With Vox, her debut novel, Christina Dalcher “wanted to create a story about a woman who studied language and yet didn’t speak up as the world changed around her and in the end lost her voice.” In the novel, women are limited to 100 words per day and the country must submit to a value system cruelly enforced by the government. The story of how such a world developed and how it is taken down is bold and riveting. The story of how the novel developed is no less intriguing.
The idea first came to life as a submission to a flash fiction competition. Dalcher had another writer she laughingly refers to as her nemesis who always placed a little higher than her in flash fiction competitions. Dalcher was determined to come up with a story that her competitor could not create. Using her background as a linguist, she developed a dystopian world where suddenly humans were unable to speak anything but nonsense words. Wernicke 27X was born and later published by The Molotov Cocktail. Based on the feedback Dalcher got from readers she knew there was more she could do with the idea.
“Language is the thing that really separates us from the animals,” says Dalcher, who has been in love with language since as early as the first grade. Even then she preferred reading books like Fun with Italian over Clifford the Big Red Dog. Language allows us to communicate ideas, collaborate, solve problems and discuss our emotions. Dalcher points out that “we haven’t arrived at a point yet where a computer can reproduce [our language nuances], and yet a three year-old just gets it.” Language shapes the very way we think, yet it is something we almost completely take for granted. That could be why the idea of something happening to our language skills is both unexpected and chilling.
There were so many linguistic facets to feed the narrative, the short story version of Vox took shape quickly. Both the protagonist, Jean, a female linguistic scientist, and her daughter, just developing language skills, were born for the short story. Also the menacing government antagonist.
“In 2017 I watched the women marching on Washington and I remember thinking ‘I bet there are people out there watching this who wish those women would just shut up’” Dalcher recalls. Reading the novel, it is clear that current political tension helped shape and propel the story, but it wasn’t only politics that inspired Vox. It was also inspired by a story whose title and author Dalcher can’t remember but with a premise that stuck with her for decades. It was a children’s story about a group who voluntarily restrict their spoken words each day in order to better hear the world around them. In that story the characters tied knots in a rope belt as a word counter. In Vox the counters are locked on and deliver an electric shock if women fail to comply.
Dalcher submitted the flash in January 2017. She submitted the short story “Vox” in May 2017 to a call for anthology submissions. Dalcher had a compelling idea, a thrilling plot, a protagonist, an antagonist and so much more to write about. Encouraged by her agent, Dalcher set out to turn the short story into a novel. She gave herself the deadline of September 2017 and sat down to write 1000 or more words per day.
Years before, when confronting the mountainous task of her dissertation, Dalcher’s late syntax professor Dr. Charlie Jones told her ‘Just do the work. Get it done and then you can do something else.’ This advice served her well while writing the novel. She stayed focused, shut out the world and got it done in two months.
Flash fiction is usually limited to a few hundred words, so there is no room for any unnecessary words. To create a novel, Dalcher had to embrace the work of writing details. The author had to build up the dystopian world and to fill it with Jean’s family, lover, co-workers, voices from the past, neighbors, enemies and allies. Each character added new ways to get the reader to think about language and society. Additional context needed to be developed to keep the reader fully immersed in the world of the novel. As a flash fiction writer it was a challenge for Dalcher to spend time on the details, but she worked through it knowing it would bring the novel to life.
Just like her professor suggested, Dalcher got the work done and is now moving on to the next thing. Her next book, Q, will deal with extremism and eugenics in a world where intelligence testing has run rampant. As a writer, Dalcher doesn’t “want to be preachy but I do want to be able to make a comment on the world we live in. If people say they sped through my book, but that it left lingering thoughts in their mind - that is the greatest compliment they can give.”
Elizabeth is a writer, designer, professor and dedicated bookworm.