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Interview: Doug Dorst

Doug Dorst is the author of the novel Alive in Necropolis and the short story collection The Surf Guru. His latest book, S., was written in collaboration with J.J. Abrams, director of the recent Star Trek films as well as the upcoming Star Wars sequels. S. is a very unusual book; when you open the slipcase you’re presented with a surreal political novel entitled Ship of Theseus written by V. M. Straka, but the real story unfolds in the margins of that text as two modern-day college students scribble notes back and forth in an attempt to unravel the author’s true identity.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.

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This new book, S., was written in collaboration with J.J. Abrams. Do you want to say how that came about?

J.J. had had this idea to do a book that worked in a certain way, that there would be a novel that unfolds within the margins of another novel. Lindsey Weber, who is head of features at Bad Robot, which is J.J.’s production company, he asked her if she knew of any writers who might be a good fit for a project like that, and she had read my first book, so she passed it along to him, and then I got a call out of the blue from my agent saying, “Would you conceivably want to work with J.J. Abrams on a project?” Of course I said, “No. How dare you insult me with such an offer?” No, that’s really how it all got started.

You said that you had to pitch them, or sort of explain what you would do with the story, and I thought it was interesting—you said that one thing that appealed to J.J. about your pitch is that you had your own ideas, and you weren’t just giving him what you thought that he wanted to see. Could you elaborate on what you meant by that? What do you think he wanted to see?

I think he wanted to see someone pick up on an insane idea and take it to an even more insane place. As opposed to maybe just doing something that felt safe and formulaic. Part of it was simply that I was certain that I was auditioning for the gig, probably competing against twenty other writers, and so I thought, “Well, there’s no way I’ll get it, so I might as well propose this project that is absolutely over the top and build for maximum fun.” So maybe that worked in my favor.

What sort of insanity did you bring to the project?

Essentially that of the endless world. So we’ve got this interior novel called Ship of Theseus by this mysterious writer that our two present-day readers are commenting on, and the novel itself is an odd creature. It’s designed so that you could talk about it endlessly if you were interested in it. In part because of its connection to the mysterious writer, but even if the novel weren’t offering a great many hints about the mysterious writer, the mysterious writer’s backstory could conceivably go on forever. Nobody knows who he or she was, and there are all these possible candidates, and there are all these possible stories. I guess I thought too, “This is interesting to me.” Authorship controversies and a sort of eggheaded academic, or one of the characters is an academic, and I thought, “I don’t know how people in the real world will react to that.” I’m not an academic, but I play one three days a week.

Speaking of the authorship controversy, you’ve said that you’re interested in the Shakespeare author controversy. Talk a little bit about your interest in that.

It’s not like a deep and durable interest. It’s that I was reading a book at the time this all started up called Contested Will. There are various factions who insist that “no, the man William Shakespeare did not write the things that we attribute to the playwright Shakespeare,” and so there are all these other theories. That it was the Earl of Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth herself, and some of them are silly. Some of them, like the Oxford [theory], there are very serious people who believe it deeply. Some people don’t believe Shakespeare did it because he was a provincial guy who became an actor, and he could not have had access to all the sort of nuanced intrigue of court life, of royalty, which I don’t know, I guess I kind of took as a little bit of an affront. Because personally, I’m a writer, I want to be able to do whatever I want, and I have to have the hubris of believing I can do it plausibly.

Exactly. In this case, you have to become V. M. Straka, right? Could you talk about how Straka’s writing is different from yours and how do you make this book seem like it’s out of the 1940s?

It wasn’t particularly calculated. I knew I had to write not like myself as much as possible, which is kind of freeing. It’s not simply writing anonymously; I’m writing explicitly as someone who is not me. Because Straka’s name had a sort of Central European feel to me, and I knew roughly the time period that I wanted Straka to be writing in, I started with a book called The Sleepwalkers by Hermann Broch, who’s an Austrian writer, and I think that’s from ’39. But I actually didn’t go back and read it. I just relied on my vague memory of what it sounded like or felt like.

One review I saw referred to the book as part Camus and part Keyser Söze [the antagonist in the film The Usual Suspects]. I would sort of describe it as Kafka meets Lovecraft meets Robert Ludlum. The premise is that there’s a character with amnesia and he gets caught up in all these conspiracies and there’s paranormal elements and stuff like that.

Yeah, that sounds great. I love Kafka. I love Camus. And I have read my share of Ludlum. I had a really intense Lovecraft period, so it’s not surprising to me that some of that would creep in.

