Following the release of her hit book, VOX, linguist-turned-author Christina Dalcher shares insight into the power of words spoken, written and suppressed. Learn more about Dalcher in the November/December 2018 issue of Writer’s Digest.
As much as Christina Dalcher loves words—she’s a linguist by trade, having taught at universities internationally—she knows better than most the power of their absence.
An award-winning flash-fiction and short-story writer, her debut novel VOX (released in August) has generated buzz from the likes of TIME, Publishers Weekly and Vanity Fair. In the fast-paced dystopian novel, where a certain demographic is limited to speaking only 100 words per day, it’s no stretch to say that language is, well, everything. Dalcher took a break from promoting VOX abroad—including doing four interviews in Italian the day before we chatted—to talk about where she gleans inspiration, how the study of linguistics influences her tales and why writing short is the best practice for longer endeavors.
In VOX, women are forced to wear counters on their wrists that limit them to speaking 100 words a day. The average person speaks about 16,000 daily, give or take. Speaking as a writer and linguist, what are some of the ramifications this would have on literature, communication and storytelling?
I think I can safely say that there’s one major thing that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, and that’s language. It’s language that allows us not only to share our thoughts and ideas and stories with others, but also allows us to process information. I doubt Einstein would have been able to come up with the theory of relativity without language. [Not because] he needed to talk to anyone; he could’ve been in a box by himself. But it is unimaginable, to me, that that kind of thinking could be done without language. We can go beyond communication and storytelling and family relationships and look at what really would happen: Our humanity would be taken away.
It’s impossible to miss the “right now” relevance of VOX—TIME magazine even called it a novel of the #MeToo movement. Did current events have any direct influence on your approach to the story?
Not as specifically or directly as most people think. For one, when I started writing VOX last summer—I wrote it in two months—there really wasn’t a #MeToo movement [yet]. I’m a really strong advocate for freedom of speech. When we look at dystopian fiction throughout the ages, we’re basically looking at the same [topic]: restriction on freedom; sometimes speech, sometimes reading, sometimes other freedoms. I don’t think this is anything new, because if it were, we wouldn’t have had Orwell, Huxley or Bradbury writing about it. I’d like to think I would’ve written this book no matter what.
You’ve said that the idea for VOX came from a doomsday fiction contest in an online flash fiction magazine.
It did. Initially, at least, there were two stages. Basically, I came up with this kind of hybrid vegetable or fruit from the seeds of all these other sort of related ones. Maybe I created, like, a literary tomato. One, a magazine that I just absolutly love, called The Molotov Cocktail, had a doomsday contest. [Molotov] was the first place to ever publish a piece of my flash fiction. Maybe three or four times a year they’ll have a contest with a theme that’s usually very stark; either horror or speculative fiction, something like that. So I wrote this little story, about 750 words total, about a global aphasia epidemic, [where] all of a sudden, we've got the Tower of Babel. You can imagine how long we would last in that kind of a situation.
It'd be a disaster.
Maybe [we ’d last] a week or two, really, before we just kind of all killed one another. [The story] was very dark. It had the linguistics aspect in it, which I really enjoyed because [as a linguist] it's something that I can write into stories and make them a little bit unique.
In the meantime, all this while that I've been writing flash fiction, I've had the little idea over in my idea drawer—[which is] a virtual idea drawer called “Ideas,” as you probably can imagine. When I was a really young kid, I read this story about some kind of magical kingdom where people limited themselves to 10 words a day, something like that. They did it on purpose, so they could hear lovely music. That's all I remember of it because I've never been able to find it [again]. But it was this idea, this word-limit thing, that made me think, Well, that's linguistic-y. Maybe I can work that into a piece of flash fiction someday. I [combined] the aphasia piece and I had the word limit piece [into] a dystopian short story for a magazine, [hence] I came up with the “hybrid tomato,” VOX.
You’ve had dozens of short stories published in literary journals, including some that have garnered Pushcart Prize nominations. How did you decide that VOX could be lengthened from a short piece into a full-length book?
