The Long, Strange Trip to Nekropolis

It’s January 1995. I’m thirty-one years old and I’m living in Columbus, Ohio. My then wife is pregnant with our first child, and I’m teaching composition part time at various area colleges while writing fiction full time. I’m in a writers’ group with a number of wonderful people, including the fantasy novelist Dennis McKiernan, best known for a series of novels taking place in the wondrous realm of Mithgar. Dennis has become both a good friend and mentor to me, and he’s introduced me to his agent, Jonathan Matson, who’s taken me on as a client. I’ve published about a dozen short stories by this point, and I’ve got my first novel deal cooking: Jonathan is negotiating contract terms with a publisher for a surreal horror novel called The Harmony Society.

Life, as the saying goes, is pretty damned good.

In addition to my writers’ group, I’m also in a gamers’ group with Dennis and another member of our writers’ group, Peter Busch. What’s cool about this group is that each person takes a turn being gamemaster and designs an original scenario for the others to play. We’ve just finished playing a wonderful game Dennis designed, in which we were aliens – truly inhuman, scientifically plausible aliens – sent to investigate a mysterious abandoned space station. Now it’s my turn to develop and run a scenario for Dennis and Pete.

I have to admit, I’m intimidated. Both Dennis and Pete are experienced gamers, and while I’ve played D&D and such before, I’ve never gamemastered, let alone designed a scenario myself. But Dennis and Pete promise to help me with the game mechanics as we play, so I roll up my metaphorical sleeves and get to work. For a few years, I’ve been thinking about writing a novel set in an otherwordly city full of monsters. So I decide to finally get to work on bringing this dark city of mine – which I’ve named Necropolis – to life. Or unlife, whichever is more appropriate.

I design the city, its inhabitants, come up with a nefarious plot for Dennis and Pete to deal with, and create characters for them: a pair of Earth cops who were trapped in Necropolis on a previous case: one who no can no longer withstand sunlight (though he’s still fully human) and the other who has become a zombie. The two work as private investigators on the very mean streets of this shadow-enshrouded city.

I’m pleased with what I’ve developed, and when the day comes to begin playing, Dennis and Pete love the world and have a lot of fun with the scenario (even though I’ve made a rookie mistake and designed their characters to be too strong and they’re tearing through my world like it was made of tissue paper – but then, maybe that’s part of why they’re having so much fun). We get halfway through the game scenario in our first session. It’ll be a few months before we finish, though. My daughter Devon decides to come into the world five weeks early, and I’m a bit busy for a while. Eventually, we get back to the game and finish it up. Dennis and Pete had a great time, they congratulate me on doing a good job on running the game, and an even better one on designing Necropolis.

Life is still pretty damned good, even if now I’m suffering from new parent sleep-deprivation most of the time.

Then I get a call from my agent. The publisher’s made an offer on The Harmony Society. It’s a small publisher, and the money’s not great, but I’m thrilled. My first novel sale!

Then Jonathan calls me a few days later to tell me the deal’s fallen through because the publisher “No longer feels comfortable with the book.” Whatever the hell that means.

Naturally enough, I’m devastated, and like any other first-time novelist in my position, I want to give up, want to curl up in a corner and die, boo-hoo, sob-sob. Instead, I get good and pissed and decide to write another novel. I turn my attention to Necropolis. I’ve already got the world designed, and I have a plot, plus, I’ve lived the story along with Dennis and Pete. So I sit down and, with some changes (combining the two detectives into one character, for example), I plant my ass in the office chair in front of my computer and my fingers start flying across the keys. Twenty-one days later, Necropolis the novel is finished. It only runs about 67,000 words, relatively short for a novel, but around the right size for a mystery, and since Necropolis is as much a mystery as it is fantasy and horror (with a little science fiction, humor, and romance sprinkled in here and there), I’m satisfied. After some revision, the book goes off to Jonathan to start sending around, and I move on to the next project.

Nine years pass.

It’s 2004. My daughter Devon is nine, and her sister Leigh is four. I’m now a tenure-track professor teaching composition and creative writing at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio. I’ve published close to fifty stories now and a few novels, most of them media tie-ins. Necropolis, however, still hasn’t found a home. It’s too weird, blends too many genres, and publishers aren’t sure what to do with it. I decide to submit it to editor John Helfers for Five Star Books, a publisher that specializes in producing library-edition hardbacks (meaning sturdy books sold directly to libraries instead of in bookstores). I’ve worked with John on numerous anthology projects. He’s a great editor, a swell guy, and we work well together, so I figure he might like Necropolis. And indeed he does. Necropolis comes out from Five Star late in 2004, and I’m a happy man. I’ve come to really love that world and my main character over the last nine years, and I’m glad other people will finally get a chance to read about them.

