Alena Gradeon’s debut novel The Word Exchange is part dystopic thriller, part philologian love letter, and part philosophical meditation. The novel imagines a not-too-distant future (or perhaps alternative present) where humans are increasingly dependent upon devices and language is on the brink of becoming a commodity. For all of the page-turning qualities it has, the book is an intelligent mystery, one that engages its readers with its imaginative world and intriguing secrets while forcing us to contemplate the value and dangers of language, commerce, and technology.
I met Alena at a small eatery in SoHo to talk to her about everything from her Facebook usage habits to her knowledge on aphasia to what makes empanadas great. Smart and articulate, Alena had thoughtful answers to all of my questions, and was generous enough to answer them a second time via email. The irony of using digital technology to capture what had originally been an in-person conversation around a book probing our reliance on technological communication was not lost on me.
The first thing I always want to know when I read a book that is as vast and imaginative as The Word Exchange is “how did the writer come up with this?” Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for this book came from?
Oh, man. Thank you for those generous and thoughtful words. Do you have any interest in being hired to follow me around to say kind things in my moments of self-doubt?
To answer your question, I had the first little spark of an idea for The Word Exchange more than eleven years ago. Actually, spark is an apt metaphor, because the story involves a house fire.
Backing up a bit, though, and this may sound a little outrageous, but I think that the idea was sort of born with me. I’m part of a liminal generation. We were the last to write real love letters, do homework in spiral-bound notebooks, and exchange notes instead of texts in class. I.e., to engage with print media in a real and unsentimental way.
Books and print were especially important in my family. I grew up down the street from my grandparents. My grandfather, a used and rare book dealer, filled both of our houses with his thousands of volumes. Books were revered objects for all of us—always meant to be read and shared, but the only things we owned that we really valued. We all read constantly, often together.
I’m sure that’s why my brother and I both worked in bookstores, and why my parents decided to write books for a living. Certainly the centrality of books, reading, and writing in our lives was what led me to want to try to write.
As the seismic shift from print to digital started happening, I really took note. I was excited—my dad’s a so-called early adopter, and we’d gotten our first giant, beige Apple when I was three—but I was also a little ambivalent. And I think my wariness toward digital data derived largely from experiencing firsthand how fragile it can be.
When I was 17, right at the same time that email had really caught on, I spent a semester studying abroad in Beijing. I was happy to be able to communicate with my family and friends back home, but the digital infrastructure wasn’t always very good, and lots of my emails would disappear after I hit send. The other students and I were also really aware that cyber content was heavily monitored. There were sites we couldn’t access. They could vanish overnight. We knew that what we wrote could at least potentially be censored or destroyed. Because of that experience, I’ve always thought of electronic media as pretty vulnerable.
It was also during that semester abroad, as I was trying to learn a new language, that I started thinking about the role words play in our lives: how they define us, and connect us to people in other places and times—and what would happen if those connections were destroyed.
Despite my ambivalence, though, I quickly became reliant on this new digital medium. It was so convenient, and paradoxically so much more durable, sometimes, than print. That became very clear to me a few years after I first studied abroad in China. We’ve arrived now at the part of my story that involves fire.
A few months before I graduated from college, on the day before the first draft of my senior thesis was due, I was home, finishing the last chapter, when I thought I smelled something burning. And in fact, when I looked out the window, I noticed thick, dark smoke roiling up from our downstairs neighbors’ apartment. Soon, I heard glass shattering.
Without even stopping to put on my shoes, I ran down to the street, where I immediately saw two kids walking by carrying their skateboards. “Yo,” they said, “your house is on fire.” When I ran around to the side of the house to investigate, it was true: the whole side of the house was engulfed in flames.
No one was hurt, thank God, but my roommates and I lost nearly everything. All my books were destroyed, my laptop, and the pages of my thesis. But, significantly, not the actual thesis: I’d been emailing chapters of it to myself as I went along. Needless to say, I was pretty elated by the existence of electronic text on that day.
