Sunday, June 28, 2009

Doug Dorst (Interview by Charles Tan)

Doug Dorst - Alive in Necropolis

What made you decide to use San Francisco as your setting?

Alive in Necropolis started out as a short story that took place in Iowa City, where I was living at the time. I got nowhere with it, though, so I put it away for a year or so, until I had moved back to San Francisco. The local newspaper ran a feature piece about Colma and its cemeteries, and I realized that that was the setting I should use for this story (which starts out with a chance discovery in a graveyard). I had lived nearly all of my adult life in the Bay Area, and I felt like I could write both passionately and confidently about it.

Since Alive in Necropolis is your first novel, what was the most challenging process? How did you overcome it?

The most challenging part of writing the novel was following the advice that many friends had given me: on the first draft, just keep going -- even if you don't know where you're going, even if you think everything you're writing is terrible, even if you'd rather do anything but sit down and face the screen. Just write and write and get to the end, without agonizing over the little stuff, because you're going to have to go back several times to revise, anyway. I have a perfectionist streak, which is useful when I'm revising but deadly when I'm trying to generate new material. I spent a ridiculous amount of time polishing my first 50 pages, and guess what that got me? Fifty shiny-brite pages, and the vast majority of a book still to write (and many people not-so-subtly clearing their throats and tapping their watches).

Another friend of mine taught me the trick of setting a timer for 20 minutes and challenging myself to write a draft of a full scene in that time. No backspacing, no fixing things, no pausing-- not even to think. I'd end up throwing away 95% of the actual text that came out during that stretch, but I'd nearly always end up with a detailed map for a scene that flowed organically, felt alive, and had something surprising in it. It's a great way to get un-stuck.

Character is important in the book. How did you get a handle on the characters and what made you settle on the Point of View you used?

Some of the characters revealed themselves immediately, and I understood them intuitively. Others took me much longer to understand, and I had to keep writing (and, in most cases, throwing out) sketches of scenes with them in order to figure them out-- not just as individuals, but also in terms of their relationships with other characters in the book.

As for point of view, I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work in limited third person. I was at first inclined to use only one viewpoint character (Mercer, the cop), but the story kept getting bigger and bigger, and I needed to be able to write scenes that he wasn't in. So I ended up using a rotating third person, which allowed the narrative to range farther afield and also get deeper into the inner worlds of more characters.

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