By Andrew Cohen
For Doug Dorst, apparently the first time’s a charm. The past year has seen his first short-story collection get published, his first play earn rave reviews, and his first novel become San Francisco’s pick for its annual One City One Book initiative.
Dorst was “thrilled and completely stunned” when San Francisco chose his debut novel, “Alive in Necropolis”, as the centerpiece of One City One Book. The program encourages San Franciscans to read and discuss the same book, with city libraries and bookstores hosting various gatherings to inspire conversation about it.
But if all this recent success has changed the 1995 Berkeley Law graduate, you’d never know it from talking to him.
“I’m still learning how to do this,” he says. “You can improve your writing, but you never master it. My book took years to write, it was initially meant to be a short story, and the first draft wound up 900 pages long. Ridiculous for a novel, and truly absurd for a short story.”
The One City One Book honor is particularly meaningful to Dorst, who lives in Austin, Texas and serves on the Board of Directors of Austin Bat Cave, a non-profit writing center for kids.
“Any program that helps young people become interested in reading is extremely worthwhile,” says Dorst, an assistant professor of creative writing at St. Edward’s University. “Even if it means subjecting them to my book.”
A Splashy Debut
All humility aside, “Alive in Necropolis” received a glowing full-page review in the Sunday New York Times—heady stuff for a first novel—and just came out in paperback. Another review described the book as part police story and part ghost story with a “splash of teen angst and a hefty dose of black humor.”
Rich with Bay Area imagery and set in Colma, California—a designated place of burial where 1,200 residents live among two million graves—“Alive in Necropolis” centers on a rookie cop who navigates a thinning line between the living and the dead.
The expanse of Dorst’s creative mind is also evident in his debut short-story collection, “The Surf Guru”, and his first play, Monster in the Dark, which enjoyed successful runs in San Francisco and Berkeley. Local reviews hailed it as “masterful” and “fascinating throughout”, and SF Weekly cited it in naming the venue, foolsFURY Theater Company, San Francisco’s best theater of 2008.
Dorst didn’t intend to become a writer when he enrolled at Berkeley Law, but his three years on campus steadily stoked that ambition. After graduating from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he spent one year at a law firm but then “got offered a writing fellowship and that was it.”
A list of honors soon followed, as Dorst was named a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford and later received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener/Copernicus Society, and the MacDowell Colony. But even amid the One City One Book honor and his suddenly soaring success, Dorst remains firmly grounded.
“It’s incredibly gratifying that all these young people will get to read my book if they so choose,” he says. “Of course, it also makes me worry about damaging an entire generation of young San Franciscans.”
Truthfully, however, Dorst sees “Alive in Necropolis” as accessible for pretty much all audiences: “It’s hard to go wrong with dead people walking around and foul-mouthed cops.”