More years pass.

I continue to publish more novels and stories, some original, some tie-in work, and the Internet continues to grow at an astonishing pace. I have a website now, and through it, readers send me e-mail, usually telling me how much they enjoyed this story or that novel (with the exception of the anonymous three-word e-mail I received which said, in all lowercase letters: “you write badly”). The most common e-mails I get are those telling me how much the sender enjoyed Necropolis – which they found at their local library – and asking when there will be a sequel. When I do panels at conventions people ask me when there’s going to be a Necropolis sequel. People I run into at the bookstore recognize my name and ask about a sequel. It’s getting so bad, I’m starting to have dreams in which nameless, faceless apparitions demand I write a sequel to Necropolis.

Hmmmm, I think to myself. Maybe I should starting listening to these folks. At least that way maybe I can stop having those dreams . . .

It’s around 2007 now, and a couple new genres have become extremely popular in publishing: urban fantasy and paranormal romance. For the last couple years, I’ve been wandering through bookstores, seeing these books and thinking, Man, I guess I was ahead of my time with Necropolis. (And truth to tell, thinking this with more than a bit of envy.) Still, pragmatism is the hallmark of the professional writer, and I hope that the current popularity of urban fantasy means a publisher might be interested in bringing out a mass-market edition of Necropolis, hopefully as part of a new series. So my agent and I rededicate ourselves to pitching the book to editors. We get some nibbles, but no one swallows the bait. In the meantime, I’m getting even more people begging me for a sequel to Necropolis, and I tell them that I’m working on it.

Early in 2008, author, editor, and more-wonderful-than-you-can-possibly-imagine person Jean Rabe is kind enough to ask me to write a story for an anthology of urban fantasy tales called City Fantastic. I’ve toyed with writing some stories about my main character from Necropolis for years, but I’ve never gotten around to it. I decide to quit stalling and write “Disarmed and Dangerous,” zombie detective Matthew Adrion’s first new adventure in thirteen years.

Then, almost as if that story sends out cosmic vibes into the publishing universe, one day in late 2008 I get an e-mail from publisher Marc Gascoigne. Marc’s worked with the Black Library, publisher of the hugely popular Warhammer and Warhammer 64K novels, and with science fiction/fantasy imprint Solaris. I wrote an original novel based on The Nightmare on Elm Street franchise for Black Flame, a division of Black Library, a few years back. Marc knows my work and we’ve chatted at several conventions, and I’ve always been impressed with his intelligence, energy, professionalism, and enthusiasm for writing and publishing. In his e-mail, Marc tells me he’s going to head up a new imprint for HarperCollins called Angry Robot, and might I have any novel projects to pitch to him?

As a matter of fact . . .

Marc agrees to take a look at Necropolis, and he’s very enthusiastic about it. He wants me to add about twenty thousand more words to expand the setting in more deliriously gruesome detail, and he suggests a couple minor changes: calling the city Nekropolis to give the word a more sinister spin, and he thinks my main character, Matthew Adrion (a spin on the Latin name Adrian, which means dark), could use a better last name. Since it’s been close to fifteen years since I named the man, I have to admit his last name has worn a little thin on me too, so he becomes Matthew Richter (which has an association with rictus which works well for a zombie PI, don’t you think?). Marc would also like me to write two more Nekropolis books for him.

And, as you’re probably expecting me to say by now, life is once again Very Good Indeed.

Marc wants to bring the new and expanded Nekropolis out with the first wave of books released by Angry Robot, which means I have only a month to do the revision: nine more days than it took me to write the original. No prob, says I. And it isn’t. I’ve lived with Necropolis – now with a K instead of a C – for fifteen years. I have no problem returning to it because, in truth, I’ve never left.

So here we are today, Matthew Richter and I, in 2009, with Nekropolis due to come out from Angry Robot in August, and two more adventures to follow. And after that, who knows? I’m not worried about what might happen, though. I’ve learned from experience that you can’t keep a good zombie down.

If you’re one of the readers who enjoyed the original version of the story and asked for more, I hope you enjoy the expanded novel and the two sequels to follow. After all, they wouldn’t have existed if you hadn’t kept asking for them. And if you’re an aspiring writer, think on this: professional writers often quote the famous line from the I Ching, “Perseverance furthers,” not because they believe in fortune telling (though maybe they might – who am I to speak for all authors?) but because it codifies in two simple words a very powerful mental and emotional survival skill writers need to continue in the face of rejection and setbacks. So now that you’ve read this, if you’re still wondering if perseverance really does further, let me tell you something, my friends.

You bet your undead ass it does.