There’s a lot to be found in ‘S.’ by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

04/11/2014 8:42 PM

04/11/2014 8:42 PM

The novel is called “S.,” but that’s just the title on the slipcase. Pull out the book, and its cover says “Ship of Theseus.”

One book, two titles. Curious, yes?

That’s just the beginning of the mystery. Little by little, you’ll see what you’ve gotten yourself into. By J.J. Abrams, a creator of TV’s “Lost,” and writer Doug Dorst, “S.” is the current selection of the FYI Book Club.

The “Ship of Theseus” volume looks old, the pages yellowed and smudged. Inside the back cover is a series of college library due-date stamps, all akimbo like you’d expect. Another stamp says “Keep this book clean,” and you can picture the persnickety 1940s librarian behind that message.

And yet from the foreword on, passages are underlined, words circled. Filling the margins of nearly every page, and swirling around the occasional footnotes, are comments and messages in cursive and block-letter print.

The defacers are two students: Eric, who’s working on his doctorate, and Jen, a senior undergrad. They pass the book back and forth, but they haven’t met.

Eric’s research of “Ship of Theseus” is leading him, he hopes, toward the true identity of its author, V.M. Straka, despite interference by his dissertation adviser. Jen is intrigued and becomes a co-investigator.

Their communications in the margins of the book range from scholarship to flirting. Into the book they stuff the extra pieces of their work and relationship, more than 20 items: newspaper clippings, an old telegram, photographs, personal letters, notes from sources, a map sketched on a coffee shop napkin, a code wheel.

It’s fun — and a lot to take in.

Meanwhile, Straka’s story continues in the pages of “Ship of Theseus,” focusing on a character known only as S. He’s a revolutionary of some sort, traveling by ship with crew members who have ritualistically sewn their mouths shut.

The novel was conceived by Abrams and written by Dorst. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation with Dorst.

Q. When I show people the book, they’re amazed, a kind of disbelief at it all. Do you get that reaction a lot?

A. I get that reaction. I had

that reaction. When I first got the book in hand, I thought that this is by far the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen. Really, I feel fortunate that my words get to be in it. They did a fantastic job, the publisher and design teams.

And then there are the extra things inside the book — artifacts? — stuffed between the pages. How did that happen?

The publisher calls that “ephemera.” We knew early on we wanted to be able to include extra-textual elements, to be able to expand the story outside the text of the book itself.

As I was going along with the various drafts, I kept a sort of wish list of things I thought would be fun to include, things that would deepen the reading experience in significant ways.

Tell how this got started, the “what if” question behind the concept?

That was J.J.’s what-if. The idea started when he was at LAX (airport) and found a copy of a paperback — I think it was a Robert Ludlum book — that somebody left on a bench. There was a note to the person who would find it to read it and pass it along.

That got him thinking about how people communicate via literature or stories in any form. And then how specifically people might communicate via a physical book, which seemed like a particularly interesting angle.

He carried this idea around for 10 or 15 years, and finally said: Let’s do it. Let’s do a book that at its core is a love story that unfolds in the margins of a book, people writing back and forth to each other.

Why these two people, Jen and Eric?

I teach at a university, and I’m kind of a literature geek. I don’t live in the world of literature scholarship, but I’m interested in it. Just coincidentally I had been reading about authorship controversies, including Shakespeare, when I got the call from J.J.

That seemed like an interesting way of framing the relationship, a conversation between two readers involved in a literature mystery: Who was Straka?

A lot of these were gut choices. One of the readers would be someone who really had devoted himself to studying the question of the Straka authorship. Eric is 28 or 29, and I imagined him as someone in a Ph.D. program for a while and getting a little surly or cynical.

And he should be talking to someone who hadn’t been through that, someone facing decisions of her own but who isn’t firmly entrenched in the world of Straka scholarship and who isn’t so beaten down.

I also have very fond memories of university libraries, the stacks that extend forever onward, with deep dark corners and books you never heard of.

Tell us about the main text, “Ship of Theseus,” this enigmatic 1940s novel. Could the book have been from any period or literary tradition?

I wanted it to be contemporary, and I wanted it to have some age to it. And I wanted the authorship controversy to have gone on for a while and to have some heft to it. But I didn’t want to put Straka too far in the past, too far from our world.

The first half the 20th century was close enough to our time and for Straka to have access to events surrounding World War I and II and the economic and industrialization issues arising then. That seemed like a sweet spot to me. So I imagined him very much as a radical, politically and economically.

But this book, the basis for what happens between Jen and Eric in its margins, is a major work itself. You didn’t just dash it off. Did you write ‘Theseus’ all the way through before writing the Jen and Eric part?

I did the sample chapters, the foreward and Chapter 1 of “Theseus” plus all the Jen and Eric margin notes, and we took that to the publisher for the proposal in 2011. After we sold the book, my gut was telling me to write the rest of “Ship of Theseus” first. Everybody agreed.

“Theseus” really did have to stand up on its own. Part of the illusion is that this has to be a novel that we can believe intelligent people would be interested in several years down the road.

