What is your favorite story of death in San Francisco? Warren Harding? Al Jolson? Emperor Norton?
Well, I'd hate to call any death my favorite. The death that grabbed me most, though, was that of Lincoln Beachey, whose plane crashed into the bay during an airshow in front of a quarter of a million people at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Expo. The drama of his death aside, though, Beachey was a remarkable guy, one who lived life to the fullest and entirely on his own terms, and the more I read about him, the more fascinating I found him. There's an excellent biography by Frank Marrero called Lincoln Beachey: The Man Who Owned the Sky, which I recommend to anyone who's interested in finding out more about him.
Which story line came to you first: the one about the ghosts and their world in Colma, or the story of your protagonist's maturation into an adult, amid the allure of San Francisco and the grittiness of cop life. Or did you see them as one piece from the beginning?
The original idea came from a newspaper story that I read while living in Iowa about a kid who'd been duct-taped to a tree in a cemetery on a cold night. He'd been found by a guy who was out walking his dog, and he'd survived. I knew I wanted to work with this somehow, with the rescuer as the main character, and I assumed it would be a short story. It didn't go anywhere, though, and I put it away for a year or two. When I was back living in San Francisco, I picked up the idea again and realized that the rescuer ought to be a cop--in part because I had a friend who'd become a cop, and I was really curious about how that had changed his life. It was only a day or two later that the Chronicle ran a feature piece on Colma (which I hadn't known much about). I knew immediately that I had my setting. Once I decided that, I figured it'd be a shame not to invite some of these dead folks into the narrative. The two storylines evolved in parallel from there.
(For a recent, great story about Colma, check out this article on SFgate about the late famous of Bay Area.)