Doug Dorst puts the S. in 'Ship of Theseus' with this JJ Abrams Collaboration
That book is S., a many-layered, story-within-a-story-surrounded-by-footnotes-and-marginalia that progresses like something Poe and Borges might have concocted after being enchanted by Griffin and Sabine, and it was sparked by an idea from JJ Abrams. Abrams is, of course, that producer-director whose various media franchises (Lost, Cloverfield, Star Trek, the next cinematic chapter of the Star Wars mythos) can be polarizing, opinionwise, but about whom there's general agreement on at least one thing: Choosing to team up with the Austin-based Dorst to create this newest work was one hell of a smart move.
And this is one hell of a smart book – in both writerly execution and designerly production – and we reckon thus: Lucky is the Christmas tree (or whatever holiday gifting-point) that finds itself harboring the multipartite marvel for some lucky bibliophile or mystery aficionado or graphic-design lover to discover. And, you know, the big ol' thing is such a literary event that we figured, OK, let's not just give this another one-person review. No, let's instead sit down at a coffeehouse with the author and a few other local literati and have a gabfest about it. Many voices, many opinions, much arcane information explained or hinted at – kind of like parts of the book itself, right?
So we convened at Thunderbird Coffee on Manor Road last week: Doug Dorst, the aforementioned author; Jodi Egerton, book-headed mentor of Write Good Consulting; Matt Bucher of wallace-l, the David Foster Wallace email listserv; Jill Meyers of A Strange Object, an indie Austin press; and Wayne Alan Brenner, arts reporter for The Austin Chronicle. And here's you now, reader – gone all drosophila melanogaster, all fly-on-the-wall, as the five of them chat about what you may have already experienced the source of – or what you'll soon be reading your own way frenziedly through …
TRANSCRIPT: PART ONE
Jodi Egerton: Is there another layer of people who are talking about our talking about the book? That would be genius!
Egerton: I tweeted about the book shortly after I read it. And I got followed by many different Twitter handles that are related to [fictitious(?) author] Straka. And it's fascinating, so I followed everyone back – and now my Twitter feed is all these, I don't even know if some of them are from within the bookworld, I don't know if some of them are Doug or not-Doug … and I went to somebody's blog and there are all these people, and they're puzzling out these things. And I was like, "Oh, I was wondering about that, too!" This is a book that has created a community.
Doug Dorst: I actually got to meet one of those guys. I assume you're talking about 'The S. Files'?
Egerton: Yes, that's what it was!
Dorst: One of those guys came to New York, he flew to New York from Scotland, and he was saying it's actually a group of pretty tight friends who I guess got together doing similar puzzling-out of things from "Lost." And it's really cool to see what they're doing, and there are all these Twitter handles from names of the characters. Straka has a Twitter account now, and it's all pretty wild.
Matt Bucher: How much of that was designed when you were planning the book? Like, "We're gonna leave this much of it insolvable or really difficult to solve" because you knew you'd be creating this community that, like, people would rise up around it?
Dorst: That makes it sound a lot more calculated than it was. It was more like, "Let's do a bunch of fun stuff, and we'll leave some spaces, some things for people to do – because people enjoy doing that." But that's as far as I went with the thing. So it wasn't a brilliant bit of strategy, it was more like, hey, that'd be fun.
Jill Meyers: I do like the ways in which the book is an invitation, that it really does encourage you to solve some of the riddles or the mysteries in the book. And also that it's such a fine physical specimen, where you're looking up these annotations and you're, you know, pulling out a napkin and looking at a map or examining postcards and looking at the postmarks and you're sort of drawn in as a researcher yourself, to open it up in the ways you wouldn't with a normal book.
Bucher: Yeah, the Internet is bad at reproducing physical objects. There's probably not a great e-book equivalent of this.
Meyers: Is there an e-book version?
Dorst: There is. It's only on one platform, it's on Apple. So I guess iBooks, and I actually haven't seen the whole thing. But my understanding is that they've produced digital versions of all the external objects. I don't know how they're presented, like "This is page 58, so here's the," I'm not sure – presumably it's there.
Bucher: But it's still pixels on a screen, right? To me, what the Internet and devices are good at is enabling communication, and the book is also about that. So I think it's interesting that what's remarkable is the communication, the making-a-connection-with-someone, not trying to reproduce – I mean, the book is like an art object, it'd be a totally different experience to read it on an iPad. I had a rubberband around my copy of it, because all this shit was falling out. Do you have it all memorized, where things are supposed to go –
Egerton: It's on that website.
