Debut Author Snapshot: Christina Dalcher

Posted by Goodreads on July 31, 2018
The debut novel Vox is set in a dystopian near-future where women live in forced silence, limited to 100 words a day, and are forbidden from holding jobs. It's there that a female neurolinguist is called upon to resume her research on a cure for aphasia, which is loss of the ability to understand or express speech, only to find herself a minor player in a diabolical government project. Author Christina Dalcher didn't think she'd become a writer. In fact, she earned her doctorate in theoretical linguistics from Georgetown University, became a specialist in the phonetics of sound change in Italian and British dialects, and taught at universities in the United States, England, and the United Arab Emirates.

Dalcher—a lifelong Stephen King fan—talked to Goodreads about finding writing as a second career, experimenting with flash fiction, and why her novel was sparked by the concept of a modern-day Tower of Babel.

Goodreads: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became a writer.

Christina Dalcher: I picked up the pen much later in life, and this was as much a surprise to me as to anyone else I know—I'd never done a lick of creative writing prior to August 2014. Not a word. But life throws us curveballs sometimes, and I found myself back in the States after nearly seven years abroad, academic career waning, not quite sure what to do next. The thing about having a doctorate in a field like theoretical linguistics is that it really doesn't qualify you to do anything except wax theoretical about language, so there was a choice to make: either go back to the books in my field, or move on to something else. Moving on sounded a lot more appealing.

Not long after we moved to the city that's become our home, I met Ellen Bryson (author of The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno). While on a walk around town, Ellen casually mentioned she was a novelist. Not too many days passed before I said to my husband, "You know, I could maybe do that. Write a book."

And so it began. I joined a writing community on Scribophile, discovered flash fiction, and started submitting my work. Basically, I dove right in and never came up for air.

GR: What sparked the idea for Vox?

CD: A combination of things:

First, the idea began simply with a piece of flash fiction I was writing. I wanted to explore a modern-day take on the Tower of Babel, and I asked myself how I could create a world in which humans all suffered from language loss. What would it look like if we were unable to communicate with others, perhaps even robbed of the ability to think? It was a terrifying theme to explore, given that language is really the single element that defines us as human, that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

I also had an idea stuck in my head from a children's story I read in the 1970s. It was about a traveler who stopped in a strange city where all the people limited themselves to very few words per day. When the traveler exceeded the limit and was arrested, one of the townspeople explained the reason: Being silent was the only way they could hear very faint, but charming, music. I don't remember the details, just the idea of the word limits!

Finally, the current political climate and the rage so many women are experiencing put a question in my head: What if things took a turn for the worse? In other words, how could I ramp up the terror?

GR: Tell us about your research and writing process for Vox.

CD: In Vox, Jean is tasked with finding a cure for Wernicke's aphasia, and though Wernicke's aphasia is a very real condition, its treatment in Vox is light, not overly technical, and mostly fictionalized—for a few reasons. First, our understanding of neurolinguistic processing (and the brain in general) is far from complete. As far as I know, there is really no "cure" for aphasia—no magic pill or potion. Second, neurolinguistics isn't my specific area of linguistic expertise. And third, Vox isn't really about the science behind language loss. On the other hand, I spent six years earning a Ph.D. in linguistics, and from a writer's standpoint, it's both relaxing and desirable to include aspects of a field I know a lot about.

As a linguist, I'm already familiar with many of the linguistic ideas that Vox includes. The theory of a critical period for language acquisition (translation: Learn language young, or don't learn it at all) is one of them. There's a short scene where a minor character brings up the story of Genie, a girl who was abused to the point of language and social deprivation until she was nearly 14 years old—with devastating effects. Since my main character would be aware of such a critical period of "use it or lose it" language acquisition, her fears for her own six-year-old daughter are well-founded.

I did need a viable scaffolding to support the central conflict in Vox—the effective removal of language from an entire segment of the population. For that, I dug back to a late 19th-century/early 20th-century movement called the Cult of Domesticity, which removed females from the labor market, believing a woman's proper place was in the home, submissive to her husband. If that's a difficult pill to swallow in terms of believability, I should inform you there's a modern movement that's just as antifeminist. They even have a manifesto.

As for my writing process, I wrote Vox pretty quickly—and I get asked about that quite a bit. I wish I had a better response than the boring truth—the fact is, I had a rather hard deadline, the kind of deadline you can't wiggle out of or amend a contract to change. My agent was due to have a baby in early November. Believe me, no legal language in the publishing world can make you work faster than a pregnant agent. Also, my writing habits have a lot to do with the speed with which Vox came together. I work off a bare-bones outline—a beat sheet of about a dozen sentences—so if I want to know exactly what's going to happen next, I need to write it. So in that sense, I'm sort of part of the audience while I'm writing.

GR: Your book deals with, quite literally, the silencing of female voices. What did you want to say about women's place in society?

