Doug Dorst talks about working with J.J. Abrams

By Richard Z. SantosNovember 21, 2013

Doug Dorst talks about working with J.J. Abrams

IT’S A CLICHÉ spoken about great books: “Some stories transcend the page.”

As if a writer who’s talented enough can cause his or her creation to step out of the two-dimensional, out of the realm of the mind, and into the physical world. And sometimes it does feel that way — characters linger in the reader’s vision, lines resonate long after closing the covers, the reader’s life seems to develop from fictional events composed decades or even hundreds of years ago.

Born out of an idea by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst, S. is made up of several different components, different three-dimensional objects. There is a book of course, but with photographs, postcards, letters, and other ephemera (even a code wheel) slipped between the pages. The materiality of these objects, the way they in fact do come out of the book into the world, help make the whole enterprise feel more real.

A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, Dorst currently teaches at Texas State University, San Marcos (where in the interest of full disclosure he was one of my teachers and advisors). J. J. Abrams is the film and television producer responsible for, among other things, Felicity, Alias, Lost, and a host of films in the Star Trek, Star Wars, and Mission Impossible franchises.

The collection of objects is held within a black slipcase, and that slipcase is the only part of the book that contains the words Abrams, Dorst, and S.

Inside, there’s a novel called Ship of Theseus, written by V.M. Straka and published in 1949 — or so it says; it was actually written by Doug Dorst and published in 2013. The book has yellowed pages, a Dewey-decimal sticker on the spine, and a list of due-dates stamped into the back cover. Theseus begins with a “Translator’s Note and Foreword” by Staka’s primary translator F. X. Caldeira — who also provides extensive footnotes throughout the book — again, all written by Dorst.

Theseus tells the story of a man who finds himself in an old city by the sea and who doesn’t know his name or remember who he is. He takes on the name S. and, before he can make much headway into reconstructing his memory, he’s kidnapped by a band of sailors and spirited out to sea. When he awakens, S. finds himself surrounded by men whose skin is turning a mottled blue and who have sewn their mouths shut.

And that’s just where it starts to get weird, both for S. and for the reader.

On nearly every page of the novel, two characters are conducting a conversation in margin notes. The voices belong to Jen, an undergraduate lit major who writes in fluid cursive, and Eric, a disgraced grad student who writes in cramped, all-caps print. At first, Jen and Eric are having fun flirting and exploring one of their darkest, favorite books, but they soon get sucked into a mystery involving the true identity of Straka and the possible existence of a secret society that would kill to stay secret.

Theseus, and Jen and Eric’s comments, return over and over to an exploration of the power words have to shape our identities and our reality, and thus the value of storytelling becomes one of the novel’s primary concerns. As S. himself comes to realize, “we create stories to help us shape a chaotic world, to navigate inequities of power, to accept our lack of control over nature, over others, over ourselves.”

Granted, without Abrams’s involvement no publisher would have shelled out the cost of publishing this complex artifact, but S. does not feel like a gimmick. The mystery feels sharp, the tension feels real, and the characters — both within and alongside Theseus — come to life and their postcards end up in our hands.


Richard Z. Santos: How did you get connected with J. J. Abrams?

Doug Dorst: I got a phone call out of the blue asking if I would, in theory, be interested in working on a book project with J. J. Abrams. He had thought of doing a novel that unfolds within the pages of another novel. Lindsey Weber, head of the film department at Bad Robot, had read Alive in Necropolis. She took it to him and said, “I think this would be a good fit.”

I didn’t find out that’s how it had worked until very recently. I assumed I was auditioning for the gig. And that probably helped me. They asked me to put together a proposal. “Given this formal conceit, what kind of story would you tell? What would you do with it?”

And I thought, well I’m obviously competing for this, I probably won’t get it, so I should just design it for maximum fun.

RS: So Abrams had the form of a book within a book, but you came up with the story?

DD: He had the form and knew he wanted it to be a love story in some way. I had been reading a lot about authorship controversies. I had picked up a book about the Shakespeare controversy and thought that would be fun to work with. So, let me try to fuse the two ideas.

Probably for the better part of the year there was no writing, just discussing characters, themes, arcs. Just trying to figure out the mechanics of it all. Both physical, what would the book be like, and the mechanics of the present-day novel. Who are these people, why are they leaving the book for each other, and how are they doing it? So we talked for a long time. We really built a pretty solid foundation that then gave me what I needed to improvise as much as I needed to.

RS: With the focus on archives, the power of the author, and the marginalia, the novel seems to be a tribute to the physical artifact of the book itself. Was that an important part of the driving idea?

DD: Sure. It wasn't the foundational idea, which was one of form — we wanted to do a novel-in-marginalia in which two strangers connect with each other as they pass a book back and forth.

