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Doug Dorst

Collaborator on the Novel S with J.J. Abrams.

Doug Dorst is an American author who, in addition to working with J.J. Abrams on the novel S., has also written a novel entitled Alive in Necropolis, a collection of short stories called The Surf Guru, and a play named Monster in the Dark. He has won several awards for his works, including the Emperor Norton Award, New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice Award, and his play helped foolsFURY Theater Company achieve the honor of San Francisco's Best Theater Company of the Year award. Dorst has also been a champion on Jeopardy! three times.

Dorst lives in Austin, Texas and teaches creating writing at Texas State in San Marcos.1)

The concept was JJ's. He found a book on a bench outside LAX that in which someone had written a note to the person who'd find it. That got him thinking about how people connect over books–and even how they might connect in/on the pages of a book itself. So that became an idea for the project–a book, at its heart a love story between two readers, that unfolds in the margins of another book. Collaborating with JJ has been an amazing experience. He has a remarkable sense of story, he encouraged me to take risks and to keep asking “what if?”, and he has this relentless creative energy that's infectious and inspiring. S. was pretty much a dream gig.

(image taken from:

Interviews about S.


In the Ask Me Anything thread on reddit that Dorst hosted in March 2014, the questions that he responded to were able to shed more light on the ambiguous nature of his cooperation with J.J. Abrams in the creation of S, the book's inspirational origins, and Dorst's own reflections on what he might like to have done differently.

Key bits of information revealed:

  • J.J. Abrams came up with the concept for S. when he discovered a book on a bench outside LAX in which someone had left a note for the person who'd find it. All of the marginalia and loose material in S. was inspired by Abrams' reflections on the ways in which people can connect through books, more specifically a singular book in particular.
  • J.J. Abrams approached Dorst by asking him what kind of story he'd want to create using a story within the margins of a book as a structural conceit. Dorst had been reading authorship mysteries, and decided it would be interesting to channel for the telling of a love story. They then spent the better part of a year discussing the characters, motivations, story arcs, and other elements.
  • Dorst cites/confirms with the authority of authorial intent that the story of S. is, at heart, a love story between two readers, Jen and Eric, that unfolds in the margins of another book.
  • Abrams was, at the very least, fairly involved with the production of the story after its conceptualization, as Dorst discusses Abrams' “amazing sense of story”, the encouragements and questions Abrams pushed him with as he wrote, and cites Abrams' “relentless creative energy” as a source of inspiration.
  • Dorst wanted to incorporate more ephemera to flush out the “real” world of S., such as the creation of an S. crop circle. Dorst reveals that he compiled a list of ~80-100 inserts as he was writing - documents, images, physical objects -, but he cut down the number out of fear that many weren't as interesting. “Every time J&E alluded to an obscure academic paper about Straka, I kinda wanted to write it. But that wouldn've been ridiculous. And way, way too time-consuming”. He cites uncertainty about how to proceed and a limited travel budget as reasons that the crop circle didn't make it into the book. Dorst also wanted to included a key from Straka's typewriter, but the impracticality of it dissuaded him.
  • During the writing process, Dorst made a conscious attempt to stay away from any book that might have been doing anything similar to the plans for S. Dorst says that everyone, which is assumed to include J.J. Abrams, agreed it would be best for him to write the way he wanted, without outside influence.
  • Dorst is surprised that there isn't more speculation about Ship of Theseus's patched up chapter 10. When asked if the rest of the chapter will be revealed, he hints that it already has and links to this page of SFiles22's website. When Sfiles22 responded that they weren't even sure they had the proper version, Dorst replied that they had a version, and that he likes it.
  • When asked about the meaning behind the boxed and stashed away writing of the sailors, Doug responds that “[S.] is in many ways about storytelling and about the narratives we create to make sense of ourselves and the world we live in”, and that he thinks of the sailors as being very much engaged in this enterprise as a form that is “simultaneously creative and destructive, affirming and self-abnegating”
  • Dorst indicates that if S. ever gets a sequel, which he can barely contemplate how to approach or consider at the time of the interview, it would be in the same dual-narrative format.
  • A digital version wasn't planned for initially, but it was realized to be a necessity by Abrams and Dorst.
  • The foreword and Chapter 1 of Ship of theseus, along with its marginalia, was the proof of concept used to pitch the idea to publishers. After it was sold, the rest of SOT was written straight through 3 drafts. He purposefully saved Jen and Eric's story for last, as he wanted to get the source material working as well as possible first. While he cites that the recurring themes between SOT and Jen and Eric's story made it easy to find where they'd connect, Dorst reveals that “a lot of J&E's story came out improvisationally–I was getting to know them via their reactions to Straka's book.”
  • Dorst admits his fondness for the Monkey. He loved him in Chapter 1, and couldn't help but bring him back.
  • When asked about his inspiration for Straka, Dorst recalls that he was reading a book called Contested Will, which is about the controversy surrounding Shakespeare's identity. He'd additionally heard of the B. Traven mystery, and directly cites Traven as a model for Straka. Dorst wanted Straka to possess the same politics, but be more widely read, more feared, and more dangerous.
  • Dorst didn't keep his material organized as he wrote, he just made chaotic scribbles and piles on his desk which were too messy to understand. Instead, he recalls having kept most of it in his head regardless of the frequency with he lost ideas.
  • If it hasn't already been clarified, SOT is ostensibly set in the 1940's.
  • Dorst has no plans to produce any of Straka's other works, though he believes it would be fun.
  • Dorst did not invent or produce Jen and Eric's handwriting, it was a design firm that ultimately produced them. Dorst made a mock-up of what he wanted the handwriting to look like for each, but it was unanimously ignored by involved parties.