CD: A lot of readers are probably going to think of Vox as a feminist story. In many ways, it is. But I hope people also see this as a tale about oppression, about the horrors that can occur when a faction—any faction—with a specific agenda becomes so powerful, it's unstoppable. So women as a group are more of a plot choice than the essential focus of Vox.

Although part of Vox is a cautionary tale, a warning call about gender politics and backlash and cultural shift, I also explored how much our humanity, our personhood, is tied to our ability to acquire and use language. In the book's time period we never reach a point where the language faculty is wiped out, but that threat looms. What would our world look like if we (or some of us) lost the ability to communicate, to think, to express ourselves?

There's also an exploration of cultural evolution, and we see this most in the conditioning of the main character's children as they navigate the new rules, as they either embrace them or passively accept them.

GR: What writers are you influenced by, and how are those influences reflected in your novel?

CD: Anyone who knows me well knows I'm a lifelong fan of Stephen King. I've been reading that man's words since I was about 14 years old, starting with a paperback copy of 'Salem's Lot I found on my uncle's bookshelf. I always had a thing for vampires, you see. Since then, I read King's work as much for the writing style and small-town descriptions as for the horror elements. I'll steal a few words from King and let you know that I've got a special cold spot in my heart for him.

Over the years, I've also enjoyed James M. Cain, Margaret Atwood, Shirley Jackson, and Roald Dahl—for different reasons. Cain's prose is tight and unadorned, and I value that. He puts substance over style. Atwood is one of the most lyrical writers I've had the pleasure to read, and since I pen a lot of flash fiction that borders on prose poetry, I'm drawn to her aesthetic. Jackson is deliciously sinister, as is Dahl (I'm referring to Dahl's short stories for adults here).

I probably had all of these writers in mind, in one way or another, while I was writing Vox. The book is in my own voice—and I'm still trying to figure out exactly what that is—but I know there were some scenes where I decided to go a bit more lyrical than straight commercial. And always, I try to keep the writing tight, limiting description and sticking to the story.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your debut?

CD: I'd love readers to come away from Vox with two questions: 1) How easily can our world change while we're not paying attention? and 2) How crucial to our being is the gift of language, that amazingly complex capacity we so often take for granted?

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

CD: Two books, actually. I'm well into Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists, which I absolutely love. The intertwining of her characters' stories, all of which hinge on their common knowledge of how long they have to live, makes for a great read. But I've always got an audiobook I'm working through for those times when I go for a run or prep dinner or fold laundry. Currently, my listening choice is Stephen King's The Stand. You've probably heard of it. (And, no, this isn't my first go!)

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

CD: Well, I'd love to write a follow-up to Vox, maybe exploring what I see as an inevitable backlash to the Pure Movement. And I've completed the first draft of an entirely different novel—still near-future dystopian—that centers on a resurgence of the eugenics movement. I'd love to tell you more, but I don't want to give the game away.

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Travis (new)

Travis A world where nobody can speak more than 100 words per day sounds like heaven to me. Imagine how important the things people chose to share would be... None of everyone in the room speaking over each other without contributing anything of value. Just 100 impactful words.

message 2: by Trudie (new)

Trudie V. I really love this interview. Shirley Jackson is one of my all time favorites. I now have Vox on my to read list.

message 3: by Laura (new)

Laura I'm intrigued. This is now on my tbr list. Shared this link to facebook.

message 4: by Sienna (new)

Sienna I actually saw somebody on the subway reading Vox a few days ago, and lo, it's popped up into my life a second time!

As a fellow linguist, I'm hooked on this dystopian thought experiment already. It sounds like we're going to poke at the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the theory that how we speak strongly impacts how we think, and vice versa) at length--how exciting! (Also, Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite writers. Anything influenced by her is bound to be good.)

Onto the TBR list it goes!

message 5: by Sol (new)

Sol hmmm I guess now everyone is trying to be margaret atwood

message 6: by Valerie (new)

Valerie Anxious to resd. Very intriging.

message 7: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca Travis wrote: "A world where nobody can speak more than 100 words per day sounds like heaven to me. Imagine how important the things people chose to share would be... None of everyone in the room speaking over ea..."

There's a poem like that by Jeffrey McDaniel:

The Quiet World

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

message 8: by Edouce (new)

Edouce Travis wrote: "A world where nobody can speak more than 100 words per day sounds like heaven to me. Imagine how important the things people chose to share would be... None of everyone in the room speaking over ea..."

I completely agree

message 9: by Charles (last edited Aug 26, 2018 03:06PM) (new)

Charles Herdy It is a fascinating phenomenon that, in a society with technology that gives people freedom from biology for the first time in human history, in which women have more freedom that they have ever enjoyed in human history, in which women are better educated and more professionally engaged than any time in human history, we have this rash of "oppressed women" fantasy fiction (The Handmaid's Tale, Vox).

message 10: by David (new)

David Rebecca wrote: "There's a poem like that by Jeffrey McDaniel:"

Thank you for the poem Rebecca, I loved it!

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