Megan Shepherd: "The Bookseller's Daughter"

by Marie Hefley

Megan Shepherd with mother Peggy Hansen in Highland Books

Megan Shepherd with mother Peggy Hansen in Highland Books

Brevard, North Carolina is a sleepy town surrounded by the Pisgah National Forest, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the quiet serenity of the lakes and rivers in the western part of the state. A short drive from Asheville, it keeps its small-town essence while still offering a big-town welcome to its summer visitors who come in search of all types of outdoor activities as well as the culture of the world-known Brevard Music Center, and who swell the town’s population well past its full-time seven thousand residents.

The road from Asheville to Brevard, now a four-lane highway, passes by farms, road stands, small local businesses, a Walmart, and an upscale housing development. The stretch of this road that goes through Brevard is crowded and always busy, a big change from how the town appeared when Tim and Peggy Hansen opened Highland Books almost forty years ago.

Highland Books, a sunny, cheery store packed with all types and categories of books, as well as local crafts and coffees, was one of few businesses in Brevard, back when Shoneys and McDonalds were the only names known outside the local area. The Hansens have grown the business, across the street from Brevard College, into the go-to place for local book clubs, schools, the College, and those passing through and in need of a good read.

From her childhood, Megan Hansen Shepherd, successful author of Young Adult (YA) fiction, watched the growth of Brevard and Highland Books. The Hansens, Shepherd’s parents, opened the store a few years before she was born, and, as she jokes, put their daughters to work at a young age. In a March 2012 article in Our State Magazine, she says, “My sister and I worked our way up from ‘promotional cute baby behind the counter’ at age one, to ‘shelf straightener’ at age five, to ‘inventory counter’ at age twelve, to the exalted cashier position in high school and college.” Now Shepherd’s books sit on the same counter where she sold others’ work, arranged in a display that neither customers nor her proud parents can miss as they walk by them.

Although Shepherd studied at UNC-Chapel Hill and worked in many places outside the United States, she came home to settle in the Brevard area, and still sees the town as having “its charm. Downtown is the same.” She recalls the iconic places from her childhood—O.P. Taylor’s, known locally as the “coolest toy store on the planet,” Ernie’s Rock Shop, and The White Squirrel Shoppe—nestled among the spate of newcomers, mostly restaurants, coffee shops, and gift shops, that draw tourists to the small town.

Shepherd’s travels before settling in Western North Carolina brought her to writing as a career. Always thinking she would work for the Foreign Service or an international nonprofit, she spent several years living overseas, culminating in her term of service in the Peace Corps in Senegal. Peace Corps changed her life forever; it led her to her husband, Jesse, also a former Peace Corps volunteer, and also led her to writing.

In Senegal, Shepherd worked in an elementary school where the library was filled with European fairy tales, stories about “rich Parisian kids.” Her students couldn’t relate, so she and a colleague created a book—a collection of folk stories—in French, which was the language used for written communication. The book, illustrated by a local artist, allowed the children to read stories that originated in their own culture. For the first time, Shepherd says, “I thought I understood how books are made.” The project also helped her better understand the idea of story. During this time, she also kept a blog about her adventures, frustrations, and epiphanies. Yet she still didn’t consider writing as a possible career.

After her return home, a chance meeting with an acquaintance led to Shepherd’s starting to write. Her first efforts were in middle-grade fiction. She wrote articles and stories for children, and eventually two books of stories of international adventures for kids, but knew they weren’t good enough for publication. She kept writing, eventually realizing that, as she says on her website, she “wasn’t sweet enough to write fiction for that age and found myself writing young adult literature instead, which doesn’t require nearly as many tender moments and includes a lot more cursing.”

While Shepherd enjoys reading adult literary books, she prefers writing stories with big stakes and high imagination for an audience—teenagers—that loves adventure, horror, and romance. To them, the world “is still enormous. They have a sense of wonder, that anything can happen, limitless possibilities.” So, as Shepherd continued to write, her protagonists aged, her themes became “more mature,” and her books evolved into YA fiction.

She wrote a complete YA novel, a psychological thriller, but still wasn’t sure if she could make the grade. Alvina Ling, who oversees the Middle Grade and Young Adult lists at Little, Brown and Company, read Shepherd’s work and told her that she would be published one day. Encouraged, Shepherd kept writing and submitting. Her first published novel, The Madman’s Daughter, has won awards and enjoyed strong sales in the U.S. and internationally, and Paramount Pictures has bought its film rights. She recently completed the second and third books in that trilogy and has begun work on another YA trilogy.

