Durham native Alena Graedon’s debut novel The Word Exchange was released in early April, and she’s bringing the book “home” from Brooklyn for three events this week in the Triangle area: Tuesday April 29 at The Regulator Bookshop (7 pm), Thursday May 1 at Flyleaf Books (7 pm), and Saturday May 3 at McIntyre’s Books (11 am). Called “a dystopian novel for the digital age”, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word. “In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted ‘death of print’ has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.” Written from the first person perspective of “twentysomething” Anana Johnson, The Word Exchange shifts from paean to the printed word to a twist-by-turn mystery cum techno-thriller — though that undercurrent of what we give up when we lose control over our own language cuts throughout. Here, Graedon took the time to answer a few questions about technological dystopias, the voice of her protagonist, and what it feels like to “come home” with a Doubleday-published first novel in hand.
We’ve seen a lot of Orwellian dystopias lately: surveillance, ruthless authority. But The Word Exchange seems a bit more on the Huxley side of things: we’ve met the enemy and they are us: our lifestyles and technology own us rather than the other way around. Is that a fair way of looking at it?
That’s really insightful. The answer to the question of who bears responsibility when things start going wrong with technology is a little hazy. The characters in the book have become so habituated to letting their devices serve as sort of proxy selves that their own memories, cognitive capacities, and even their abilities to use words have started to corrode. Once dependency has reached that stage, it’s hard to say who—or what—is to blame. If a device misfires, and in a way that even its user doesn’t recognize, where does the fault lie? With the corporation that knowingly manufactured a potentially dangerous device? With the government that didn’t regulate it? With the person who bought and used it? Or with the machine itself? It’s hard to say.
I haven’t necessarily tried to answer those questions in the novel, but I have tried to create the opportunity for readers to think, if they choose, about their own agency, and how they’d ideally like for technologies and devices to enhance their lives, but also in which ways they might like to maintain autonomy over their realities. Most of all, though, I’ve just tried to create a good story that I hope people will enjoy reading.
It’s also a time where the YA dystopia is all the rage: The Hunger Games, Divergent. What made an adult voice the right one for The Word Exchange?
I was interested in Anana as the narrator for a few reasons. She’s someone with a lot of identities, reflected in her many nicknames: Apple, Aps, Pin, Needle, Nins, Nans, Ana, A, and as the story develops, Alice. Her persona is so fragmented at the beginning of the novel in part because she doesn’t have a very clear sense of her own selfhood. Some of her most important relationships have recently been upended. Her parents have separated, she’s negotiating the end of her own four-year relationship, and, significantly, over the several years before the book begins, she’s yielded more and more of her decisions to a device. That’s made her a little unsure of who she is, at least when the story starts.
I was also interested in her as narrator because she has her feet in different worlds. For one thing, she’s old enough to be able to remember back to an “analog” time when people still used books, newspapers, letters, stamps. She works at a dictionary with her dad, but at the beginning of the book, she’s also a devotee of devices. Her ex-boyfriend is in the start-up “technocracy” world.
Relationships—to people, things, ideologies—tend to get more confusing and complex the older we get. And it felt important for Anana’s opinions and allegiances to have been shaped over many years, to grow messier and more nuanced, particularly as many of the people in her life seem to have strong, unyielding positions on things. In many ways, I think she’s a bit of a stand-in for me, and maybe for some readers, whose position on technology is a little ambivalent and not so black and white.
And I guess I also felt some protectiveness over Anana. She doesn’t always make the best choices—she sometimes ends up in dangerous situations—and maybe there was some part of me that didn’t want to put a younger person in harm’s way.
The loss of the written word is a driving force in the novel. Yet there are positive signs that independent bookstores are doing well, that more of these warnings — such as in your book — are being heeded as calls to action, toward meaningful human interaction. But there are also trends like Facebook buying up other social networks (and hardware like Oculus Rift). How have you seen trends change since starting the book?
It’s been really fascinating to watch lots of things in my book turn from science fiction to reality during the years that I’ve been writing it. I put self-driving cars and devices that treat headaches with electrical pulses into early drafts of the book, for instance, thinking that if those things were ever invented, it wouldn’t be for a long time. After Google Glass came along, I actually ended up changing a device that was initially much more like it.
There’ve also been ways in which the death-of-print predictions of the book have sort of been coming true: there may be thriving independent bookstores, including in the city where I live, Brooklyn. But right next door in Manhattan, lots of old, beloved bookstores are closing. Libraries are being threatened, including the New York Public Library’s main branch, and Pew polls tell us that far fewer people read books now than in past decades.
That said, I don’t think that the world depicted in the book is our world, or where we’re inevitably headed. I’m pretty convinced that people will continue reading books for a long, long time. And humans are social creatures—we’ll keep interacting, too, even if the way that we do it keeps changing.
As a Durham native and Carolina Friends School graduate, on to Brown and Columbia and Brooklyn and launching the book at The Center for Fiction; what are your thoughts and feelings about “coming home” with that debut novel in hand?
Oh, I love coming home. I’m a Carolina girl through and through. I come home as often as I can. My family’s here, and loads of friends. I don’t think the book changes anything. I’m really happy to have it out in the world, and I’m very happy to be here. It’s nice to have those things coincide, but one of the things that I love about this place is that everyone is so kind and respectful and supportive no matter what’s going on in my life. I’ve gone through some really hard times here and some wonderful times. If I’d never published a single book, I know that people would treat me with the same warmth and graciousness that they always have. I may live in Brooklyn now—after more than a decade in New York, I have a density of social and professional connections there that make it a good place for me to be for now—but North Carolina will always be my heart’s home.
What’s in store next?
I’ve been working on some short stories lately, and some nonfiction things. One of the stories in particular I’m hoping is secretly a novel, but it’s nice to be working now on a few things that might not take years to finish.
Durham native Alena Graedon’s debut novel The Word Exchange was released in early April in hardcover and ebook by Doubleday and in CD, MP3-CD, and digital audio by Blackstone Audio. An “Editor’s Pick” at Bustle gives an excellent and more in-depth review for those looking for more information about the book; and a guest post by Graedon at The Huffington Post on 8 Must-Reads for Language Lovers can give you an idea as to why books are so important to her.
April 29 (Tuesday) 7 pm — The Regulator Bookshop hosts Alena Graedon: “The Word Exchange”. “In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange. A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word. The Regulator is thrilled to welcome Durham native Alena Graedon to read and sign copies of her first novel.”
May 1 (Thursday) 7 pm — Flyleaf Books hosts Alena Graedon discusses her novel The Word Exchange. (See her April 29 event at The Regulator for a full write-up.)
May 3 (Saturday) 11 am — McIntyre’s Books hosts Durham native Alena Graedon – The Word Exchange. (See her April 29 event at The Regulator for a full write-up.)