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Doug Dorst, Part Two: The Coffeehouse Transcript About 'S.' Continues!

Shout-out to JJ Abrams, who would've LOVED that peanut-butter cup.

By Wayne Alan Brenner, 12:01PM, Tue. Dec. 10, 2013

Y'coggin' it finalwise now, Sunshine.
Y'coggin' it finalwise now, Sunshine.

… and welcome back to the Doug-Dorst-and-four-other-literary-types-talking-about-S. transcript here in the everbright pixels of your Austin Chronicle.

It's the top of the hour, the weather a sunny 37 degrees Fahrenheit, traffic proceeding more or less smoothly through the city's major streets, and you'll recall that the first part of this transcript was published here yesterday, and that Jodi Egerton, Jill Meyers, Matt Bucher, and W.A. Brenner have been lightly grilling the author on the whys and wherefores of his stunning new opus. We join the second half of the conversation already in progress, at the point where Matt Bucher is saying:

Bucher: Did you have instructions about what the handwriting in the book should look like?

Meyers: Yeah, did you audition people for the handwriting?

Dorst: I think they found people in-house. I had this vision where they'd, like, send fifty people over, they'd be up on a stage writing while people watched them. But they found a couple of people they wanted to work with. At one point they had the same person doing both Jen's and Eric's writing, just as a placeholder, because they hadn't found the second one yet.

Egerton: There's total personality that comes across in that writing – you know immediately who they are from the way that they write, in so many ways. And when I was first looking at the book, I was like, "Oh God, that's not a font, somebody handwrote that!" And Jen's handwriting evolves over the book, it changes, and that's so cool.

Bucher: That's a weird thing for me, because if you've ever been married or moved in with someone, and you merge libraries – I see my wife's college copy of Jane Austen, and it's got her handwriting in the margins. I have, one, no interest in her annotations on Jane Austen, and, two, no interest in – the book is just ruined. It's like, "I don't wanna read your undergrad ideas about Jane Austen." I'm just so put off by books that are marked up, like my younger brother's notes on Dickens? Ugh. But, if it's like David Foster Wallace's copy of Blood Meridian, then I'm more interested in the annotations than the text. There's some weird …

Meyers: Some value-switching.

Bucher: Yeah. And, with S., I thought I would not be interested in Jen and Eric at all, because I thought, "They're stupider than Straka." You know? Or "They're college students, even though one's a grad student, but Straka is a master and is what I really wanna read." But it all just overlaps too much. And Jen and Eric, they speak with more like a reader's-brain voice, so I found myself identifying more with them as readers. So I definitely have value-switching all over the thing. Would you be interested in the margin notes in a random person's copy of some novel?

Dorst: I don't know, because there have been times in my life when I've really been put off, when I wanted a pristine copy of a book. And I tend to lean that way – so it's ridiculous that I wrote this book.

[laughter]

Dorst: But, no, I can totally see that, if you're interested in the person, whether or not you know who that person is, if you're interested in that sensibility, it becomes another text to groove with. But, personally, I like my books clean – I don't even like my own notes in them, because I'm embarrassed by what I thought was relevant. Although oftentimes I'll put a little star or a check-mark near something – because that way I'm not committing myself to sound a certain way. I'll just know that this was interesting.

Bucher: But even that's a unique voice, after a while: Your patterns of stars or whatever.

Dorst: But, yeah, I think I'm too self-conscious to do thorough annotating.

Meyers: It's mortifying – for me, at least – to go back and look at books I read when I was 18, to see what I underlined.

Dorst: And, actually, I wanted to do a little more with that – since this is a book that Eric's had since high school. And Eric's notes to himself are in pencil. And, at one point, there was a whole lot more of it – and a lot of that was what got sacrificed in the final cutting-back. Because it was interesting to me, it was a way to get to know the character. But in the final version it's most interesting as texture.

Egerton: It was totally the part that made my Jodi-looking-at-her-own-notes squirm.

Dorst: And those were generally the ones I left in: The ones that would make Eric squirm like that.

