How I Write: Doug Dorst

The writer talks about working with filmmaker J.J. Abrams on their beautifully illustrated and executed meta-novel S.

Emily Berl/The New York Times, via Redux

Where did you grow up?

Chappaqua, New York.

Where and what did you study?

As an undergrad at Stanford, I was an English and Political Science double-major. I got a law degree at UC-Berkeley, then fled to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for an MFA in fiction. A few years later, I went back to Stanford as a Stegner Fellow in fiction.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Austin. My wife and I moved here from San Francisco for her Ph.D. program at UT, and we’ve put down roots. There’s a very supportive community of writers here, and I have a great teaching job at Texas State University, which is just down the road in San Marcos.

You’ve written plays, short stories, and fiction. Does your approach differ, depending on the genre, and does one come more easily to you than others?

I started out writing short stories, which is pretty common for people who’ve come up through the ranks of undergraduate writing workshops and MFA programs. I didn’t attempt a novel until my agent gave me a nudge in that direction. His message was: I understand that you don’t feel ready. You never will. No one ever does. So if you you’re in the least bit inclined to attempt it, you might as well do it now. This was great advice. I’ve repeated it often.

As for which comes more easily: whichever one I’m not working on at any given moment.

I used to go one line at a time, trying to make it perfect before moving on. And that worked for a while. But things went south in the middle of my first novel, and in order to finish it, I needed to commit to writing more quickly and more loosely—I was going to end up doing a lot of revising, anyway, of course—and to write when I was failing to feel anything like inspiration. I also had to embrace the value of grunt work, of clocking in and logging the hours even when I wanted to do anything but. In both cases, even if what I wrote was utter shit, it helped me stay connected to the characters and the story, and it helped me write things later that weren’t utter shit. I do that now with novels and stories, both. Inspiration (or, simply, a groove), if it’s going to come, comes after I’ve started writing and emerges from what I’m writing.

I don’t really consider myself a playwright. The play, Monster in the Dark, was a devised/collaborative piece that I did with foolsFURY Theater in San Francisco when I was in irons on my first novel. I’m pretty sure they brought me in precisely because I knew nothing about writing plays.

It was tremendous fun to make something with other people—to create socially, not in isolation—and it also helped me clear my head for that final push on the novel. We’ll do another project together one of these days—although I’m not sure if that’ll make me any more of a playwright.

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Describe your morning routine.

First: get my daughter to school. What happens after that depends on whether or not it’s a teaching day. I’d like to be a get-up-at-5-and-get-your-writing-done kind of writer, but I’m not. Not yet, anyway.

Please recommend three books to your readers, and tell us why you like them.

Far Tortuga by Peter Matthiessen – An incredible book in form and substance. It’s a collage of moments that gradually—without your quite realizing it—becomes a white-knuckle high-seas adventure, as well as a devastating commentary on commerce, the environment, and changing times. It’s a little challenging to get into it—it takes a while to sort out the characters and the dialects—but wow, does it pay off.

The Shrine at Altamira by John L’Heureux – It’s harrowing, and it’s brilliant, and it’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read because it showed me just how powerful fiction can be as a force for empathy. The main character does something horrific—really, really, shock-the-conscience horrific—and yet the book refuses to regard him as a monster. It doesn’t excuse or justify anything he does, but it shows the reader, convincingly, how one man—deeply flawed, but not evil—could find himself committing this act, and how he might, while suffering through the terrible consequences, retain his humanity. (Disclaimer: L’Heureux was a teacher of mine, and I love him dearly. But also: you should read this book.)

World’s End by T.C. Boyle – There’s nothing like reading a book in which you can tell the writer’s having fun, and for me that’s true of pretty much everything Boyle has written. World’s End is complex and wooly and funny and heartbreaking, and it’s one of the books that made me think, hey, I might find a lot of fun and/or joy in writing—more so than I would in the law, for sure.

Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

Generally, I’ll have some sense of who the main character is and a few events I think might happen, but a big part of the fun, for me, is not knowing. And the results are usually better when I don’t. I’ve written a few things purely improvisationally, working from a single word or image—for example, the short story “Little Reptiles” grew out of my wanting to use the word “boomslang” (which is, I submit, one of the coolest words in the language). I know there are writers who map everything out in advance—I’ve heard John Irving talk about doing that—but I don’t choose to work that way, and I’m not sure I could if I wanted to.

What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

The text has to engage the reader somehow. Which is stating the obvious, I suppose. But there are many ways you can engage a reader. Plot or event, yes, but also voice and sensibility, attitude, setting, the music/rhythm/velocity of the language, humor, mystery, the WTF Effect, and any number of others. I don’t believe in any hard-and-fast rule.

Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I don’t really have a writing routine. I grab two- or three-hour blocks when I can, and every now and then I get on a roll and write all night.

In recent years I’ve gotten rid of anything that resembles a ritual, apart from the ritual of sitting down and typing. My first novel, Alive in Necropolis—or, rather, the process of writing it—changed me. It took eight years to write, most of which were anxiety-filled and not very much fun. I realized, eventually, that the rituals and superstitions (and fussiness about setting/environment, too) were making things worse. If anything wasn’t just right, it’d derail me. So what good were they? In retrospect, I think they were primarily self-dramatizing, ways to feel like I was plugged into some sort of Magic of Creation—which is, of course, complete bullshit. (I’m not opposed to bullshit per se, but bullshit that incapacitates me as a writer and, eventually, as a person? No, thank you.)

With S., there was so much work to do in so little time that I felt like I had to take that rejection of ritual further: I had to train myself to be able to write anywhere, at any time, and under any circumstances—or at least to believe that I could. And I did. There’s a little bullshit involved there, too, but at least it’s an empowering sort of bullshit.

Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?

I work in different places—at home, in cafes, and occasionally in my office at school. The views: At home, it’s the garden; at a café, it’s the café; at my subterranean office, it’s the feet of the people walking by outside. What I keep on my desk: all of the crap that I haven’t yet gotten around to clearing off of it. I’m prone to clutter.

Let’s jump into S. which I very much enjoyed, and could tell that you enjoyed writing.

Thanks! And yes, I did.

I’m interested in how you approached a) the fact that it was a collaborative concept, and b) the fact that there are two parallel but distinct novels afoot. Did you write all of Ship of Theseus first and then write the dialogue between Jen and Eric, that populates the margins of the printed book of Ship of Theseus?

I often send works-in-progress to friends who are writers (generally Iowa or Stegner folks) for their feedback, so in one sense the collaboration here was something familiar. But it was helpful also to have more structure (and time-pressure) in the process. Perhaps most importantly, J.J. is so energetic, so encouraging, so inclined to say Yes! And do more! Go further! Let’s see what happens! that it was surprisingly easy for me to seek out and pursue the challenges that presented themselves. There’s no question that I did better and more interesting work because of his and Lindsey’s encouragement. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d have had the fortitude to attempt something so ambitious without it.

Jen and Eric spend much of their time deciphering codes hidden in the text and footnotes of Ship of Theseus, as they try to figure out the true identity of its fictional author, V.M. Straka. I was struck by the choice you made that we readers are not meant to “play along” and try to solve the codes, which are highly specific and are not set up for us to try to solve. The pleasure is in watching Eric and Jen solve them, and in seeing their relationship develop. Was that a conscious decision not to expect readers to try to solve the ciphers ahead of your characters? In Da Vinci Code, for instance, there is the opposite approach—the readers are supposed to play along and figure out the codes before the characters reveal them.

The thing is, Jen and Eric are trying to figure out the Straka mystery, and they’re good at what they do. That’s part of who they are, and as you point out, it’s an engine of the narrative and one of the primary pleasures. What’s important is what they do with their discoveries. But there are some things they miss, too. It seemed unsporting to write a novel in which codes and ciphers play a big role without giving readers something a way to participate on their own. So there are other pleasures to be found there for readers who are inclined to go looking.

Did J.J. Abrams consult with you on every aspect of the process of S. or was it more conceptual, and then he told you to run with it, and only checked in after you had a lot of text down?

The whole thing started with J.J.’s idea of telling a love story that develops in handwritten notes in the margins of another book, which the two characters pass back and forth. He and Lindsey got in touch and asked what I’d do with that conceit. I proposed a narrative in which the two protagonists are students reading a book about which there’s an authorship question. The three of us spent the better part of a year talking about the main characters—getting a sense of who they were and why each of them would want to start, and continue, passing the book back and forth—as well as the basics of the Straka mystery, and what the reading experience of S. might be like. I did a draft of the Foreword and Chapter One, which then got a few rounds of notes and revisions, as well as the pitch document (which I believe ran to 70 or 80 pages) for us to use in shopping the book to publishers. After that, I went off on my own to draft the rest of Ship of Theseus. I’d send chapters to Lindsey for her notes, and when we had a multi-chapter arc that seemed to be working, she’d pass it to JJ for his notes. We used the same process when I wrote the margin story.

