Novelist Shea Megale Adds a UVA Chapter to Her Own Extraordinary Story

Shea Megale describes writing as a window to the world.

“I started writing just to experience different things,” said the second-year student, who transferred to the University of Virginia this year and navigates Grounds with her service dog, Pierre. “Writing could be another appendage for me, because mine do not work too well.”

Megale was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy II, a genetic neuromuscular disorder that has confined her to a wheelchair. It has not, however, confined her talent or her love for hearing and telling people’s stories. She wrote her first novel at 15 and has since written 13 more, including her first professionally published novel, “This is Not a Love Scene,” to be published in May by St. Martin’s Press.

Even before she wrote novels, Megale wrote and published several children’s books starring her first service dog, Mercer. Proceeds from the “Marvelous Mercer” series, which Megale began writing at age 12, go to Canine Companions for Independence, the nonprofit organization that trained Mercer, and to research organizations tackling neuromuscular disorders. Through the series, Megale earned media coverage on major news sites, from the Washington Post to CBS.  

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Megale, who transferred from Northern Virginia Community College this year, said she has received a warm welcome at UVA. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Prolific as she has been, Megale said she would now consider “only” one novel a year to be good progress, given her increased workload at UVA and the self-editing that comes with years of writing experience.

“The better writer you are, the more critical you become of yourself, and the slower you get,” she said. “If you want to write a lot, write fast early in your career, before you know you’re not invincible.”

“This is Not a Love Scene” (now available for preorder) focuses on Maeve, an 18-year-old filmmaker with a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Though Maeve’s disability is the most obvious, many of Megale’s other characters also grapple with disabilities, both visible and invisible.

Megale’s service dog, a Labrador retriever mix named Pierre, helps her navigate Grounds. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“Everyone is disabled in some way,” she said. “Even though this new novel is my first with an obviously disabled prominent character, all of my characters have some kind of disability.”

Another book, coming out in early 2019, focuses on a heartbreakingly personal struggle. “American Boy” is a memoir about Megale’s older brother and one of her primary caregivers, Matt, who died in 2017 after a heroin overdose at age 26.

“It’s a story, it’s a biography and it’s part self-help,” said Megale, who wrote the book with input from Carrie Wilkens, a psychologist, co-founder and clinical director of a prominent substance abuse treatment center.  

“She offers clinical guidance and perspective and I just tell the story of my brother through the eyes of his little sister,” Megale said.

Matt Megale struggled with drug use for years. But his sister wants people to know that her brother was much more than his addiction. He played a huge role in her life, as a brother and a caregiver, and he encouraged and helped her pursue all sorts of adventures, from ziplining to skiing to traveling the world.

Megale wrote “American Boy” after losing her brother Matt in 2017. The siblings were close, and Matt was one of his sister’s primary caregivers. (Contributed photo)

Asked if writing the book helped with her grief for her brother, Megale offered an emphatic “no.”

“It was very difficult. Some people say they write to relieve pain, but that has never been me,” she said. “It wasn’t therapeutic, it was just something that I had to do. I did it as a gesture of love to my family, and it was meant to be painful. We are trying to make his life meaningful.”

Proceeds from the book will go to organizations fighting the opioid crisis in America and provide scholarships for recovering addicts to enter rehabilitation centers, which can be prohibitively expensive.

Opioid addiction “is like cancer now,” Megale said. “Everyone knows someone that is affected by it. There have been more deaths to opioids now than the entire Vietnam War.” According to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control, more than 72,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2017, averaging about 200 deaths per day. 

Megale hopes that her book will give readers a window past the stigma that often surrounds opioid addiction and help individuals and families currently struggling with addiction.

“I look at my writing, and my recent success in writing, as a beautiful platform to be able to reach people, look in people’s eyes at book signings and events, and let them know that you care about them, and that in some small way you understand what they are going through,” she said. “That is what writing can do.”

Even as her two books near publication, Megale is focused on challenges and opportunities closer to home – settling into life at UVA after two years at Northern Virginia Community College, choosing a major and learning all she can from her professors and fellow students, all while continuing to grieve for her brother and adjust to life away from home.