Symphony Space Q&A

In an event titled Thalia Book Club: J.J. Abrams & Doug Dorst, S.: A Novel at Symphony Space's 30 & Under book club, both J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst present S. through the outlet of Lena Duhnham's questions. The interview can be watched here.

Key bits of information revealed:

  • Preceding the release, there was an internet rumor that J.J. Abrams had created Doug Dorst as a fictional author in the same vein that Straka was created. Dorst confirms to Dunham that he is, in fact, real.
  • Even when Dunham pries at the commentary on the role identity plays in authorship, Dorst says that he enjoyed that, but goes on to burst into a discussion the love story between Jen & Eric and how it demonstrates two people finding identity, as a couple, in the pages of a book. As his commentary further reveals, Dorst really wanted S. to be a love story.
  • Dorst admits to modeling Eric after himself.
  • Dorst then built Jen off of Eric, building her to compliment Eric's bitter grad student mentality and obsession with literature through her different perspective on literary enthusiasm and life in general. He effectively constructed Jen to best facilitate chemistry between Eric and her.
  • Abrams frames Jen as a point of entry for the reader, as she, not having studied Straka for years, is meant to asks the same questions the reader might have.
  • Dorst says outright that Jen is a lot smarter than Eric is, despite the fact that Eric doesn't realize this.
  • Both Abrams and Dorst cite Steven King as a inspiration for the structural sentiment behind S.
  • J.J. discusses the combination of real and scholarly sources in the footnotes and discussion of SOT as a combination of child-like joy and adult, scholarly themes.
  • Dorst conducted enough research to be able to make up as much as he could while still keeping the illusion of credibility.

Neil Gaiman meets J.J. Abrams (2013)

On BBC's newsnight, Neil Gaiman interviews both Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams about the details of the book and its inspirations.

  • Melchers Media took over the role of making the book look “real”
  • Abrams responds to the question of why he didn't produce an interactive book on the screen, with the answer that it was an interactive book- it was just analog. He compares the creation of S. to a less-political, more intimate version of the film-producing process.
  • Gaiman offers the position that book, as a mode of storytelling, will become obsolete in the face of emergent digital media forms, and Abrams replies that there is a comfort in the tactile analog storytelling that will keep the form alive. Dorst chimes in that book smell is great.
  • Abrams asserts the unique formatting of S. is nothing more than a gimmick, but it was a gimmick that Dorst handled and worked with so well that the gimmick disappeared and a story that was rich, deep, and multifaceted was produced.
real_world/doug_dorst.txt · Last modified: 2014/04/28 20:50 by amartin6