Even so, I still found the idea of moving all our data to a disembodied, inherently unstable space really unnerving in lots of ways. I kept coming back to the same questions about language, and more than ever, I felt haunted by what might happen if something were to affect text stored in cyberspace.
I graduated from college a few months after the house fire, and as a graduation present, my parents gave me a dictionary to replace some of the ones I’d lost. When I started looking through it, I was really surprised to see encyclopedia-like entries for some notable people. And with the dictionary open in front of me on the table, I had the strange flash of an idea that sort of brought together and literalized some of the questions I’d been ruminating on for years. The idea I had, which I didn’t totally understand at the time, was: If one of these entries vanished, what would the story behind that be?
After that, I knew that the novel would begin that way, with a person going missing from both a dictionary office and the book itself. His entry would vanish, which means that words would disappear along with him. Because that was eleven years ago, before e-readers and smart phones, the idea seemed pretty fantastical then. But as those technologies became more common, and increasingly central to lives, I started to realize that there was really nothing so impossible about disappearing text.
And in fact, the book does begin pretty much in the way that I initially imagined it: the Chief Editor of a dictionary disappears from his office at the same time that the entry dedicated to him vanishes from the dictionary’s digital edition.
I wrote the first draft of the first chapter almost exactly six years ago. When I started writing the rest of the novel, I knew a few basic things. I knew who the main characters would be, including the lexicographer, his daughter, and his protégé. I knew that his disappearance would in some ways be linked to the technologies that had slowly been making him (and maybe many of us) obsolete. I knew that a virulent computer virus affecting digital text would start to spread, including from machines to people. And I knew that the story would be told from at least two perspectives, and divided into 26 chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet. Pretty much everything else was a terrifying unknown.
It surprised me that you started this book before a lot of the technology we have now — iPads, Facebook, Kindles — existed or were very popular. I had assumed, for instance, the Memes were based upon some kind of smart phone/Kindle hybrid, and Life was another version of Facebook. What was it that you were seeing around you while you were writing the book that led to the creation of these technologies in your imagination?
Well, I should be clear that I didn’t start writing The Word Exchange until 2008, nearly a year after both the iPhone and Kindle were released. I didn’t use either of them right away, but I certainly knew they existed.
That said, I do find fascinating the way the seeds of most technologies can be found in earlier technologies. It’s crazy to think about, but we’ve been texting and sending email since the mid-nineties. And of course those things flowed from faxes, and before that, telegrams, and messages sent by pneumatic tube. Friendster (if you have any idea what that is) started in 2002, and publishing contracts had e-book clauses way before they became a thing.
I clearly wasn’t the only person imagining little digital tablets or software that anticipates our wants and needs. Developers have been making these things, and writers and artists reflecting on them, because they’re so close to things that came before—concatenations born of our desires and dreams. There’s a reason why so many similar innovations tend to emerge more or less at once, from calculus to theories of evolution to social media platforms. And the same thing also often happens with literature and films and other kinds of art: sometimes things come along in clusters.
I’ve always been interested not only in accelerated obsolescence, but in how technological advances affect our sense of history and memories, making us forget what life was like before. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that there was a time before we read on screens, but almost none of us have been reading on readers for more than a handful of years.
How much were you influenced by what was developing as you worked on the book, or rather, how did your book change as technology and our dependence upon it changed over the course of the years you spent on this book?
Oh, in lots of ways. I kept being both exhilarated and creeped out as all these things I’d written into early drafts, and that I thought were either totally fantastical or very far in the future, kept being released onto the market: iPads, self-driving cars, and new things all the time. Last month, it was an electronic headband that stops migraines. My book kept morphing from science fiction into reality.
Some wonderful inventions made their way into the pages during revisions, like Japanese speech-jammer guns, and even EEG technology for the Meme, which is used in mind-controlled video games. There were also some things that I ended up changing because they were too similar to technologies that suddenly became available. That was true of the Nautilus device in the book, for instance. Its design was initially more like Google Glass.
But I think that the characters’ relationships to devices also must have changed pretty profoundly over the years. I’m less aware of the specifics of that somehow, though. I have a kind of amnesia about it, maybe in the same way that it’s hard for us to remember exactly when and in which ways we all became so fused with our smart phones. It happens so gradually that it’s hard to really parse.
