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.

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)?

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.

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Books
Sept. 17 2014 10:36 AM MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel Recounts Telling Her Mother About Her Best-Selling Memoir MacArthur Fellow Alison Bechdel recounts telling her mother about her best-selling memoir.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
  Arts
Behold
Sept. 17 2014 11:06 AM Inside the Exclusive World of Members-Only Clubs
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 11:14 AM How Does That Geometry Problem Make You Feel? Computer tutors that can read students’ emotions.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 17 2014 11:18 AM A Bridge Across the Sky
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.