Author Megan Shepherd and her family live on an old farm on six acres in the town of Etowah, near her native Brevard. They keep bees. Chickens roam the backyard. There’s a wooden shack that once stored corn, and there’s a small, rustic guesthouse where Shepherd—accompanied by her 6-year-old Terrier mix, Bascom—does much of her writing.
“As a writer, I spend so much time in my head and I struggle with actually physically connecting to the world,” Shepherd said. “So to get out there and have to breathe fresh air, work in the soil, be in nature, it’s really a healthy lifestyle. I quickly discovered I’m a terrible gardener, but I love it. For me, it’s a perfect balance.”
It’s also a stark contrast to the fantastical worlds Shepherd creates in her fiction for young adults. In much of her writing, she explores what it means to be human by contrasting and often morphing people with animals. It’s a premise connecting her several of her published novels, including her latest, “Midnight Beauties,” focusing on animals turned by a witch into her human servants.
Shepherd reads from “Midnight Beauties” Aug. 14 at Malaprop’s Books in Asheville and Sept. 13 at Highland Books in Brevard.
“I try to surround myself with animals, and you see a lot of personality and a lot of emotion in them,” Shepherd said. “I think they’re a good contrast for humans and a good way to step outside the human experience and look at humans from something else’s perspective.”
Shepherd grew up in the thick of literature—her parents owned Highland Books for 40 years. But after graduating Brevard High’s Class of 2000, Shepherd joined the Peace Corps, worked with elementary schoolers in Senegal and thought she would find a career somewhere overseas in international relations.
All the while, she wrote.
“When I first started writing, I was writing for young kids, like picture-book age. I wrote some really terrible picture books that never got published and shouldn’t be published,” she recalled with a laugh. “But every manuscript I wrote, the protagonists got a little bit older, until I hit upon that teen voice, and it just sorta clicked for me.”
After moving back to this area with her husband, Shepherd found the Great Smokies Writing Program. Her classmates included Constance Lombardo, Jaye Robin Brown and Alexa Duncan—all went on to author bestselling books.
Through that program, Shepherd workshopped her book “The Madman’s Daughter.” It’s a Gothic thriller inspired by the H.G. Wells classic “The Island of Doctor Moreau.” That launched a three-book series through HarperCollins that landed Shepherd on the New York Times bestsellers list for young adult fiction.
“A lot of people think once you get published, everything you write then gets published. But I like to tell writing students I’m teaching I have a 50 percent track record right now,” she said. “So for every book I write that’s been published -- and I have nine that are published -- I have nine more that are shelved, that didn’t sell or I knew weren’t good enough and I had to abandon.”
More than reflecting her evolution as a writer, Shepherd said her latest, two-book series illustrates the ear she has to her audience.
“After you have a few books come out, you’re used to hearing back from readers and reviews, and it just changes the way you think,” she said. “It’s not just you in a vacuum anymore, you’re really writing for teens or for people who might be influenced by your book, and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.
“Even if I’m writing a book about fairytale characters in a magical Paris, they’re still characters facing struggles I think young people can relate to,” she continued. “Questions of authority, power—especially when it comes to female characters—so in a way, my books are unintentionally political.”
With a 1-year-old son and a daughter due in December, Shepherd is still prolific. She left a recent retreat to her in-laws’ cabin in Saluda with 14 new chapters of a book on the way.
“Having kids and thinking about them growing up, it makes me think back to my own childhood,” she said. “More middle-school age (literature), and I’m starting to write for slightly younger kids, because it reminds me so much of what it feels like to be that age.”