Story within a story: Writer Doug Dorst joins forces with J.J. Abrams for ‘S’Written by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The concept is fascinating. A book where two stories (at least) are going on simultaneously — one in the main body of the text, and another in the margins, where two readers are jotting notes to one another about the tome, its mysterious author and each other. The result is a reading experience unlike any other.
That’s the concept of “S,” a novel released in October from Mullholland Books and Bad Robot Productions. It was the idea of Bad Robot owner, Hollywood wunderkind and “Star Wars” reboot director J.J. Abrams. But most of the heavy lifting in the construction of the book was done by novelist Doug Dorst.
“It’s the one thing I’ve sort of done my whole life; I’ve certainly enjoyed it my whole life,” Dorst said of writing in an interview with Toledo Free Press. “And I kind of thought, at some point, if there was a way to make a living doing this thing that I like, I really ought to try.”
Dorst brings a distinctive pedigree to his work, having tried to be a musician before deciding writing was his true calling. He also teaches creative writing full time at Texas State University in San Marcos.
In his formative days, Dorst found himself drawn to writing that rejected the ideas of traditional narrative, which made him uniquely qualified when Lindsey Weber of Bad Robot called with the idea that would grow into “S.”
“J.J. had shared his idea for a book project, and may have asked her for suggestions for who to go to. And I think she had read ‘Alive in Necropolis,’ and passed it along to him and suggested I might be someone interesting to talk to,” Dorst said, referring to his first (and only) novel prior to “S.”
“I got a call from my agent — and I mean, it was out of nowhere — asking, ‘Would you be interested in putting together a proposal, at least, for a project with J.J. Abrams?’ And that is not the sort of call one gets every day.”
Abrams’ kernel of an idea developed into an expansive and imaginatively assembled text where pages are filled with notes and comments and additional pieces like newspaper clippings and maps drawn on napkins are stuffed inside as well.
The tight structure might lead readers to believe it had been meticulously outlined and planned in advance — which Dorst insists is not the case.
“J.J. and I and Lindsey Weber — who is the head of features over at Bad Robot who worked with us a lot on this — we did a lot of talk on foundation work for the characters and a sense of what the structure of ‘Ship of Theseus’ might be like. But a lot of it, — yeah, a lot of it I was making up as I went along. And yes, that made for … many messes that had to be cleaned up later.”
So how did something so intricately constructed result from such a relatively freewheeling creative process?
“I’m an obsessive reviser, for one thing, but we also had a lot of people who really devoted themselves to helping make it work on that level,” Dorst said. “Josh Kendall, the editor, did a fantastic job, and we got really really good feedback from other folks.”
The end result is one of the most breathtakingly new ideas to come along in publishing in a long time.
“It’s tremendous fun. That’s probably the biggest part of it, is getting to watch this unfold, and realizing — wow, this thing that I wrote … to watch it having a life in such an interesting way that’s so different from anything I’ve ever experienced before? I mean, that’s just pure fun.”