Did it take convincing to find a publisher willing to commit the expense of preparing a book that essentially requires the cost of an art book, as each page is “illustrated” with marginalia and sometimes drawings, and there are many color inserts (postcards, letters, faux newspaper clippings), all of which means a lot of up-front cost for the publisher. I’m sure with your track record and Abrams’s name onboard publishers knew that this book would sell well, but it must cost the publisher a heck of a lot more than a normal book would. I’m interested in how that process went.

We presented the book to a bunch of publishers over a few days in New York, and those meetings were all about trying to convince someone to do this possibly-insane project with us and pay us for all of the trouble. We said the book would include some extra-textual elements (although we didn’t know yet how many, or what those pieces would be). So Little, Brown knew at least generally what they were getting into when they signed on. But then, once the manuscript was complete and the roster of ephemera had been agreed upon, they had to choose (and, I’m sure, negotiate with) a designer and make production decisions. They could have cut corners, and, to my relief/good fortune/eternal gratitude, they didn’t. I have no idea how they did that while keeping the cover price reasonable. Magic accounting elves, perhaps.

How did you map out what Eric and Jen would say and discover and where, with relation to the text of Ship of Theseus? Did you have a printed copy in hand to which you added marginal notes, or was there film-type storyboarding?

It wasn’t really mapped out; it was done by feel. S. (the character)’s story, Straka’s story, and Eric and Jen’s story share many themes and motifs, so it was pretty easy to find places in which the text of Ship of Theseus would inspire, or at least resonate with, the margin notes.

At the beginning, I was hand-writing the Eric and Jen notes onto printed pages, but that obviously wasn’t really going to work over the long haul. I ended up using the Comment function in my word-processing software to house the Eric and Jen exchanges. It’s not really built for that sort of thing, so the software would crash all the time. There was lost work, there was rage, there were tears, but eventually I just trained myself to save after every line (and, when doing the final edits, after every change). I spent a lot of time looking for better options, but I never found one. Then the designers (Melcher Media) found their Eric and Jen to do the handwritten notes. It was really exciting to see that for the first time.

What were your inspirations for the style of Straka? I feel like I caught some Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent in there…maybe some Camus?

I wanted Straka’s work to feel not-entirely-contemporary, and I wanted Ship of Theseus to have at least a bit of Central- or Eastern-European flavor to it, but I tried to resist the direct influence of any one writer or school of writing. Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers (or, more precisely, my deeply-flawed memory of its tone) may have given me a point from which to start. Other influences are just the ones that I’ve internalized over the years and that come out unbidden.

What is guaranteed to make you laugh?

Python. Hitchhiker’s Guide. Ted Knight in Caddyshack. My 2-year-old’s impression of “a scary clown.”

What is guaranteed to make you cry?

"Walking Far from Home" by Iron and Wine.

Do you have any superstitions?

Used to. Got rid of them. See above.

If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?

I wouldn’t do it. No way. Haven’t you read Pet Sematary? That shit never works out.

What is the story behind the publication of your first book?

As I mentioned above, I got started writing Alive in Necropolis because my agent gave me a nudge in that direction. He’d been spending his time placing short stories of mine, and I think he was tired of earning only 10 percent of a contributor’s copy for his labors. He said: Give me 50 pages and an outline, and we’ll sell it and the story collection together. So I did, and he did. It only took me eight years to finish the novel.

Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?

I’m still waiting.

What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

750 words is a solid day.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Embrace the process of doing many, many drafts. Then take full advantage of what that offers. Use early drafts—not just the first—to explore, to dig, to discover, and to make a mess. It’s fine to seek inspiration. Write like hell when you have it. But teach yourself how to write, too, when you don’t.

Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.

Danielle Steel is my cousin. Second cousin, maybe, or first-once-removed. I can never keep those straight. Our grandmothers were sisters. I’ve never met her, though.

You were a Jeopardy! contestant and had a pretty good run. Say I get invited onto Jeopardy! What would you recommend by way of preparation for the show? What did you do to prepare? And was there a single question that brought about the end of your run of wins?

Buzzer timing. You can practice that at home—although you can’t practice how you’ll respond when you lose your buzzer mojo in the middle of the game (or you can’t find it in the first place). Because that will happen, and if you come unglued, you’re done. Review the following: Shakespeare. Geography. English royal succession. Things in the news the week you’re taping. Whatever you do, don’t forget to review the periodic table. And when you review the periodic table, take special note of Tungsten, or Wolfram. Ahem.

What is your next project?

I’ve gone back to some short stories and a novella that I had put aside when I started working on S., and over the last year or so I’ve been keeping a notebook of ideas/sketches for the next novel. I’m also working on a TV pilot. The next project will be whichever of those I finish first.