Writing a Book With J.J. Abrams

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 5 2013 11:48 AM

J.J. Abrams, Doug Dorst, and Joshua Kendall

The Slate Book Review author-editor conversation.

(Continued from Page 1)

Kendall: Well I can say that the Straka myth, or at least what you both established as the seed of the myth, was already well planted. In a way, a little cult of in-the-know folks had formed, and they were persuasive in their zeal. There was freight there, in other words, and from the start there was this exclusive glee at being part of something special and also cool as hell.

And yet. Nothing prepared me for that first read, and so I had the pleasure of doing that prep-work myself—reading through the thing as a whole; the note-taking; editing just Ship of Theseus; the note-taking; and then finally the formulation of a kind of argument for the efforts of the work, which were grander and more radical than anything I’d edited before, let alone read for pleasure. I think we all knew the book would challenge readers to read in a new way, but I kept thinking of how much fun it would all be.

Dorst: Josh, you had to edit the book and then involve both me and J.J. in the editorial process. And you had to be the point man in the design process, too.

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Kendall: The hardest part was making the time to strictly devote days and days and weeks to editing the book, and given we went through four and a half edits, it was a regular challenge. Running the Mulholland Books imprint, I had to learn to delegate pretty quickly, and luckily I have a terrific staff both in editorial and marketing. As to the editing, as you’ll recall I’m a great believer in the very long, comprehensive editorial letter that reframes the conversation of and goals for the book. I saw those letters as a gathering place for all of us. Those editorial letters, in each draft, were a bit like my Ship of Theseus, where instead of these characters of Jen and Eric and S. and Straka coming together, you and I and J.J. and Lindsey could all formulate our conversations about the stages of the book. Lindsey did a lot of the heavy lifting, relaying some information to J.J. and judging wisely when J.J. should jump into the conversation, which happened more and more often from last autumn through last spring. As Melcher Media (the design team) came back with early concepts for the handwriting, the page layouts, the ephemera items, we all just made sure to get on the phone and talk it through, and we all seemed to understand what each of us was hoping for with every round. J.J. pushed the designers to make the handwriting messier; I was really keen on Jen being a character who kept the reader off-balance the more you knew about her; Doug, you really got how the book itself had to reinvent the readers expectations with every new chapter, particularly in the second half.

And as you both know, it’s not like the various collaborative stages lacked drama: Jen’s doodles were a later addition, as was Jen’s second letter; as was our surprise final editorial run-through at a midtown New York hotel room in April.

Dorst: I’m curious, J.J.—and I feel like it’s safe to ask now, with the book out there in the world—were there times when you wondered privately what the hell you had gotten yourself into?

Abrams: Not so much. You took an idea and a concept that I really believed in and that Lindsey really believed in, and working together you kept exceeding expectations, coming up with better ideas, and elevating the entire project at every turn. I was more afraid you would feel that way when I first met you and pitched you the idea. You embraced the thing from the very beginning with a sense of inspiration that made it clear that you were at least as crazy as we were.

Kendall: Large creative investments like books (as well as film and TV, I’d imagine) are always leaps of faith. This one felt like a little more of one, though, between the challenges of the dual narrative and the realization of the artifacts throughout the book. When was the first reassuring moment that this felt real, that it would be realized fully?

Dorst: I don’t know. Maybe at breakfast this morning? I was still writing Straka-things at midnight.

Abrams: Working on this project for as many years as we have, the excitement and the enthusiasm that we had at the very beginning was superseded over time by the actual construction of it—the characters, the story, where it was going to go, getting chapters, giving notes, discussing the thing from the inside out. It wasn’t until you and Melcher Media began to send us samples of what the book would look like for notes that we were suddenly holding pages of this thing and we were all, I think, reminded of that feeling we had at the very beginning of the process.

Kendall: You imagine someone receiving this book, slipping open the seal, pulling out the novel, and opening the pages. What do you hope they are feeling?

Abrams: I hope they feel like they are opening a door into an experience, into a relationship, into a mystery and investigation, and a whole world that revolves around V.M. Straka, and I think that because the conversations are so funny, and their flirtation is so sweet, and the mystery is so compelling, and the danger is so real, that as you read it you get caught up in the drama of the story. The gimmick of the book is suddenly invisible, and it becomes as real as if you’d actually found this artifact of this love story and this mystery in a university library.

Kendall:  They’ve finished book, turned the last page, put away the decoding Eotvos wheel, and slipped the novel back into its case. What are they thinking?

Dorst: It’d be cool if they’re thinking of writing some thoughts in the margins and passing the book to someone else. And if then they go ahead and do it.

---

S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. Mulholland Books.

J.J. Abrams has produced, directed, or written Fringe, Lost, Alias, Felicity, Star Trek, Cloverfield, Mission: Impossible, and more.

Doug Dorst is the author of the novels S. and Alive in Necropolis, the collection The Surf Guru, and the play Monster in the Dark.

Joshua Kendall is an executive editor and the editorial director of the Mulholland Books at Little, Brown & Co.

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