One of the things, in particular, that made me think of Lovecraft was the obscure vocabulary that Straka uses. I just wrote down some of these words: leptorrhine, aphotic, quincunxes, revanchist, and cyanotic. Where did those kinds of words come from?

Some of them I know, and some of them I just bump in to in real life somehow. I guess that’s partly Straka, but it’s also partly me. I really dig the music of words sometimes. I suppose I wanted Straka to be someone who would in fact engage with language on that level . . . because also it might be Straka, but it also might be the translator. So there’s a translator who appears in the footnotes of the book, and that translator has his or her own sensibility, so while I was creating a Straka voice, I had to bear in mind that I was creating this other voice, and that the text itself might actually be Straka’s voice as we’re experiencing it, or it might have been modified a little by this other voice. All of which is to say, it felt like everything was “in bounds,” and I might as well take advantage of it, and if I thought too hard about it my brain would just tie itself in knots.

As you said, there are all these different layers to the story. There’s the text of The Ship of Theseus itself, and then the translator is footnoting, and maybe they’re sending messages to each other, the author and the editor, and then the students are writing on the book, and they’re sending messages to each other. There’s all these levels of it. Is metafiction something that you have a particular interest in? Are there any other books or anything like this you’ve ever read or thought about?

I’m very interested in metafictional stuff. I guess I first got turned on to it in college when a professor had us read a bunch of Donald Barthelme’s stuff, which I just was entranced by. At one point, I had a graduate fellowship in which I got to study with Gilbert Sorrentino, who not as many people know as [they] should—he was incredible, and the master of not just breaking the rules but tearing them up and throwing them in your face and laughing as he did so. Let me put in a plug for Gil’s work. Mulligan Stew is this particularly insane beast of a book that is also really funny.

Whether or not they’re all sort of metafictional impulses, I’m really interested in telling stories in odd ways. In one of the short stories in my collection, you learn about the character and the character’s narrative solely via these mini-biographies that he’s written about all the peers that he has axes to grind with. Again there are footnotes and photographs. It’s a story called “Splitters,” about horrible rivalries in the world of botany. It might be that that’s part of the reason why I got the gig with J.J., is that when I heard the proposal, all of those circuits lit up. The puzzle part of my mind, the game playing part of my mind just lit up.

Had they read The Surf Guru, your short story collection?

I don’t know. I know Lindsey read Necropolis, and that’s what she handed to him. I don’t know if the stories were part of that.

Alive in Necropolis has sort of police reports—could you talk about that?

The main character is a cop who is working a town called Colma, which is south of San Francisco. It’s a real town, and it was created as a cemetery city, as a place to bury all of San Francisco’s dead, because they did outlaw cemeteries in San Francisco because of land values and such. It’s not really a ghost story, but there are dead people walking around causing problems. The boundary for him, between the world of the living and the world of the dead, gets a little blurred. I guess I liked that as a conceit, telling some of the narrative through the police reports that he writes about the incidents that he has to deal with that are in this blurry area or the area of the not quite real.

Did you read a lot of actual police reports and use those as models?

Yeah, I did. I had a friend who was a cop at the time, and he coached me on some of the phrasings, or really, sort of how you have to process events to write them up in this way.

We should say with S. there’s stuff kind of like that in it too, because there’s the postcards and the maps drawn on napkins, all these sorts of external-to-the-book things that are kind of stuffed in the pages of the book. Did you come up with all those? What was the process for those?

We knew from the beginning that we wanted to be able to do stuff like that with this book, that there would be pieces external to the text that would become part of it. As for what they would be, we didn’t decide that in the beginning; it was me going along as I wrote, keeping a list for myself about what would be cool. My list was incredibly long. I sort of decided I wouldn’t worry about practicality or even bang for buck. I was just like, “Let me put in everything that I think would be cool.” Then when we got the draft together, finished, and turned in, then J.J., Lindsey, I, and Josh Kendall, our editor at Mulholland, we had conversations about which of these is going to pay off the most. We cannot do 150 of them, but if we’re going to do twenty, which twenty should they be? Which was actually fairly easy to do. It was obvious which twenty were the most important. Twenty-two is what we ended up with.

This very much takes advantage of the book form. It really gets a lot of its power from the physical form. I guess there is an ebook version, but I think the primary way you would want to experience this is as a physical book. One thing that really interested me about this book is that it’s such an object and also within the story it creates this world where books are so important. Straka is this character with political influence—he brings down governments and stuff like that. People are willing to kill over this book. The grad students care so much about literature. I was thinking it’s almost like this book does for English lit what Indiana Jones does for archaeology.

