Alena Graedon, author of The Word Exchange, was kind enough to chat about the process of bringing her first novel to life and where she finds solitude in a noisy world. (This interview appears in the second issue of the Simba Life Quarterly.)
Comello: First off, how has the response been to the book? Any surprising reactions from critics or regular readers?
Graedon: I think that the biggest surprise has been the seeming divisiveness of the language in my book. On the one hand, some readers have felt shut out when they’ve encountered words that they don’t know or can’t understand. That blindsided me more than it should have. When I remember back to the first time that I tried to read Nabokov, for instance, I’m sure that one of my impulses was to throw the book across the room—there were at least half a dozen unfamiliar words per page on average, and it made me crazy. (I’m of course not comparing my work with his in any way, except to say that I should have been more empathetic to the experience of reader estrangement.)
But for me, anyway, something shifted. I stopped being frustrated, and started wanting to look up those words, to know and own them, in a deep sense. And when I went back to Nabokov as an adult, the experience was very different, for all sorts of reasons. For one thing, I’ve come to a place where I don’t mind if what I’m reading asks something of me, whether it’s to look up a word that I don’t know, or to be comfortable with ambiguity, or to imagine something I don’t want to imagine. I find reading to be a more transformational experience if I’m involved in it, actively participating and thinking and engaging.
I guess for that reason, I also don’t mind asking something of readers. And it’s been very gratifying that there have been readers, on the other hand, who’ve responded to the book maybe especially because of the language. Not just the unusualness of some of it, but also because of what it’s doing. Because of course one of the messages that I was hoping to convey is that language is so central to our humanity, and that to lose it or not be able to understand it can in fact be very alienating. That before we relinquish control over things that are so fundamental to who we are—yielding all sorts of functionalities to devices and machines—we should give a lot of thought to what it might mean for us to give them up.
I think that a lot of readers have responded to that message, buried in the book’s language, and I have found that to be unbelievably thrilling, and very humbling.
That’s interesting because the challenge of the words themselves was something I discussed in my first reaction to The Word Exchange, how for me the joy of reading and learning is discovering new things that stretch my understanding. I appreciate when writers (or filmmakers or musicians) don’t make things easy. I think we all need and enjoy escapist entertainment from time to time, but not at the expense of richer and deeper engagement with ideas in every artistic form.
I wonder if you’ve read anything by Nicholas Carr, who writes mostly about technology, culture, and the implications of a digital world. Recently on his blog he’s been focusing on automation and the almost sinister implications it has for human intelligence and creativity. (His next book, in fact, is called The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.) Carr recently posted about a promotional email he got from Apple with the headline “Create a work of art, without the work.” In your book that seems to encapsulate the underlying mission of Synchronic, whose (very)smartphone-like devices have taken over wide control of their users’ lives, including how they look up words they don’t know.
This quote from the book stood out to me: “It’s comforting to believe that consigning small decisions to a device frees up our brains for more important things. But that begs the question, which things have been deemed more important? And what does our purportedly decluttered mind now allow us to do? Express ourselves? Concentrate? Think? Or have we simply carved out more time for entertainment? Anxiety? Dread?”
So how do you, as someone who wants to actively engage with things, manage what you automate in your own life and what you let into your brain? Are there certain things you still rigidly refuse to let a computer or other technology do?
I remember your response well! I think you were the first person to point out that reading The Word Exchange in some ways duplicates the experience of being one of the characters in the book (at least if you’re downloading the definitions of unknown words as you go). In other words, that form and content have the possibility of meeting, in a certain sense.
And while I’m quite intrigued by Nicholas Carr’s work—as I mentioned in my essay-length acknowledgments at the back of the book, several of his premises from The Shallows have made their way into The Word Exchange, largely via Doug—I wasn’t aware of his blog or his newest book, and I’m utterly grateful to you for pointing me in their direction.
I do find automation to be a slightly insidious force. While it’s easy to rationalize—I might tell myself, for instance, that only “mindless” tasks can be automated, nothing truly “authentic”—I also find that the more things I consign to my various omnipresent devices, the more alienated I wind up feeling. I want to remember important dates on my own, not find myself so cut off from the passing of time that I need a machine to remind me of them. I want to be able to navigate my own way through unknown cities, not depend on Siri to pleasantly read the directions to various destinations to me. And while it’s utterly convenient to have all my bills paid automatically, I’m almost a little nostalgic for a time when paying for things required some degree of conscious engagement.
