Doug Dorst: “It’s The Physical Fact Of The Book Itself”

The author of Alive in the Necropolis and Surf Guru on collaborating with J.J. Abrams, casting the right handwriter, and helping create the most beautiful physical book published in recent memory, S.

In addition to his collaboration with J.J. Abrams, Doug Dorst is the author of the novel Alive in the Necropolis, as well as the short story collection The Surf Guru. He’s also a three-time Jeopardy champion and teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University. Dorst and I spoke about the unique collaborative process that produced S., as well as how the physical book itself was put together.

3. S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Meghan McCarron: To start things off, what makes S. a unique object and a unique project?

Doug Dorst: Most simply, it’s the physical fact of the book itself. You’ve got this faux late-’40s library book with pages that are designed to look weathered and foxed and stained, and then you’ve got multicolored handwriting in the margins, and all of it in this sleek black contemporary slipcase. There’s a tactile element to it.

The basic premise is that you have what is ostensibly an old library book, and it’s been annotated extensively by two contemporary readers. The source novel, called Ship of Theseus, is by the reclusive mysterious author/revolutionary V.M. Straka. And there’s another novel that’s unfolding in a dialogue between the contemporary readers. They’re talking to each other and responding to things in the text, and also using the text as jumping-off points for talking about themselves. They’re passing the book back and forth without ever having met in person.

MM: And there’s other texts as well, layered on top of that. Letters, reviews, notes on napkins, Straka’s bibliography.

DD: Right, he’s written 18 other books. And there are 22 different pieces of ephemera tucked into the pages, and each of those has different relationships to the different story lines. Some are related to the Straka mystery, since our readers are actively pursing the question of who was Straka. Then there are other documents that relate to the story that they’re living through.

Plus, the original novel has also been annotated by Straka’s translator about whom not much is known, either. It seems that the footnotes are actually interacting with the primary text in a way that is different from what one might normally expect.

MM: So, basically, this is kind of a bananas project.

DD: Oh yeah, it’s completely insane. It’s crazy that anyone ever let us attempt it.

Plus, I had a full-time teaching job and an infant who grew into a toddler, so a lot of the writing had to get done in the middle of the night. You pull the all-nighter but the kid still needs to get up and the classes need to be taught. There was not a lot of sleeping happening.

MM: Did you always know how the physical book was going to look? How did you capture not just those different voices, but the different textures, a margin note vs. a ’40s library book?

DD: We decided early on we wanted to have the ephemera, and I kept a wish list as I was going along. My wish list was insanely long, in part because it wasn’t my job to say no or be rational about it. When everything got finished, our editor Josh Kendall at Little Brown sat down with me, J.J., and Lindsey from Bad Robot, and we prioritized my wish list. It was actually fairly easy once we knew we were shooting for 20ish items. There were some things that didn’t feel like they belonged in the book, so they’re appearing on the web. It was pretty easy for us to agree on which ones were worth doing.

My wish list process was pretty much how I wrote the book too. Make a big mess, improvise and just see how outlandish or complex things might get. And after that, making a pass through and figuring out what actually serves the stories.

Mulholland Books / Photo by Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

MM: Is that similar to your writing process when you’re writing something that’s yours alone? Or did having collaborators let you play more?

DD: I would say that knowing everyone was expecting it to be insanely complex, that they were cheering me on and encouraging me to go as deeply down the rabbit hole as I needed to, let me improvise more freely. But that’s just a question of degree. I write improvisationally, make a mess, and expect to go back.

I didn’t always write that way. I started out very sentence by sentence. Making sure everything’s perfect before you move on. I think that’s still a good way to go, it just stopped working for me. For me that’s a recipe for paralysis.

My first book took eight years. I can tell you a good chunk of those eight years were spent grappling with anxiety-related paralysis, and only moving forward one fussy sentence at time it just made everything worse. I had a friend, the writer Ann Williams who teaches at UNH, and she suggested I set a timer for half an hour and write. You can’t go back, you can’t fix anything, not even typos, and you’re not allowed to stop typing. I found that was a really good way to block scenes. Ninety percent of what came out is not prose that would be used, but it let me capture character’s voices and dialogue and organic movement, rather than fussy sentence by sentence work.

MM: You’ve talked a lot about improvisation, but you also spent a year and a half planning with the Bad Robot team. Could you talk about the less improvised side?

DD: The project started when J.J. and Lindsey had come to me about a book where a story unfolds in margins of another story. And also it would be a love story. They asked, “What would you do with that?”

