Night Shade Books have been publishing a slew of talented new authors this year, and it’s been great to discover ever-more novelists to follow: NSB’s authors often operate in the more esoteric reaches of the SF/F genre, and they have brought the reading public many great and original voices. Michael Dempsey, the author of Necropolis, is one of these newcomers, and given the intriguing plot of his novel (resurrected dead getting younger), I thought it would be a great time to ask him a few questions about his work, writing, and more.
Your debut novel, Necropolis, was recently published by Night Shade Books. How would you introduce the book to new readers?
Necropolis is a sci-fi noir crime novel set in a dystopian future. The protagonist, Paul Donner, is an NYPD detective with a drinking problem and a marriage on the rocks. In the opening pages, he and his wife are shot to death in a “random” crime. Fifty years later, Donner is back – revived courtesy of the Shift, a process that reanimates dead DNA. The Shift has turned the world upside down. This new “reborn” underclass is not only alive again, they’re growing younger. Beneath the protective geodesic Blister than covers the city, clocks run backwards, technology is hidden behind a noir facade, and you can see Elvis every night at Radio City Music Hall. In this retro-futurist world of maglev Studebakers and plasma tommy guns, Donner searches for those responsible for the destruction of his life. His quest for retribution leads him to the heart of the mystery surrounding the Shift’s origin and up against those who would use it to control a terrified nation.
What inspired you to write Necropolis, and where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Often it’s straight from life, but it can also be more mundane: I’ve written pieces just because I needed a story to go with a cool title that I came up with! History is also a big source of ideas to me. I love real, weird occurrences, like someone stealing Kennedy’s brain from the National Archives, or a man building a secret subway under the streets of New York in the 1800s. Both of those events inspired plays or screenplays of mine. And, of course, art inspires art – which is why writers must be voracious readers. It may be true that there’s nothing new under the sun, but still, the permutations are endless. How many songs and symphonies have been composed using the same 12 notes? Ultimately, it always boils down to: as the writer, what widens your eyes and quickens your pulse?
I grew up loving both science fiction and crime stories, especially noir. One of my film noir faves was D.O.A., with Edmund O'Brien. It has the most awesome opening scene ever: the hero walks in to a police station and says, “I want to report a murder.” “Whose murder?” the cop asks. “Mine,” says the hero. He’s been given a slow-acting poison and only has a couple days to solve his own murder. How great is that? Still, it cheats a little – he’s not really dead until the end. I wanted to figure out a way a detective could really solve his own murder – I mean, after the fact. That’s where the science fiction came in.
In Necropolis, some of your characters are not growing older, but growing younger. What sort of difficulties did this present for you, and how did you wrestle with this aspect of your novel?
Reverse aging was one of the core premises of the story from the beginning – going back to the original screenplay version I wrote more than ten years ago (way before Benjamin Button). An event like the Shift seemed like the perfect solution to my dilemma of how I was going to revive my detective, Paul Donner, so he could solve his own murder.
The concept also opened a very rich vein of material in many areas – psychological, cultural spiritual. Reversal of the aging process is at such fundamental odds with the laws of the universe and our world that it was fascinating to explore how an event like this would impact a culture. What’s the religious, social and political impact? What would a woman who has accumulated 110 actual years of life experience – but have a biological age of 40 – be like? Do you get your possessions back? Can you be prosecuted for your pre-Shift crimes? How would a 16 year-old kid cope with a father who has just turned 15? How do these reborns cope with the certainty that their future involves a kind of anti-Alzheimer’s: regressing into youth, then slowly losing function as the brain devolves? Then sent to a reborn care facility until they eventually become an infant and then a fetus and then just a puddle of cells?
As far as world-building goes, it also allowed me to justify what I wanted to do stylistically. I’d wanted a retro-futuristic culture with a noir sensibility (mostly, I admit, because it turned me on!). The Shift gave me a plausible explanation as to why a culture would adopt such conventions, beyond it simply being cool. They’re literally hiding in nostalgia because the world has become too confusing and incoherent to them. So I had a reason for the fedoras and a reason to put a dome over New York and a reason to hide plasma weapons in tommy gun exteriors. And I also had a way to tie my detective’s murder investigation into much bigger dealings that ultimately lead all the way to source of the Shift.
Plus, Donner’s being a reborn makes him an underdog. I like to throw as many obstacles as I can at my protagonist because it’s inherently more dramatic. A man, revived in a future culture he doesn’t know, with no allies or friends or family, a man who suddenly discovers that he’s a member of the world's most hated minority – well, this guy has a hell of a lot more to overcome than your average gumshoe. Donner literally gets three blocks from the Revival Center before some cops beat the shit out of him. It raises the stakes.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I love it and consider myself blessed. There was a gap of some years between my film/TV career and this first novel, so many of my old contacts had dried up. I literally had to start from scratch, sending cold emails to agents, doing the endless submission routine. In this tough publishing climate, where everyone in the industry seems to be circling their wagons, I knew the odds were against someone taking a risk on a first-time novelist. But the people at Night Shade Books, bless their hearts, are aggressively looking for the next generation of genre stars, and they’re putting their money where their mouth is by releasing premieres from a whole slew of new writers. I was lucky enough to be discovered by them. And they not only decided to publish the book, they felt it was in good enough shape to be fast-tracked. Bam! Seven months later, it’s already in stores. That’s incredibly lucky and very unusual. But of course, it’s a tough profession and I’m also prepared for that.