When I wrote the 3,500-word short story “VOX,”—which is pretty much the skeleton of VOX—my readers, three women who swap stories with me and also write flash fiction, looked at it and said, “This could be a novel.” The short story made it to the second round [of a competition] in ClarkesworldMagazine, a major science fiction/fantasy magazine. When that happened, I thought, “OK, this has legs.” I talked to my agent about it, and she said it sounded delightfully creepy—which is a great response from an agent. So I thought, “I’m going to do this thing.”
The pacing in VOX keeps readers hanging on with white knuckles. Do you think your experience with writing flash helped you to be …
Absolutely. I started writing four years ago, with the idea that I was going to write a novel—because I think that’s the idea a lot of people start with. But, in my own words, it’s like, “Hey, if Stephenie Meyer can do it, I can do it.” Riiiight. I think when I look at the first thing I wrote, [it ’s clear] I had no idea about pacing. I certainly didn’t know what character
arc meant, or what a beat was, or about the importance of dialogue.
With flash, it’s not just about the story. You don’t have that much time [or space]. It’s about the lyricism and the poetry and evoking a really strong feeling while still telling a story. It’s like musicians who do études: [It lets them] practice their form, instead of sitting down and writing an entire concerto or symphony.
That's a great analogy.We’ve touted the benefits of writing flash to our readers—even if they don't intend to make it their predominant form of writing, it’s a great way to get good practice. It’s wonderful to hear from you, having had so much success with flash/short stories, and then been able to carry that over into a longer form.
It really warms my heart that you're making that recommendation, because it's so important. I have taught [some] writing courses the last couple of years—I try not to tell my students that I haven't actually taken a writing course [Laughs]—but I do find that there are so many beginning writers who just want to dive right into [a] novel. They want to do the same thing that I [first] did. We all do, because we know the novel, [it ’s] what we see: [They’re] on airport bookshelves, in libraries. Of course, if you're going to try to make any money as a fiction writer, the novel is pretty much the only way to go. Flash fiction paychecks are usually about $1.50. I think it's a trap people fall into, this idea that, Oh, I'm going to do this really big, hard thing [and write a novel], but in fact, it's quite nice to be able to focus on something much, much smaller.
You’ve taught courses on linguistics, phonetics and phonology at universities around the world. How does your academic knowledge of language influence your individual writing style?
I don’t spend a hell of a lot of time describing exactly what color somebody’s eyes are or what people look like, what they’re wearing. I think that probably came from the fact that I did a metric ton of writing when I was in graduate school and after that, but it was all very technical. If anything, it might not be the linguistics that really influenced my writing style, it might be the fact that I have a science degree.
Linguistics is a science, but we often think of writing as an artistic endeavor. In what ways does your background in science inform your writing process?
Writing is pretty damn technical. Take a Lee Child mystery. Or VOX. Anything like that. You’ve got this sort of formula that you need to stick to: We’ve got beats. An inciting incident. The “choice” that needs to be made. The debate period. Then the B-story comes in. I mean, it is quite scientific. That’s why [we call] things beat sheets or story “engineering” or whatever. There’s a technical aspect to it. I think once you’ve got that framework down, then you can be artistic, can play with your words.
What are some ways that non-linguists can learn from the study of linguistics to help improve their own writing?
For some inexplicable reason, I’m pretty OK [at writing] dialogue. I’m wondering if being a little bit more nerdy about language, being kind of a linguistics freak, helps me pay attention to the things that I hear and also recognize when I write dialogue that just doesn’t sound like the way people really talk.
I also think there’s that age-old, really tasty chestnut that says, “Write what you know.” I’m a linguist, so I wrote a book that features some linguistic stuff. But going more general than just linguistics, I think it’s always, always good advice to think about what you can do, and what you know a lot about, and go from there—rather than trying to write something that is like that one book on the bestseller list last year, or that got turned into a movie, or that your friend wrote. Write what you know based on your experience. It’s a golden rule.