that I started writing, and it almost felt like she was telling me the story, telling me what had happened to the seven of them, and it wasn't until I found her that the whole book started to come together, because I needed somebody, and she is the best friend of Nell's mother who, you know, by the time the modern story starts Nell's mother has passed away a long time ago.  But so Ramona knew the mother very well, also knows the father very well, and so she was this character with a ton of information about the mystery and some very, very good reasons to be afraid of ever talking about it again, and so when I found her and then when Nell managed to find her, that was really when the whole thing started to come together.

Jo Reed:  And that's also the point in the book where we really move into speculative fiction.

Peng Shepherd:  Yes. 

Jo Reed:  Which is so much fun.  Family is so key to this book, biological family, found family, the coming together, the severing of ties, the rediscovery.  So you really had to create a bond among these people that we would understand so the secrets of the map would become important because of what's at stake for them.

Peng Shepherd:  Mm-hmm.  Yeah.  I think the map was really useful because there was one common thing at the center for all of them to focus on, but what really ends up ultimately complicating things and then tearing that group apart in the way that it happens is it's more like each one of the seven of those friends has their own secret that nobody else knows in the group, and the map is the thing that forces each one of those seven secrets to come to light, and every time a new secret is revealed it changes everything for them all again. The map is there because it is a huge part of the story, but the reason the map is important is because it has a secret on it, but it's also important because the map is sort of, for a lot of the characters, it's standing in for something else that's different to each one.  So for one of them it might be standing in for love, or for another one it's standing in for their desire for success or their fear of failure, or something that they're very ashamed of, and they all become very, very emotional about the map, and they're all desperate to control it, not because of necessarily the secrets on it but because of what that secret will end up revealing about their own secret that's tied to the map.

Jo Reed:  Well, obsession is a trait most of them share, I think that's fair to say.

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  A great driver of books as it is in life

Jo Reed:  The Cartographers is a mystery but it’s also speculative fiction…. it's a speculative mystery.

Peng Shepherd:  Yes.

Jo Reed:  And at the same time, you describe a New York City that I recognize and a public library that I recognize.  So it's also grounded in reality when it is in reality.

Peng Shepherd:  That is one of my favorite types of speculative fiction I think.  I love when the story starts out in a really recognizable version of our world, with real life details that are pulled in, because to me the more of our world we recognize, and the more familiar and the more accurate it is, it makes the speculative aspect feel just that much more possible, you know?

Jo Reed:  You must have done a lot of research for this book.  What did you know about maps for example when you began?

Peng Shepherd:  I did not know a lot, actually I had a great fascination for them, and a great just interest in them in general, and I'm one of those people that if there's a map somewhere in the room, or I open up a book and there's a map in it, I have to look at it, I can't keep going until I've studied.  But I didn't know a lot of the terms, I didn't know how they were made, I didn't know how easy it was to forge them or not, and so really all I started with was that story about phantom settlements, and that term, and I just had to go from there and learn everything.

Jo Reed:  You know, you've lived around the world, and I wonder if that adds to your love of and appreciation for maps.

Peng Shepherd:  Oh, I think absolutely, and these days, as I said, Google Maps are more and more and prevalent, but especially when I first started traveling in my teens and early 20's, and especially for a lot of the places I went to there weren't anything but-- there wasn't anything but a paper map that was available, or there was no cell phone service, and so it was really the only way that I could get around, and I used to-- because one of my favorite things about a paper map that you don't necessarily get with an electronic map, even though an electronic map can give you so much more detail, and it updates constantly so you have the most accurate version of where you're trying to go, an electronic map really only shows you right where you are at that moment because the map moves with you.

Jo Reed:  Yes.

