Doug Dorst had JJ Abrams on the phone. Though he’s an accomplished novelist and his work has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, ZYZZYVA, and other journals, as well as in the anthologies Significant Objects and Politically Inspired, having JJ Abrams on the phone was a whole different beast.
“It’s not the sort of call one has very often,” he said. Abrams had contacted Dorst about collaborating on a new project. But Abrams is known for his work on the screen – big and small – and Dorst works in less technological media. It makes sense though: JJ Abrams wanted to make a book. More than a book, really; S. is kind of an interactive analog reading experience.
Readers get a book in a box with a seal they must break. Ship of Theseus is the 1940s-era library book (Dewey Decimal code and all) inside. The novel, attributed to a “V.M. Straka,” is riddled with handwritten marginalia and stuffed with ephemera like postcards and college newspaper clippings exchanged between Eric and Jen, two readers who got their hands on the book before you did.
“None of it was mapped out in advance.” Dorst works improvisationally, encountering the story as he goes along. “It’s very different than TV or screenwriting where everything is mapped out to the beat,” Dorst said. “But I don’t approach fiction that way.”
Even the ephemera included in the book was dreamt up along the way.
“We talked about including that stuff from the beginning,” Dorst said. “I was always on the lookout for additional objects. I just made a wish list.”
There are 20 or so different things tucked in the pages of the book, narrowed down from Dorst’s wish list of about 100 things.
“I got deeply involved in this world where there’s a lot of eggheaded, arcane, academic material. I went pretty far down that rabbit hole. I’m a little bit of an egghead academic,” Dorst admitted. Makes sense – he’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, and he has received Fellowships from the Michener-Copernicus Society and the National Endowment for the Arts. He also teaches writing at Texas State University in San Marcos.
Despite the inclination towards the more obtuse end of the nerd spectrum, the final product is totally accessible to non-academics with only a passing familiarity with the “publish or perish” paradigm.
But the post cards and hand drawn maps are only part of the experience; Ship of Theseus is annotated on nearly every page in different colored inks by two readers who seem to have met through the book, and who get to know one another passing it back and forth with notes added. This makes for a complex reading experience: there’s the novel itself, which includes its own footnotes, and then the story unfolding in the margins.
In terms of how to approach the book, Dorst said, “I don’t recommend any particular way, it’s really how do you best absorb information? What’s the most immersive reading experience you can give yourself?”
There’s any number of ways to approach it.
“Some people read Ship of Theseus entirely and then do a second pass for the margins,” Dorst said. “There’s an infinite number of ways you might read the thing, and neither JJ nor I would want to control that reader experience.”
One could even do multiple passes, as it becomes apparent that Jen and Eric’s relationship progresses and make new discoveries as time goes by and their pens change color.
“The colors was part of an organizational system that I used,” Dorst said. “It was also kind of a concession to artifice, to do the inks in that way.”
Jen and Eric start out using blue and black pens, eventually switching to green and orange, and finally using red and purple ink. It’s possible to see the color changes representing a progression in their relationship, from strangers passing notes in a book to something much different.
“It’s a guide that the reader benefits from,” Dorst thought. “It’s also not outside the bounds of reality, that they might lose their pens and pick up new ones.”
Maintaining that sense of a believable reality was important to Dorst and Abrams in creating the book. It was imperative that the thing be a believable literary artifact that could conceivably have been stolen and defaced by readers before you.
“Part of that illusion is that Straka [the novel’s apparent author] is recognizably Straka,” Dorst said of having to alter his writer’s voice for the project. Readers might pick up a hint of Kafka, touches of Nabokov, a little bit of Lovecraft, even shades of Saramago in reading the novel. But Dorst made a point of working towards a unique voice for V.M. Straka. “I went out of my way to sound less like me,” he admitted.
As for the larger architecture of the story within a story, wherein Eric and Jen seek to solve a larger mystery surrounding Straka’s work, Dorst embraced “the fun of working in JJ-land. Mysteries are part of the fun there, and I gave myself permission in a way I never have before.”
S. heaps mysteries on top of mysteries. Dorst said, “I have no choice but to trust the readers’ focus. It’s a little more demanding of the reader than a lot of what’s out there. But we said, ‘let’s not be afraid of that. Let’s just tell the story the best we can in the most interesting way it can be told.”