When I read The Word Exchange, I thought to myself, “I wonder if Alena has Facebook, or if she’s staunchly anti-social media.” Do you have a particular stance on social media and/or smart phones and the like? Do you use them yourself?
I just misread “anti-social media” as its own set phrase, which I think is fantastic. You should start a tumblr with that name if it hasn’t already been claimed.
I confess that I’m as attached to my iPhone as anyone. I use it all the time, and I feel anxious if I leave it at home. I use some social media, and I have an e-reader that I got as a gift when I finished the first draft of The Word Exchange. That was really helpful for research, but I’ve had a hard time getting used to reading on it for some reason, so I don’t use it very often. (I got $1.16 in the recent anti-trust settlement payout.) That’s not to say, though, that I don’t read on screens. I pretty much only read the newspaper on the computer these days, and I’ve gotten in the habit of reading the New Yorker on my iPhone in the train.
But I do try to get off of the internet for at least part of each day. Otherwise, I find it pretty hard to think and concentrate. I usually just get up early and try to write until lunch before I venture onto the internet.
I’m not anti-technology. Technology has changed my life for the better in many, many ways, and I also think that it’s done tremendous things for society. I do think a lot about how various technologies are changing us, especially the ways we pay attention, to the people in our lives and our own thoughts. But my attitude toward technology and innovation isn’t just fatalistic—i.e., that these things are here to stay so we might as well get used to them. That’s true. But I’m also very grateful for many of the things that digitization and big data and extremely tiny microchips have made possible, especially in the sphere of medical research.
Writing The Word Exchange didn’t make me afraid of technology. But it did make me more aware of it, and more excited about its possibilities. At the same time, it made me more aware of what can potentially be lost if we let devices take over some of our most human functions. One hope that I have for the book is that it might continue an ongoing conversation about the ways in which we use technology, and maybe help people think a little more consciously about how we want the inevitable changes to our identities, singular and collective, to unfold. Because the changes will keep happening, but the process doesn’t have to be passive. We have a say, and the stakes are high.
Do you see your book as a cautionary tale against a world that, in your opinion, we are actually approaching?
I don’t know that I’d describe it as a cautionary tale. It’s true that we’re becoming more and more entangled with devices, and more dependent on them as a result. But I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Every major new technology changes us. Some extend our life expectancies. Others help us kill each other more effectively. All of these things make us question what it is to be human.
When bound books came along, they changed us, too, in lots of ways. On the one hand, they undermined oral traditions, and a certain kind of memory and connectedness engendered by storytelling. On the other, they helped foster an almost unnatural habit of deep, quiet contemplation, abstract thinking and association, and a very different kind of multi-valent memory. The printing press helped standardize, disseminate, and democratize information. All of that had tremendous value.
And our shift from print to digital has had some negative ramifications. Not just in terms of the human and economic costs associated with huge industries in flux—news, music, film, publishing. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argues that the diffuse attention required by lots of glowing pop-ups on screens has shallowed our thinking, taking us away from a capacity for linear thinking and back to earlier habits of mind, when, for survival, we spent our time scanning the horizon for predators and prey, which likewise pop up very quickly.
I think there’s something to his claims. I’ve noticed in myself a decreasing ability to focus, and what I often feel is a softening quality to my thoughts, and those problems seem to have coincided with my increasing use of screens. (It could also just be aging.) It’s definitely something I think about, and that I wanted to explore in the book.
But I’m not certain that we’re experiencing devolution. Maybe it’s just evolution’s fallout, and all of the things that we’ve gained as a result of these monumental, cultural changes outweigh whatever we may lose in the process. Maybe the direction in which we’re moving constitutes progress, in some linear sense.
Regardless, we seem to have a vector—it’s hard to imagine things returning to the way they were. Not that they should. But part of the reason that I wanted to set the book in the near future is that it let me take these changes to a logical extreme—just a few steps past where we are now. It can be hard to reflect on what’s happening to us as it happens. By projecting just a little ways ahead, I thought that it might make it easier to think more consciously about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go. Because we do have at least some control over our collective trajectory.
