First-time author Megan Peterson was excited. Her first book has been published and, while she’s got plenty of author’s copies at home, she wanted to see “The Liar’s Daughter” on a bookstore shelf. It is, after all, her debut novel.

So she and a friend headed to Barnes and Noble in Mankato, where the book is on sale.

Well … was on sale.

In a “that’s a good problem to have” kind of development, B&N was sold out.

First time author. Hometown bookstore. Sold out. Nice.

“There was one left, but it was on hold,” Peterson said. “They let me put it on the shelf and take a picture of it. Then I had to give it back.”

Hopefully by the time you read this, B&N will have restocked its shelves with copies of “The Liar’s Daughter.” Peterson’s debut novel may be fiction, but it’s based, at least in part, on things she experienced growing up in Mankato, including being involved in what she described as a “cult-like” religious sect in town.

Peterson, a lifelong Mankato resident who attended Mankato West High School and Minnesota State University and worked at Capstone Press, found herself plunged into strange territory during her junior high school years. Her parents abandoned their loose ties to a Methodist church in town in favor of allegiance to a church movement she declined to name.

At first she was all in. A rule follower and perfectionist, Peterson said she believed the church’s teachings and wanted to please her parents and church leaders. But eventually, she said, she examined things more closely and questioned her loyalty to the church. She became rebellious and started actively moving away from it. Eventually, her parents let her and her sister leave the church altogether, and they followed suit a few years later.

But the harm had been done. The church didn’t celebrate birthdays, Christmas and other holidays, and frowned upon having friends outside the church. Homosexuality was grounds for excommunication. And among its teachings was the belief that nonbelievers wouldn’t survive the coming Armageddon. All of these beliefs and teachings left permanent marks on her psyche, which would prove useful later.

Fast forward several years and Peterson is working at Capstone Press as a book editor. She quits her job to devote more time to her personal writing and her dream of becoming a novelist. She writes a handful of manuscripts that don’t get a lot of traction among publishers (including one plotless effort about a girl whose behavior prompts her parents to send her to grandma’s for the summer.) And then she writes the early drafts of what would eventually become “The Liar’s Daughter.” A literary agent suggests this tale of a young woman kidnapped into a circus-like group would be improved if the circus was replaced with an actual religious cult. So she taps into that painful past and rewrites it, using some of the painful memories as the foundation for the young protagonist’s story.

“There was definitely times when I was writing this and I was crying and mad at my parents,” Peterson said. “We never went to church before and now we’re in this weird world? I was upset.”

“The Liar’s Daughter” tells the story of a child kidnapped at age 5 by a religious cult and brought up in a world where she was brainwashed and programmed to think like the church wants her to think. At age 17 the girl, Piper, is reunited with her birth family, a family the cult had said was made up of government agents. The narrative shifts around a bit but runs mostly backward; the book opens with that birth family reunion.

The story of how Peterson and this book caught the attention of a publisher is decidedly unorthodox. She doesn’t have a pile of rejection letters from publishers because she entered a book pitch contest on the online social media site Twitter. Based on a super-brief description, a representative from the Holiday House publishing company contacted her and requested to see the manuscript. After that she shopped around for, and found, an agent.

So now, after beginning the book in 2015, workshopping it with fellow writers she’s met online and changing the book’s dramatic focus, she’s in a place where she can walk into a bookstore and see her book on the shelf … or not.

Fellow writer Jill Kalz, author of the short story collection “The Winter Bees,” says she’s confident Peterson’s novel will resonate with people the way the first chapter did with her.

“Megan’s the best kind of writer: authentic,” said Kalz. “She knows herself and stays true, does the hard work, grows from any missteps along the way, is generous with and supportive of others in our southern Minnesota arts community, and she embraces humility. Not a doubt in my mind that this book’s going to find its way to readers far beyond the area and hook them hard. With that delightfully disorienting first chapter as bait? You bet.”

Peterson’s next book falls in the so-called “young adult” category. It is a work of fiction based on a few true crime stories, such as the popular Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.”

Robb Murray is the Features Editor for The Free Press. He can be reached at 344-6386 or Follow Robb on Twitter @FreePressRobb

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