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.

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

Photo courtesy of J.J. Abrams; by William Fagelson; by Beowulf Sheenan

Joshua Kendall, editorial director at Mulholland Books, took the reins at Little, Brown’s suspense imprint a year and half ago. One of his first duties was helming the J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst collaborative novel that would come to be known as S. Kendall, Abrams, and Dorst discuss the art of collaborating on a story that spans decades and includes marginalia, napkin-drawn maps, and the invention of a fictional novelist’s entire career.

Joshua Kendall: In many respects S. is a novel about falling into and in love with story. What was the first book either of you fell in love with? Did it happen in college, as with the S. characters Eric and Jen?

J.J. Abrams: The first book that I fell in love with was in junior high school and it was The Dead Zone, and I remember being heartbroken by the love story of the book as much as I was creeped out and scared by what John Smith, the main character, was capable of. But that was the first book I read that felt as emotional and authentic as it did pulpy and celebration of a genre.

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Doug Dorst: I read The Shining in fourth grade—which was way, way too early for me to have read it. I had Room 237 nightmares and day-mares for months. But I loved it. Have you always known you wanted to be an editor?

Kendall: My parents were book people but I rejected that for nearly my entire childhood (at least openly). What I had were tough, tragic, loyal, mischievous friends. Four boys: They instilled in me a keen appreciation for narrative. I also had a mother who worked as a therapist from an office in our home. Without going into her particular specialty, I will say this nearness encouraged a kind of emotional curiosity towards her patients, particularly the children. I can pretty squarely claim that my interest in character—particular characters in crime and suspense fiction—came from that overheated empathy for people I saw but didn’t know. When it came to this particular project, I understood that there were four great characters in S.: a man and woman who meet, sleuth, and fall in love within the margins of a novel left in a library; the radical and subversive author of the novel they read, who may be a man that never existed; and S., protagonist of the old novel, Ship of Theseus. Because the man and woman are investigating a three-quarters century conspiracy, they unearth and leave clues for each other within the book as well as contributing surprising documents of their own. Doug, first tell me a little bit about those early days of collaboration. How were you approached, screened, and chosen?

Dorst: J.J. had the idea of doing a book project in which a novel unfolds in the (literal) margins of another novel. Lindsey Weber, who's the head of features at Bad Robot, had read my novel Alive in Necropolis and suggested that I might be a good fit. That's what J.J. and Lindsey have told me, anyway. I found out via an out-of-the-blue call from my agent. I don't think I went to LA for a meeting until we'd already talked extensively on the phone and I'd put together a proposal for the project. Which was probably for the best. At that point, I was in so deep I had no choice but to feign competence. And off we went.

Kendall: Then where did such an idea as V.M. Straka—this author who’s part Camus and part Keyser Soze—come from?

Dorst: I knew I wanted to work with an authorship controversy. (I’d been reading about the Shakespeare question, and that had in turn sent me down one of those intoxicating Internet rabbit holes. Well, more than one.) I had a rudimentary sense of who the main characters might be and how Straka might have structured Ship of Theseus. J.J. and Lindsey and I talked a lot about how the larger book—S.—would work, as well as how the characters might develop.

Kendall: Did either of you grow up reading seafaring stories, or were the nautical themes in S. simply connected to our literature’s abiding interest in water? I’m thinking here from the Bible to the Odyssey and Greek myth to the Patrick O’Brien novels to that story collection called The Surf Guru.

Abrams: Like everybody, I read the Odyssey in school, and I can say, unequivocally, that was the last thing on my mind when working on S. The question of identity was far more interesting to me than the specific notion of being on a sea voyage. The paradox of the Ship of Theseus obviously has less to do with a boat than it does identity. They might as well be talking about a ’53 Corvette.

Kendall: Right, we’re talking about more than seafaring with something like S.

Dorst: As I wrote, there ended up being more stories—overt, implied, and nestled within—than anyone anticipated. They just kept showing up as I wrote, and I didn’t have the good sense to tell them no. Really, it’s just another example of me jumping into situations without fully appreciating what I’m getting myself into. It happens with alarming frequency. And the Bad Robot team is full of people who enable that sort of habit.

Kendall: How so? How did you initially compose the book and what sort of role did J.J. and Bad Robot play in the project as well as your creative process?

Dorst: We did a lot of close work early on, when we were building the foundation for S.—talking about who Jen and Eric were, what they might find in each other, who Straka may have been, and how the larger book might work. A lot of that came before I'd written a word of Ship of Theseus. We decided to go to publishers with a pretty extensive pitch document as well as the Foreword and Chapter 1 with the margin notes written in. Handwritten, by me. I did Eric's notes in my everyday awful handwriting, and I did Jen's by slanting my everyday awful handwriting 30 degrees. I went through three bottles of Wite-Out, too.

After that, I'd finish a draft of a chapter of SOT (or a chunk of SOT with the margin notes added) and send it off to Lindsey. She and I would talk about how, and how well, the various elements were working. When we felt we had a multichapter arc that was working, we'd share it with J.J. and get his thoughts. And that's what we kept doing until we had a full draft that we were ready (contractually obligated?) to send to you. Josh, how did you feel when this unruly beast of a manuscript appeared in your Inbox? Did you wonder what you had gotten yourself into (or, rather, what we had gotten you into)?

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