That would be great. I’m a lit geek, always have been, and will probably always identify that way. I think that’s one of the things that at various points I was worried about. “Am I going too far into the lit geek world in a way that’s really alienating to other people?” That was another place where it was great to be working with J.J. and Lindsey, and having people saying, “No, this is interesting. Run with it. If it’s taking you to strange places, by all means. If it’s working, it’s working.”

The voices of the students, Jen and Eric, are so believable, and also what was very believable to me was the academic wrangling in the book. Maybe it’s an awkward question, but since you worked at a college, did you draw on any of the students and faculty kind of stuff that you know to create this world?

Not really—because Eric, who’s the grad student, he’s in a PhD program, but actually at the beginning of the book we find out that he’s sort of washed out of his PhD program, just destroyed his own career in a fairly dramatic manner. I’ve actually never had that experience. Yes, I teach at a university. I don’t have a PhD, and technically I’m not really a lit guy. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree. I’m a creative writing guy. In a way, it’s the vicarious pleasure of the pursuit of a PhD that I’m drawing on here, and I’m idealizing it in some way. Like idealizing the pleasure of it, and idealizing the horrible backstabbery of it. But actually, because I’m aware primarily of feuds in the scientific community, that’s where the botany story came from, and maybe because I think I was working on the botany story when I was starting to put this together, maybe that found its way in. If people can be so territorial and so quick to anger in this field, then surely that’ll be in this other field, but I don’t actually know if it happens there.

We should explain your wife is a plant taxonomist, so that’s where some of your interest in that comes from.

Yeah, it was me completely appropriating her world. I have an inner science geek, and so what I do, being a writer, allows me to explore that, pretty much explore anything I want to. It’s a great job. You get interested in something, you can make it the thing that you do, which very few jobs in the grownup world really allow.

Could you talk a little bit more about what sort of reactions the book has been getting? I thought it was interesting, you said in an interview that you expected the book to be polarizing. Can you say why that is?

I think because I still wasn’t, and maybe continue not to be in some ways, just absolutely sure, because I did get to indulge like every lit geek impulse that I had, and it’s a demanding read, too. I’m sure that there are going to be people who are put off by it or who decide it’s not worth their time to engage with it on the level that it demands engagement. Maybe polarizing is a little strong—

You’re not going to have secret societies hunting you down?

Yeah, I think that’s pretty safe to assume. So polarizing might not have been the right word, but maybe it translates to: “I think some people will really dig and probably some people will be alienated by what it is.”

Are you getting a sense from people of how they’re physically reading it? Has anyone read The Ship of Theseus and then gone back and looked at the footnotes?

Yeah, several people have, and that’s what I’m finding out most about, is that’s what people want to talk about, or I’ve been getting emailed questions about how best to read this thing. It seems like there’s the complete range of approaches. Yes, some people have read Ship of Theseus all the way through and then gone back to the margin story, and actually the ebook version facilitates that. It’s got a thing that you can toggle off the margin notes if you want, which is kind of cool that you can in fact get this clean read of Ship of Theseus. Then there are some people who go chapter by chapter. Read a chapter of Ship of Theseus and then go back. There are some people who are doing it a page or two at a time, or even a paragraph at a time. I haven’t yet heard from anybody who is doing it perfectly simultaneously. I think it all depends on how your brain is wired, like how best you absorb information, or what engages you the most. I think if I were to try to do it perfectly simultaneously my brain would explode because I’m not wired that way, but I’m sure there are people out there who are.

Could you talk about the titles, Ship of Theseus and S.—were those things that were given to you?

No. [I went with] Ship of Theseus because I got started thinking about the authorship questions, then that got me to thinking about identity. What does it mean when we say, “Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?” So Ship of Theseus is a thought experiment, or it’s one of the names for a particular thought experiment. Assume you have this ship and a part of it breaks, and you repair it, and so on, and so on, and so on, until you’ve replaced everything. There’s not one original bit of anything that’s composing that ship at that point. Is it still the same ship? Which is an interesting question, and people have been wondering about it for millennia, probably. There are many names for that thought experiment, and Ship of Theseus, I thought, was the most interesting because, especially taken literally, it gives you, “Okay, a ship. I’m looking for places to start with the story.” That’s where it started.

We worked for a long time without a sense of what the larger project would be called, I think. In my head, I did not refer to it as S., but whenever we got together there was this consensus that that was probably the best thing to call it.

