Today@Sam Article

Acclaimed Author, Screenwriter To Speak At SHSU

Oct. 31, 2017
SHSU Media Contact: Emily Binetti

The Sam Houston State University MFA Program in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing will welcome writer Doug Dorst to campus on Tuesday, Nov. 7 for a pair of events that are free and open to the public.

Dorst, the co-author with J. J. Abrams of "S.", a work of fiction that has been described as one of the most impressive book productions of recent years, and a writer for the Amazon TV series Z, starring Christina Ricci, will take part in a moderated interview at 3:30 p.m. in Evans Complex Room 212, and will read from his work at 5 p.m. in Austin Hall.

“Part of what draws me to Dorst as a writer, and as a teacher, is that he’s demonstrated such versatility in his career,” said Scott Kaukonen, director of the MFA program at SHSU. “He has the kind of background you’d expect from a literary writer and academic—an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford, a collection of stories and a novel with Riverhead Books—but he’s also written experimental theater, for the screen, and, of course, this strange and interesting collaboration with J. J. Abrams on 'S.'

Kaukonen assigned 'S.' to the students in his graduate fiction workshop this fall, which is what led to the invitation to Dorst for the visit. The workshop has been studying “fakes”—that is, works of fiction that pose as other kinds (or genres) of works that we encounter in our daily lives: short stories that take the form of a syllabus, a customer service complaint, a bibliography, an index, a travel guide, but also an entire novel composed of recommendation letters (Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher) and a scholarly edition of a 999-line poem in rhyming couplets, complete with a proper academic introduction and hundreds of endnotes (Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov).

“Generally, a novel announces itself as a novel,” Kaukonen said. “We pick it up, we start at the beginning, the author provides us with a setting and characters within that setting, and then things happen, one after the other, and we follow along, our reading strategies informed by the dozens or hundreds of other novels and stories we’ve read that function this way. Most often these proceed in a linear fashion with a clear beginning, middle, and end.

“But fiction itself is a broader idea, and the works we’ve been studying take full advantage of the flexibility of available forms to create these fictions. There are stories within these fictions, but the fictions, in a sense, are acted out in a different way. They pose as something other than a novel or a story—even though they still tell a story.

“When you open 'S.', it does contain a novel—The Ship of Theseus—but that novel is just one part of a larger fiction—which is 'S.' itself.”

"S." comes in a slipcase, and when the seal is broken and the book removed, readers find themselves holding what appears to be an old library book, The Ship of Theseus, by V. M. Straka, translated and introduced by F. X. Caldeira, and published in 1949, this particular copy swiped from the Laguna Verde High School library. The pages are yellowed and stained by time and use, and—significantly—the book is filled with dozens and dozens of handwritten notes (written in at least two distinct hands and over several distinct periods of time), as well as highlighted and underlined passages, the notes a covert correspondence between a male graduate student, Eric, and a female undergraduate, Jen, at Pollard State University. Additionally, a number of artifacts have been slipped between the pages, including telegrams, postcards, photographs, illustrations on café napkins, photocopied newspaper clippings, handwritten letters on legal paper, and more, all of which works together to create a compelling—and rather complicated—mystery.

The two students, Eric and Jen, who, as the book begins, have never met, together are trying to uncover the truth of Straka, a reclusive and controversial writer who seems to have been connected to a mysterious group (The S), which has waged an on-going battle with the powers-of-this-world, those who would dominate and control capital, nations, people. But the students don’t know whom they can trust—not even Eric’s dissertation advisor, Dr. Moody, or his fellow graduate student and rival, Ilsa, and their own lives seem to be in danger as they seek the solve the puzzles around Straka’s life—and death—even as the relationship between the two of them develops and their own stories unfold in the margins.

"S." pays homage to a number of genres—the espionage novel, the seafaring novel, the academic parody, the existential novel, and, yes, the love story, and it’s also a celebration of the book as artifact, an analog production in a digital age. It is a fully immersive experience for the reader, who, alongside Jen and Eric, is trying to figure out the mysteries the book presents

“Ultimately, 'S.' is about power and art, good and evil, the personal and the political, and the oft-complicated relationship between these binaries,” Kaukonen said. “It’s a book of mysteries and ciphers and puzzles, an immersive experience for the reader who’s trying to pull it all together, but it’s also a book that’s asking important questions about the role of books and stories in resisting power.”

Dorst, who directs the MFA program in creative writing at Texas State University in San Marcos, is also the author of the novel "Alive in Necropoli," a finalist for the 2009 PEN/Hemingway Award for first novels, and the short-story collection "Surf Guru." 

For more information, contact Kaukonen 936.294.1407 or

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