As to my writing process, I firmly believe that ten pages of crap are better than no pages. I write every day no matter what, first thing in the morning before life can get in the way.
If you’re doing it right, there’s a lot of research involved. You can’t be impatient and skimp on the details, because they really help make the world more three-dimensional. I lived in New York City, so I knew it well, but I still had to do a lot of research into specific neighborhoods, history, etc. Because the culture has gone “retro,” I had to find out what kind of clothes did people wear in the 1940s? How did they speak? And because I could bring back real people as peripheral characters, I’d research them. I also had to bone up on the science of aging and viruses. I won’t tell you why, but I even had to explore ancient Persian rulers and citadels! I really love the fact that writing forces me to learn things I wouldn’t otherwise have known. The internet is a wonderful tool, but nothing replaces talking to real people and visits to the library. But it’s great to be able to hop online and find some nice details that add specificity to a scene, be it a piece of clothing or furniture or the fixtures in a restaurant, in a jiffy.
Writing is rewriting. Especially in the early chapters of the book, I often take the time do some real polishing as I go, instead of just roaring through an entire first draft. It helps me define the world better, nail down the style, etc. It can be a dangerous practice – you can’t get too set in your ways or fall in love with your own words, because who knows what’s about to come around the corner? One of the hardest things about being a good writer is being willing to kill your babies when they’re not working anymore. It’s why I show my work to a core group of trusted friends. If they all tell me to lose the same bit that I currently love, I know it’s time to bite the bullet.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
For my ninth birthday, my parents bought me a little manual typewriter. I wanted to write stories like Isaac Asimov. I think I even sent some into the magazines (without mentioning my age) and got a couple nice rejection letters. That was exciting. Then a fifth grade teacher took a story of mine – I think it was called “The Terrorizing Monster,” typed it, bound it and put it in the class library. That was all it took to turn me into a writer!
Later, through all my playwriting, TV and film work, publishing a novel stayed in the back of my head – a childhood dream. I think it’s the hardest form to master, so I was intrigued by the challenge. The other reason I finally tackled it was geographic. When I moved home a few years ago to be closer to my family, it seemed the logical thing to do. To be a successful TV or film writer, you pretty much have to live on one of the coasts, but you can be a novelist anywhere.
While I love all the forms I’ve written in (and will continue to work in those), writing fiction is by far the best fit for me. Maybe it’s because of all those stories I banged out on that kiddie typewriter, but this has felt like coming home.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Truthfully, I’m not enough of an expert to pontificate about its strengths and failings. And since this piece blends a whole bunch of genres: science fiction, horror, crime, mystery, cyberpunk etc., I really just took the things that I thought were the most exciting and dynamic from each of them, tossed them into a pot, and hoped that the result would be tasty. I think the elements blend well and enhance each other. I hope that they maybe even bring out some new tones, some new resonances to perk up the old formulas. It’s fun, for instance, to have a holographic girl utter hard-boiled Raymond Chandler dialogue!
Of course, the tech noir/sci fi noir/dieselpunk genre of Necropolis (depending on who you ask) is a direct descendant of William Gibson’s work, and before that, writers like Alfred Bester. Bester’s The Demolished Man was maybe the first science fiction crime novel I ever read. I also think Necropolis has a lot of similarities to urban fantasy. There are a lot of common elements; I just decided to revive my detective through scientific, and not supernatural, means.
What projects do you have currently in the pipeline?
Well, hopefully Necropolis will be successful enough to engender a sequel. I have a couple ideas simmering about that already. I’m also working on a comic supernatural novel and a more mainstream techno-thriller. I tend to follow my best ideas, regardless of what genre they take me to.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
Right now I’m reading True Detective by Max Allan Collins and wondering how I could have missed it all this time. It’s a truly stellar fictional detective story set in the real world of Prohibition-era Chicago. I’m also reading Shakespeare in preparation for teaching a master class.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a fairly accomplished stage actor and director. I began as a musician on a violin scholarship to Ohio State University, but caught the acting bug and pursued an acting degree. After that, I wrote plays in New York, mostly comedies, which led to my writing for network television sitcoms in the mid-1990s. So my path to novelist has been circuitous, to say the least. I still act and direct a lot of theater in Northeast Ohio, where I currently live. It really helps me get out of my head.
I’m looking forward to (hopefully) developing a readership with this book and then getting out there and meeting them! It’ll be a blast to start hitting conventions and not only connecting with fans but my new peers – this is, after all, a new industry for me. So many people have already been so gracious and giving of their time, support and feedback. Many of them are people who don’t even (yet) know me personally. So I can’t wait to shake those hands and offer my thanks in person, and maybe even buy them a drink!
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Night Shade Books have kindly allowed me to give away one copy of Necropolis to a lucky reader. All you have to do is comment on the post, and a winner will be selected at random on Sunday 25th November. Don’t forget to check back to see if you won!
If you follow the blog (on the left), and/or Civilian Reader on Twitter, I’ll also give you an extra entry into the competition.