SciFiChick.com recently had the opportunity to interview Michael Dempsey, author of debut novel Necropolis, from Night Shade Books.
Can you tell us a bit about Necropolis in your own words?
NECROPOLIS is a sci fi noir crime novel set in a dystopian future. The protagonist, Paul Donner, is a Brooklyn police detective. In the opening pages of the novel, Donner and his wife are shot to death in a bodega, apparently as they stumble upon a robbery in progress. But Donner’s death is only the beginning of the story. Fifty later, Donner is brought back to life by an event called the Shift—a process that reanimates dead DNA. The process is believed to be caused by a retrovirus. The world has managed to contain the infectious “reborns”—and also the normal people who may be carriers—to the plague’s ground zero in New York City, and is in the final stages of completing the quarantine by way of a series of magnetic geodesic domes called the Blister.
This new “reborn” underclass is not only alive again, they’re growing younger. Society has partially coped with this psychologically devastating event by retreating into a cultural fad of nostalgia. So in Necropolis, clocks run backwards, technology is hidden behind a noir facade, and you can see Elvis every night at Radio City Music Hall. Donner is not at all sure that he want to remain adrift and alone in this bizarre retro-futurist world of maglev Studebakers and plasma tommy guns. But consumed by guilt and rage, he begins a search for those responsible for the destruction of his life—his only goal to solve the mystery of his own murder. As he pursues this quest for retribution, it becomes apparent that the events of his own murder are intimately connected to the origins of the Shift, and ultimately they will bring him up against those who would use it to control a terrified nation.
Your reanimated characters are not really zombie-like, since they seem to keep their personalities and don’t crave brains. What was your thought process behind these characters and the science behind it?
I really never thought of reborns as zombies. Of course, as I was writing the book, zombies hadn’t become popular again (nor had the whole urban fantasy trend really taken off yet). It wasn’t until I sold the book that the comparison started to be made. I love zombies and other creatures of the night, but (don’t kill me) I was never much of zombie fan.
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?
Reborns (and other plants and animals that revive) are brought back to life as they were at the moment of their death, and in the story, the mechanisms are not yet understood by science. Why does it happen to some organisms, and not to others? Is it really caused by a viral epidemic? Even many years after its appearance, the world is struggling to understand what has happened and the scientific community is scrambling to find a way to arrest this process.
Science fiction writers tend to imagine a scenario that cannot (or has yet to) happen, and use as much science as possible to justify it. Asimov didn’t know precisely how positronic brain would operate, but that didn’t stop him from creating books and stories about sentient robots. In regards to the science of Necropolis, we already know that many of the various mechanisms that collectively cause what we call “aging” can be already impacted by intervention, so it wasn’t too great a leap to imagine a future where the process is not only arrested but reversed.
Did you have to do much research for the science fiction elements or the retro aspect/noir feel of the future world?
Tons! I did a lot of research into the biology of aging, of course. Being a fan of film noir and the works of writers like Raymond Chandler and James. M. Cain, I already had a pretty good grasp of the tropes of the hard-boiled detective story. But I had to do a lot of digging into the specifics of that period’s style, clothing, and language. I also researched the details of retrofuturism, which is our contemporary fascination with how the past envisioned an idealized future. I did my best to ground some of those fantastical elements, like flying cars and robots and domed cities, in believable science. I didn’t want it to be cheesy—it needed a good reason for existing, other than the simply because it seemed terrible cool to me!
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m also a theater playwright, actor and director, so I’m working on some productions of my scripts. As far as novels, I’m in the middle of a supernatural story about the end of the world and also outlining a techno-thriller. Finally, I’m doing a lot of daydreaming about what would happen next in the world of Necropolis, should this book provide popular enough to engender a sequel.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your experience in writing.
I began as a playwright. I mostly wrote comedies and farces. I moved to New York City from Ohio and was pretty lucky—a talent scout from a Hollywood production company wooed me out to LA, and it wasn’t very long before I was writing for a network sitcom, Cybill, starring Cybill Shepherd. The “blender” process of group-writing television comedy wasn’t really right for me, though. I worked on screenplays for a while and then moved back to Ohio to raise a family. You have to live on a coast to be television or screenwriter, but you can be a novelist anywhere, so I decided to go back to my roots as a child writing science fiction and try my hand at a novel. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to sell my first work and find an audience that seems to really enjoy it.
What inspires you?
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 twelve notes? Ultimately, it always boils down to: as the writer, what widens your eyes and quickens your pulse?
Who are some of your favorite authors? What books do you love?
I’m pretty much an omnivore in my reading. I was a kid in the ’70s, so I fed upon early Michael Crichton and Steven King and The Six Million Dollar Man like everybody else, but I also loved the earlier pulp heroes like Doc Savage and Tarzan, and was particularly fascinated by the Golden Age origins of comic book heroes like Batman and Superman. I’m probably the only person in the world who would like to see a retro movie version of Superman as he was in the 1940s. As far as crime and mysteries, I’m a big fan of Richard Stark’s Parker series. Other crime writers include Andrew Vachss, Raymond Chandler and John Connolly. Chandler doesn’t get enough credit for the beauty and precision of his prose, in my opinion. All-time science fiction faves include William Gibson, Joe Haldeman and Alfred Bester. There’s a special place in my heart for Ray Bradbury. But the richest of all experiences continues to be Shakespeare…his works are bottomless in their brilliance…every time you dig, you just reveal more levels and more jewels.
What do you do when you’re not writing? In your spare time?
I’m very active in theatre in Northeast Ohio, and spend lot of time directing and acting there. Right now, for instance, I’m rewriting a play to direct in this summer and acting and also performing in a production of the musical Beauty and the Beast, both in Cleveland. Other than that, I do a ton of reading and play the violin.
Find out more about Michael Dempsey at his official website: http://www.necropolisthenovel.com/
Courtesy of Night Shade Books, I have a copy of Necropolis by Michael Dempsey and a signed artwork print for one (1) lucky winner!
Contest is open to US and Canada only. To enter, just fill out the form below. Contest ends December 30. I’ll draw a name on December 31, and notify winner via email.