the vulture transcript

Doug Dorst on Writing His Mind-Bending Novel S and Leaving You Completely in the Dark

Doug Dorst. Photo: Michael Stewart/Getty

Fans of S don’t just ask each other if they’ve read the book — they ask each other how they read it. Written by Doug Dorst (with inspiration from concept creator and “novelrunner” J.J. Abrams), the book is a singular experience: Within a worn library copy of fictional author V.M. Straka’s nineteenth and final novel, Ship of Theseus, are two readers who’ve found each other in the margins. There are issues of identity on all fronts — S, the protagonist in Ship of Theseus, has amnesia, and doesn’t know who he is; V.M. Straka, his author, is said not to exist and may be a pseudonym for a number of candidates; Eric, a grad student studying Ship of Theseus, is hoping to solve that question of authorship for his dissertation, but he, too, doesn’t officially exist, as his university has expunged him. Along comes an undergrad named Jen who picks up Eric’s copy of the book, reads his notes, and starts writing notes to him in the margins as she gets pulled into Straka’s work and the mysteries surrounding both him and Eric. It’s a labyrinth of story-within-story, especially when you consider the footnotes are ciphers. Even if the communications within S are decidedly analogue — down to the inserts of postcards and a hand-scrawled map on a napkin — the readership response has expanded into the digital world, with websites like the S Files helping lost fans decode the book. While Dorst won’t give up his secrets, he was willing to chat with Vulture about the S phenomenon, for those who’ve already read the novel. (Spoilers follow for those who haven’t, as well as a lot of dissection of plot points that will make little sense to the uninitiated.)

Dorst: Hi, it’s Doug Dorst.

So you do exist!
I do, yes. [Chuckles.]

Stephen Colbert doubted whether you were real.
That was great fun. Having Colbert suggest that I was a fiction was pretty much one of the highlights of my writing career.

This book is total geek-bait, but how big of a geek are you?
Oh, jeez. I don’t know. The definition has changed over the years. As a kid, I was unquestionably a nerd, but it wasn’t really a culture you could opt into or out of. It was just sort of something you were or were not. As far as today, I’m certainly friendly to that world, with my affinities, but I would probably get kicked out of the national convention for being a bit of a poser. I’m not as well-versed in many of the worlds that I’d need to be a bona fide card-carrying geek these days. [Laughs.] But it’s actually really gratifying to see that happening and to hear people talking about how they’re experiencing it. I’m taking incredible pleasure in that. So maybe I’ve just been in denial about my geekdom. Too many scars from when it wasn’t something you could opt into.

I don’t know if you saw this on his Twitter, but Neil Patrick Harris is a big fan. The joke theory that NPH is VMS. Do you want to dispel that right here?
I’m not dispelling any theories! Part of the fun is leaving them intact, to let readers put things together themselves and theorize and figure out which theories feel right to them.

Is there one correct theory?
There is a scenario that, to my way of thinking, makes everything come together. I’m not going to share that, but I thought it was essential for me to have it, because otherwise you’re just making stuff up. And it was a challenge to do that, to make everything hang together such that a particular solution is possible. But when people ask, I say I can’t comment on it one way or the other. To comment on it at all is to risk depriving a great many readers of their own particular experience with the book and sucking some of the fun out of the enterprise.

You could compare reading S to watching the last season of Arrested Development, in that once you do get through it, you then feel the need to go through it again to see what you missed the first time around, to make sense of it all.
You mean the one they resurrected? Okay. I watched the first couple of episodes, and it felt really tonally different to me, and I checked out. Was it rewarding after that?

You had to figure out how to watch it — in order, out of order, what to pay attention to. Which is not unlike this, in which you have to figure out how are you going to read S? Do you read Ship of Theseus first, and then go back through the margin story? Do you do that all at once, or chapter by chapter, or page by page? And then do you read the margin story in order of the timelines? And as the creator, do you plan the story accordingly, knowing that there will be multiple reading strategies?
That’s kind of like a huge question, and it’s making my brain hurt. [Laughs.]

Don’t you think that’s only fair, considering you’ve made everyone else’s brains hurt?
Oh, absolutely! I’m getting my comeuppance. Okay. I think for the vast majority of the process I knew which sorts of images, themes, and, to some degree, events I was working with, and I just went with them, not so much worrying about the particularities of the reading experience. I wasn’t charting, “Reader A will feel this on page 212, and will notice this on page 216.” It would take a much more organized mind than mine to be able to do that. How did you read it?