Dorst: On 'The S. Files' – somebody posted that.
Bucher: But does Doug know? Like, if a postcard fell out, could you put it back in the right spot?
Dorst: Ah, no. A couple of them I could, but a lot of them, no. So I'm glad those guys put together a list. But one thing that the e-book does have going on, which I think is cool … there had been a bias in favor of the physical book all along. And, early on, we were saying we were only gonna do the book book. And we were then informed that, ah, that was not a thing one could do.
Dorst: And so I was like, "OK, an e-book is a thing I can tolerate." And I haven't seen the whole thing, but one of the features that it has, you can toggle off all the margin notes so you can get a total, clean read of Ship of Theseus. And I was like, "Wow, here's a really great example of something the electronic book can do that the paper-and-binding-and-ink book cannot.
Meyers: Have you heard, ah, I'm interested in how people are reading it. Do people read the Ship of Theseus all the way through without looking at the margin notes? Or … ?
Dorst: I've heard of some people doing that. And I imagine it would get difficult – especially on the pages where there are all kinds of arrows running through the text. But, yeah, some people do it that way. And, most days, when someone asks me how I would do it, I kind of think that would be how I do it. But there are some people who are reading everything simultaneously – which I don't think I'm wired for. And there's everything in between, too, like someone will go a chapter at a time with Ship of Theseus and then go back, and I've recently heard from a couple of people who've been reading the book, the Jen-and-Eric exchanges in the margins, according to the time coding. So reading the blue and black first, then reading the orange and green …
Egerton: I read everything simultaneously. I was sick in bed for a week, and I was like, "OK, this is what I'm doing while I'm sick in bed," which was awesome. But the most I could read ahead in Ship of Theseus was a paragraph, without going back to see what that underline went to. I was pretty right on top of it.
Dorst: Did it take you a while to find out that that was gonna be your groove with it?
Egerton: Well, since the book starts with Jen-and-Eric, so they were my entry into the story before Ship of Theseus, and when Ship of Theseus started, I was like, "Am I supposed to read this? I hope this is good, because it looks old." I finished grad school and I don't read old things anymore, that's it.
Bucher: I did it a bit differently. I read the first page and the first few notes, but then I got into the Introduction and I thought, "OK, I'm just going to read Ship of Theseus." And then I was like, "Ah, fuck, I can't do that." I got like 20 pages into it, and I was into the story, but then, if you read the footnotes, and you read a couple, it's like, ah, shit. So I went back and started over, and caught up with the back-and-forth in the margin notes, and after that I read it all together. But then I got to a part where I was really into the Ship of Theseus and I just said, "Fuck it," and I abandoned the Jen-and-Eric storyline, folded the page right there, told myself I'd come back to it later and just kept going. It was about that point in Ship of Theseus where Stenfalk starts to talk about his old dusty book, and I was like, "I'm your target audience here, man."
Bucher: That, to me, was some of the best parts of that storyline. I was really drawn to the parallel and had a lot of questions about it. There's definitely turning-points in both stories where you're given some bit of information that will make you want to keep going. It was like, it seemed like a kind of maze structure. Not just the story here and the footnotes there, it felt like the whole thing was directing me to, and then you get this six-page letter in the middle of it, and I was "Oh, I've gotta read that, I'm not skipping that."
Egerton: It never occurred to me to read the book any differently – until we discussed it right here. But I read really really fast, and with this book, I was like, "Oh, I've got to re-wire all of my brain." Like, "This book is going to fix things in my brain." Because I was having to do what I do not do normally, to not go-as-fast-as-I-can-and-get-everything-in-there. And so I was reading every story at the same time, and I got to a point about three-quarters through, where I was like, "OK, I want to make sure that I have't missed
Bucher: Are there any other layers you could've packed into this?
Dorst: If I'd thought of them, I would have. I mean, I didn't have anyone telling me "No."
Egerton: It's so fun, too. It'd be interesting to go back and read the margin notes in color order and seeing how it evolves. I love those moments where they're like, "Can you believe we said that earlier?" And I'm like, "Ohhhh! What am I gonna learn!?"
Meyers: Right – that there's comments on the comments.
Egerton: I love that! It was so tasty! All these throwaway remarks that had so much more meaning because I was farther in the book. And there are very few books that I go back to once I get to the end – and this is one of them.