While we were planning this someone told me, “You realize you just committed to writing two novels, one of which has to be more or less a classic of Western literature.” I said, yes, I guess I did.

From spring of 2011 to spring of 2013, I wrote “Theseus” all the way through, in several drafts, then layered in Jen and Eric’s notes. It all came together in a little over two years.

Many an author has spent more than two years writing one novel.

My first novel took eight.

So that’s how you wrote it, but how should people read it? It’s a decision every reader has to make.

Everyone thinks I’m being disingenuous when I decline to offer advice about that, but I think it’s entirely about how you absorb information.

Some people read “Ship of Theseus” all the way through and go back and read the margin notes. Some people read one chapter of “Theseus” and go back and read the notes. Some read a page, then the notes.

And some people can do it all simultaneously. I can’t. It would make my head explode.

Then there are people who have read the margin notes through multiple times, following the time coding. The margin notes are written in different color ink based on when Jen and Eric wrote them. The first round of comments are in blue and black, green and orange slightly later and finally red and purple.

It’s asking a lot of a reader to open a book and to immediately figure out how they want to process the words on the page. But I hope that becomes part of the fun of it.

The book is a challenge. It can be frustrating at times. Is that OK with you?

I think we knew it would be challenging. Some people are going to embrace that and some are not. As with any book, there are people who are going to be won over and who will want to put in the effort to keep going.

There’s a theme in the book that goes something like this: You don’t have to have everything figured out. That might be good advice while reading the book.

It’s not a crossword puzzle. It’s not a sudoku. It’s a novel. I don’t like approaching books with the idea that they have to be figured out perfectly with no room for ambiguity or uncertainty.

The writer has the obligation to give the reader enough to go on. But any book that seeks to have every loose end tied up and deliver every answer in a convenient nugget for the reader is probably a book that’s not any good, or at least it’s not a book I’m interested in reading or writing.

On the other hand, there is a code in the book that Jen and Eric are tracking — and some readers are getting into that, too. Was that a J.J. Abrams request?

I thought that the Straka authorship mystery lent itself to codes and puzzles. It wasn’t a request from J.J. I took it as an opportunity to have fun on that kind of a playground. Not every project allows you to have that kind of fun.

Speaking of themes, there are three love stories going on, all of them distant, or rather without the benefit of physical closeness. What about that?

The fundamental conceit here for our present-day readers is the idea that these two people get to know each other in the margins of a book. At some level, the book is standing in for a physical meeting.

So I thought about other relationships in the world of this book that need to be explored. You’re always looking for connections, resonances, not necessarily parallels but relationships that might be echoes of each other.

Part of falling in love is the revelation of who you are to someone, that leap of faith that you can drop your guard and reveal who you are. In each of these relationships you have characters who are putting their constructed selves out there first, but gradually their real selves emerge as they get more comfortable with the exchange.

And who knows, maybe there’s something more, maybe they’re revealing something truer than if they’re getting to know each other in the real world face to face?

What’s one of the bigger themes that comes through to you?

The questions of identity are fundamental and seemed really important to me. That’s the “Ship of Theseus” paradox, that if all of the component parts of a ship are ultimately replaced, is it the same ship?

This book has footnotes, and it quickly becomes clear why they’re critical. But, really, nobody likes reading footnotes.

I enjoy footnotes! Well, not all of them, not the ones that are simply bibliographic, but I do if there’s someone’s voice there, commenting or interacting with the text.

It’s just fun to see another personality on the page along with the writer’s original work, or sometimes it’s the writer annotating his own work. Here it’s another set of motivations and themes appearing underneath the main text. I think that’s great fun.

What are your hopes for the book, for what readers take away?

It’s the same thing I would want people to take away from my other books, that they feel they’ve had a complete emotional experience with the main characters, some sort of complete emotional arc.

Do I hope they get invested in the minutia of the Straka mystery? Of course. I had fun making it up. But people are only going to enjoy the book if the characters matter and the lives of the people between the covers matter.

Can there be a digital version of the book? And is there any way it could be a movie or TV show?

There is an e-book but only on the Apple iBooks platform. You don’t have the ephemera, but there are digital representations of them. It looks pretty cool.

We said from the beginning, this is a book. I don’t think either of us really thought there was a need to do a different thing with it. This is the form the story can best be told.

THE DOUG DORST FILE

Age:

44

Home:

Austin, Texas

Family:

Married, 2-year-old daughter

Education:

Bachelor’s from Stanford University, where he later was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in creative writing. Law degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Other writing:

“Alive in Necropolis,” a novel and runner-up for the 2009 PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, and “The Surf Guru,” a story collection

Work:

Teaches writing at Texas State University in San Marcos

THE FYI BOOK CLUB

The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a “book of the moment” selection every six to eight weeks. We invite the community to read along.

Members of FYI and the library staff chose “S.” by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst.

If you would like to participate in an upcoming discussion of the book, led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email

kaitestover@kclibrary.org

.

To reach Edward M. Eveld, call

816-234-4442 or send email to eeveld@kcstar.com.

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