Something I really loved was the gibberish language as the characters developed aphasia. The nerdy part of me almost tried to decode the words into its own language. Did you simply make up random words and put them in, or is there a consistency and method behind the words?
Oh, I’m glad you liked that part. There’s something of a method to the madness. At one point, I actually had a glossary of made-up terms with their English translations. But as the novel changed over time, the language viruses did, too, which changed the aphasias.
Some of the fake words are put together by sweatshop workers hired to replace English words with their own made-up “words.” For a few reasons, some of the workers are Slavic and Chinese, so there are several terms that have Romanized components of Russian and Mandarin words. Some of the neologisms recur in the book, and mostly it’s these.
But there are actually two language viruses in the novel, and their attendant aphasias are a little different. People suffering from the real world flu use words that are a lot closer to ones they know, but garbled slightly. Letters might be missing or swapped, or they’re used in strange contexts. Word flu is a neurotropic illness affecting the brain, and this second kind of aphasia is at least a little closer to what someone might experience if he got encephalitis, for instance.
As much as this book is about technology, it is obviously also very much about words and language. Language is constantly evolving — “twerking” recently went into the OED, for instance, and our constant use of social media means words like “LOL” are no longer acronyms, but actually become their meaning — and of course, even the English language is made up of different words depending on where in the world you speak it. In the book, we’re cautioned against a world in which language is commoditized, but at heart there also seems to be a question of how a language might be lost in the process of evolution. What are your own thoughts on how our language has evolved and the direction it’s evolving in?
I find language evolution really fascinating. I think I read somewhere that it’s happening faster now than at any other time since the Shakespearean era. I sort of doubt that, but it may be a little easier to document these days. In every generation, there are some neologisms with remarkable staying power, and others that disappear almost immediately. They’re sort of like technologies in that way. (We’ll just see if twerking still has currency in 2025.)
Language evolution, which is natural, is of course very different from language coercion—the process of deploying language as a tool of colonialism. Because language is a tie that binds communities together—it only works because we all share in the work of learning and updating it—forcibly separating people from their native languages is an especially inhuman weapon of subjugation. Language is also intimately connected to consciousness and thought. Forcing a new language on a person is like driving a wedge between her understanding of reality and her ability to express it.
Some of the characters in The Word Exchange express a special kind of hubris and selfishness: they think that they can coopt and change language for personal gain. It’s not natural language evolution, and it’s not exactly language coercion; it’s some new category of alienation. But I don’t think we’re really heading that way. I got the idea for an online database of language by observing the ways in which our consumption of media has shifted, and how online marketplaces that consolidate holdings—of music, books, news, film—have disrupted those industries. I was interested in applying that model to language, and imagining what might happen if we gave over even our words to devices and databases. How that might change us—not just how we interact, but maybe how we think.
I loved those dictionary headings for each chapter, especially because they aren’t the definitions we expect. Did you always have the intention to label each chapter with a definition? Did you come up with the definitions first and structure the book around them, or did you assign definitions after the book was mostly finished?
Thank you so much. It makes me really happy to hear that. They were fun to write. They also really anchored me in the writing process and made the book a little less terrifying to approach. Very early on, I wrote an outline for each chapter, which made it possible to write the definitions. That, in turn, made each blank chapter less daunting, and gave them each some focus.
Nearly everything changed in revisions: the outline, the chapters, even some of the definitions. But everything started with those. I got inspiration from Ben Marcus’s remarkable first book of stories, The Age of Wire and String, which also includes many unusual definitions.
Why empanadas? (I love empanadas.)
They’re pretty much the perfect food. Sweet or savory goodness protected by a portable carb pouch? Yes, please. They seemed like the kind of food that Bart would really appreciate, too. (I’ve observed a fondness for them in pretty much every man I’ve known, starting with my older brother.) They’re convenient, tasty, cheap, and fairly abundant in Bart’s neighborhood (Washington Heights).