But implicit in that idea is a recognition of the power books have to connect people. All narrative has that power, of course, but we wanted to celebrate this particular medium — the old, analog, physical book, which can be shared by readers, which bears the marks of time and use but still endures, and which offers a particular set of sensory experiences to go along with the narrative it contains. I don't know how we could have executed the foundational idea without celebrating the physical book.

RS: Did you have any hesitations getting involved in a co-written project? And with Abrams, comes with big Hollywood machinery behind him?

DD: There was actually no Hollywood machinery behind the book, which was nice. But I had to wonder, how’s it going to work? Am I going to be a full partner in it? What degree am I going to be doing someone else’s work or taking orders, which would be less appealing. And I’ve got authority issues.

But it was pretty clear from the beginning that they wanted me to do what I do. Abrams had said pretty early on that one of the things he liked was that the proposal didn’t seem calculated to give him what I thought he wanted.

RS: How did the writing and editing work? Would you sit down with Abrams? Would you get back notes?

DD: I went out to Los Angeles a couple times. We did a lot on the phone. I worked really closely with Lindsey. I would work more on the micro level with Lindsey and then finish a chapter. [Abrams] would check it out, then we’d all talk about how it was moving, if it was going in the right direction. Then I would go off into my bunker and keep writing.

RS: Do you think you and Abrams became close?

DD: I feel like I have a pretty good sense of him as somebody who is relentlessly creative, extremely encouraging. He was also friendly and professional.

The other thing that was really important was that he was adamant the whole way through that I was the writer and that the credit was not to be blurred in any way. And he did not have to do that, and he did from the beginning. I respect the hell out of that and appreciate it. He’s a good dude.

I decided that the best way to approach working with someone who’s such a phenomenon, who has so many amazing projects, is just to pretend that’s not the case, and say, “Hey, we’re making a book. Period.” And just focus on the book.

RS: How did you manage the juggling of the narratives and the voices?

DD: I did them mostly separately. So I did the forward and chapter one, and then the comments for the forward and chapter one when we were putting together the pitch materials for publishers. But after that I wrote the rest of Ship of Theseus all the way through. It felt like it was really important to focus on that part because Theseus has to stand on its own. I started putting in the comments afterwards, and then it was a lot of two-handed tinkering after that.

RS: You did something similar in the short story “Splitters.” Could you talk about the connection between that story and this?

DD: I think I started them at roughly the same time. They must have been drawing from the same place. I love storytelling at odd angles or in strange forms. That’s fun. Not to say that telling a good, straightforward story isn’t great too, but I think I take a lot of pleasure in finding an odd angle from which it can be approached.

RS: Does more get revealed at those odd angles?

DD: I don’t know. It might simply be that it’s more fun. That might not be as clever an answer as possible, or as clever as I, or you, would like. Although that’s the thing, there’s no good reason to do it, so you might as well have fun. It’s valuable or even essential to find the fun in the process of writing.

RS: I feel like that’s something that can be lost pretty easily. So much advice to writers comes down to “kill your darlings” and hack out anything that’s not essential. Discipline above all else.

DD: I believe in it but I don’t practice it very well. The really stripped-down aesthetic, stripping it back to the essential, I value it. I generally teach it. And then a lot of the time when I’m writing I don’t want to do it. Sometimes that’s the wrong choice. It’s easy to get a little carried away or a little indulgent. And our editor, Josh Kendall, was really good at saving me from myself at those moments.

RS: Meaning the story was getting too bulky or crazy?

DD: More on the line or chapter level, yeah. He helped me cut back on the excesses, and did generally make sure that things were moving forward at the right pace.

RS: Along those lines, I imagine this book required lots of spreadsheets, notes, et cetera. How did you keep everything straight? Were there organizing devices above and beyond the usual?

DD: There were a lot of notes, but there wasn't any organizational system. I'm a very disorganized person. So there were many scraps of paper in many piles, there were many document files with scattered thoughts in them saved on my computer — most of which I forgot about or lost track of — an occasional chart I'd tape up on the wall of my office, but no unifying, or even particularly effective, organizational strategy. Honestly, I'm not entirely sure what you have in mind as "the usual," because I'll bet even that is something I'd struggle with.

So, there's a lot that gets kept in my head. Which means there's a lot that gets misplaced for long stretches of time, and a lot that gets lost entirely. If I needed to go back and make sure that particular details were square with each other, I'd waste a lot of time searching.

This is not a system I'd recommend to anyone. It's just what I'm stuck with. Until I get an intern, anyway.

RS: You’ve had an interesting journey to being a professional writer and teacher. Were you writing steadily in college?

