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Doug Dorst and Jenny Boylan on fiction, invention, and zombies

Doug Dorst and Jenny Boylan on fiction, invention, and zombies
September 18, 2009 Jennifer Boylan

aliveinnecropolisIn late summer, 2009, Doug Dorst (ALIVE IN NECROPOLIS) and Jennifer Finney Boylan (SHE’S NOT THERE; I’M LOOKING THROUGH YOU)  shared this brief exchange about writing, invention, and the nature of zombie mutants:

Jenny Boylan:  Doug, I loved your book.  One of the things I found so engaging about it was the tension between the realism of the police/detective sections, on the one hand, and the more invented and imagined sensibilities of the zombies.  Did you have a hard time balancing the two?

DougDorst:balancing the two storylines (living folks dead folks) was by far the most difficult part of writing the novel. In the first draft (which was about 900 pages), the dead people ran away with the story, largely because I was having such a good time inhabiting their world. I had developed a Root-based economy for them, along with some pruno-bootlegging wars, and… well, it’d take me about 900 pages to describe it. I’ll just say that it was a bit of a mess.

In the second draft, I cut the dead folks back to the point that they were no more than grace notes in the narrative–which pretty much stripped them of any purpose for being in the book at all. My editor helped me find more of a balance in the third draft, but I was still trying to fine-tune it until the last minute.

Jenny Boylan: I wonder, sometimes, if there is less of a difference between the laws of writing “horror” fiction, as a genre, and writing “realism,” than readers–and writers–think.   Did you feel like you were encountering a whole different set of rules, in terms of what your reader might be willing to believe, when you switched from zombies to cops?  Or did you find that your cops and your zombies both were constructed from the same writers’ toolkit? (I’ll note, as an aside, something my friend Richard Russo once said to me;  I’d been working on an allegedly comic scene in which some guy winds up wearing pants made out of ice cream (don’t ask), and he just shook his head and said, “See, the sad thing is,  given the way your mind works, Boylan, you think this is realism.)  Anyway:  cops? zombies? Same approach to both for you as a writer?  Which one was harder to make real?

Doug Dorst: Wait– ice cream pants aren’t real? I begged my parents for them when I was in middle school. I suppose it’s for the best that they said no.

Anyway: Same toolkit, different tools, I think–say, socket wrench vs. crescent wrench. I mean, character is character, regardless of genre, don’t you think? Either that person-on-the-page’s experience feels emotionally true in some way–even if it’s not perfectly grounded in everyday realism–or it doesn’t.

The living characters were more challenging because they had to experience a range of emotions truthfully. The dead were drawn a bit more simply– my intent was for them still to be motivated by the sorts of things that motivate the rest of us, but in an amplified or distorted way. (You’ve got Phineas Gage, for example, with his monomaniacal need to possess this object that he needs in order to feel whole.) If the underlying emotions feel somehow recognizable, then I think you have a lot of latitude to play around with the sort of world the character is operating in. (And “play” is the right word there… one of the reasons I wanted to work in the world of Colma’s dead was that I thought it’d be fun–a big ol’ sandbox where I had thousands of cool toys and got to make all the rules, too.)

As for what readers might be willing to believe: I didn’t overthink it, and it’s probably for the best that I didn’t. I was aware that I was writing a strange little (well, sprawling) book that straddled genres and made use of both the everyday and the fantastic. At some point, after a great deal of worrying, I figured that there was no way for me to predict how readers (who no doubt would have different tastes or sets of expectations) were going to respond and that I should just follow the characters wherever they took me. In retrospect, that was the best decision I could’ve made, although I didn’t fully understand why at the time.

So, yeah: character. I think it’s what makes realist fiction work, and I think it’s what makes the very best genre fiction work–e.g., The Shining (Stephen King’s book, I mean. The film is terrifying, but for different reasons.). I figure it’s what makes all the stuff in between work, too. In short: whether our person-on-the-page’s trousers are made of denim or Rocky Road (ouch), what matters is that we believe in his experience of wearing them.

I would love to see that ice cream pants scene, by the way. Any chance I can convince you to share it?

Jenny Boylan: Doug, as you well know, some drafts are better left unshared.  Although I can tell you that the key line I kept straining to get at in that story was this: One person has forced our hero to wear the pants made out of ice cream–which, if I recall right, were one leg vanilla, one leg chocolate, and the crotch strawberry–making these “Neapolitan” pants– and then says, sadistically, “So!  How do you LIKE wearing these pants made our of ice cream NOW?” And our hero says– and this is the single phrase I was reaching for– and I quote, “They’re cold!”

To change the subject a little, I’m curious about the way you leave some questions unanswered in ALIVE IN NECROPOLIS–and other questions are answered, but only slowly.  Was this part of a conscious  plan, following Dickens’ motto of, “Make’em laugh, make’em cry, make’em wait?”  Or was the difference between your 900 page first draft and your much-shorter final draft the difference between answering all questions, and leaving some open?  Do I smell a sequel?

Doug Dorst: I don’t think that it was a strategic decision to “make ‘em wait”. It was more that I was having a lot of fun working on a large canvas, and I made my peace early on with the fact that the novel was going to be a little shaggy and sprawly. I think one certainly could do a much shorter, tighter, and more action-focused cut of the book — and who knows, maybe that’d be a better book –but it wouldn’t have been the book I wanted to write. Or, more precisely, it wouldn’t have been the one I wanted as much to write at the time I was writing it.

As for the unanswered questions: some were definitely a result of my having to cut the manuscript in half. Some things I chose to scale back, and some things I chose to cut out. (There are also a couple of things that I chose to cut, but I screwed up and didn’t cut them out completely– so, yeah, there are a couple of sore thumbs in there that make me cringe a little. Live and learn.)

