Graedon’s ambitious debut novel, The Word Exchange, explores a near-future America that’s shifted almost exclusively to smart technologies. The story is rife with literary allusions and philosophical wormholes that explore the evolution of language and technology.
Where did idea for The Word Exchange come from? It’s such a complex book; I’d like to hear more about its origin.
One of the gifts that my parents gave me for graduation was a copy of the Oxford American Dictionary and I took it with me to a visual art residency a couple of months later because I was going to use the line drawings inside for a project. As I was flipping through, I saw these encyclopedia-like entries for important people and I had this weird flash of an idea, what if one of these entries were to disappear? What would this story be? And of course that is what happens in the first chapter of the book.
You talk about a difference between print and digital media and the differing values we place on things and how it can shift given the scenario. It’s interesting the different evaluations that language takes on in the story. You spoke some about the value of bridging, of communicating, of finding one’s place in the world but it seems to me that you do place a lot of value on language. Would you say that’s fair?
I really do, as somebody who all my life has used words in a way to understand my own reality and my own place in the world, and also as a way to express to all of the people I care about in my life how much I appreciate them, and to articulate ideas. I’m certainly one of those people who believe that language and consciousness are closely connected to each other. The ideas that we have we only fully develop and understand their complexity and nuance as we’re trying to articulate them to ourselves and other people. I definitely feel a really strong kinship and relationship to language and it’s very important to me and my life. I also wanted to explore the value of language even in a metaphorical or figurative sense because it’s this remarkable tool that we all share and that only means something if we all maintain it. It only has value because it’s a shared tool that we all sort of help each other with and contribute to. It’s constantly evolving and changing and we’re invited into the process of being a part of that language evolution and change. I think that’s wonderful. I’m all for language evolution and change. It’s a natural process.
You juggle between the two main voices and then there are all these other documents that infiltrate in, what was it like finding the structure of the book? Did it come naturally?
It shifted a lot, but I think that I always had this idea that I wanted to have 26 chapters—one for each letter of the alphabet. A lot of those little fake definitions I even wrote before I wrote the chapters. I always knew that it would begin with Doug’s disappearance from the dictionary both literary and figuratively or literally and literally, I guess—his entry disappears, the author disappears. I knew what I really wanted to do with these two narrative voices was have a sort of exchange. Anana’s is written retrospectively—it’s going back through time, and Bart’s is written synchronically—moving forward through time—he’s kind of recording what’s happening as it actually happens. I knew that I couldn’t do either of those voices separately. So I had a sense of what I wanted the story to be and who was going to tell which part of this story evolved over time. I actually always imagined that it would be three voices and then it just didn’t end up working out that way. That third voice is these extraneous weird documents: the list, the op-ed. They all sort of have the same authorship but it didn’t end up being three voices in the way I originally imagined.
In addition to being intellectual and philosophical in many ways, the book juggles a lot of other classical genre traits; we’ve got the doomsday technically sci-fi stuff; we’ve got the thriller/mystery missing person conspiracy stuff going on. So thinking about publishing a book in print about this world where there is no print, how much of that is tongue in cheek or how close are we to that reality now?
That’s a great question. I think there’s been a lot of nay-saying about how people aren’t reading any more for decades if not centuries. I am not at all worried that people will stop reading books. And I also think that the ways in which technology has entered our lives and become totally intertwined with reality in many ways has been a huge boon. We are so lucky to live in a time when all these advancements are taking place. I’m also certainly not the first to look at the question of the flip side of it. The question of how our dependence on devices has changed our relationship to ourselves and the kinds of thoughts that we have and the kind of interactions that we have with other people, but I did want to extend that conversation and if anything hopefully bring our awareness to what’s happening. These changes are not going to stop happening, nor do I think they should, but the thing is we don’t have to be passive participants in this evolutionary process.
I read the book in print and the whole time I kept thinking what if I was reading this on my Kindle? How would I feel? Would I be nervous?
One of things that’s been so funny about people’s responses to reading the book is that I think a lot of people are reading it on a Kindle and they are like, “Oh my god! The irony of this is not lost on me and that I have to use my Kindle’s dictionary to look up some of the words.” I wanted the story to be engrossing enough that people wouldn’t feel distracted by the interruptive nature of those words that were a little unusual or that were then corrupted but there was a part of me that wanted to mimic the effect, having the form sort of match the content of what is it like when we have these interruptions from the devices in our lives constantly? How does that interrupt our ability to have a really sustained deep linear thought process if we are constantly being bombarded by these external messages. I really didn’t want to take that to a logical conclusion because the last thing I wanted was to make people feel annoyed or frustrated while they were reading.
The word flu was so fun to read. It’s absolutely unsettling but it was really fun to read.
It was really hard to write. It was especially really hard to try to write in such a way that it would suggest this level of estrangement and alienation but also not be totally alienating and estranging to read. I wanted to give the reader a sense of what these characters were experiencing but I also didn’t want it to be impossible to follow, so that definitely took a lot of finessing and revising and getting other people’s opinions.