Bucher: Another thing that threw me for a loop was, you start out and you're like, "OK, this is an obscure author, maybe B. Travenesque, reclusive – maybe he doesn't exist, maybe he did exist. I'll get that. And then I'm like, "Oh, shit, maybe the translator doesn't exist. We can't trust this person, and then even the people annotating it, Jen and Eric, later on they're saying "Oh, I lied earlier," and it's like you can't trust anyone in this book!
Bucher: And it's weird, because the only person I felt I could trust was S. – who doesn't really trust himself.
Meyers: It's a book full of unreliable narrators.
Bucher: I got a strong sense of The Bourne Identity, where the guy doesn't know who is is. But to see that carried on over and over, that's a deeper existential problem, that Ship of Theseus idea, that paradox, because he's rebuilding himself – or trying to. What drew you to that particular paradox?
Dorst: I got there via the authorship controversies, thinking about Shakespeare, about Traven, and thinking about J.T. LeRoy and even the Pynchon/Tinasky thing. It got me thinking, on just the most rudimentary level, about what do we mean when we say somebody is somebody? I'm not a philosopher. I was a philosophy major for about eight minutes in college – and then it got difficult. But so, yeah, it's not a cogent work of philosophy, but there's a more colloquial use of the Ship of Theseus paradox for exploring "Who do we say we are, when we say we are who we are?" And I didn't purport to have any answer to that, and I still don't; but it seemed like an interesting framework to use in exploring some parts of the story and some parts about the characters. It might be just that that paradox has stuck with me since I learned about it in high school – it's a really interesting one. And it has so many names, too.
Bucher: "Grandfather's Axe," that's one.
Dorst: And "Locke's Socks." But I couldn't use that one, because JJ got Locke already. And I think I went with "Ship of Theseus" because it's got a mythic quality –
Bucher: It sounds like a book title.
Dorst: Yeah, and I was Googling desperately, hoping that hadn't been used. And it came with a built-in setting, because I didn't know where the story was gonna be, and then it was like, "Ah, a ship, great – that's what we're starting with!" And, you know, it turns out that there's a film called Ship of Theseus that came out a week before or after the book? I think it's an Indian film, and actually there's this weird little moment in the book where Jen asks Eric, "Did anybody ever try to make a movie of Ship of Theseus?" And he's like, "Yeah, there was an Indian guy – but he disappeared."
Bucher: Yeah, that's great!
Dorst: There are all kinds of reverberating real-world moments like that. So that was my interest.
Bucher: But, OK, where do you come down on the philosophy? You have your grandfather's axe; and then the handle breaks, so you get a new handle; and then the blade breaks, and you get a new blade. Do you still have your grandfather's axe?
Dorst: I see both sides perfectly clearly – and take no stance whatsoever on the matter.
Bucher: That's a very safe answer.
Dorst: I think it's the most fun answer, actually: It means that everything's available.
Meyers: I definitely saw the continuity of the ship, even at the end when it's completely rebuilt, I could still see that as the same ship S. was on.
Dorst: You know what? You're right – I'm with you.
Bucher: But if you have your grandfather's axe, and you bought all the parts yourself, it's no longer your grandfather's axe.
Egerton: But maybe you would never have made an axe if your grandfather wasn't there to give you an axe. My grandfather would've no way given me an axe.
Meyers: He's not an axe-giving man?
Egerton: Not the axe-giving kind.
Wayne Alan Brenner: So when you were preparing to write this, the idea of a ship came later?
Dorst: So I was reading about the authorship controversies, and that got me to thinking about identity theory, and I was just Wikipedia-ing everything that pops up when you're talking about identity theory, and that one – The Ship of Theseus – it just lodged, just caught on.
Brenner: Did you have to do a lot of specific research for that, though? There seems to be a lot about ships and sailing in the book …
Dorst: The beauty of having everything online is that you're, like, twelve keystrokes away from finding whatever thing you want. It's funny – if the sailing stuff came across well, that's great. Because I felt completely out of my element. I stole stuff from Patrick O'Brien and Dominic Smith. Have you read Dominic's Bright and Distant Shores? It's, man, the sailing scenes in that are amazing. And the closest that I came to a lapse in confidentiality, I was so moved by Dominic's book, I was like, "Man, you just nailed those sailing scenes, they're so much better than that hack-ass sailing scene I've done." And then I sent that email, and I was like, "Oh, that was probably a mistake."
Bucher: For me, a lot of the book reminded me of Melville.
Brenner: I thought you were kind of tipping your hat with the quote from "Bartleby" in there.
