Q&A: Alena Graedon on 'The Word Exchange'

Alena Graedon's writing will make you speechless — and maybe that's the idea. Graedon's debut novel, The Word Exchange (Knopf) imagines a future in which the oft-feared "death of print" has become a reality. Anana Johnson works with her dad, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL) in New York City. Right before the launch of the final edition ever to be printed, Doug disappears from the Dictionary offices and the dictionary pages. The only clue is a note: ALICE, a code word Doug had agreed upon with his daughter after giving her two vials of blue pills should she ever need them. Ana is terrified but determined to find her father, and what she discovers in the basement of the NADEL offices sets the plot off on a wild, thrilling chase: people are messing with the interface of the dictionary, and English words are being exchanged for nonsense. A word virus sweeps through the city, and as Alena hunts down clues and pieces together the situation, she must protect herself while also staying one step ahead of the disaster.

Graedon's novel replicates and examines our all-too-real dependency on technology. But Graedon also taps into our struggle to communicate with one another and how our anxieties can infect our relationships. Her novel is incredibly smart, and at turns funny and terrifying. We spoke about how she went about imagining this language plague, and how vulnerable words are.

BUSTLE: The Word Exchange is one of several works I’ve enjoyed yet been terrified by that envisions a dystopic future in which technology claims more and more of our lives. The scenes in which characters are compulsively attached to their technology really resonated with me. Do you use a smart phone? E-reader? Social media?

ALENA GRAEDON: Oh, I can really relate to it, too. I definitely drew from my own experiences. I do have a smart phone, and I use it as much as anyone. I’m on some social media, and I also have an e-reader. Someone gave it to me as a birthday present right after I finished the first draft of The Word Exchange, and I was glad to have it for research purposes especially. For some reason, I can’t seem to get used to reading books that way, so I haven’t used it very much. But it’s not like I never read on screens: I get my news pretty much only through the computer or my phone these days.

But as dependent as I am on devices and the Internet, I do find that when I’m on them, I have trouble focusing and thinking, so I try to get off of technology for at least part of each day. I usually just get up pretty early and try to write until lunch before I let the Web cast its spell on me.

Tell me about the origin story for The Word Exchange. How’d it grow from an idea into a complete novel?

This may be sort of a ridiculous thing to say, but I think its origin story is pretty closely linked to mine. I’m not sure I would have written this book if I’d been born at a different time. I’m part of the last generation to use print media. Over the course of my life, our relationship to information and language has completely changed, and from the beginning, I’ve been a little ambivalent about the shift to digital, probably at least in part because I learned early on how vulnerable electronic media can be.

When I was 17, I studied abroad for a semester in Beijing. It happened to be right when email had finally taken off, and I felt really lucky, but I also didn’t trust it completely. Digital infrastructure was pretty unpredictable in the internet cafes that my friends and I visited, and a lot of our emails disappeared after we hit send. We all also knew that what we wrote could at least potentially be censored or deleted. Because of that experience, digital data always seemed kind of tenuous to me.

Living in another country for the first time, and trying to understand a new language, also got me started really thinking about what language means to us — how central it is to our lives. How it defines us, and not only the reverse. How it serves to link us through space and time, to people in the past and future. And because of my experiences with disappearing text, I also thought about what it would mean if those links were broken.

But very quickly, I became as dependent on digital media as anyone else. It was so convenient, and, paradoxically, sometimes so much more resilient than print. That hit home for me (literally) a few years later: when I was a college senior, my house burned down. I lost my books, laptop, and all the printed pages of my thesis — but not the actual thesis; I’d been emailing it to myself as I went along. (Later, an Apple genius, carefully handling my charred, keyless laptop, managed to save all my data. He said that as he gently pulled it onto a new drive, he watched it disintegrating from mine.)

Even after that, though, moving all our data to a provisional, nonphysical space seemed sort of dangerous to me, and it kept bringing me back to the same questions about language and its potential ephemerality.

A couple months after the fire, my parents gave me a dictionary for graduation, to replace some of the ones I’d lost. And as I turned the pages, I was surprised to see encyclopedia-like entries for a few famous people, like Nelson Mandela and Sylvia Plath. In a strange flash, I had an idea that actualized some of the questions that I’d been carrying around with me. I wondered: What if one of the entries disappeared? What would the story behind that be?

