Doug Dorst isn’t the first writer you’d think of if you were asked to name authors who’d do well in Hollywood. Unfailingly kind and thoughtful, he seems as invested in other writers’ careers as in his own, always asking about how their writing is going. So when the news broke several years ago that Dorst, who writes literary fiction, was going to collaborate with director-producer JJ Abrams (who directed TV’s Lost, the recent Star Trek movies, as well as a forthcoming Star Wars film), the reaction among writers in Austin, Texas, where Dorst lives, was one of awe, followed by immediate concern: What will Hollywood do to Doug?
It turns out that Dorst did just fine (maybe because he stayed in Austin during his collaboration with Abrams). As Dorst told me earlier this week, he was contacted out of the blue by his literary agent after Lindsey Weber, the head of the film division at Bad Robot (Abrams’ production company) read Dorst’s 2008 novel Alive in Necropolis. Abrams had once found a thriller a stranger had left in an airport; the stranger left a note in the book saying that he or she wanted whoever picked up the novel to read it and then eventually leave it for someone else. That got Abrams thinking about “a novel that would unfold in the margins of another novel,” as Dorst told me. Some four years later, S. is the product of their partnership: a funky, sly, engaging novel filled with postcards, old news clippings and a map on a napkin, objects that reveal the story of two readers falling in love with one another as they puzzle out the story of the novel itself. Now that S. has been published, Dorst is planning on returning to work on a short novel he was developing before the Abrams collaboration began, but I sat down to talk with him while S. is still on his mind.
How did this project come about?
Lindsey Weber, the head of the film division at Bad Robot, had read Alive in Necropolis and she passed the book to JJ and thought that I might be able to be someone who could work with a conceit like that [of a novel that would unfold in the margins of another novel]. That was exciting for me. I like formal constraints. I like challenges; it’s fun to find the story that will work with a given form. And then I got a call from my agent just out of the blue: “Would you be interested in working with JJ Abrams?” It’s not the kind of call that comes every day.
What do you think it was about Alive in Necropolis that made her want to call you?
I think what she responded to in that book was the different voices. You’ve got a rotating third limited with a bunch of different characters and I think she saw some versatility in that, the ability to inhabit distinctly different characters. She thought that would be useful. The fact that you’ve got some part of a narrative told in police reports probably isn’t hugely important, but it suggests that I’m open to telling stories in less conventional ways.
How did the collaboration process work?
There were a couple of phone conversations at first, talking about the conceit and in broad strokes about what the story might be like. JJ really wanted a love story. And it makes sense, two people who are getting to know each other in the margins of a book. He asked, What would you do with this? What kind of stories would you tell given this conceit and given that focus on the relationship developing between two readers? I had been reading about authorship questions, the Shakespeare question, a book called Contested Will, and that sent me down the rabbit hole. I assumed I was auditioning, that I was competing against 20 other writers, and I thought, There’s no way I’ll ever get it, so I might as well have fun. They were into the proposal and then we kept talking about it: Who are these two readers and why do they keep coming back to each other? And we went back and forth just trying to develop ideas. That was at least a year. What we were doing was building a foundation that I could use to go forward and improvise and find all the stories embedded in there because that’s how I work; I can’t plan anything out. I made that clear from the beginning and I think that made them nervous.
Lindsey functioned in the way I imagine a producer functions—keep the writer on track but also be there as a sounding board. I would talk to her about where I was going. And then when it felt like there was a much larger story arc, she would pass that along to JJ. More often than not, the notes were along the lines of, Quit worrying so much and trust where the story is taking you because it’s working. That’s a nice note to get back, but they were both really good at spotting where a story is…where there’s not as much life. It’s the same kind of feedback I would’ve gotten from my usual network of first readers.
I was implicitly invited to work the way I wanted to work and tell the story the way I wanted to tell it. I had some concerns about the way that would go. In screenwriting and TV, everything is planned out to the beat before a word of dialogue gets written. My process for this was to build our foundation and then I go on from there and then make a big mess and pound it out from there. They got that it’s a different medium and also perhaps I’m a particular kind of writer in that medium, that I don’t structure or pre-plan a whole lot. Never once did I have the sense that they wanted me to do anything but what I did. It’s probably not what most people would expect that working relationship to be like and it’s entirely to their credit that they bought into my slightly insane process as much as they did.
There’s been some speculation that the book might be adapted for film or TV…
Right now, it’s just the book. It was conceived as a book and that’s what it is. And that’s almost certainly what it’s going to remain. I like the fact that it’s squarely in the book format and maybe it might be ungainly to adapt anyway. I think JJ and I agree that this is the project in its proper form.
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews. Photograph above is J.J. Abrams.