Meyers: I like how, like in a traditional epistolary novel, there's this tension of when will these two letter-writers meet, when will they come together? And that's sustained, and I'm curious: Did you look to any classic, like Clarissa or, I don't know, older epistolary novels?

Dorst: You know, it's kind of embarrassing, because how could I not think of it as an epistolary novel? But I did not think of it as an epistolary novel. I know, it's absurd. But that's maybe where things got a little film-and-TVish? Which is to say, like, "OK, this scene needs to happen sixty percent of the way through." And that back-and-forth was how we got there, with the rhythm of it. And there were so many timing issues, structural issues, or plausibility issues. And that's where something required for the writing ends up being an opportunity – and there were a lot of those. And there are probably a lot of those in anything. As long as you're open to it, as long as you don't see it like, "Oh, I have to plug this hole, I have to account for this." Because it's not just that. It's not just nailing up a sheet of plywood over a hole, it's – ah, I'm gonna blow this metaphor. In fact, I'm gonna give up on it entirely. But, ah, it's opportunity. And it's one of the things that Tobias Wolff told us in workshop, one of the best bits of advice I've ever gotten: The moment you encounter any sort of implausibility issue or anything where you feel like you're gonna be bending over backwards to account for it, just run right at it. All you have to do is have a character acknowledge that there's an implausibility or something, and, if you're doing it honestly, the character's going to have a particular response to that – and so, not only have you dealt with the problem organically, you've actually learned something more about the characters and the way they respond to it. I've gotten a lot of use out of that advice.

Egerton: I love that this book is about the power of the writers, and then it becomes incredibly literal – they're the ones out there killing people and changing the world and working behind the scenes. And I love that. And there were those references to fires and things, and I was like, "Really? She's writing in a book and now they're setting her house on fi – no, I'm IN it!" I mean, I am your reader or movie-viewer who's going to be surprised every single time the bad guy jumps out of the woods – I suspend all my disbelief right there with the protagonist. So watching the S. part evolve was so much fun. That was the part where I was like, "I need to know all these people and all these relationships," that's the part where I went back, to re-sort through. It's a whole other layer of connection and community, and it's so powerful.

Bucher: And what about the translator and that relationship? Did you have any designs of pushing that further? Like almost a Pale Fire type of thing, where you've got the translator playing almost the dominant role? Or a bigger role?

Dorst: I didn't, but I think that came from my sense of who they were as characters and what their relationship was and what it became. I didn't think that the translator would be someone that, in this world, would attempt to hijack the narrative in really overt ways. Because that character's already making some adjustments here and there, but for particular reasons.

Bucher: You know Nabokov went that route – but he didn't have all the annotations in the margins. You went whole hog into it, to say you're not only gonna have the translator issue, you're not only gonna have the reclusive author issue, you're also gonna have this sort of epistolary love story in the margins – which I don't think anyone has done.

Dorst: And that was totally JJ's thing, that was the foundational idea: Love story in the margins of a book. And, really, I probably would've been well served by making the book, like, a modest pamphlet of haiku. But, no, I decided to write a whole 'nother damned novel. And after we had the meetings with publishers in New York, after we'd finished doing the pitches and the bidding was about to commence, I think it was my agent who said to me, "So, you realize what you've got yourself into, right? You realize that you're talking about writing a whole 'nother novel?" And I guess I knew that in the abstract? But there was this whole "Holy shit, what have I committed to doing?" moment. Because I … hadn't quite thought it through. So that happened.

Bucher: Is there a part that you're particularly fond of, that stood out for you as something that, like, "Damn, I really nailed it there."

Dorst: I'm really proud of Ship of Theseus. And I know that's not narrowing it down to a particular moment, and it's strange … because, on one level, it's the afterthought of the book. Which is to say, what's novel is what's going on in the margins. But, at the same time, it's absolutely essential to the illusion that Ship of Theseus be good enough that you believe people would read it and take it seriously. Especially because it's old and you have get people to believe that it'd still be taken seriously. So I tried to make it good. And it's also a lot more plot-driven than anything I've ever done – not just "plot-driven," but adventure-y – which I've done a little of, but not a whole lot. So, yeah, I'm really proud of Ship of Theseus.

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