I happened to be reading about authorship controversies. Shakespeare is the one that got me started. Harper’s did an insanely detailed series of essays about it a few years ago.

I had been vaguely aware of B. Traven. The mystery about him is even more interesting. He mostly wrote in the ’20s and ’30s. He was definitely a leftist, a labor sympathizer. As with Shakespeare, there were these questions about how could he have had access to all the material about which he wrote, to what degree had he traveled and where. Trying to divine the writer’s identity through the work a writer’s done seems like a tricky business and worth exploiting.

My pitch was that there was this author, Straka, who wrote a bunch of books, and people thought him a dangerous revolutionary. In a way he’ s modeled on Traven, but more dangerous. He’s the most dangerous writer who ever lived. I put together a bit of Straka’s backstory, and sketches who the contemporary readers were, Jen and Eric. Their circumstances and what makes them want to pass this book back and forth. That was the stuff we worked on. All character foundation.

Mulholland Books / Photo by Summer Anne Burton for BuzzFeed

MM: You weren’t planning out plot?

DD: Not really. There’s a question of “Do they meet?” We had to agree on what the answer would be. And if there was a big revelation, we had to figure out when it should happen, which we didn’t frame in terms of plot but in terms of rhythm. As in, “Oh, halfway through would be too early, but three quarters of the way would be to late.”

MM: This idea of rhythm is more familiar to screenwriting than to novel writing.

DD: That’s the primary thing J.J. and Lindsey brought to the project. They’ve got a real sense of shape. I would finish chapters and send them to Lindsey, and we would talk about what’s working, what feels alive. And then when we had a multi-chapter arc, we’d hand it off to J.J. and get his notes. Their notes were not couched in the same language that one would use if one came up through the MFA ranks. But substantively a lot is the same. Story is story.

The analogy that a lot of people have used is that it’ s a lot like the way the film gets made. You’ve got producers who work with director and writer. You send the writer off to do what the writer does, and you give notes and talk about how it develops. There was some question about how J.J. would be credited, and what made the most sense to be would be producer. But there’s no precedent for that in the book world. It’s a category mistake.

MM: One of the most interesting things about this project is that you take people who have a film background, and they worked with you to use physical print to the maximum of its capabilities. Could you talk about how the physical book was put together? I know there was handwriting casting.

DD: It would be great if there were a whole stable of handwriting performers and they all had to go with their portfolios, but the people who did the handwriting were in-house at the design firm. They did sit down and figure out who was best to do it. I don’t know if I really thought about it until I looked at the samples, but there’s something intimate about handwriting — if the handwriting is off then you hate the character and the whole thing falls apart. The handwriting’s not static, either. In a particularly emotional moment handwriting might change, or there are some places where you can imagine character pressing down harder or writing more intensely.

MM: What about the ephemera? How did you figure out what goes in at, like, page 53?

DD: Those decisions were some of the last that got made. Some pieces it was obvious where they needed to go because there is a moment in the margin narrative that calls for them to be there. But there were others where it’s not essential that they be in a particular place, so we wanted to find some intuitive connection. And practicality concerns came in there too. We couldn’t do five in a row, not just because we wanted to have a relatively even distribution, but the reality of production is the book won’t sit right.

MM: Do you see this collaboration as an emerging model for how some types of novels with get written?

DD: If my experience is any indication, other people might have a lot of fun working in such a way. But I haven’t really contemplated it beyond that.

A lot of things went right. I found it easy to work with J.J. and Lindsey, and Josh Kendall was just the dream editor. It was an insanely complex manuscript and he devoted himself to understanding how every bit of it worked. J.J. and Lindsey got along with Josh, and everyone had a similar understanding of how the story was working. And the designers were the right people — Melcher Media. They intuitively got what we were going for. And then Little, Brown also decided to spend the money that it would take to make the book look as good as it needed to do create and sustain the illusion, that this is a found object being written and read by actual people. I don’t know that every publisher would have done that.

Right collaborators, right editors, right designers, right publishing house. If you change any of those variables, it might be different. I feel like I got really lucky.

MM: What’s next for you?

DD: I’m going back to some stories. There was some stuff I had put aside when the opportunity came up. I’m going to go back and get a sense of which in progress things still feel alive or interesting. I also have a notebook with sketches for another novel. And I’m kind of playing around with the idea of TV. This is a cliché at this point, but I’m feeling more drawn to TV than to features right now because you can be more expansive in your storytelling.

***

Meghan McCarron’s short fiction has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and her stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Gigantic Worlds, The Collagist, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy. She lives with her girlfriend in Austin, Texas, where she is the editor of Eater Austin.

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