DD: I took a couple workshops [as an undergraduate] but didn’t do any writing outside of that. I took it seriously in that I enjoyed it and wanted to tell a good story, and I was probably seeking some kind of attention and validation or whatever. It’s funny because I knew that books got written, but it hadn’t quite penetrated my consciousness that one could actually be a writer.

I had a workshop instructor at Stanford, Fred Haefele, better known now for his nonfiction. But I took two or three workshops from Fred, and at one point, it was my senior year, spring quarter, and he said. “You’re not bad at this. If you can swing the money, why not spend an extra year here, do the English major thing, take every workshop you can.”

And I decided that was a wonderful idea. So I declared a second major spring break of my senior year and did a fifth year where really all I took was English classes. It was a fantastic year. I would not be writing today had I not done that, and I would not have done that had it not been for Fred. There’s no doubt in my mind.

Then I went to law school. It had been established fairly early on that my task in life was to go to law school. That was my default position.

RS: Are your parents lawyers?

DD: They are not. But they did enjoy my becoming one. They were less sanguine about me the going to the workshops.

RS: Did you finish law school?

DD: I finished. I passed the bar. Mostly because I was afraid to quit. Quitting takes a kind of fortitude I did not have at the time.

I wasn’t happy at all. I found out my third year that a guy I knew from college, with whom I had been in some workshops, had started at Iowa. And that’s when I made the connection finally. I thought, why is he there having fun and I’m waking up every morning wondering what the hell I’m going to do today that’s worth anything? I was not fulfilled by the nuances of the rule against perpetuities. And I wasn’t especially good at it either.

RS: So you’re a lawyer and you give it up to go to the Stegner program at Stanford? That’s a big decision, walking away from that money must have been tough.

DD: God, for one year I made stupid money. And it helped me pay off some loans, but it wasn’t a great year.

It wasn’t a great year, but working as a lawyer was a good experience to have.

RS: What a strange path. College, Law School, Iowa, Lawyer, Stegner, J. J. Abrams.

DD: It was ridiculous. I don’t recommend it.

Actually, no I’ve got nothing to complain about. Every step is a good thing happening.

RS: There was an embargo on the book, you couldn’t show it to your normal readers or editors, and the collaborative nature of the project was certainly different from your first two books, but was it worth this weird process?

DD: Oh yeah! The process was fun and I love the book. Every step of the way the plan was for me to tell the story I wanted to tell, and to tell it the way I wanted to tell it. And that’s what happened, and I’m really, really lucky that’s what everyone wanted out of the project.

And right before I got here I was thinking about the book, and you know it’s a ludicrous amount of work and I did it. Which is great. I’m not the most disciplined of writers, so to make something bigish that required a tremendous amount of concentration and attention to detail? I didn’t know that I could do that, but I did it and I think it’s good.

RS: Was it more work than Necropolis?

DD: God yeah. And it took more time, but I think it helped to be a little older and more secure. It’s not like it took eight years for Necropolis to become passable, it took eight years to fight through the anxiety and terror enough to actually produce something that looked like a book.

RS: The Doug from eight years ago couldn’t have been able to write S.?

DD: Absolutely not. It’s not an older and wiser thing, it’s an older and calmer thing and that helps. I am calmer than I used to be in pretty much everything, so it’s nice that the writing is part of that. I was absolutely my own worst enemy with Necropolis. Paralysis, anxiety driven paralysis — that was the bigger dragon to fight, than anything about the story or the line level.

RS: It seems like you were really allowed to run wild — with the story, the riddles, the timelines, the different styles of writing. Could you talk about both the benefits and the challenges of that freedom?

DD: The benefits will be obvious to anyone who enjoys making things up: you've got someone cheering you on, telling you, “yes, keep going, keep seeing what the story gives you to see, keep deepening and branching out whenever it feels right.” If something seemed like it might be fun, or interesting, or resonant, I could try it.

But the deeper you write yourself into a book, the more difficult it is to write your way back out. One challenge: making all of what you've imagined hang together as a narrative. Another: just ending the damned thing — logging all the hours and typing all the words that it takes to finish.

This is going to sound like a joke, but it's not: there were nights when I wished I'd chosen to have Jennifer and Eric bonding over a short and straightforward comedy of manners, instead of a sprawling novel by a writer with a potentially infinite backstory.

But I got there, often fueled by the terror of not getting there.


Richard Z. Santos is currently finishing his MFA at Texas State University.

LARB Contributor

Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His fiction, essays, and interviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Nimrod, Kirkus Reviews, The San Antonio Express News, The Huffington Post, and many others. His work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Dzanc Best of the Web, and the StorySouth Million Writer's Award. He is working on his first novel. 


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