Friday, May 2, 2014

Interview with Alena Graedon, author of The Word Exchange

I was so lucky to have the opportunity to interview Alena Graedon, the author of The Word Exchange. This was such an amazing book that is very insightful on how technology has taken over. You can check out my review here. It was so much fun to sit down and talk to her, and she was great, especially since I was so nervous, never actually having sat down with an author one-on-one before. Below you will find a brief version of the interview.

Me: The Word Exchange is your first book, being a debut author what was the most difficult part of the publishing process for you?

Alena: I used to work in publishing, and give people the advice to wait until they had something to sell before you get an agent, you have less control when you start collaborating with someone about your project. Though I had trouble taking my own advice, especially once I had made the decision to quit my job (working at PEN American Center).

I sent off samples to different artist colonies (a jury decides to invite you to stay, and they pay room and board, a way to meet other writers/artists and a way to spend a lot of time on your own work) and was accepted to several places, that's when the pressure was really on. I still made myself wait until the end of that process, and another draft before sending it off to agents.

From there it went rather quickly because I fought my inclinations and actually waited until I had something concrete.

M: I really loved the whole thought of this story, what brought about the idea of the death of language for a story?

A: I had the idea years before I actually started writing the book (around 10 or 11 years ago). In some ways I think the idea was kind of born with me because I am of the generation that is the last one to really engage with print media in a real and unsentimental way (wrote letters to each other when we went to camp, and wrote notes by hand instead of on laptops in university). I've watched this shift from print to digital media with a lot of interest but also ambivalence. I saw first hand how vulnerable and fragile the digital media structure could be.

I went abroad right around the time that email was first introduced and it was great to have a way to communicate with my family but there were times when I could write a long email and press send and have it disappear. There were certain websites that we couldn't access and things would disappear over night, we knew there was a potential that we were being monitored and what we wrote could be deleted.

Because of those reasons I had this sense that cyberspace, which is so convenient and easy to do things, it made me apprehensive of how much we would rely on it. Also studying abroad and learning a new language, I was thinking about how language connects people across space and time and really started thinking about what might happen if those ties were cut.

A couple years after I had a crazy experience that really was the genesis for this book... I was involved in a house fire. Fortunately no one was home, but we lost everything, I lost all my books and my laptop, I had printed out pages of my thesis (which was due the next day). Luckily I had been emailing it to myself so it wasn't lost and I was happy that digital media exists, but it got me thinking that a house fire is very isolated but if something happens in cyberspace, the potential for it to be a more widespread problem is there.

I had the foundation for these questions then, and have been carrying them around with me. I got a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and noticed that they had these encyclopedia entries of people and it gave me an idea of what if one of those entries vanished from the book. That idea stayed with me for 11 years and really sustained me in the writing of this book (that is how the book begins). At the time it was very fantastical, but by the time I started writing, the idea of text vanishing from a book was not so weird. (Like the situation with Amazon selling a copy of 1984 on Kindle they did not have the rights to, and they just deleted it from people's Kindles, and the news article of not owning the books you bought from Amazon for your ereader.)

M: The characters in your book are very eccentric, are they based off anyone you know in particular?

A: I would say yes and no. I believe we all write from life even when we are writing incredibly fantastical things. I think in some ways all of the characters have pieces of myself in them, and I actually think Bart is my alter ego in some ways. I also took snatches of dialogue and things characters say were formed by people that I know, friends and relatives. But no one is truly based off anyone in my own life.

The closest might be that Doug has some resemblance to my father (not physically). Throughout my childhood I always thought my dad was a bit eccentric, he writes about medicine (with my mother) and he always warned us about potential environmental hazards. And years later everything he warned us about happened.

M: So you are from a family of writers, must be fun!

A: Books and writing have been a huge part of my life, my grandfather worked in publishing (a sales representative), and then found his calling as a used and rare book dealer. His books ended up overflowing to our house, and that was the really one of the only things of large value that we had. The only two things I own of any value are original editions of Lewis Carrol's Alice`s Adventures Underground and a book by the British lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

M: And both of those books make large appearances in your story. So on this topic, which books have really influenced you the most in the writing of this book?

A: I never know how to truly answer that question... I did all kinds of research for this book, including interviewing lexicographers, and went to the OED in Oxford and talked to the editor there and showed me their digital dictionary. I met with an editor of the OED in New York, who read parts of my book and helped me out a lot. As well as interviewing a lot of scientists for the devices in the book and the virus, and also consulted a lot of other people including a Hegel scholar.

But in terms of books, I read a lot of lexicography books for my research but I also read A Clockwork Orangeby Anthony Burgess which plays with language, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, he does such an amazing job of showing us how this character's cognitive ability increases and then decreases again. And I read some case studies by Oliver Saks about the man who mistook his wife for a hat. I was interested in looking at books that had a wide cast of characters and multiple narrators. I read Nicole Kraus' book The History of Love and her husband's Everything is Illuminated.

In terms of influences I could offer up a whole dissertation, but I was a little focused on trying to sit down and construct the world for this book. I`m sure I was influenced by lots of things I'm not even aware of.

M: With the book being the death of language through electronics, what is your take on the ebook vs. print debate?

A: I have both, somebody gave me a Kindle as a gift as I was writing this book, and I do read some things on it. Though I haven't got used to reading that way, it's a personal preference thing I think. I think people reading is great, and actually it's funny to hear from people who read this book on e-readers, it's helpful because they can look up the meanings to words (which is eerily similar to The Word Exchange). But it's also frustrating because there are footnotes which are more difficult to transfer over to some electronic devices.

In terms of shifting over to digital, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with it. I think people will always read, I don't think the things in my book will happen. People will always buy books, like there are people out there who still buy records. Part of the reason I wanted to set the book in the near future was because I wanted to bring a little more insight into our current reality and that it might help add to this ongoing conversation we have about the way technology has started to infiltrate our lives and that we have become more integrated with our devices (for better and worse). I was hoping the story would help us think more about the trajectory we are on, it's happening, but that we can have some control over the direction that it unfolds.

M: I loved the words throughout and how you added in all these random words to really bring out the idea of the word flu more, did you have fun making up all these words for the book?

A: I did! I think the language in the book is interesting, some readers really respond and some feel a little alienated by the language, which is understandable because I was hoping to get across the idea that language is this incredible communal resource and it only works if we are all a part of the process. If we share in the process of learning it and updating it is when it works. But it doesn't work when someone tries to co-opt it and make their own private language, that really separates people. I wanted to offer a suggestion of the alienation the characters were feeling if they catch the word when they were interacting with someone who has the flu. I wanted to show what we lose when we lose the meaning of words, and what we lose not only for ourselves but as a community. It was tricky and the language virus evolves over the course of the book, but it was definitely fun. Writing about language really makes you self conscious about your own language. It was a challenge, but an interesting one.

M: Thank you so much for your time! It was so great to meet and chat with you. 

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