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah, and you can't see really anything else but just the 10 seconds where you are in that moment, whereas a paper map, you can unfold it and be looking at the entire city, and so a lot of times when I moved to a new city the first thing I would do is go and buy-- any map would do, you know, it was usually just a tourist map of the city, and I would take it home to my apartment and stick it on the wall, and I would just kind of stare at it every day and try to understand the way that the whole city was shaped and the whole city went together, and I think it helped me get my bearings a lot faster than the way it is now, which is we just land in a city, turn our phones on, connect to wifi, and we can see in very, very accurate detail one small sliver of right where we are, but it doesn't give you much more than that.

Jo Reed:  I agree, paper maps give me a sense of place that I don't get from electronic maps, which are great for getting me to from point A to point B, but in terms of being in that journey, it's a paper map that really is going to give it to me.

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah, and I don't want to say that I dislike electronic maps, I think they're--

Jo Reed:  No, I use them all the time.

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah, I do too.  I mean they're so useful, and we have gained a lot from them, but we definitely are losing a little bit.

Jo Reed:  If the book is a love letter to maps, it's also a love letter to the New York Public Library.  Did you do work for the book there, and what kind of access did you have? 

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah.  So I used to live in New York City for about five or six years or something, before I started writing this book, and so I did regularly go to the library, and I spent a lot of time there, and it's such a beautiful building, it's just gorgeous and historical, and I had visited the map division, so the map division mentioned in the book where Nell used to work and her father works, and where this map that drives the whole story is discovered, that's a real department within the New York Public Library, and I think they have something like half a million sheet maps in their archives that are available for pretty much anyone with a library card to go in and check out, and so I mean it's just an incredible collection, and you can go in and ask for pretty much any map that is in their archives, and they will get it for you, bring it out, and you can set it down on the reading tables there and look at these maps that were made hundreds of years ago, or there's only 10 of them left in the world or something, and anything you want to see basically you are able to access, it seems like things that rare you just wouldn't be able to get to, but the map division really wants people to be able to come in and see these pieces of history and see these pieces of art, and so they're very, very good about giving access to anybody who's interested.
Jo Reed: Let me switch gears: I'm curious, how was writing the second book The Cartographers after the great success of the first book, The Book of M?  How was it easier, how was it more challenging?

Peng Shepherd:  Oh, it was so much more challenging, and I'm sure that some of it was infamous second novel syndrome which everybody says, you know, every time you meet a writer who's written more than two books, and you've only written one they all tell you, they try to warn you, that the second one's going to be very hard, and it's absolutely true.  So I think a little bit was that, that it was the first book that I was trying to write with readers waiting for it and with the knowing how the first book was received, and also with a much tighter deadline than I had for the first one, but it was also really difficult because in The Book of M the world ends very early, and I kind of got to just remake the setting in any way I wanted because if the world ends there are no more rules anymore, you can create anything you want, and with this one, because I set it in New York City, that's a very, very familiar place for a lot of people, and readers know what that place feels like, what it sounds like, where the streets are, where the buildings are, and so it was an interesting experience to write with those kind of constraints, and then on top of that to write a mystery because it turns out that writing a mystery is very hard, you have to lay the clues in just right so you're not giving away too much, but you're giving away enough that readers can follow what you're doing hopefully, and so it was a lot of different things to take on at once while also being a second book.

Jo Reed:  I want to stay with The Book of M for a moment and let me give a very quick synopsis.  People begin to lose their shadows and with it their memories, and it's not pretty. And the result, as you said, is that the world as we know ends, but that book too had a spine with a kernel of truth, which is zero shadow day.

Peng Shepherd:  Yes.  So it is an incredible, fascinating phenomenon, it happens once a year in a couple of countries, but it's most famous in India, but basically because of the way that our Earth is shaped, and the angle of it relative to the sun, there is one day there every year where if you go outside at the right time, which is right around noon, everyone's shadows actually will disappear for just a few minutes and then, of course, as the Earth continues rotating and time is passing, after a couple minutes your shadow will start to flicker back, and then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger until it looks like a normal shadow again.  But when I read that I just thought that felt so magical, and that it was something that was already happening in our world every year, it just felt like the perfect way into the story, and so that's actually how the book starts.  It starts on zero shadow day, and everybody is outside celebrating and enjoying the festivities as usual, everybody's shadows disappear, and then a couple minutes later everybody's shadows come back except for one guy it just doesn't come back, and from there it starts to spread.