I read it as Ship of Theseus, then footnotes, then margin notes in pencil, then margin notes in blue-black, then margin notes in yellow-green, then margin notes in red-purple, and then margin notes in black-black, when presumably they’re using the same pen.
You are disciplined! That sounds like a great way to read it. And I’ve gotten tons of e-mails from people asking, “Please tell me the way to read it.” And I know one risks sounding like an asshole not giving an answer to that, but that’s part of the fun, figuring it out in a way none of us are familiar with. Each of us figure out how best to involve ourselves in the story, and it probably depends on how each of us is wired. It would be fun to have brain scans of people while they’re trying to read this.

Were you thinking about this being meta, this being a story about stories? How stories can transform you, fuel you, connect you? From the “tradition” on the ship, the story in the cave paintings, the stories told around the campfire seemingly coming true …
I want the book to work on all those levels. I want the book to work as a story of Jen and Eric, and I want the book to work as the story of S, the character, and I want the book as a story of Straka and Caldeira, and I want the book to work as a story of story. I want all those to work simultaneously. Why not try to have them all inform each other? Why not try to have it work on those different levels, all of which inform each other?

So how did you structure those different levels?
I wrote Ship of Theseus first, and then layered in the margin stories, the Jen and Eric conversation. And there wasn’t a whole lot of calculation. I don’t think my need to have Jen and Eric talk about a particular thing really changed the development of any particular moment of Ship of Theseus, not until the very late stages where you’re making one change in one story line, so you have to make another change here. Ship of Theseus was largely improvisational. I knew some things, but I was also making a lot up as I went along. And Jen and Eric’s story was also improvisational, although I knew there were a couple points I needed to hit. But both stories share the same set of themes and concerns, so it ended up not being that difficult to find those moments in the text that they would respond to. It didn’t take a whole lot of strategizing.

And then there are the footnotes, and the codes within the footnotes, which we depend on Jen and Eric to decipher in some cases. We don’t know as readers which works cited are real within that world or just made up, as our translator/avid footnote writer F.X. Caldeira is wont to do, to hide the code. We also don’t have access to the other Straka works, and The Painted Cave is necessary to decode the chapter five footnote (“Will wait ten years then home”).
Was it five? Seven refers to an obituary that’s external. I’m sorry, it’s been a long time since I was in there. As you can imagine, it’s pretty hard to keep track of everything. [Laughs.] But I think the vast majority are codes that are within Ship of Theseus and we get to see them finding it, and we get that moment of discovery from them. And there are a couple that they don’t quite find, because you have to leave some way for readers to participate on that level. Jen and Eric are good, but they don’t find everything.

And then there are the inserts, like the eotvos wheel. Sorry, I don’t know how to pronounce that …
I don’t even know how to pronounce it, either! I’ve always said “E-Otvos.” I can’t tell you how to use that. It’s no fun if I just tell everyone how to use it. But as I was going along, I was thinking of every conceivable thing that might be fun to put in there. And some of them were ridiculous, like the most incidental academic text that Jen and Eric are referring to, and some that really wouldn’t have much influence on the story itself, or the larger story experience. It was just me thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool to do this? And our team would tell me what’s absurd, and also what felt promising, what felt good. It was really pretty easy for us to agree on what pieces felt strongest.

Some of the things that they’re talking about are from the real world.
Right. If you think about how much fun it is for a writer to do world-building, and then to be able to blur the lines and have something that is from the real world, bleeding into that world, destabilizing the reader’s sense of what’s real. And history is interesting, so why not pick it up and use it, or change it? I have absolutely no regard for the truth of them. I just took them and used them to fit my purposes. Some were things I already knew about, some of them I came across, and some, you get an idea when you’re typing and it’s four in the morning, and you’re vaguely out of your head, and some reference or idea pops up that feels familiar, and you’re ten keystrokes from finding out what it is. I don’t know. There’s a lot of research — some was quick, some was methodical, and some was made up.

As part of the theme of story, storytelling, there’s a recurring aspect of stories not to be trusted — the stories in the newspapers that aren’t true.
There’s no agenda there. There’s no statement to be made other than, every story that’s created is created by somebody with his or her own set of motives or concerns or self-deceptions. Every story that one reads is colored by that. I think it’s just me trying to be cognizant of the fact that stories don’t just have one mixed meaning, so why not embrace that?

Why the recurrence of the number nineteen? Nineteen Straka novels, plus all the other times 19 pops up throughout the story, versus, say, 108 for Lost
That’s a good question. 108, is that the flight number?