I didn’t completely understand the idea at the time, and I also didn’t know where it came from. But it arrived with a strange sensation of urgency. And from then on, I knew that the novel would start with a disappearance, and that the person who went missing would vanish from both the office of a dictionary and the actual book — the entry about him would melt away from its pages. Which meant that words would vanish with him.

That was eleven years ago, and at the time, it seemed like a pretty fantastical, almost Borgesian — or Carrollian — idea. How would words disappear from a book? But in the years since, and certainly in the six since I started writing The Word Exchange, e-readers and smart phones and tablets et al. have emerged to provide an answer that started to really fascinate me more and more. And in fact, that’s how the book begins: a lexicographer disappears from both his office and the digital edition of the dictionary he edits. Once I knew the story’s beginning, everything else slowly emerged from there.

In the passages of dialogue that show the aphasia characters suffer, common words are replaced with nonsense words very Carrollian of you! Did you set about creating a whole language, so each English word was assigned one nonce word, or was it less structured?

This is sort of a Carrollian answer, maybe, but the process was both more and less structured. It was also really iterative — as the story changed in successive drafts, and the language viruses with it, so did the aphasia.

Some of the nonsense terms are created by sweatshop workers hired to replace English words with their own manufactured “words.” And because some of the workers are Slavic and Chinese, several terms ended up being Romanized mash-ups of Russian and Mandarin words. There are a few fake words that recur in the book, and it’s mostly these.

But a lot of other considerations went into putting together other instances of aphasia. There are actually two different language viruses, in a sense, and the aphasias that correspond to each of them are slightly different. For instance, the garbled words that I came up with for people who’ve caught the real word flu, which is a neurotropic illness affecting the brain, were different from what I’ve described above. They were generally closer to words that the sufferers already knew, in English and other languages, but just slightly off — used in the wrong contexts, or with letters missing or swapped. That made the symptom have a little more verisimilitude — it’s closer to the kind of aphasia that someone might experience if they were to get encephalitis, say.

Tell me about the background and research you had for passages about etymology and linguistics.

It was a combination of talking to lexicographers, visiting dictionary offices, and reading. Early in the process, I was lucky enough to spend a few hours in the Oxford offices of the Oxford English Dictionary with John Simpson, who until last fall was its longtime Chief Editor. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and he answered all my questions with patience and humor.

He also introduced me to Jesse Sheidlower, who I spoke with in the New York offices of the OED, where he’s editor-at-large. He’s also President of the American Dialect Society, and the author of a very funny and informative book on the history of a word that I don’t think I’m allowed to write here. He later very generously read some sections of The Word Exchange, and offered brilliant advice.

There was a lot that I learned from talking to them and visiting their offices that I couldn’t have learned any other way. But the reading I did was also very helpful, especially with respect to etymologies. I read a lot of Sidney Landau’s book Dictionaries: The Art and Craft of Lexicography, Sol Steinmetz’s Semantic Antics, Ammon Shea’s Reading the OED, Anatoly Liberman’s Word Origins, and several other books on lexicographers and lexicography, including Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything. And I read a few books, too, about Samuel Johnson, generally considered the grandfather of English lexicography, including Henry Hitchings’s Defining the World. I also used a lot of dictionaries while I was writing, especially the online OED. I felt a delicious little pang of irony each time I logged in.

As for linguistics, I studied it a bit in college, and I went back to a lot of the things I’d read then: Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, The Derrida Reader, Edward Sapir’s Selected Writings in Language, Culture, and Personality, and some things by contemporary linguists, like John McWhorter. This might help explain why it took me six years to finish the book.

The novel is laced throughout with discussions of Hegelian philosophy. Did you feel these allusions were obligatory in a novel about language and society, or did you add these allusions to give the narrative weight?

I know it might seem hard to believe, but Hegel came into the book sort of accidentally. I’m not a Hegel scholar. I had only a very basic understanding of his core philosophical principles before I started writing The Word Exchange.

When I was in the early stages of getting to know Bart’s character, I started trying to figure out his orientation toward the world, and especially to language, as it’s such an important part of his reality. I wanted to know what ideas had especially shaped his thinking, and in doing a little of my own thinking and research, I soon realized that this person I was imagining had been strongly influenced by phenomenology. That’s what led me to Hegel.