Jo Reed:  I think the other things that both your books explore in different ways is what can you lose or what can you let go of and still be you.

Peng Shepherd:  Yeah, I find that question really interesting.   I think I keep writing about it in different ways because there are so many answers to that question, and I think it's different for every person because every person has a different cost basically because some people are chasing success and so the question is for them what would you give up or what cost would be okay for you to succeed, because everything costs something in your life whether it's success or love or family or happiness of one kind in exchange for happiness of another, and I think especially with love too.  I'm really interested in the question of what is the cost of love, and how does that relate to your identity, and what would you give up for either of those things.

Jo Reed:  You received a literature fellowship from the Arts Endowment.  How did that help with the work on The Cartographers?

Peng Shepherd:  I did. Oh, it was just instrumental in being able to continue to write, especially because-- so I had applied for it because at the time that I was writing The Cartographers I had already moved away from New York City, and I wanted to go back and do a lot of research, and so I got the grant in early 2020, and then about a month after that everything shut down.  Nobody could travel yet, the vaccines were months away, and so I ended up receiving the grant thinking that I was going to use most of it for travel, but what it ended up doing was actually it enabled me to survive and keep writing because I couldn't do any other work, and the book had ended up getting delayed by about a whole year because it was a very difficult time for anybody to work or write.  And so I was slower with my drafts, my editor was slower to return them to me. So that was an extra year that I had not expected to still be writing this book, and so the grant ended up enabling me to be able to finish the book because I couldn't have done it without that support. Then once I had gotten vaccinated and travel had become a little safer again, I was able to actually use some of the money that was left to travel to New York right before I did copy edits, and I got to go back to the New York Public Library, and walk the halls, go into the map division, and make sure that the way that I had written it was the way that it felt and that I had hopefully done the place justice in the book. I was really glad to be able to do that before the book came out to make sure that I had written about it to the best of my ability.

Jo Reed:  What draws you to write speculative fiction?

Peng Shepherd:  Well, I grew up reading science fiction and fantasy, that was the genre that I encountered first as a kid when, you know, you're too young to even know what genres are, so you're just going after cool covers, or your mom thinks you might like this one. So most of the books that I got when I was a kid they were science fiction, fantasy, and then much later in my 20's I went and did a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. And that was when I really learned to appreciate literary fiction in a much more deep way than I had before, but I think because I had that foundation in science fiction and fantasy it was really influential for me as a reader and a writer. So it just turned out that whenever I was trying to write something for a workshop in my MFA it would always just go a little weird <laughs> and I remember I had professors there, because the program is genre friendly, but it is a literary program, and so I would turn stuff in, and sometimes they'd be like, "I mean this is good but can you just make it like more normal?"  And it just turned out that I couldn't, I can't, I just really like the weird. I like things that seem normal at first but then you realize everything's tilted just three degrees to the left or however you want to describe it. But I think you just have to write the way that you write.  If you try to force it, it isn't going to be your voice, it's not going to be your story.

Jo Reed:  You've had a varied career.  How did you come to decide that you were going to write fiction?

Peng Shepherd:  I had always wanted to, and it was really more of a process of coming back to the thing that I had always loved once I was a little bit more mature and had the courage rather than discovering it later.  I think basically as soon as I had started to read and I realized that somebody is writing these books that I'm reading, I wanted to also be someone who would write books that other people would read, but then I got to university and majoring in creative writing seemed really scary because I thought well how am I going to feed myself until I finish writing a book?  And I was one of those writers, because I can't plan, I would start a new novel practically every day, but I didn't have the discipline or the maturity yet at that point to be able to finish anything.  And so when I was in my early 20's it just seemed to scary, and I was also terrified to fail because at that age it feels so final, and now I fail all the time, I constantly throw pages away or I quit ideas and start new ones, or I change things in revision dramatically, and so failing I've realized is just a part of the writing process, and it's totally normal, and it's not bad, but at that time I felt afraid to fail even once because it would mean that I wasn't a real writer, that I couldn't do it, and so I ended up majoring in something else, and going to grad school for something else, and I worked a corporate job for a really long-- not a really long time <laughs>, like five years-- but it felt like a really long time to me because it was interesting but it wasn't what I loved and it wasn't what I really wanted to be doing, and so I finally reached the point where I thought I just can't keep doing this, or at least I can't keep doing this unless I try writing, and if it turns out that I can't do it then that's fine but at least I will have tried.