You mentioned that you enjoyed Lovecraft, and I saw that you said Stephen King’s The Shining was one of the first books that really captured your imagination. This is largely a podcast for fantasy and science fiction fans, so I was wondering, are you a fantasy and science fiction fan yourself? Do you read much of it?

I haven’t lately, and that’s in part because I teach in an M.F.A. program, and yes, there are plenty of people who teach in M.F.A. programs who teach or who incorporate the study of various sorts of genre fiction. I haven’t ever felt confident enough to do it, I think in part because even if I were reading more, I would not be expert in it, and I feel like I should be expert in the stuff that I’m trying to teach. Then, feeling that way, my time is fairly limited because I’m trying to write and teach, and I’ve got a kid now, so in a way, I’ve gotten tracked into reading generally more straightforward literary fiction. Although I want to acknowledge it’s not like I think there’s a firm boundary between them, and I think most people who do think that are either lying to themselves or missing something fundamental.

Certainly Alive in Necropolis has supernatural elements—ghosts and stuff. Do any of the short stories in The Surf Guru have paranormal/fantastical elements?

That’s a good question. There are strangenesses. There are surreal moments. But I don’t think there’s any “genre” stuff going on. Even in Necropolis, I didn’t necessarily think of it as a genre work or as a walled-off from genre literary work. It was more like, “Here’s a story I want to tell. I’m going to try to tell it as best I can, and pay attention to language, and depth of character, and also have dead people running around causing trouble.”

Certainly in Ship of Theseus there are fantastical elements as well. Could you talk about some of those and how far you wanted to go with that and stuff like that?

That was all improvised. At some point I realized, “Oh wait, time is going to be a tricky thing here. Okay, here’s the rule for how time will work. Great.” Again, not really worrying so much of, “Wait, is this within the ground rules of the book? Can I do this? Does it become a different kind of book if I start messing with time in that way?” It was really kind of a gut decision that got me there, and the thought of, “Well, what the hell? The story seems to want it that way, so let’s see what happens.”

There’s this crew of characters who stitch their mouths shut. Can you talk a little bit about where that image comes from?

I’m not sure. I know there are examples of that image having appeared before in film and apparently in other books, so that must have been in the back of my head. I can’t say for sure, but I knew I wanted S. (the character) to be shanghaied onto this very strange ship that would be a hostile, unpleasant place to be, but it seemed like silence would be the best part of that hostility. To have it be just like this really hard to define, but intensely uncomfortable place to be, so I thought: The crew will not speak to him. It’ll be a completely silent ship. Then I thought, “Well, they need to have a good reason. There has to be something interesting about their silence. Let me stitch their mouths shut, that makes me feel creepy, so why not give it a shot?”

I wasn’t really expecting anything like the image that concludes the first trailer that Bad Robot made, because it’s this figure walking up to the camera, and you actually see this disturbing face that’s all sewn up. That freaked me out. I was like, “I wrote the damn thing, and this is going to give me nightmares.”

Why don’t you talk a little bit about the trailer and some of the advantages that come from having this movie production company associated with the project?

They can and did generate all kinds of attention for the thing that generally books don’t get unless it’s a book that’s an anticipated release from someone like George R. R. Martin or Stephen King. People know the next book is coming, and they’re stoked about it. I’m not those guys, so how wonderful to have access to this group of people who are behind the project and really trying to generate interest in it. There are a lot of pieces to S. that are not in the book itself, and are not in the physical objects that are tucked into the book. There’s a lot of stuff floating around out there. Some of which hasn’t been discovered yet.

Is this like Radio Straka? Like stuff online you’re talking about?

I guess I don’t want to say too much about it because I think the whole idea is for people to discover it, as opposed to me just saying, “Go here. Click on this.”

Actually, Radio Straka was the U.K. publisher, Canongate, who put it together just as a way of generating interest. They did five hours of ostensibly pirate radio broadcasts of a guy who is maybe a slightly unhinged Straka enthusiast and conspiracy theorist [who is] kind of riffing on things on the Straka world and on things possibly tangentially connected to it, and it’s like this uneasy blend of what is real and what isn’t. We had a lot of awesome music in there—the production is really fun. I didn’t write the scripts for it. I really had nothing to do with it other than smiling and saying, “Hell yes! That sounds great.” And it worked because I think they totally got it, but also ran with it in their own direction, which frankly only makes the Straka world bigger and more interesting.