That said, I’m as big an automation culprit as anyone at this point. I relinquished the keys to my bank account more than a year ago, finally setting up automatic bill payment, and breathing a deep sigh of relief over the minutes and maybe hours of my life saved from mindless check-writing. I have a terrible sense of direction, so I depend on Siri and Google to get me just about everywhere. I program dozens of reminders for myself into my iPhone.
But there are a lot of things that I still do analog. Write to-do lists. Keep a calendar. Edit drafts of things that I’m writing. I still mail lots of longhand letters, too. The truth is, I just think better on paper. And when I don’t automate, I also feel more aware of what’s happening in my life—of the passing of time—too. That’s something that I want to be aware of.
I think that electronic devices have introduced the idea of a false infinity and limitlessness into our lives: the cloud that exists everywhere and nowhere; the digital reader that’s a slightly warped manifestation of a Borgesian infinite library; and with automation (and the relentless schedules many of us now face), the idea of an endless day, which of course is a total fallacy, and one that can often make us feel not only depleted but depraved, pitching ever more quickly toward the grave without much awareness of its quickened arrival.
The phrase “wood and glue” pops up periodically in the book as an incantation for times of adversity. Was there a time in the six years of writing the book when you felt things were falling apart and had to MacGyver the story back into order?
The phrase “wood and glue” actually didn’t come in until near the end—final edits. But absolutely, there was much MacGyvering along the way. I did my very best to try to keep the writing process from taking as long as it eventually took. Before I began, I plotted heavily, did elaborate Excel spreadsheets, and tried to nail down the structure very carefully. And I only gave myself about 6 or 7 months to write the first draft, keeping to a strict schedule, finishing chapters every other week or so.
What that meant, of course, was that my first draft was absolutely terrible. I didn’t realize just how terrible it was right away. I gave it to a couple of trusted writer friends, and they were incredibly kind and gentle in their critiques. But in what they did and didn’t say, I realized that the book was a mess.
I took maybe six months off from working on it (that wasn’t hard, or even entirely intentional—I’d just started a new job), and then, when I looked at it again, I was a little shocked at its badness. I found myself gutting whole sections. Rewriting entire chapters. Tearing the spreadsheet into tiny pieces. The second draft of the book barely resembled the first. Although there were also things that I was afraid to let go, for better or worse: the beginning, some aspects of the structure (the 26 chapters, the alternating points of view, etc). I was afraid that if I tore up all the stakes, the entire thing would just float away.
I got more feedback from different friends on that draft, and then I did one more big draft before sending it out to any agents to consider. Needless to say, I did more revising after signing with one of them, and yet far more after starting to work with an editor.
It’s funny. After laboring over the book (in obscurity) for years, really taking my time to get things the way I wanted them to be, having realized with the first draft that breakneck speed didn’t work well for me, I did the most frenetic revising in the final months, under tremendous pressure, changing the book drastically at the eleventh hour. One of the tiniest changes to come out of that period was the inclusion of the phrase “wood and glue.” It never occurred to me before you asked just now, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this splint metaphor came in during those whirlwind months of mercenary final rewriting. I sort of felt like I could have used a whole-body (and whole-psyche) splint at the time.
As Anana’s journey to find Doug becomes more perilous and labyrinthine, the importance of “safe places” becomes more evident, whether it’s the library or within the secretive confines of the Diachronic Society. Where do you feel most safe and at peace? And is that the same place where your best ideas and writing come?
There are certainly places where I feel more calm and at peace. One of them, in fact, is the Mercantile Library on East 47th Street, where the members of the Diachronic Society meet. Like Anana, I spent a couple of years living in Hell’s Kitchen, one of the most frenetic neighborhoods in this frenetic city. I was so grateful to be introduced to the Mercantile Library during that time by someone who knows and understands me well. We’d often walk there together on weekends, braving the diamond district and Fifth Avenue, sometimes weaving our way through the craziness of Times Square. And stepping through the doors into the quiet, cool, calm of the library really felt like entering a holy place, whose sacred practices were reading, writing, and thinking. (It also felt a little like leaving the riotous bazaar of the internet to enter the relative stillness of a book.) I did a lot of the early research and thinking about The Word Exchange at the Merc.
I also draw a lot of solace from an acknowledged holy place, the Brooklyn Friends Meeting. To the degree that I had any sort of religious upbringing, my background is Quaker, which perhaps explains the complex treatment of silence in the book, as something that can either telegraph death or save you. (I think that as a kid attending Quaker meeting with my parents, I sometimes wondered if an hour of silence could actually bore me to death. As an adult, I feel very differently about that same quiet hour.)
And I’m unbelievably fortunate, too, to live in an apartment that I love, with incredible landlords who are also my downstairs neighbors, and where I get most of my thinking and writing done.