No, that’s 815. 108 is the recurring number throughout the show, like 19 is for S.
I will say that I did want the number to have some magic to it. I’m pretty sure where it started is S is the nineteenth letter, and everything else was riffing on that. And there’s no question that it’s inhabiting the text in ways that have some extra resonance to them, and that’s by design. Now, that is a concrete answer, the likes of which I did not give you before!

Have you heard the Glass Bead Game theory? Which also posits that there were five authors of Straka’s novel …
For all the fun you can have working on these levels of the book, it is also intended to be a book, in the sense that you’re reading about characters and there’s hopefully an emotional arc you connect with. I’m hoping that people don’t lose sight of that.

They won’t. You probably gave them nightmares about their mouths being sewn up.
Hey, I gave them to myself when I saw the trailer. That freaked me out. The trailer, I was like, “Wow! I wrote that, and it’s still terrifying!” I totally had a nightmare about my mouth being sewn up that night. Thanks, J.J. [Laughs.] I don’t know if it’s the actor or the look in his eye, but it was deeply creepy.

Despite the trailer, I could not imagine this being a movie. You can’t replicate the reading experience.
J.J.’s been pretty clear all along, saying we’re making a book, this is the format this story was made for, and let’s not [make a movie]. I’m not skilled enough to come up with a way that it could be done well. And book is the ideal form for this, so why bother with forms that wouldn’t be the ideal?

And if it were a film, they might find quicker ways to send a message, versus waiting for a book to be published.
You’re presuming that the translator would know where to send it, and the act of sending it might get the recipient killed. And it also might be likely that the recipient is dead. [Laughs.] We’re taking an anachronistic form of communication and having fun with it. If it’s not outdated, it’s in danger of being outdated. A physical book, handwriting on paper, there’s something that feels a little old-fashioned about it, and that’s part of the joy of doing it, being able to bask in that kind of intimate communication.

You get Jen and Eric’s personalities through their handwriting.
When the designers started working on the book, they had a couple of folks in house try their hand at the writing, and it wasn’t too difficult; we settled pretty quickly on what Jen and Eric would look like in the margins. And we talked about how the handwriting should be able to convey emotional content, like when one’s getting agitated and pressing down harder, and there are little evolutions in the handwriting as the story goes on. It was important that it look like what our sense of the characters was.

Are you or the publishers behind the Jen and Eric Twitter feeds? Or is that something a fan is doing in homage to them?
Okay. So there are some extra things living on the web that I have composed. There are things on the web that I did not compose, but I have no idea who did. So all I can say is this particular thing I did not do, but I don’t know [who did]. It could be a fan, it could be someone at the publisher, it could be someone at Bad Robot. I remain willfully ignorant. But it’s still too early in the game to say which ones [I’ve handled].

It’s the same question within the book, in regards to F.X. Caldeira’s contributions: How much of her filling in the pages that were missing is pastiche or fan-fic? How much of the material surrounding S is fan-fic?
Oh, totally. And there was some hope that it would go like that. And how fun to make and witness the making of a world like that?

What about the Sommersby confession, or Radio Straka?
Radio Straka, actually, we knew about it, but it’s something the U.K. publisher put together. I think I’m not ruining any secrets by saying that. They really got into the book, and they wanted to do something really cool prerelease, so they put together these amazing scripts and playlists and such, and I just love the idea that there’s this sort of solitary Straka fan musing, slightly insanely, about all of the issues. I would love to say that I wrote it, but I didn’t. As things have gone on and accelerated, I haven’t been able to keep up. In the first couple of weeks, all this stuff was fun to see, and now it’s a little overwhelming and I don’t have time to keep up.

So it’s not just overwhelming for us, it’s overwhelming for you, too.
Oh, yeah. [Laughs.]

Could you conceive of there being more? Writing more Straka books, perhaps, something with a different perspective in the margins? Say Ilsa and Moody? Maybe Ilsa isn’t a villain. Maybe she thinks Eric is a jerk who flooded her office space.
I think it would be very easy to do more, other pieces that would inform Straka’s history and Jen and Eric’s search. And faith and trust are very much a part of that discussion, because you are hearing the story from someone, and you have to choose the degree to which you trust them. So yes, we’ve got moments where Jen or Eric, their ability to trust in what the other is saying, that is a very alive part of the narrative. It’s just a question of time and brain space. This is something that could keep expanding outward. And someone else could do that, too. I think it would be pretty cool if someone who was just into the book wrote a version of Moody’s version of events, as if a book had just fallen into his hands. That would be a blast.

You would want that?
I mean, that would be fun to see. There would probably be legal issues in publishing it, but I would totally love to see someone do that. That’s just me speaking as an individual who would enjoy reading it.

Doug Dorst on His Mind-Bending Novel S