Jo Reed:  Who has, and who does, influence your writing?

Peng Shepherd:  Oh, well, I'd say that my hero is Ursula K. Le Guin for both because she was an incredible writer, and also just an incredible person and giant of the field, and I just really love and respect her so much, and I'd say basically writers who are crossing genres or combining genres or just doing something interesting with them that we haven't seen before, and I think it's becoming more and more common now which I love because there isn't any reason for every genre to stay in its own box, the stories are just become better because people are borrowing and trading from each box and just making new things, but I love N. K. Jemisin, I love Jeff Vandermeer, Margaret Atwood, China Mieville, Fonda Lee.  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  A slightly different question, who are three writers that we might not know about, or you wish we would know better that you would recommend to people?

Peng Shepherd:  Ooh.  Good question.  Okay.  Three writers.  Maybe I should give science fiction and fantasy writers because we've kind of gone onto that angle.  So I'd recommend R. F. Kuanq, she's got a trilogy out already, and she's got another book coming out in August, and it's set in Oxford in the 1800s, and it's about this secret-- not a secret-- but a very small sort of secretive department there of translators who can sort of do magic in a way by translating things from one language to another, so it's just a really interesting look at like who's speaking language, what's the power of it, what changes depending on if it's your first language or your second language, or whether you kind of own the language and grew up in it versus learned it later, and it's just brilliant, and it's such a good story too.  So R. F. Kuang is a writer that I love, and Rebecca Roanhorse is also an incredible writer.  She's got a bunch of books out, but right now I think she's got a trilogy that's set in kind of a Pre-Columbian, Mesoamerican environment, and there's battles and magic, and the warriors ride giant crows the size of helicopters, they're like sentient giant crows, I mean it's incredible, yeah, who doesn't want a giant sentient crow really, the size of a helicopter.  Okay, and then I'd also recommend Fonda Lee, the trilogy's now complete, it's her most recent trilogy, and it's sort of like Game of Thrones meets The Godfather, but if the mafia in The Godfather was more of like a Hong Kong triad kind of gang situation, rather than an Italian mafia, it's based on or inspired by kind of more of like the Hong Kong triads or the Yakuza in Japan.

Jo Reed:  Thank you for those recommendations.  And I think that's a great place to leave it.  Peng, thank you so much for joining me.  Thank you for writing two terrific books.

Peng Shepherd:  Oh, thank you for reading them.

Jo Reed:  Of course

That is novelist and 2020 NEA Literature Fellow Peng Shepherd. She was talking about her book The Cartographers. Peng’s first novel is The Book of M. You can keep up with her at that’s P-E-N-G. and then keep up with Art Works by following us on Apple or google podcasts and leave us a rating, it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed, stay safe and thanks for listening.

Novelist and NEA Literature Fellow Peng Shepherd's latest book is the speculative mystery, The Cartographers. Those of us who love maps think they are magical; in Shepherd’s book, this magic isn’t metaphorical. The Cartographers has, at its heart, not only the wonder and possibilities of map-making, but a map that is actually magical and becomes a dangerous obsession for a group of cartographers. In this episode of the Art Works podcast, Shepherd talks about her fascination with maps, the phenomenon of phantom settlements and how they inspired the book’s premise, her love of speculative fiction, and the challenges of writing “the second book.”  

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