I did want to ask you, in addition to being a writer, you’re also a three-time Jeopardy champion. I watch Jeopardy, and I’m like, “I would do pretty good, I think.” But then I think, “Well, if I got on there, there would be so much pressure, would I just totally not do as well as I not do at home?” Could you talk about what your experience was with that?

The thing is, you might do better, or, and I think this is more my experience, you might do better for five minutes, and then totally lose your mojo, and then get really flustered because then you realize, “Oh my god, I’m on TV. People are watching this.” Then maybe you get your mojo back. That’s one of the things that’s most interesting to me when I watch Jeopardy now. You can totally see when people are in the groove and are no longer aware that they’re being watched in any way. They’re just like in that purely, wonderfully competitive place where nothing else matters, and then you can see people starting to lose it, and then you can see people completely losing it. Then of course the question is, “Okay, are you going to be able to gather yourself enough to get back to that place?”

Actually, I was on the Tournament of Champions. I played one game and just got my clock cleaned, but that’s where I could tell I didn’t have the buzzer timing down. I did for a minute at the beginning, but then totally lost it, and I remember really fighting the button. Of course, once you’re fighting the button, it’s all over. I think with most of the questions, I would say like with three-quarters of the questions, all three people know the answer, so it’s about who’s in the groove.

There was this guy I saw, he had made this app, and it would test you and see what categories you were weak on, and then test you with previous Jeopardy questions in those categories, and he won like eight or nine times in a row or something. I guess the same kind of “The Bible” and “Shakespeare” questions come up over and over again.

Yeah, but I was doing it analog, man. No, that’s a great idea. I was on in early ’06, so there was some online stuff going on. There were fan and contestant boards where things would be discussed, like sort of the theory of Final Jeopardy wagering, but I was only on the fringes of that at best. Obviously I’m sure there’s a whole lot more going on like that example.

Alive in Necropolis is the one novel that you’ve published, are there any others that you’ve written?

No. I’ve been pretty lucky in that I haven’t had to put away the unpublished novel and say it’s a loss, because that’s a tough thing to do. I have many friends who’ve done it. And you realize, “Okay, that’s two years of my life, and all it’s ever going to do is sit in a drawer.” That said, Necropolis took me forever to write. It was like eight years. So in a way, maybe I have like three manuscripts in the drawer.

Did you feel like it was a big leap of faith on the part of Bad Robot and for yourself, that you’d written just one novel before that had taken eight years, and they’re giving you this big project to do?

Oh yeah, completely. It was absolutely insane for them to trust me with it, and it was absolutely insane for me to feign that kind of competence. Also, too, they work in the world of film and TV, in which, if you have a screenwriter who says, “I need to make it up as I go along,” you do not hire that screenwriter.

With film and TV scripts, generally, you’ve got to have every beat planned out before you get a line of dialogue out there. It’s really, in some ways, a more mechanical process. I was worried that they were going to be made uneasy by the fact that I have difficulty creating structure and abiding by structure. It would be great if I could do it. I would probably be well served by it, but I am not at all wired that way. But they went with it.

Whether or not they said it out loud, I think they understood, okay, the novel is a different thing from TV and film scripts, and it also might be that this guy is a writer who approaches the novel in this way, which is not that. But I never got anything from them that wasn’t, “Follow the story where it takes you. Do what you need to do. Do it your way.” Which is ideal.

We’re almost all out of time here, but before I let you go, what’s next for you? Do you have another book you’re working on? Or stories?

I’ve got some stuff that I laid aside when this opportunity came up. A few stories and a thing that might grow or have grown into a novel, although my gut tells me it’s more of a novella. Once the semester ends, I’ll have a bit more time to go back and figure out what still has life for me and pursue it. As I’ve been going along with this, I’ve had a notebook going for ideas for another novel, although it looks like it’s going to be a big, sprawling thing, and I actually kind of need to sit down and make sure that that would be the right choice because this is a big, sprawling, insane thing. It doesn’t make any kind of sense to jump into that. It might actually. It might be insane to do that. I might choose to do it.

I’m kicking around some TV ideas. It’s actually going to be kind of fun to get back and feel like, “Okay, what is going to snag my attention and demand my effort now?” Because I was writing up until midnight the night before the book came out. I’m still in that position of kind of gathering myself and looking around, and it’s like, “Oh, where am I now?” But it’s going to be fun to get back to that.

Great. I think we’re going to wrap things up there. We’ve been speaking with Doug Dorst. The new book is called S. Doug, thanks for joining us.

Thanks a lot. It was fun.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.