But the truth, New Age-y as it sounds, is that I actually don’t think of safe places as physical places, for the most part, but as habits of mind. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote and revised the book in lots of different places. The first draft largely in Asheville, NC, the second in Brooklyn, and the third sort of everywhere. During 2012, the longest period of time that I spent in any given place was four weeks, and I was often in places for much briefer periods than that—just a few days, sometimes. I was in Vermont, Mexico, Wyoming, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Cape Cod, and then back to New Hampshire, with interstitial periods sleeping on couches in Brooklyn, before finally moving back to Brooklyn in the fall, where I stayed in a series of different apartments before finally finding the one that I live in now, which I moved into in early 2013.
The reason that I was able to work so steadily and with such focus during that peripatetic year wasn’t because of the places (though many of them were lovely), but because I was carrying the focus and the peace with me. There have been other times when I’ve had everything that I need, including quiet, calm places in which to work, but feel unable to get anything done, because I don’t feel quiet in my own mind.
I think, though, that part of this sense of mobile safety derives for me from the fact that I’m a runner, like lots of other writers. I’m not particularly fast, but like Murakami, I love to run long distances. Not as long as the distances that he routinely runs. But I am happy running 18, 19, 20, even 30 miles, which I’ll often do even when I’m not training for something. I like running in large part not because it helps me actively think about what I’m writing, but because it helps me not to think, or to think in a way that is very indirect and subconscious. When you run for several hours in a row, your muscles and other systems need so much energy that less of it is going to your brain than normal, which makes long-distance running a lot like moving meditation. When I’m running is when I feel most at peace. It also helps me feel safe. I go running in virtually every new place that I visit, and it’s a pretty remarkable way to get to know and feel comfortable in a new environment.
Silence is just as needed in literature as in real life, so I appreciate your approach to it. And the Quaker influence on the book, subconscious or otherwise, is very interesting: I wonder how many of us, or those in the world of The Word Exchange, could withstand an hour of silent contemplation before the “check your phone!” alert chimes in our heads. Practicing presence—that is, choosing to simply live in the present moment instead of trying to document it or escape it—is challenge I’ve set for myself that I strive daily to meet more often than not. It’s not, as you say, some New Age-y self-help mantra, but a simple and practical challenge that can transform our everyday if we let it.
Your love of long distance running is something I’ve yet to enjoy myself, but I find it interesting in respect to Anana’s journey throughout the book. On her quest for truth she seems to always be on the move, with periods of solitude and contemplation between legs of the journey. At this point in your own journey, what are you running toward? Are you on the way from A to B, or are you focusing more on what’s in between?
What an incredible question. And I think that you’ve pointed something out to me about my book that I’d never really noticed before. There’s definitely a lot of me in that process you describe, of running, running, running, interspersed with periods of quiet contemplation. I’ve been told I’m a bit of a paradox, and certainly in that way.
I don’t know that I’m running toward or away from anything at this point. I think that I felt a lot of urgency to finish this first novel for a lot of reasons. Most of them practical: for one, reality kept catching up with all of the “futuristic” elements. I had a feeling that if I didn’t hurry up, everyone would start walking around with word flu, and then I’d have to try to recast the thing as nonfiction.
There were also material concerns. Unlike Anana, I don’t have any wealthy relatives, and when I left my lucrative nonprofit job (ha) to try to finish the book with residencies at a few artist colonies, I took a really big risk. I got to the point where I had to either finish the book very quickly, praying that someone might want to publish it, or else it would have taken quite a few more years, because I was almost completely out of money, and I would have needed to find a new job, new apartment, start over, as I’ve done a few times, and I know how very difficult it is to get any writing done during start-over times.
I also really hoped that I might be able to make a go of a writing life, whatever that means, and I couldn’t really imagine abandoning this book after so much time and sweat and life, but I also knew that in order to move forward and do anything else, I needed to get a book out into the world. So by the end of the process, my life had narrowed down to this really fine point: this book, and more or less only this book.
If anything, that’s the way in which I want my life to change now. I don’t think of being at A or B, and I don’t feel like I’m running anymore, but my hope is that writing never really forces (or enables) the same kind of solipsistic existence that I inhabited for a couple of years. I’m ready for my life to be much less about me and my work. I’ve been striving toward more of a balance lately, but I have a ways to go still.
I hope that risk has paid off for you. If anything, I think the book has added to the conversation about how we live with technology, and will give readers (especially those with a penchant for the dystopian) a glimpse at the implications of an unexamined life. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.
Thank you so much, Chad! It’s been a real pleasure exchanging words with you.