In S., released today by Mulholland Press, filmmaker J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (Alive in Necropolis) create a multilayered puzzle via an annotated library copy of a translation of a fictional author’s work. PW talked with Dorst about the process behind the creation of S.
Where did the idea for S. come from?
A while back, J.J. came across a Robert Ludlum paperback that someone had left on a bench outside LAX. Inside it was a note intended for the book’s next reader, and J.J. was taken with the idea that someone could use a book to connect with a stranger. S.was born from that idea: that it would be a novel in which two characters come to know each other by the notes they leave for each other in the margins of another novel—notes that also interact with the story that they’re reading. And then he and I got to work figuring out what kinds of stories we could tell while using that as a formal conceit.
How did Abrams come to choose you to be his coauthor?
Lindsey Weber, who’s the head of the film department at Bad Robot Productions, read my first novel and suggested that I might be a good fit for the project.
How did you divide up the writing?
The fundamental concept of the book is J.J.’s, but he’s been adamant about giving me credit for the writing. And the development process—building foundations for the book’s characters, themes, etc.—was shared.
How did the story evolve?
J.J. was very interested in a love story, and I had proposed that we incorporate an authorship controversy/mystery; we then discussed how the two might be fused, how they might inform each other. We talked a lot early on about who the present-day characters were, how and why they’d be passing the book back and forth, and what the reading experience might be like for people who picked up S. We had a loose idea of what the structure of Ship of Theseus—the book within the book—might be, but most of the material for V.M. Straka’s book was discovered in the writing.
Were you set on the title of Straka’s book from the outset, with its reference to Plutarch’s paradox (which asks whether a ship with all of its parts replaced is still the same ship)?
I wouldn’t say “set on,” but it was a starting point. I’d been reading about authorship controversies, which then got me reading about identity theory, which took me to the thought experiment of the Ship of Theseus. As you point out, that’s just one of the ways people refer to that paradox—but it’s one that readily suggested a central image that I thought might work as a starting point.
Did you write the text first and then do the margin annotations?
We did the foreword and chapter one with all the margin notes, which we used to show the publisher exactly what we were imagining. After that, though, yes—I wrote the rest of Ship of Theseus before going back to the margins. We all agreed that Ship of Theseus had to stand on its own; if it didn’t, none of the rest of what we were doing would matter.
What was the hardest part?
The hardest part of writing anything is getting the characters developed fully enough (and well enough) that a reader can connect with them emotionally. But it was also a challenge to get the two separate narrative arcs—Straka’s novel’s and the novel-in-marginalia—working together.
What surprised you the most as you wrote?
What surprised me most were some of the turns Ship of Theseus took, in plot and in structure. There’s something very freeing, I realized, in writing as someone who is not you (especially if that someone is supposed to be regarded as a deeply idiosyncratic storyteller).
What approach did you take to keep track of the huge amount of information packed into everything, including the footnotes and the marginal comments?
I have a complex organizational system that involves the scribbling of notes on many different scraps of paper and then the stacking of these papers on all available surfaces. The rest I keep in my head. It’s absolutely foolproof.
How did you get Mulholland to do such a great job on the inserts and the handwritten notes in different colors?
We didn’t get them to do it—they did it. They hired the best designers out there—Melcher Media—and we all worked together to make the physical objects be the strange and gorgeous things they are. We were all blown away by Melcher’s enthusiasm, creativity, and execution. Every piece they put together and every page they designed feels like magic to me.