I read “Alive in Necropolis” at the beginning of June and really enjoyed it. I ended up sending a link of my review to the author, Doug Dorst, and we have been emailing sporadically ever since. I am very pleased to share with you all a guest post from Doug, as well as a giveaway of two copies of “Alive in Necropolis.” See the bottom of this post for giveaway details.
First off, my thanks go out to Jen for inviting me to guest-blog. Her review of Alive in Necropolis was the first one that I encountered from a reader, and it meant (and means) a lot to me. After working on the book for so long, it’s been gratifying to find out that people are getting some enjoyment out of it. Especially people who aren’t related to me and thus aren’t obligated to like it.
How long did it take? Eight years and then some. Longer still, if you count the year that I spent trying to write this thing as a short story, which, considering what a big, sprawly thing it turned into, seems very obviously absurd. Even though many of my friends are writers and dispensers of good advice, I had to make a lot of mistakes on my own—often twice or more. Example: I was on page 300 before I realized the book needed to be in present tense, not past. And that was one of the smaller mistakes…
Anyway… the book has been out for a few months now, and it’s gotten some really nice exposure—far more than I had allowed myself even to hope for. I’ve been very fortunate—it’s a tough market out there, with a lot of really good books competing for a dwindling supply of attention and resources.
I asked Jen what I should write about, and she gave me a few ideas:
o why you chose to write “Alive in Necropolis,”
o authors/stories that have influenced you,
o some things I’ve been reading.
So, here goes:
Why I chose to write this book:
I chose to write this book because my agent gently suggested that it was time to tackle a novel. Up until then, I had only written short stories (the publication of which, bless his heart, earned him 15% of damn-near-nothin’). I don’t know when I would’ve worked up the nerve to start a novel if I hadn’t had his support/reassurance/kicks-in-the-butt.
So: why Necropolis? As I said, I had been trying to write it as a short story, and it was resisting all of my attempts to keep it compressed. It seemed like it had the most legs of any of the ideas I had at the time, so I went with it. My agent then went out and sold the thing based on a few chapters and an outline. I blew through the advance almost instantaneously, and then I had no choice but to see the project through. (OK, I had some choices: I did contemplate faking my own death and moving to Costa Rica.)
The genesis of the story was a newspaper item that I read while I was in grad school in Iowa City: a kid had been left duct-taped to a tree in a local cemetery on a near-freezing night. He was found alive the next morning, barely, by a guy who was out walking his dog. I was interested in the kid’s story, obviously, but for some reason I knew I wanted to approach the material through the eyes of the guy who found him. This character didn’t become a cop until I had moved back to San Francisco, found out about Colma, and discovered that I had an acquaintance (now a good friend) who’d become a cop in one of the neighboring towns and who was a great storyteller. The more that I got into my research about Colma, the more I realized that it would be a shame not to invite some of the dead folks into the narrative. The dead-folks storyline could resonate with and support the primary narrative, and plus, if I was going to be having a long-term relationship with this project, I wanted to take any opportunity I could find to have fun with it.
Several years and nine hundred pages later, I had a first draft. The draft that you’ll be reading (or, in Jen’s case, have read) if you choose to accept this mission, is Draft #4, maybe 4-1/2.) Efficiency is not, and has never been, my forte.
Someone asked me if the story came to me fully formed. It didn’t. I had a few basic ideas about some characters and some events, but the writing process was very much a discovery process. That’s another reason it took so long—some characters and storylines came together easily, and some were really, really difficult to figure out. The first draft of the book served its purpose, but it would’ve been a terrible read—it’s painfully obvious when a writer doesn’t know his/her characters well enough and is forcing them through the narrative instead of letting them live on their own.
I also knew I wanted to work with the idea of a living cop attempting to police the dead, although it was not at all clear to me how (or if) that would work. Getting the two storylines working together in some balanced and engaging way was the most challenging part of writing this thing, and I was making fairly substantial changes that affected this balance right up until the deadline.
Authors/stories that have influenced me:
I’m a huge fan of T.C. Boyle. His novel World’s End also makes use of dead folks without being a ghost story in any traditional sense, and it’s one of the books that got me really fired up about writing. I also hold the wholly unoriginal belief that Gatsby is one of the best American novels ever. Other favorite novels: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Peter Matthiessen’s Far Tortuga (which is brilliantly written and a ripping high-seas tale at the same time), and Thomas Williams’ The Hair of Harold Roux (which deserves to be a lot better known than it is these days). Among my favorite short-story collections are Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Tobias Wolff’s The Night in Question, and Adam Johnson’s Emporium.
While I was working on Necropolis, I read Stewart O’Nan’s The Night Country, which helped me find the tone I wanted, and Amanda Davis’ Circling the Drain, which reminded me that one has to keep taking risks when writing.
I don’t read much horror fiction these days, but I grew up reading a lot of Poe, Lovecraft, and Stephen King, and I’m sure their influences are in the book somewhere.
I could go on and on with this—the list of books I love is not a short one—but I gotta stop somewhere, I suppose.
What I’ve been reading (in between Freshman Comp papers):
– Lots of election coverage. Too much, probably.
– The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier
– The 42nd Parallel by John dos Passos
– Best American Short Stories 2008
– Like You’d Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard
– The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
Now, for the giveaway information! Doug has kindly agreed to give away two copies of his book to readers anywhere in the world. You can enter by leaving a comment below. In the comment, you must write a tombstone epitaph for yourself (or, if that creeps you out, for a random person). Doug will choose his favorite to win one copy of the book. The other copy will be given randomly to one of the other entrants. Entries must be in by 11:59 Central Standard Time on Wednesday, October 22nd.