At a Great Smokies Writing Program workshop that Shepherd conducted at UNC Asheville in April 2014, she described YA literature as “an age-range, not a genre.” The protagonist is almost always a teenager or “an adult character who appeals to young adults, like Indiana Jones.” YA fiction is “full of big ideas.” It is fast-paced and full of excitement, and is built around “big subjects,” such as first love, sex and drugs, finding one’s identity, bullying, pregnancy, parental issues, hormones, and other cultures. Topics like divorce, Alzheimer’s, and job-related struggles do not appeal to this audience.

YA can be a “blend of genres.” One story can contain elements of romance fiction, gothic horrors, the paranormal, and science fiction. Some YA fiction is “very dark,” and the story is about “overcoming that darkness, working past it.” Like teen readers, the protagonists spend a lot of time in “reflection and introspection.” Thus, the stories are often written in first person and often in present tense.

A challenge for Shepherd is staying in touch with the teenage zeitgeist. She doesn’t have children, isn’t “mentally stuck at sixteen,” and doesn’t actually remember much about what it felt like to be sixteen, but she does remember those times in her life when she went through periods of change. She talks about trying to find her place in the world, to understand the world, and finding excitement and wonder in her adventures and discoveries. She draws on these memories as she develops her characters, who all travel on this same journey.

Shepherd finds inspiration for her books in her travels, her serene writer’s cottage at her farmhouse, and the creativity of other YA authors. She especially admires Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Collins, Holly Black, and Laini Taylor. Gaiman, who wrote comic books and adult fiction before YA fiction, is “so bold in his career.” Shepherd loves how he uses different media to tell his stories; he’s “now doing movies, video games, travel[ing] around the country doing storytelling…always doing something new.”

Suzanne Collins, author of the renowned Hunger Games series, showed Shepherd that YA books can have a “lot of meaning,” but “not at the expense of telling a good story.” Shepherd works toward writing a “thrilling story that carries a little more weight without getting bogged down.”

Holly Black’s work “walk[s] the line” of combining supernatural elements with the real world, “making her world an enhancement of our world, something I find fascinating.”

All of these authors combine the best of what Shepherd strives to achieve in her work: an exciting story with “tons of romance and adventure” set in an imaginary place that allows the exploration, through the eyes of teenagers, of the questions of culture, humanity, and differences among people.

These topics pervade Shepherd’s first trilogy, which follows the adventures of sixteen-year-old Juliet Moreau, the daughter of the mad Dr. Moreau—first seen in The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells—as she searches for the truth about her father and his reported gruesome experiments turning animals into humans. Her quest darkens when someone or something follows her back to London from the island and begins murdering people close to her. The series concludes as Juliet confronts her very nature: will she continue her father’s legacy or create her own?

Shepherd’s second series, The Cage trilogy, follows six teens from different countries and cultures. An “otherworldly race” captures them and puts them in a human zoo. Their cage is “a biosphere-like enclosure with all of Earth’s habitats, time periods, and cultures crammed into an interesting mismatch.” The teens struggle to get back home, “if home is still there.”

To keep young readers involved, Shepherd packs these books with adventure. The teen protagonists must solve puzzles, such as scavenger hunts and mazes, in each habitat; hopefully, readers will try to solve the puzzles along with the characters.

Shepherd’s love of travel and her experiences with several cultures are reflected in this series. The diversity of the captives and the habitats they encounter derive from places she’s lived and visited. She also drew upon her experience working for Asheville Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Arts, which oversees the WNC Nature Center, where the health and entertainment of the animals in the center depended on “enrichment activities.” Shepherd invented analogs to those activities for the caged human “specimens.”

Shepherd’s foray into sci fi and the improbable continues with works she already has on the burner. Her story in a YA anthology, Slasher Girls and Monster Boys, will be out in time for Halloween, 2015. This contribution is her first short story, and it evolved from something she wrote earlier and shelved.

Shepherd mines her ideas for stories from observing people in diverse places and situations. All the stories she is interested in telling “have a global scale. I try to have characters with diverse backgrounds and diverse beliefs, who may be from different places.” She’s also very interested in psychology and “what makes us human,” and looks for ways to weave that concept into her stories. She says, “I look at how we’re different, and how we’re the same, of course. Storytelling is a great way to convey that.”

