Red in tooth and claw
In The Madman’s Daughter, Megan Shepherd revisits the H.G. Wells classic The Island of Dr. Moreau from the point of view of Juliet, the doctor’s daughter. Forced to leave her London home, she travels to the island where the father she thought had died is still conducting cutting-edge experiments—sometimes on live animals. The story is full of big ideas, romantic intrigue and exotic locations, but it’s also intense, dark and scary.
There’s an amusing contrast when I reach Shepherd by phone at her home in Asheville, North Carolina: She’s still pinching herself over her good fortune. “It’s a debut novel, so I still can’t believe all this has happened,” she says.
“All this” encompasses a lot for Shepherd. She’s about to launch The Madman’s Daughter with a signing at Highland Books, the store her family owns in Brevard, North Carolina, where she used to work. But the book is the first in a trilogy, which she’s still writing, along with a second series, which took shape, she says, when she asked fellow attendants at a writer’s retreat, “‘Has anyone ever written a book about a human zoo?’ And it was just . . . silence.” People told her, “That’s the weirdest idea we’ve ever heard,” so she gamely dove in.
When asked where the inspiration for The Madman’s Daughter came from, she laughs. “It came out of my love of television, actually. I was a huge fan of the show ‘Lost,’ and thinking I’d like to set a book on a mysterious island, maybe with scientific experiments going on . . . and I realized, oh, H.G. Wells already did that!” But while rereading The Island of Dr. Moreau, she noticed, “There are no female characters in the book,” so the potential was there for a new story to unfold.
While the characters and story will remain consistent throughout the trilogy, the second book draws inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the third from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “It’s a challenge to do,” says Shepherd, “and I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think it would feel organic, but now that I’m deep into books two and three, it just works. It works perfectly to do it that way.” The three Gothic novels have much in common “in terms of the dangers of science, arrogance versus science, man versus self, man versus animal and that kind of thing.”
There are big questions raised by The Madman’s Daughter, which contains some harrowing scenes of experiments done on animals (Dr. Moreau’s work centers on surgically combining animals to create an “improved” almost-human being). For Shepherd, an avid horseback rider and co-parent with her husband to two terribly spoiled cats, the scenes were hard to get through. “I’m a huge animal lover, which made this book tough to write,” she says. “I get a little shaky even thinking about it because I scared myself writing those scenes. It was a challenge.”
Although the island is chock full of animals and manimals, Juliet still manages to round up two hot love interests: Montgomery, her childhood friend, now employed as the doctor’s right-hand man, and the mysterious Edward Prince. “My first draft didn’t have as much romance in it,” Shepherd allows, “but my editor and I both enjoy that, so I decided to put a little more in. A book can have romance in it and still have lots of other elements because people are just as complex as books can be.” There’s an advantage to the historical setting, too. “[In] the Victorian time period you could just mention a wrist or an ankle and it was so sexy. There doesn’t have to be gratuitous sex in the book. It can be subtle but still very sexy.”
The book is so assured for a first-time effort, I asked Shepherd if her time working in a bookstore gave her literary chops via osmosis, or influenced her decision to start writing. She says that’s nearly the opposite of what happened. “I had such reverence for books that until just a few years ago I never even dreamed that normal people could be authors! Books were these sacred things, and the idea of the people that wrote them? I thought they must be somehow special.” She says, “It never occurred to me to be a writer until about five years ago. I decided to give it a try, and my husband and my parents were just super-supportive, and I pretty much instantly became obsessed with it and fell in love, and ever since then it’s been my absolute passion.”
That’s a good thing, since she’ll be at it for a while. When asked what she does when she’s not writing, she reminds me, “Right now because I have six books under contract, I’m pretty much only writing” for the foreseeable future. When things settle down she’ll likely travel and make time for some hiking, and she says, “I’d love to be able to read more for pleasure than for work.”
For now, bringing The Madman’s Daughter and its sequels into the world is priority number one. I asked if Juliet would be returning to the island in later books and was surprised to hear it’s unlikely. “I will say that she is probably going to find herself in similar situations in other really cool locations. The second book takes place in London in wintertime. It’s almost the opposite of the island, but there are quite a few scenes that take place in the Royal Botanical greenhouse, so that captures that steamy jungle atmosphere in these little pockets within the city.”
While marketers have labeled The Madman’s Daughter Gothic horror, Victorian romance and a host of other labels, Shepherd has always thought of the book as historical science fiction. “I wanted to try to write a book that would be both entertaining and that . . . would let [readers] think about complicated questions.” At the end of the day, she says, “I hope that readers get swept away into the world [of the book] and escape from their own lives for a while. If they come away having learned something or having felt something new, that’s even better.”