When I realized that Hegel’s philosophy was so integral to Bart’s perspective, I’ll be honest: my heart sank a little. Hegel’s work is just not very easy going, a fact of which he seemed fairly aware. (There are nearly 60 pages of preface and introduction before he even starts the first chapter of Phenomenology of Spirit.) But actually, Hegel isn’t especially known for his writings on language, and I was very glad to come across an excellent secondary source, Hegel’s Philosophy of Language, by the Canadian philosopher Jim Vernon. (Vernon was later kind enough to read sections of The Word Exchange having to do with Hegel, and some of the translations in the novel are his.)

I thought at first that I would just read it and see. That was a stage when I was reading lots of things that didn’t necessarily make their way into the novel’s pages directly, and I wasn’t planning at that point to include any discursions on Hegel. But reading even that secondary-source text proved very challenging and consuming, and in the process of reading and rereading it over several weeks, I started to see how relevant it was to a lot of the ideas and questions I wanted to explore in the book, including on the nature of consciousness, the role language plays in it, and what constitutes progress, individually and collectively.

It just started to seem that leaving Hegel out would be an omission. And then, to discover some of his writings on love just as I was finishing a draft of The Word Exchange, and to see how resonant they are not just with Bart’s ideas on the subject but my own, felt like an extra bit of serendipity.

Your writing is so precise and vivid. Were you especially attuned to the fact that a book about the death of language better have really good words?

Yes, absolutely, writing about language made me even more self-conscious about my language than usual. And whenever I write anything, I feel these opposing urges: to create something and to critique it. I never really feel like anything’s done, and my concerns always bring me back to individual words on the page.

I think that’s partly because of things I learned from my wonderful writing professors, many of whom were so focused on words that they’d often have us read things aloud in class, listening for assonance, musicality, interesting clashes. They’d encourage us not to waste words — to get each of them to work. I’m probably paraphrasing, but Sam Lipsyte used to say, “There’s no getting to the good part,” an aphorism that I think he heard from his own professor, Gordon Lish. I tried to take that to heart, and to surprise myself with words as often as I can.

When you’re writing a book about words, though, it’s very easy to feel like yours aren’t good enough. The remedy I found for moving forward was actually in words themselves. They’re so small that they’re not too scary on their own. I’d just remind myself that everything could always be changed, and that helped me keep going.

Do you consider writing to be less vulnerable/fragile than spoken language?

What a wonderful question. There’s a section in Hegel’s Philosophy of Language in which Jim Vernon writes about speech, and he quotes a lovely phrase that I think is from Hegel’s Encyclopedia: “ein Verschwinden des Daseins, indem es ist.” Vernon’s translation, in context, is: “Each temporal tone is ‘a disappearance of the determinate being in which it exists.’” (Google’s translation is: “disappearance of existence by being.”)

It’s the nature of sound to appear and disappear in almost the same moment. Speech, unlike written language, can’t last; ephemerality is stitched into its existence. But I don’t know if that makes it more fragile. It has the potential to be far more intimate than written language: speaking and receiving sound is a very bodily exchange. When someone utters a word — a tone whose meaning we’ve agreed upon collectively — her vocal cords rub together to make a sound. Oscillations in the air then enter the ears of the hearer, where the sound again causes tiny vibrations that translate into understanding.

There’s something incredibly powerful about the embodiedness of speech. The way certain sounds can make your ears tickle or cause you to wince. How voices are as distinctive as fingerprints. So distinctive that we use the metaphor of “voice” to explain how we can recognize a particular writer’s words on a page. Sound also has the power to be far more intrusive than written language. That’s its nature: to penetrate. Maybe you can block your ears against it, but only after it’s already gotten inside of them. You can’t just avert your gaze, or decide: I’ll pay attention to this later, as you can with text. Speech has an immediacy that written words are forced to work hard to mimic.

And, in fact, spoken language doesn’t just disappear. If we’re really listening, it can stay embedded in us for years. But of course, what remains isn’t truly faithful to what the speaker said — it’s a version, transformed by our ears and brains and memories, full of elisions and associations and mistakes. Eroded over time like beach glass. So in that sense, it is more vulnerable.

Although now, spoken and written speech are so contiguous that the boundaries have all but been erased. We can listen to recordings of sounds as easily as we can reread text, and Siri will gladly turn one into the other for us. At the same time, written language no longer seems as lasting as it once did. It doesn’t necessarily seem more durable than speech. It’s often not very hard to scrub away words, no matter what form they take. Whole relationships can be deleted by toggling a few buttons on a phone.

In our new reality, spoken speech doesn’t have the same fragility it once had, and written words don’t have the same permanence. Everything has become mutable.

Image: Beowulf Sheehan