The story

What is the story behind your book? How did the idea originate?  Did the book involve special research or travel?  How long have you been at work on this book?

On the first warm, bright spring morning of my senior year of college, I was home, frantically finishing the last chapter of my thesis, when my house caught on fire. The fire started in the apartment downstairs, and while no one was hurt, it took six fire crews to contain the blaze, and most of my belongings and my housemates’ belongings were destroyed.

Among the things I lost were my laptop (which I’d stupidly—and unsuccessfully—tried to run back into the house to recover), and all of my books, including $1,600 worth from the library. I also lost several dictionaries. As a student of a couple languages and a lifelong word nerd, I’d collected a cache of them over the years.

A few months later, my parents gave me an Oxford American Dictionary as a graduation present to replace some of the ones I’d lost.

Before I moved to New York City the next fall to start grad school, I spent a few months at a craft school in the NC mountains. I went there to do visual art, and I worked a lot with the illustrations in my new dictionary.

When I looked through it, I was surprised to see entries for people: Sylvia Plath, Nelson Mandela, Bill Gates. It was the first time I could remember seeing a photo of a bespectacled billionaire in the dictionary.

For whatever reason, it struck me as terrifically bizarre and fascinating, and full of possibilities. I found myself wondering, “What if a person’s entry disappeared from the dictionary? What would the story behind that be?” It was early 2003; no one was reading e-books—the Kindle and iPhone were both years away—and imagining the answers to those questions took me down a rabbit hole into fabulist, uncharted territory. That was when I had the first kernel of an idea for The Word Exchange.

But I didn’t actually start work on The Word Exchange for several more years. During the years that the book was still just an idea, it kept being inflected by other preoccupations of mine. One idea in particular that I kept returning to was the tension between the seeming permanence and provisionality of digital communication.

On the one hand, my own experience with the house fire had underscored the relative durability of electronic text: the reason my senior thesis hadn’t turned to ash with all those expensive library books is that I’d emailed chapters to myself as I went. (And of course a lot has been written about the often problematical indelibility of digital ink: it’s very hard to get things erased once they’re in cyberspace, even—sometimes especially—if you want to.)

On the other hand, I also knew from personal experience just how fragile digital information can be, and how susceptible to the capriciousness of faulty hardware or software; to violent weather or viruses—even the whims of people in positions of authority.

As a 17-year-old, I’d spent a semester studying abroad and living with a host family in Beijing. It was 1997, and the “world wide web” had finally, fully taken off. I was thrilled to be able to use the newly ubiquitous medium of email to stay in touch with my friends and family, and very quickly, the internet became central to my life.

But I was also keenly aware of all the websites I wasn’t able to access from inside China; I heard rumors of officials yanking “inflammatory” news stories off the web; and I routinely wondered who was reading my emails, and what the ramifications might be (an experience I had all over again in the wake of revelations about NSA surveillance in the U.S.). Digital information began to seem very vulnerable and tenuous.

Over the course of my lifetime, I’ve witnessed the shift from print to electronic communication with a mixture of excitement, nostalgia, and trepidation. When I was young, I kept a journal, I was an avid letter writer, and I printed photos in a darkroom. I took it for granted that my parents’ books and newspaper columns would always be printed on paper. My house, and my grandparents’ house down the street, were overflowing with bound volumes acquired by my grandfather, a rare book dealer.

I collected typewriters and other antiquated machines. I thought faxes were the height of technological ingenuity. And while my family always had a computer, even back when they were giant, boxy, and beige, it wasn’t until I left for China that email became completely integrated into my life, permanently changing my relationship to both words and people.

Gradually, I stopped writing longhand. I abandoned my journal, then letters, and eventually even emails; now, like lots of people, I communicate mostly by text. But even as I entrusted more and more of my thoughts and interactions to what we sometimes refer to as “the digital world,” I became fascinated by (and more than a little concerned about) its potential instability and ephemerality.

In China, of course, the government still frequently limits its citizens’ access to many websites, and if officials discover content they don’t like on blogs or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, it’s often deleted right away. Similar things have been reported in many other countries. In the U.S., we’ve had our own scandals over censorship and surveillance—and not just by government entities, but also by corporations. A lot of dust has been raised, e.g., over things like Amazon deleting Orwell books from Kindles.

