Language Lost: Q&A With 'The Word Exchange' Author Alena Graedon

Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange/Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

As a teenager, Alena Graedon studied abroad in Beijing at the dawn of email, a mode of communication perpetually monitored and censored by the state. A few years later, as a senior at Brown, her house burned down, destroying all of her books, her laptop, and the hard copy of her thesis -- the last saved only because she had, yes, emailed it to herself. These two events not only reinforced her sense of the fragility of the printed word, the power of language, and the double-edged nature of technology, they planted the seeds of her debut novel, The Word Exchange, which hit shelves Tuesday, April 8. A thought-provoking entry in the great dystopian tradition, The Word Exchange imagines a world where the printed word has nearly vanished, technology dominates, and language has become a commodity -- a world into which Anana Johnson must go in search of her missing father, the man who was putting together the last printed dictionary, as a "word flu" begins to spread, threatening to erase language itself.

A Durham, North Carolina, native born into a family of book lovers, Graedon went on to earn an MFA at Columbia and work at the PEN American Center. Signature recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about her long-held fascination with "the centrality of language to our lives, how it defines us and functions as our cultural legacy, tying people together across space and time -- and what it might mean if those ties were cut."

SIGNATURE: Where did the germs of the Word Exchange and "word flu" concepts come from?

ALENA GRAEDON: As part of a transitional generation, the last to really use print media, I've always been a little ambivalent about the ways our relationship to language and information has changed in my lifetime. From the beginning, I viewed e-media as sort of fragile. But there was also no denying how incredibly convenient this new digital medium was, how much more permanent, paradoxically, it could sometimes be than print, and how likely it seemed that we'd eventually use it almost exclusively.

I've been totally fascinated, and occasionally alarmed, by the ways in which our consumption of media has shifted, and by how online marketplaces that consolidate holdings -- of music, books, news, film -- have disrupted those industries. That's where I got the idea for an online database of language, the Word Exchange. I was interested in taking that model to a logical extreme by applying it to language, a faculty so central to humanness that many consider it our defining trait. I wondered how we might change if we yielded even our words to devices and databases. If it would affect more than just how we interact, but maybe also how we think, and define ourselves.

The concept of word flu evolved along with the Word Exchange. When there's a resource, in this case language, consolidated in one place, and when that "place," the Internet, is inherently unstable, the natural next questions seem to be: What would happen if something went wrong, and the database's content got corrupted or destroyed? And what if the problem were to spread, which is pretty inevitable with something like language. There's a reason we describe diseases as "communicable." Instead of transmitting ideas, word flu literally spreads confusion. Instead of connecting people through use of a communal resource, the virus separates and alienates them, both because no one can understand victims, and because people become afraid to interact.

SIG: Dystopian novels are typically built upon a great underlying fear. What is the fear that drove your thinking when devising this story?

AG: I think it was driven less by fear than by a set of questions, and a sense of having arrived at a pivotal time. But it definitely does engage with some tropes that are at the center of lots of novels and films. For one, there's the idea of unintended consequences brought about by new technologies. Potentially tied to the concept of unforeseen outcomes is the notion of short-term gains placed before consideration of long-term effects. That was very much on my mind when I started writing the book six years ago -- the financial crisis was just unfolding. At the center of The Word Exchange are devices and applications that seem to free us up in lots of ways, and that make interacting faster, easier, more intuitive, and therefore theoretically better. But one unexpected result is that they actually seem to undermine language and communication, and all the things connected to it: intimacy, creativity, our ability to think deeply and see things in new ways.

SIG: A story built around the value of language would seem to invite a certain eloquence and invention in the telling. Did you have any doubts about your ability to achieve the level of writing that you wanted in telling the story?

AG: Oh, God, yes. Every time I try to write anything -- an essay, a story, an email -- I feel these dueling impulses: to create something and to judge it. To step on the gas and the brakes. Nothing ever really seems done, or quite the way I want it to be, and those concerns always return to individual words and phrases, the molecules of all writing. Of course writing about language made me incredibly self-conscious about my language. That said, the endless mutability of language also helps me appease the gatekeeper side of my nature: I'm constantly reminding myself that nothing is final, which gives me permission to keep going. Revision, especially tinkering, is actually my favorite part of the process. I just try the best I can to surprise myself.

SIG: Fahrenheit 451, The Book Thief, and The Handmaid's Tale all came to mind when thinking about the nature of your story. Where do you think your 21st-century ideas about the value of books and language fit into the literary tradition?

AG: It seems to me that some of the questions uniting the novels you mention, and that I also tried to explore in The Word Exchange, include: Who has power over knowledge and information? How do those in authority control its dissemination, and why? How do they decide which things to censor, and for whom? In each of these stories, books are central, almost totemic objects. They have a significance that's both literal and figurative. These kinds of preoccupations tend to reemerge during moments of confusion and crisis, when members of a society are trying to understand and synthesize all the ways in which things are changing around them. Certainly, that seems to have been true of Fahrenheit 451, which Ray Bradbury wrote during the McCarthy era. And I think we're in a similarly uncertain period now, which is probably why there are lots of dystopian novels coming out at once, not just mine.

SIG: Where, when, and how did your own love of language develop?

AG: My love of language really started with a love of books. My grandfather was a rare and used book dealer. He and my grandmother lived down the street when I was growing up, and both their house and ours were full of his collection. In my family, books were the only really sacred objects. But even though we treated books with reverence and respect, I was also always taught that they weren't only objects -- that they were meant to be read and shared. And my family and I read all the time, alone and aloud.

SIG: Do you put any limits on your own technological usage?

AG: I'm not anti-technology. I think the Internet is a strange, sometimes hostile, mostly extraordinary place that has changed my life for the better in many, many ways. But I do try to limit my use in some ways, because I find that I'm only able to focus and think (if I'm lucky) when I don't have it tugging on my eyes every five seconds. My methods are pretty simple, and normally not too difficult: I try to get up fairly early most mornings, between six and seven, and work until lunch without getting on email or social media. If I manage to block off a couple hours away from the vortex, I can usually quiet my mind enough to do a few things.

SIG: Name a favorite dystopian novel and a favorite dystopian movie, and explain what most grabbed you about them.

AG: One of my favorite novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, was actually adapted into one of my favorite films, Blade Runner. Each is really extraordinary on its own, but they also compliment each other in fascinating ways. Using very similar characters, settings, and storylines, if different methods of developing them, both the book and film have the power to mesmerize, amuse, and induce anxiety. They also both explore questions of what it is that makes us human, and how our qualities of empathy, toward people, animals, and even androids, separate us from machines. In some ways, those are also questions that I wanted to examine in The Word Exchange. As we become increasingly integrated with more and more sophisticated and intelligent machines, which are augmenting our bodies and brains, and as we begin to share our realities with devices in ever more complex and entangled ways, I think many of us have been wondering what the effects on us will be. I was also really struck by the way that different eras and technologies seem to coexist in Blade Runner, which is also something I tried to do in The Word Exchange. It seems to address the idea of living at a time when lots of technologies are colliding, some fading away and dying almost as quickly as they're introduced; some, like books, holding on more stubbornly, at least for awhile.