Dorst: Which, there are so many tips of the hat I've made – for several different reasons. Because I was invited to write a book-y book, it feels interesting to have a tip-of-the-hat, whether it's one that I'm putting in and leaving uncommented upon, or having a character make, it all can go in there.
Bucher: And with the authorship thing, you kind of created another one just by having two authors' names on the front of the book. Have you had people ask you, "So, did JJ write this?" Is there any confusion there?
Dorst: I'm sure there will always be. But actually JJ has been really clear from the beginning, "No, I did not write this – Doug wrote it."
Bucher: But even saying that, it's not something normal authors have to say that. "No, I swear I didn't write this." I mean, I get what you're saying, but it's funny: You're talking about authorship, and you're traveling around and you're on these shows and you've got a guy next to you saying "I didn't write this."
Dorst: And in some cases I'm not there, and the interviewer is asking JJ if I exist.
Egerton: That's amazing. Who was one of the people who –
Dorst: Stephen Colbert was one of them. But he wasn't alone.
Brenner: Oh, man, you'd think they'd've heard of you from Alive in Necropolis.
Dorst: Oh yes, it was such a huge seller. I think my entire family bought it.
Meyers: I'm interested in how you balanced the different stories. Because there's Ship of Theseus, and there's all the incredible forward-moving action – it's been a while that I've read a novel that's so plot-driven. So there's all of that, and then there's the relationship between Eric and Jen, and then also, teased out through the book, is the relationship between the Ship of Theseus author and the translator. How did you conceive of those storylines? To have one story be here and another one here, because it is happening simultaneously on the pages?
Dorst: A lot of it was improvisational. But there is one point in the Jen-and-Eric story that had to settled upon, like "Where is this going to happen?" And that was something we all talked about, because we knew we had to hit it before this point, but we don't want to hit it too early. So I had that in mind for the one story. But it was pretty much, OK, let me see Ship of Theseus through, and then, given that I know there's one big point of inflection in Jen-and-Eric's story, let me mark it here and then see how everything fits around it. But even that wasn't calculated – it was done by feel mostly. I got Ship of Theseus all the way finished, and then I was going back to layer in the Jen-and-Eric stuff. Before that, from Chapter Two on, I'd done them sort of simultaneously.
Bucher: Sounds like how I read it.
Egerton: OK, I've got more questions. You have Ship of Theseus and the footnotes – which is its own separate story – and then Jen-and-Eric happening on multiple pass-throughs. How did you not go absolutely mad?
Dorst: I may well have. I have a pretty good guess as to what Deborah would say in answer to that. But a lot of that was just the fun of improvisation, too. I mean, you have a guitar in your hand, you're not trying to play a particular song, you're just doinking around on it. And once the arc of Ship of Theseus was in place, I think I did a few of the footnotes along the way, but then, as I was going through and figuring out – it's like, OK, this chord happens in Ship of Theseus, and of course Jen is going to read it and react to it … and then that would give me an idea for one of the footnotes. But a lot of it was doing it by feel and making a big ol' mess. There's no way, I have to acknowledge a huge, huge debt to our editor – Josh Kendall at Little, Brown – because he helped me clean up an enormous mess. But that was the strategy: Just go, make a mess, try to do everything, and then we'll eventually make sense of it …
Bucher: How much did you stage-direct the notes appearing on the page? Did you write them as a separate file and just tell them, "OK, you guys do your best!"? Or did you tell them, start at the bottom and then this one has to be linked to, because it seems, it was …
Meyers: It was very intimately choreographed.
Dorst: The final document was the Ship of Theseus and then the entire Jen-and-Eric story done in comment-function word-bubbles on the word processor. Which I don't advise. Because it makes every single word-processor on the market, as far as I can tell, crash – often. I tried six or seven different ones. So the, once the designers got hold of it, there was a question of "OK, how big are we gonna make the margins?" How big can we make them without it feeling like a children's' book? And that's where the real world came in, like it could not be more than 500 pages. So this was the sort of sweet spot where no one would be put off. And I got a call from Josh saying "The designers say this will not fit, your margin-story is way too big." So we had to cut the margin-story by thirty percent. This was in the end of March, and so I flew to New York and Josh and I holed up in a hotel room for four days and cut thirty percent. But there were still twenty or so pages where we were asking the designers to put too much in the margins, and we had to say, "We've cut as much as we can, and it's OK if this looks completely insane." Because they tend to correspond with moments where one of the characters is kind of worked up. And so we had to say, "OK, this page might be really off-putting to a reader, but it's how we're doing it."
NOTE: THE TRANSCRIPT CONTINUES HERE…