In her books, Shepherd strives to invent new worlds by combining the familiar with the fantastic. She finds that her understanding of “so many different art forms and music and art from around the world” enhances her creativity and gives her a greater base of knowledge from which to imagine possibilities.

A seeming idea factory (she has about twenty to thirty partial books on her computer), she finds that maybe one in twenty ideas will actually be workable. She “can usually tell right away if an idea won’t work.” If it won’t, she saves the work, maybe to be used later, and comes up with another idea. Shepherd says, “I tend to be cutthroat with ideas, because you have to spend years on a project.” She asks herself if it’s an idea she loves enough to work on that long. When she does hit on a viable prospective story, she’ll brainstorm and start writing. She won’t start writing immediately, however. Why?

Shepherd believes that her first take is the same one anybody else would come up with. She puts that first idea aside and asks herself “what else could it be?” as many times as it takes. She waits for the “fourth or fifth or sixth” idea, one that is “truly original,” to find the twist that isn’t predictable.

This process can take a month to six months. Shepherd waits for moments of isolation—on long car rides or plane rides, for example—when she can let her imagination run free. Sometimes listening to music stimulates her thoughts. She might jot down scene or ideas for characters, mulling them over until she has “a really good grasp on character and motivations, so they feel really real, and don’t just have convenient motivations.”

When Shepherd starts writing, she will plot only the first third of the book, because “things change.” She then reevaluates where the story is going and continues from there. She enjoys brainstorming and drafting, but finds editing “tedious, although so important. That’s when a book goes from mediocre to great.”

Shepherd has always been connected to her surroundings, appreciating the outdoors and nature. It’s there that she feels most comfortable and grounded. To nurture her creativity and craft, and bring her closer to nature, she and her husband bought a 125-year-old farmhouse in a rural community outside Brevard.

When Shepherd talks about her house, she becomes animated, eyes shining. “The house is on five beautifully landscaped acres I have to maintain.” It is her cocoon, a safe place in which she can create dark tales from another world.

She writes in a cottage on the farm property. “It’s very small, and looks like a summer camp cabin.” Its sparseness—a tiny porch, a desk, a chaise longue, and no Internet—and the views that surround it, create a peace and beauty that make it “the best creative space a writer could ask for.” Shepherd and Bascom, her little dog, (“the scruffiest mutt you’ve ever seen—he has big eyebrows and looks like Tramp”) are in the cottage every work day. On those mornings when she gets a late start, or needs a push to put “butt in chair,” Bascom, whom Shepherd calls her writing assistant, just might lead the way to the office and “guilt [her] into writing.”

Although she has an ideal space in which to write, Shepherd has had to develop a structured process to produce pages. She leaves all of her work in the cottage, so she can “get out of work mode” when she goes home.

Getting back into work mode isn’t as easy. How she does that depends on what she needs to do that day. She may make lists, or try to “fill the creative well” by reading books or watching a movie or television—two media that often spark ideas for her—or take time away from the project or “just write frantically.” She says, “When I just start writing, I know it will lead to something better, and it usually does.” She admits that it’s rare “for all conditions to be perfect and for the muse to strike, so I’ll force myself to write for the first ten minutes and then I’m back into my story again.” Shepherd says it’s important to let herself off the hook for not having “the most brilliant sentences right off the bat.”

Within four to five months of hard work, Shepherd generally has a finished first draft, which she revises over the next few months with critique partners, and then during another four to five months with her editor. It takes about a full year for her to produce a finished draft, and go through the formal editing process, which takes about another year.

Her critique partners are “definitely a mix.” She found her first partners online through the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) website. Her partners were all over the world and, she says, the group “was wonderful.” When she moved to Asheville, Shepherd joined “the Secret Gardeners,” although she was the only YA writer in that critique group. She also took a Great Smokies Writing Program workshop in YA fiction, taught by Joy Neaves, and found it very helpful. She mentions as an aside that her colleagues in the GSWP class critiqued her first published novel and “gave [her] the confidence to send it off.” She still counts some of those colleagues among her partners today.

When Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, bought The Madman’s Daughter trilogy, Shepherd joined a critique group with others who would debut in the same year. She says, “I found it helpful that they were familiar with the editing and publication process.” She also thinks it important to find critique partners who are familiar with and interested in the genre for each project.

Separate from the subject and genre of the project, Shepherd also seeks feedback on whatever is her current stumbling block—a need for “pure encouragement,” plot, or characterization—and appreciates having a network she can tap into for the different challenges she faces in creating her novels.