Yet there isn’t always a wizard behind the curtain orchestrating the nefarious deletion of text: there’s also been a lot of recent scholarship devoted to the alarming trend of the “disappearing web”, which has had the effect of turning cultural and social history into something of a mandala.

Even before I started researching and writing The Word Exchange, I became increasingly alarmed by the ease with which our shared cultural and historical record could be tampered with or erased if it existed primarily in a space—a cyberspace—that was so vulnerable to viruses, accidental elisions, and attacks.

Those anxieties were in some ways fueled after I went into publishing and watched the industry change around me and my writer, editor, and journalist friends. As the electronic page replaced the printed one, newspapers and magazines began shrinking as they lost advertising and circulation; publishing houses started shape-shifting and shuttering. As companies like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook became ascendant, I had some of the same concerns about privacy, control over content, and monopolies on information that I’d had as a teenager living in China.

Going digital, and relying more and more on machines to help us do everything, has of course had many other effects, both positive and negative. On the plus side, for instance, scientists at the forefront of medical research use big data to make clinical advances.

But some would also argue that technology has irrevocably changed our most personal interactions. Now, instead of love letters, we have love texts; we can erase whole relationships just by toggling a button on our phones. We rarely revisit old emails the way we might have looked back at letters, and little of our written lives is really archived—much is created, and much is thrown away.

I wanted to highlight these changes by exaggerating them, in a sense. Pointing up some of the real dangers of over-utilizing technology by inventing imaginary ones. I hoped, too, that my focus on the erosion of memory and language would serve as something of a metaphor—focusing attention on just one fantastical doomsday scenario as a way to look at the many very real ways that our lives are changing because of our dependence on devices.

For the almost-but-not-quite plausible things that appear in the book to make sense (electronics that can read peoples’ minds and anticipate their desires; a language virus that can infect both devices and users with an aphasia that makes it impossible for people to communicate; a disastrous cyber attack on the U.S. that wipes out whole swaths of information and infrastructure, etc.), I wanted to set the novel itself in a world and at a time that was almost-but-not-quite ours.

I started researching what would become The Word Exchange the week after I graduated from grad school, in 2007. During the time it took to write the book, I was amazed, awed, and more than a little unnerved as I watched my book turn from science fiction to fiction; so many details of The Word Exchange world that I thought were a long way off are now almost upon us—or already here.

We now have driverless cars; glasses that are computers; digital wallets; disease diagnosis by iPhone; synthetic cells engineered to eventually interface with computers, and cells that actually sort of are computers; “cyborg rats” with microchips implanted in their brains; ones with “brain-to-brain” interface that can communicate directly with each other, across continents, via the internet; mice with fake implanted memories. Maybe even more remarkable: people who can move robotic arms with their minds; not to mention mind-controlled video games; speech-jammer guns; the possible reemergence of pneumatic tubes (for transporting people), cabals of cyber-hackers that have grown increasingly brazen, and the list goes on. Also relevant to The Word Exchange: while I was writing it, rumors surfaced that the OED will go completely digital.

The characters at the heart of the novel are dictionary-makers—people particularly attuned to language, who would likely notice changes to it more quickly than the general public. The book is set primarily in New York City, but near the end, some of the characters travel to London and Oxford, including to the offices of the OED, in the hope of saving not just their own endangered dictionary, but language itself.

As research for the book, I did a lot of reading: books on lexicography (dictionary-making); philosophy; linguistics; cyber war; I reread Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass; biographies of Samuel Johnson; etc. I also interviewed a lot of people: Hegel experts, NYC spelunkers, lexicographers. I traveled to London and Oxford shortly after I started writing it, and I met for several hours in the OED offices with the soon-to-be-retired, longtime Chief Editor there, the wonderful and inimitable John Simpson. I also met for a bit with the OED Editor at Large in New York, Jesse Sheidlower, who was gracious enough to read some sections of the novel when it was done as well, and to offer some advice I’ve tried to follow on how I might improve it.