Another big struggle for me was the ending. When I finished the third draft, I realized with some horror that the book went on for over a hundred pages after the climax of the action because I had so many ends to tie up. I decided that I couldn’t subject the reader to a hundred pages of denouement and that I’d have to make some sacrifices in order to bring the proceedings to a close more quickly. In retrospect, did I make all of the best choices? Probably not. But again, all you can do is make your peace with the idea that the book is what it is, move on to the next project, and try to turn your regrets into learning experiences.

How about you– any tales of post-publication regret? And if so, how did you deal with it?

Jenny Boylan: I think there are different kinds of post-publication regret.  There’s the little kind, where you find something you missed– a copy-editing mistake, or a vestigial trace of an earlier draft you forgot to sand down;  those make me sad, but not for long.  Then there’s the other kind, where you look at a whole book you’ve published, and say, kind of resentfully, “Oh jeez. What’d you all go and let me do that for?”  There’s at least one book of mine I’m still wondering, What  was I thinking?  Fortunately, nearly fifteen years later, it’s out of print, so the damage at this hour  is somewhat  contained.

On the other hand, as someone who’s been well published over the years, I have to say that post-publication regret is a luxury.  It’s no-publication regret that breaks my heart.  I remember what it was like to keep getting those rejection slips. Anybody who survives long enough to publish a book–even one riddled with mistakes, as mine always are– should still be grateful. Period.

I like your comments about “writing past the ending.”  I have heard both Stephen King and Richard Russo talk about this.  It’s funny, we always think of ourselves as writers struggling to come up with the satisfying ending– but we think less about the not-uncommon affliction of writing right past that ending and coming up with chapters and chapters more stuff.  I think this is why they have closing times in pubs, in Ireland, anyhow.  There are a number of projects I’ve found myself at the 700 page mark where I wish someone would ring the bell and say, “Hurry up please, it’s time.”

I’m actually at about the 650 page mark on my own next project– is this where I get to plug it? This is a young adult series, commencing with volume one, FALCON QUINN AND THE BLACK MIRROR, which is a book about monsters.  The quick pitch:  when kids in a certain town reach thirteen, they start turning into monsters: Banshees, vampires, mummies, the works.  So they get sent to a “school” where they’re taught how to disguise themselves, how to pretend to be humans, in order to survive.  So the question becomes:  What’s the right thing:  to pretend to be something you’re not, in order to live? Or to embrace your  “true self”, even if your true self is, say, a zombie.

Which I hope will be a gas for young people to read– I wrote FALCON QUINN with and for my middle-school age boys–but you don’t have to squint real hard to see that these books are sort of about some of the same issues I’ve been writing about for the last seven years, only in a more oblique and playful way.  It’s very freeing, writing about zombies.  I should  have done it years ago.

I guess this is a good place to leave things, unless you want another chance to dodge the question about a sequel to ALIVE.  What next for Doug Dorst, besides faculty meetings and syllabi?   A novel about bugs and spiders, maybe?  Tell you what, next time YOU have the sex change, and I’ll write about SF cops and–as Groucho Marx once noted, “outside of the improvement, you’ll never notice the difference.”

Doug Dorst: Whoops— didn’t mean to dodge the sequel question. I suppose the ending of Necropolis might work well as a bridge to a second book, but that wasn’t my intent, and I don’t currently have plans to write a sequel. Every now and then, though, I do find myself wondering what the next chapter in Mike Mercer’s life might be like. So who knows? If the right “Mercer 2.0” story finds me, I’ll write it. For now, though, there are other projects I’m excited to be working on. One of these is the short-story collection (The Surf Guru) that’s coming out next year, which I’m putting the finishing touches on as we speak.

As for the next novel: will there be dead people in it? There aren’t yet, but, again, who knows? (I’m a big fan of William Kennedy’s work, and dead folks slip into his novels all the time.) I agree that it’s freeing to write dead characters—I wonder if it’s because you somehow have more license to super-size their desires and their quirks. Or maybe it’s just fun to refuse to play by the rules of everyday reality. Whatever the reason, when I was writing Necropolis, it was usually the dead-person storyline that would get me excited about writing again after a dry spell. And believe me, there were some dry spells.

The next novel will definitely have its share of horrible, crawly bugs and spiders and other critters. Some of it takes place in Central America, and if there’s one thing that moving to Texas has taught me, it’s that the farther south you go, the scarier the insects are. I hadn’t planned on any of the characters (or the author) having a sex change, although I now think you’ve just given me a way to liven up the third act.

Falcon Quinn sounds like a blast—and a great way of approaching what I think is the most fundamental question a person can face: how to harmonize who you are with who you present yourself to be. (And middle school is right about the time that it gets excruciatingly difficult.) In a way, that’s the very issue that Mercer and Jude struggle with throughout Necropolis. Anyway: I’ve got a place on my bookshelf reserved for Mr. Falcon Quinn, and I look forward to meeting him on the page.

As a final thought, I just want to echo my agreement with something that you put quite well: post-publishing regrets are a luxury. Writing is a hard gig, especially in this economy, and I know a lot of incredibly talented writers who are having trouble getting their work out. I’ve caught more than my share of breaks, especially lately. Case in point, OneCity One Book—in which I get to have my book widely read in the city I love most, and through which I’m getting the chance to talk to a lot of amazing, talented, and inspiring people about words and stories and writing. Case in point, Jenny Boylan.

Jenny Boylan: Well, case in point, your own damn self.  Thanks for this exchange, Doug, and I do hope I get to see some of your Texas bugs some day. Although, just out of home-state pride, allow me note that  while Maine blackflies might be small, they do get the job done.  Congratulations on a fine book, and good luck with the next one!  J.

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