And Bart is in some ways a secret hedonist. He likes to enjoy things. The things he enjoys are often nerdily cerebral, but he also likes food. And even though he knows that empanadas make him sick, he shares at least milder forms of some traits that the Synchronic guys exhibit, e.g., placing short-term satisfaction over longer-term outcomes. It’s just that in Bart’s case, these impulses are slightly self-destructive.
Why did you decide to tell the story from two points of view?
Early on, I had the idea that the book would have three perspectives: Anana’s narration, Bart’s journal entries, and an unidentified third voice. There are still a couple of interpolations from a point of view that isn’t Ana’s or Bart’s, but I soon realized that the book was starting to function as a dialogue, or an exchange, between two entirely interdependent voices.
Bart’s entries are these sort of synchronic snapshots of the novel’s events as they unfold. As he gets sicker from word flu over the course of the book, they also offer “primary-source” evidence of the damage that the disease causes. In the process, they help make language its own most eloquent tool for showing the significance of its loss. Anana’s narration is almost the inverse of Bart’s. She tells her story retrospectively, and instead of making her sick, language is actually helping her get better through the process of telling the story.
Why did you decide to make the thing that wipes out language an actual communicable disease, as opposed to just the side effect of the Meme that the characters first experience (but eventually recover from)?
As I mentioned a little earlier, I always knew that The Word Exchange would begin with the disappearance of a person from both a building and a book, and that words would therefore vanish with him. I knew that the disappearances would in some ways be linked to technologies that have changed our relationship to language. An infectious disease soon seemed central for a few reasons.
First, it literalizes a familiar trope: that technologies released too soon can sometimes have really disastrous unintended consequences. Whether it’s medicines for chronic diseases that have to be recalled for causing life-threatening side effects, purportedly sustainable energy technologies that actually devastate the environment, or devices that seem to streamline and improve communication, but that might actually damage our ability to interact with others and ourselves (i.e., to think and reflect and be creative).
Communication is social—it’s really hard to opt out—so those damaging effects can be infectious. If we want to be connected to any sort of community, we have to use the same language and technologies that the people around us use. If a side effect of using the Meme were really localized to individuals and didn’t spread, it would suggest that our use of devices is really atomized and that the effects are isolated, which I don’t think is the case.
I was also really interested in word flu because it ends up highlighting how language works by functioning in an almost inverse way. Instead of conveying ideas, it transmits confusion, literally. Instead of connecting people through the use of this very social tool, it separates and estranges them, both because its victims can’t communicate, and because everyone else is afraid to interact.
Finally, and maybe most relevantly, the virus is like a computer virus in many ways, from its mode of transmission to its primary symptom, of distorting text and words. In addition, our shift from print to electronic media is both a cause of and a precondition for the word flu’s genesis. For all of those reasons, it seemed to tie together a lot of the book’s elements.
What was your favorite part of the book to work on? What was the most difficult part?
Writing is super easy, so all of it was fun. (N.B.: that was a joke.) I found all of it incredibly difficult and gratifying and relentless and humbling and interesting. That said, I think that writing the fake definitions was maybe the easiest and most fun, in part because I created them at the beginning of the process, when it felt like there were endless possibilities and no known challenges ahead.
I also loved writing Bart’s journal entries, because I love Bart, and I really liked inhabiting his consciousness. Until he got word flu, at which point writing and revising his journal entries became really hard. That was maybe the hardest part of writing the book, actually. Getting across the idea of his alienation without actually causing alienation in the reader. (That was the goal, anyway.)
What is your favorite word?
You know, I have a favorite color (blue), and a favorite meal (shrimp and grits—I’m from the south). I’m otherwise terrible at favorites. But I do really like the Japanese phrase koi no yokan, which Bart defines in the book as “the ineluctable feeling you have, upon meeting someone for the first time, that eventually the two of you will fall in love.”
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a few stories and a few nonfiction things. I’m hoping that one of the stories will have enough life that it’ll turn into something longer. I have something in mind, but I’m in the stage now of just seeing how it goes. Mostly, I’m just really enjoying writing a few things that might not take years to finish.