“Being a transfer can be difficult, it can be hard to break in,” Megale said. “But everyone has been very kind and given me a very warm welcome.”

She enjoys living in Brown College, where she has an accessible ground-floor suite that is convenient to her classes and nearby dining halls.

“It’s very central, it’s beautiful, close to the food,” she joked. “I love it.”

Her current service dog, Pierre, lives with her. The Labrador retriever mix knows more than 60 different commands and can help Megale navigate Grounds independently. For example, if she drops a remote that controls the door to her room, he can retrieve it and bring it back to her, preventing her from accidentally locking herself out.

Though not officially part of his job, he’s also a great mood-booster for Megale’s classmates and professors. She has even taken to holding “office hours” of sorts for Pierre, inviting students – many of them missing their own dogs at home – to come by and say hello.

“Students and professors love him,” she said.

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Megale has not yet chosen a major, but said she loves history and anthropology.

“I just love learning people’s stories,” she said. “I’m interested in many different periods of history.”

She was particularly inspired by the late anthropology professor Roy Wagner, who died suddenly in September after a decades-long career at UVA. Megale attended his funeral and was the only undergraduate student to attend a drum circle held in his honor.

“He meant a lot to me, even though we only brushed shoulders, because he scrambled my imagination like no other,” Megale said.

Lisa Toccafondi Shutt, an assistant professor and director of undergraduate programs at UVA’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, teaches Megale in her course, “Food and Meaning in Africa and the Diaspora.”

So far, she has been very impressed with Megale’s writing.

“I just love her words. They are powerful and whimsical at the same time,” Shutt said. “It’s so vivid – you see and hear and feel what she is experiencing.”

Even more impressive, the professor said, is Megale’s curiosity.

“She is so engaged and so interested in everything,” Shutt said. “She asks deep, probing questions and keeps asking questions. She wants to learn about everything she can.”

In keeping with that curious spirit, Megale is also studying astronomy. Professor Steve Majewski worked with staff in the astronomy and physics departments to design and build a special adaptation that would allow Megale to use the large telescopes in the Astronomy Department’s labs.

Astronomy professor Steve Majewski designed a stand for the department’s telescopes to allow Megale to easily peer into them. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Students typically stand to look through the telescopes, but Megale could not reach the viewfinder. Majewski and his team created an adjustable metal arm to support the telescope, allowing Megale to roll her chair directly up to it and take a look. The device is available for any student to use.  

“They did all of this measuring, designing, labor and installation for free,” Megale said. “It’s really awesome.”

“We wanted very much to accommodate Shea, and any student in a similar situation,” Majewski said. “It was great to be able to work with Shea to think through the problem, and to find a way to encourage her and help her keep pursuing astronomy.”

He praised Megale’s enthusiasm in his class, and her willingness to ask and answer questions.

“She is completely undaunted, and a wonderful, active student,” he said.

However, as much as she enjoys her classes, perhaps the most important lesson Megale has learned at UVA is more general than astronomy and history.

“In high school and community college, I worried about every grade and point,” she said. “If I got a 98 instead of a 100, I would be mad at myself.”

UVA, she said, feels different. She still works hard, but she sees the intellectual value of all she is learning, rather than seeing each class as a step toward a perfect grade.

“For some reason, it feels different now. I am not obsessing over my grades,” Megale said. “I am looking forward to getting value out of what I am learning, rather than just valuing grades. That’s an important change, and one I didn’t necessarily expect.”

When she told one of her advisers about that change, Megale said, the woman began to clap.

“I was shocked at first,” she said. “But she was just happy that I felt that way, that I was here to join the intellectual community, more than anything else.”

It’s a community Megale hopes to get to know even better over time, building the kind of strong relationships that have inspired and sustained her as an author, an activist and a friend.

“I just want to add an invitation,” she said. “Anyone reading this, if they are struggling with isolation, with addiction, or just want someone to talk with, I am a writer, and I will write to them. If anyone wants to write to me, I’d be more than happy to have that connection.”

According to Shutt, Megale has already made a good start.

“Shea really connects with people,” Shutt said. “You can see it in her writing, but you can also just feel it when you are with her.”

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications