Meg Shaffer is a part-time creative writing instructor and a full-time MFA candidate in TV and Screenwriting at Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri. Find her online or at home, watching Hitchcock films and/or writing Star Trek fan fiction when she should be doing her homework. Her debut novel is The Wishing Game and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Wishing Game?
Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka and a This American Life episode I listened to years back came together to form the basis of The Wishing Game. My 3rd-grade teacher showed us Wilder's Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory one day at school. I think she was grading papers, and it was raining out. A movie is the best way to shut up eight-year-olds. Not sure what my classmates thought of it, but I was mesmerized by the film. I loved the idea of Willy Wonka playing this deranged factory owner who was secretly trying to find a kid to be his heir.
This American Life did an episode called "Just South of the Unicorns." It is the true story of a teenage boy who didn't get along with his stepdad, so he figured out where his favorite fantasy author lived (Piers Anthony in Florida) and showed up on his doorstep.
I made my Willy Wonka figure a children's author and my Charlie, a young woman who once ran away from home to her favorite author's house, hoping to live with him and escape her neglectful, uncaring parents.
And books, of course. All the kid's books I loved as a child were the inspiration. Everything from A Wrinkle in Time to The Phantom Tollbooth and The Westing Game went into the story. The Wishing Game is really a love letter to the books we all loved as kids.
Are Lucy, Christopher, Jack, Hugo, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by, or based on, specific individuals?
Jack, the famous children's author, is very loosely inspired by R.L. Stine. His Goosebumps books have outsold Stephen King's adult horror novels. My husband is definitely a Hugo. Both are hilariously grumpy artists. Lucy has a bit of me and every other book lover I know in her.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
I usually don't miss the scenes I edit out once they're gone. It's like cleaning house when you edit. Everything that ends up in the trash belongs there.
One of the most significant changes is that in the story's first incarnation, Lucy didn't have a sister. She just had terrible parents. Her parents were so bad though, that I couldn't in good conscience let her reconcile with them. They're hopeless. But when I decided to give her a sister, I knew I could take the story somewhere very meaningful.
What was your inspiration for Clock Island? Is it based on a real place (in/near Maine or anywhere else)?
Can't remember where I saw it, but years back, I saw a fun poster map of Block Island, which is off the coast of Rhode Island. The bottom half of Block Island is almost circular, and the poster map had points of interest marked on it like numbers on a clock. Clock Island immediately sounded like a fantasy children's book series, along the lines of the Magic Tree House books or Percy Jackson.
Was there an author and/or book series that was as significant to you growing up as Jack and the Clock Island series is for Lucy? If so, who is the author and what is the series?
My life changed when I read A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle) in the 5th grade. Something about that book captured my imagination like no other book had before, and that's saying something. I've been a voracious reader since kindergarten. That book combined everything I was fascinated with into one beautiful story—magic and fantasy, science, religion, philosophy, romance, hope... It's too religious for atheists, too occult for Christians, but it was absolutely perfect for me. It hit my heart like a bulls-eye. I even went for "Meg" as a pen name in tribute to Meg Murry.
[Embarrassing confession. As a kid, I somehow got it in my head that people called Madeleine L'Engle "Madam L'Engle,” like she was a fortune-teller or something. I assumed it was her honorific the way Sinatra was "the Chairman" and Billie Holiday was "Lady Day.” She was Madam L'Engle.]
Your publisher’s biography says that you are a fan of Alfred Hitchcock and that you write Star Trek fan fiction. What is your favorite Hitchcock film? Your favorite Star Trek series? Favorite character?
I don't actually write Star Trek fan fiction. No time! But I did write a Star Trek: Strange New Worlds spec script for my MFA program in TV & Screenwriting. It was homework. But TV spec scripts are just fancy fan fiction in script format. It's an episode I called "The Masque of the Rec Deck," and it's a Halloween-themed story. After shore leave gets canceled to do a quick survey of a ghost planet, Captain Pike (love Anson Mount as Pike!) decides to improve morale by throwing a Halloween party. But the ghost planet is haunted and causes the crew to have waking nightmares. It's a fun episode! Not to brag but I got an A. I'm your classic Star Trek fan. I adore all the captains and love Spock any way I can get him—young, old, book Spock, movie Spock, Leonard Nimoy, Ethan Peck, Zachary Quinto. Of course, Nimoy, is the Platonic form of Spock, but I love everything all those actors have brought to the character.
My favorite Hitchcock film is an easy question—North by Northwest. Best character arc in cinema. A man whose flaw is being a fake has to embrace being a fake spy to become a real man. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman was a genius! But I have yet to be disappointed by any Hitch film. Everything from his silent masterpiece The Lodger (1929) to his mid-career British films like The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps to his Golden Era of To Catch a Thief, Rear Window, Rope, Vertigo, Psycho…they all hold up so beautifully.
If Hollywood called and offered me my dream job as a writer it would be #1—write for Star Trek and a close #2—help reboot Alfred Hitchcock Presents. (But first, they gotta pay their writers. All my love and support to the WGA during their strike.)
The Wishing Game has a strong cinematic sense to it and would make a marvelous film or series. If you were able to cast the production of The Wishing Game, who would your dream cast be?
If someday the book is turned into a film, I'd love Tom Hanks as Jack. I want him as Jack so much I put in a scene with Jack's manual typewriter collection since Tom Hanks loves typewriters. Selena Gomez would make an excellent Lucy. She has so much heart as an actress and can do humor and heartbreak equally well. Dan Stevens, the British actor, would make a fabulous Hugo. Dust off your Cockney accent, Dan!
What’s currently on your nightstand?
My husband got me the most amazing short story collection for Christmas called The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, From Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin. Fantastic stories in that anthology. There's A Handmaid's Tale-type story from 1955 and a climate change disaster story from the 1920s. Women have always been a part of science fiction ever since Mary Shelley invented the genre with Frankenstein.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
I can name five authors I adore, but please don't ask me to rank them.
Ray Bradbury, I love him for his joy and enthusiasm and his incredible infinite imagination. His stories are like a literary circus. There's something weird and wild everywhere you look.
I used to call Toni Morrison "America's greatest living writer," but now that she's passed, she's become "America's Greatest Writer." You can learn anything you need to know about the art, craft, and power of writing by reading any of her books. Paradise is my personal favorite. It's a tour de force.
Of course, Madam L'Engle (see what I did there).
I'm obsessed with Nathaniel Hawthorne. He's a fascinating man with a very complex psychology, even changing his name from Hathorne to Hawthorne in protest of his witch-hanging ancestors. And he was so handsome in his day that Herman Melville had a massive and very public crush on him and dedicated Moby Dick to him. But also, while in his personal life, he held very backward views about women, his female characters are so lovingly rendered, so powerful, so complex and interesting and respectful that I think, deep down, he was on their side far more than any of his male characters. Hester Prynne and Hepzibah Pyncheon are two of the most authentic female characters ever written by any man or woman. I visited The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, like going to a holy shrine. A painting of Hawthorne hangs in my bathroom. I know it’s weird. I accept that.
How many is that? Four?
As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?
I’ve written all my life and published before, but this was my first hardcover fiction book release. Everything was very small-scale before The Wishing Game. Hardcover fiction publishing is an entirely different ballgame. There’s a lot more support from the publisher, but the stakes are a lot higher too. Expectations are higher. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, though. It’s been fantastic. Took many years to get here, but I’m so grateful to get to do this for a living. Beats working retail (which I’ve done).
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Never. My mom's philosophy was, "As long as you're reading, I don't care." Great philosophy. It worked for me. Kids self-censor. If a book is too grown-up for them, they'll put it down. Every happy, well-adjusted adult I know was reading Anne Rice and Stephen King in middle school. None of us turned into vampires or like to chase our spouses around ski lodges with axes. As far as I know.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
In high school, I faked it a few times, much preferring to read books I wanted to read than the book assigned to us. I went on a Terry Brooks tear and completely ignored the assignment to read Crime and Punishment and The Scarlet Letter. Considering how much I love A Scarlet Letter now, I should revisit Crime and Punishment to see what I missed.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
I love a retro pulp cover. Hard Case Crime or 1950s retro sci-fi...it's pure eye-candy. You cannot look away from the cover of The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner from Hard Case Crime. The cover is as fabulous as the book, and the book is incredible. I dream someday of writing a book that gets a Chesley Bonestell painting for a cover. Something set on Titan maybe?
Is there a book that changed your life?
I can’t remember the name of it, but years ago, I read a pretty bad book. Very bad, actually, but it still got published! And I remember thinking, “Well, I could do better than that.” Let’s just say many writers get over their imposter syndrome simply by reading widely. But if you ever say that to a writer, “I could do better than that,” then you better be prepared to prove it, because it is a lot harder to write a novel than you may think.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
The Keep by Jennifer Egan. People get the idea that meta-fiction or experimental fiction is cold and cerebral. This book proves them all wrong. It's touching and thought-provoking and weird and wonderful. If I can talk someone into reading it, they always thank me.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I'd be a happy woman if I could wipe my memory and be blown away again by the twists in An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears. I'll never recover from that book. One brilliant Rashomon twist after another...
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
I'm working my way through the original The Twilight Zone. While I wouldn't want to live in the 1950s for all the money in the world (maybe just a one-day visit to hang out with Ray Bradbury and Rod Serling, there had to have been something in the water back then that gave all those old sci-fi legends one brilliant, twisted idea after another. Sometimes it seems like every mind-blowing sci-fi concept was born in the 1950s, and we've been living off them ever since. Makes you want to start chain-smoking and drinking whiskey for breakfast (Kids, don't smoke or drink whiskey for breakfast. Unless it works for you. Who am I to judge?)
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I'm an introvert who has to be gently coaxed and/or bribed to leave my house. My happiest days are spent at home reading, sleeping, eating ice cream, and watching something fun with my husband. We both fell madly in love with the film Charade recently. The second the movie was over (Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn—what a dream team!), my husband ordered the Henry Mancini soundtrack on vinyl and the film on DVD. Nothing better than finding something new to love with the person you love, right?
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
No one ever asks me, "What are your favorite writing quotes?" And they should because I have two great ones! I'd get them tattooed on me, but tattoos are pricey, and I'd rather buy more books.
The first one is from Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing: "I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room." I have a toy dinosaur and gorilla on my desk to remind me to forget trends and fashion and instead follow my heart and my passions when writing.
The second is from The Last Unicorn by the legendary Peter S. Beagle: "Real magic can never be made by offering someone else's liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back."
What are you working on now?
I’m hard at work on edits for my next book for Ballantine. While The Wishing Game is an homage to Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, the new book is loosely inspired by The Chronicles of Narnia. I guess you could say I write middle-grade books for adults.