Four Questions with the Writing Duo “L.R. Dorn”
Matt Dorff and Suzanne Dunn talk about their new book The Anatomy of Desire
In general, the better my audiobook, the cleaner my house is. If I’m truly caught up in a story, I’ll look for tasks I can do so I can keep listening — swiffering, dusting, dishes, laundry, etc. (just not vacuuming, since it’s too noisy). When I listened to The Anatomy of Desire, my house was really clean.
In the novel, Matt Dorff and Suzanne Dunn, who write under the name L.R. Dorn, reimagine Theodore Dreiser’s classic An American Tragedy as a true crime documentary. The book follows Cleo Ray, a social media influencer, as she’s put on trial for murdering her girlfriend. The pair drew on their background as screenwriters while writing the novel.
The mock podcast format lets readers — or listeners — hear from Cleo, her lawyer, the prosecuting district attorney, the victim’s family and more. The 360-degree view of the case made me feel like I was a member of the fictional jury, weighing all the evidence to determine Cleo’s guilt or innocence. For those of you playing Summer Reading Bingo, The Anatomy of Desire could fill the debut, mystery/thriller or retelling of a classic boxes.
Matt and Suzanne were kind enough to speak with me about their book and the audiobook production process. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What made you want to retell An American Tragedy?
Matt: We had the desire to write for the eye and the ear. We’re very impressed by the docuseries form — like the “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” HBO series about Michelle McNamara. They’re the serial nonfiction dramas of our time. From there, we went looking for source material that would shine in that format.
We looked around at several different things but came to An American Tragedy, which we knew primarily through “A Place in the Sun,” a movie adaptation of the book, and then went back to Dreiser’s novel. We were just blown away by his vision, his panoramic sense of America and the American dream, and the different classes and economic strata of society. And within that is a very contained crime drama that we thought would be suitable to this format.
What were the benefits and challenges of writing as a docuseries?
Suzanne: We see it more as a benefit than a challenge, particularly because we’re two writers trying to write as one voice. It allows us to blend our voices into one author’s voice while allowing both of us to make the best of the contributions that we can.
Matt: The format allows the ability to constantly cut away to another point of view. In a more traditional prose novel, you have to pace out the transitions before you can go to another voice. We were able to constantly, seamlessly shift perspectives.
Suzanne: It enabled us, as Matt said, to write equally for the eye and the ear, something we’re passionate about. It let us create a panorama.
Much of the book explores influencer culture. What drew you to that world?
Suzanne: In An American Tragedy, we don’t know if the main character Clyde did or did not mean to kill his girlfriend. That resonates with the idea of masks and authenticity challenges that people have on social media. A lot of people have personas they put out online versus who they are.
I have a tech background and have also been a yoga teacher for about 15 years. I’ve seen the real stories of yoga teachers who used online promotion to build and develop a brand. I’ve seen my friends — some of the best yoga teachers in the country — asking themselves about what is authentic, what is the brand they’re going for, and how do they stay balanced.
Speaking of the audiobook recording, how involved were you in its production?
Matt: First, we had to get it all down the page. The audio department doesn’t even get the manuscript until the third draft because they want it locked. We were very attuned to how we saw it unfolding on audio, and the audio producers let us participate in casting choices. Actor Santino Fontana was our very first choice to play the director, so we were thrilled to get him.
We had a meeting with the director, and then the team is off and running — doing their recording, engineering and sound design. The next step was listening to it.
Suzanne: We’re one of those unique authors who have written for film and television, written for print and written for audio. This wasn’t what I’ll call a “West Coast experience” where the writer writes, and then everyone takes it and does what they do with it. We had a front-row seat to the casting, and we knew that our words would be read exactly as we’d written them, so it was a really, it was a different kind of experience hearing the spoken performance of a work of ours come to life for the first time. It was cool and causes us to turn around and want to do it again.
Disclosure: I received a free copy of the audiobook from Libro.FM in exchange for an honest review.
What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.
If you’re reading this on Substack or were forwarded this email, and you’d like to subscribe, click the button below.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.