J.J. Abrams, Doug Dorst Talk 'S.' Novel, Online Hoaxes

Chris Godley

Lena Dunham moderated a discussion with the director and author at New York City’s Symphony Space. "The idea was to make it look like an actually library book from the ‘40s -– the writing would look legitimate, the pages would be yellow," said Abrams.

Writing in the margins is a book lover’s habit, but J.J. Abrams asked the question, “What if a relationship began, using a book as a means of communication between two people?” Such is one of many concepts at play in S., a multi-leveled mystery novel and love story penned with author Doug Dorst (Alive in Necropolis), and the central focus of a recent discussion at New York City’s Symphony Space, moderated by Lena Dunham.

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Abrams kicked off the conversation by clarifying that, though his name is on the cover of S., he’s only responsible for the book-within-a-book concept. “To be a hundred percent clear, Doug is the author of the book,” he said at the Nov. 23 event, co-presented with literary nonprofit 826NYC. The director-producer first told the idea to Bad Robot features head Lindsey Weber, who then suggested Dorst as a top pick. “All we did was find an incredibly talented writer and give him an idea for something, and then you took it and made it completely your own.”

S., published by Mulholland Books, is not only the Ship of Theseus mystery novel written by V. M. Straka (a fictitious author, as Dorst didn’t want to piggyback the margins of an existing classic), but also the story of Jen and Eric, two bibliophiles who communicate to each other through handwritten notes in the book’s margins. Even more so, the book features footnotes from an editor and remarks from a translator.

“At the time, I was convinced that I was auditioning,” said Dorst, who also teaches creative writing at Texas State University. “I thought, well, there’s no way I’ll get this gig, so why don’t I just go in the most ludicrous direction? What would be most fun for me? … They would say, take it as far as you possibly can.”

Dorst drew from his fascination of authorship controversies, such as William Shakespeare, B. Traven and JT LeRoy. Dunham then told Dorst, “I actually read a theory online that you were a hoax perpetrated by J.J.! They’re like, ‘He has an online presence going back at least 15 years, but it doesn’t seem past J.J. Abrams to have constructed this entire thing!’ It was really remarkable. But you seem real – what gives?” Dorst joked back, “Robotics.”

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The multiple layers of S. question the concept of identity while including tons of literary references -- i.e.some real, some not. Abrams said to Dorst, “It seems the litmus test for you was, what would I believe? Not what’s real or what’s not real. Just, what feels right? It wasn’t about it being true, it was about being emotional and compelling … And I love that as this is happening, these two people are falling in love.”

When asked what is the best way to read S., Dorst said it depends entirely on how the reader naturally processes information, and should follow whatever they’re pulled to read next. He would prefer to read the entire Ship of Theseus story first before digesting the marginal story. Abrams said he would read a chapter of Ship of Theseus at a time, and then revert back to Jen and Eric’s developing plot. Dunham happily read all of Jen and Eric’s conversations first because she was invested in “whether they were going to hit it or not.”

How a person reads the book also depends on whether it’s being read as a hardcover or an eBook, as the latter allows the extra notes and layers to be easily turned off. As much as Abrams appreciates the option, “This was not intended necessarily to be a digital book,” he said, even though its production with many parts has enraged librarians. They worked with design firm Melcher Media to create a physical book that felt authentic, not only as an old book, but also as an artifact that was passed around between two readers and filled with things like postcards, paper cutouts and a map drawn on a napkin. “The idea was to make it look like an actually library book from the ‘40s – the writing would look legitimate, the pages would be yellow. You can immediately imagine that there are so many bad ways to do this!”

In the end, Jen and Eric’s handwriting came from two Melcher Media employees. “They did their casting in-house,” joked Dorst. Abrams added, “We got a note from them after it was over – it was a very sweet, typed, very professional-looking note on Melcher stationery, which was then annotated all over the place, and we have it framed.”

The discussion also let Abrams reminisce about his Fringe series (“I’m glad it got to last as long as it did; it was a show that was true to its name and any moment, Fox could’ve said no,”), praise Jennifer Garner’s warm heart and work ethic on the set of Alias and refuse to answer audience questions about the upcoming Star Wars storylines.

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Dunham also put Dorst, a three-time Jeopardy! winner, through “J.J. Abrams Jeopardy,” even though she didn’t know about the flipped answer-question format and came up with multiple-choice answers when asking about “this guy played Felicity’s long-term unrequited love,” and “the actor who portrays Jennifer Garner’s father on the television program Alias.” Options for the latter question were Victor Garber, John Lithgow, Sinbad. “That would’ve been the greatest show!” said Abrams of casting the comedian.

One audience member wondered how Abrams could juggle both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises without having them conflict. “Star Trek is very much a science fiction story, Star Wars is a fairytale,” explained Abrams of his perspective. “They feel very different. I think the approach that we’re taking [to Star Wars] feels like we are being led by what the story wants to be – meaning, you have to look at what exists … it feels very clear to me that these universes, I never find them overlapping. There’s no Venn diagram for me where they combine, where they get confused.”

And when asked who would win in a fight, Han Solo or Captain Kirk, Abrams averted the question. “If I answer the wrong way, I will get my ass kicked either by Harrison Ford or William Shatner or Chris Pine. All three of them could take me down!” Dorst, on the other hand, said Shatner would win.

Dunham also injected that she’s never seen any of the original Star Wars trilogy – a fact received by the audience with a blanket gasp and a “Holy shit!” from Abrams. “It’s crazy and I didn’t know if I should tell you,” she told the director. “I don’t know! I was watching Now and Then, A League of Their Own, stuff with Geena Davis in it!” Nevertheless, she happily revealed what she did grow up following, saying that she owns the first Archie comic ever. “You really haven’t lived ‘til you’ve been to an Archie convention.”

Twitter: @cashleelee