While she “adores critiquing, loves tearing things apart,” she’s not sure that others appreciate it quite so much. But it is an essential part of the process, and she concedes, a thorough critique “is better before [a work] is published than after.”

Shepherd embraces technology as an aid. She uses Scrivener® for drafting her pages. She finds it convenient to put “all different drafts in there, including character profiles and research,” even though she has to convert her files to Microsoft Word®* to track changes or send her work to critique partners. She also uses Word® to upload her drafts to her Kindle**, which allows her to “see the book as a finished product.”

Shepherd frequently thinks about what she would do if she weren’t a writer. She enjoys photography, largely because it allows her to capture images of her two loves: nature and traveling. As a child, she was passionate about animals and their natural habitats, and still is. She was heading in the direction of working with wildlife by studying environmental education and environmental science in college, before her travel adventures brought her to writing as a career.

She still finds peace and solace in her connection to nature. Every day, she gardens, along with Bascom, taking in the views of a neighbor’s duck pond and the French Broad River, visible from her farm. “I enjoy homesteading stuff—making yogurt this morning and baking fresh bread,” and taking frequent hikes. Because of her busy schedule, Shepherd has had to abandon—she hopes temporarily—another favorite activity: horseback riding.

No stranger to big cities, Shepherd still needs her urban fix every now and then. At those times, she goes to Asheville, where, she says, “I daydream in coffee shops,” or writes in Malaprop’s Bookstore. Some of her other favorite haunts are the French Chocolate Lounge, the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, and Top of the Monk, a “new little speakeasy upstairs from the Thirsty Monk.” The “Prohibition-era cocktails” and the ambiance combine to create “a great historical feel.”

It should come as no surprise that one of Shepherd’s favorite things to do is browse bookstores—“when I have an unlimited gift card. I’m a bookaholic and I love buying books.” To her, an e-reader is a work tool. When she reads for enjoyment, she still prefers to hold a book in her hands and turn the pages.

While not formally trained as a writer, Shepherd is familiar with all aspects of the writing and publishing process. She acquired her knowledge and skills through “trial by fire.” She quickly learned that the business side of publishing is “a whole other skill set you have to learn very fast.” She generously shares her hard-earned knowledge with others.

Shepherd offers succinct advice to aspiring or non-published authors: “It all comes down to craft.” No matter how good a writer is as a “businessperson, at finding agents, or writing the best query letters, or marketing and creating websites,” it’s all about the story. “Without a really quality book, you won’t go anywhere.”

Although she has several years of experience and several books to her credit, Shepherd still feels “like a beginner. Every book I write feels like the first book I’ve ever written.” She constantly reads books on craft and wants to take workshops again.

Because “it’s all just storytelling,” Shepherd sometimes finds guidance in nontraditional places. Good movies and television shows have shown her how to structure a story. One example she gives is the television series Lost, which she calls “an inspiration.” Since The Cage trilogy involves six POV characters, each with an “unusual backstory,” Lost, which had a complex story line with many characters—all with rich backstories—helped Shepherd navigate the complexities of presenting her story without getting tangled up in the details of each character’s life.

Shepherd also turns to screenwriting books for deconstructing storytelling, especially plotting. Two of her favorites are The Anatomy of a Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby, and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Shepherd’s final admonition to writers is this: “Never lose sight that writing should be 90 percent of what you do and what you think about, and the business side should be 10 percent.”

While she is skilled in the business aspect of publishing, she’s happy to leave it to others to bring her books to market so that her parents can still show her off in their bookstore in the small mountain town of Brevard.

Megan Hansen Shepherd, a North Carolina native and resident, was named the New Voices Choice of 2013 by the American Booksellers Association  and was recently awarded the Young Adult Book of the Year from the North Carolina School Librarians Association, both for her first novel, The Madman’s Daughter. She was also a finalist for the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) Award and a winner of the North Carolina Young Adult Book Award. Megan has been named the keynote speaker for the annual convention of the International H.G. Wells Society in Durham, England.

Marie Hefley, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing Program and Managing Editor of this publication, is a graduate of the Masters of Liberal Arts program at UNC Asheville. She invites you to read her interviews with Cynn Chadwick (Issue 6), Wiley Cash (Issue 9), and Terry Roberts (issue 10) found in the Great Smokies Review Archives.

* Microsoft Word is either a registered trademark or trademark of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

** Kindle is a trademark of, Inc. or its affiliates.