Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Douglas Dorst on Policing the Dead in "Alive in Necropolis"

(This interview was originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2008)

The town of Colma, outside of San Francisco, has 2000 live residents and two million dead ones buried in the cemeteries that surround the area. In his witty and dark debut novel “Alive in Necropolis”(Riverhead, $25), the writer Doug Dorst tells the story of Mike Mercer, an emotionally distant rookie cop patrolling the cemeteries of Colma who discovers that he can see and police the dead.

Mercer finds out that a vicious gang led by the 1930s “public enemy” Doc Barker is terrorizing the dead of Colma, and learns that the late Sergeant Featherstone in his department died trying to bring Barker down. Mercer puts together an unlikely posse of ghosts to wipe out Barker and his criminal allies: Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a philanthropist with a passion for firemen and arson; the foppish daredevil pilot Lincoln Beachey, and the unstable Phineas Gage. The resulting novel is eerie and hilarious.

Dorst, 38, was educated at Stanford University, UC Berkeley and the Iowa Writers Workshop. He spoke with freelance writer Dylan Foley by cell phone from a small town in Washington State.

Q. You’ve said that your novel evolved from a short story about a man walking his dog in a cemetery. How did “Alive in Necropolis” become a mixture of a ghost story and a crime novel?

A. I realized that even my straightforward story wouldn’t work as a short story. It was already too big. When I decided to set the story in Colma, I found out that there were so many fantastic dead people buried there. A man like Phineas Gage (a railroad worker who had survived a three-foot rod being blown through his face) was a gift from the writing gods. I had gone on a writing retreat to my parent’s cabin in Vermont and I found out Gage’s accident had happened nearby. I also found out he had been buried in Colma. It was too good to pass up.

In writing the novel, I was looking for something that would be fun, because I was intimidated by taking on such a big project. The phrase “keeping the peace in the city of the dead” had the potential for both pathos and humor. My model for this was William Kennedy’s “Ironweed.” I loved how Kennedy introduced the idea of “Yep, ghosts are part of this landscape.” I love that kind of freedom in storytelling. Why be hemmed in by what is real?

Q. Two Colma police officers, Featherstone and Mercer, believe they can see the dead. What effect does this have on them?

A. Both Mercer and Featherstone are men who have not have a great deal of success in finding themselves. They are lonely and isolated. In Featherstone’s life, it was a bit of a relief to have this role with the dead, where he is the man. He had a job to do and had confidence and success in doing it. It was a way of hiding from the real world, which wasn’t giving him what he needed. That is true with Mercer. As things fall apart for him, that world of the dead is more exciting. It’s scary but also thrilling to be the one that interacts with that world.

Q. Would you call Mercer a dark soul?

A. He’s someone who likes to be alone, but at 29, he hasn’t acknowledged that yet. He’s spent most of his life drifting from one slacker job to the next, He thinks the world is leaving him behind. That’s not a foreign feeling to me. When I was 28 or 29, I really felt behind the curve. I was sending out story after story, getting rejection after rejection, and was beginning to wonder if I was kidding myself.

Q. Why did you make the infamous Doc Barker a central character in the cemetery criminal underworld?

A. I knew I wanted him there because there had to be a bad guy, and he’d probably work in a gang. He is a brooding character. In his life, his fingerprint on a gas can eventually led the cops to finding and killing his mother and brother. He has a vicious sense of guilt.

Q. After eight years working on the novel, do you believe in ghosts?

A. I’d love ot believe in them. I think the world would be a far more interesting place with ghosts, but I am a pragmatist and a secular humanist.

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