Find­ing her in­ner vox

Christina Dalcher tells Una Mul­lally how flash fic­tion was the trig­ger for her fast- writ­ten dystopian de­but novel

The Irish Times Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

Christina Dalcher ded­i­cated her de­but novel, Vox, to Char­lie Jones, “lin­guist, pro­fes­sor, friend”. Dalcher earned a doc­tor­ate in lin­guis­tics from Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity in 2006, with a dis­ser­ta­tion that “ex­plored the con­so­nant weak­en­ing process in the Floren­tine di­alect of Ital­ian”. Some­thing Jones said to her about writ­ing at length has stayed with her, hence the ded­i­ca­tion, “When you’re look­ing at that first blank page, 85,000 words seems as im­pos­si­ble as run­ning a quadru­ple marathon,” Dalcher says, over Skype from Nor­folk, Vir­ginia, where it is “pig hot”.

“I ded­i­cated the book to my first lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor, who passed away a cou­ple of years ago at a very young age and very sud­denly. He was, I think, one of my favourite peo­ple in the world, for many rea­sons. One of them is when I first started think­ing about do­ing a PhD in lin­guis­tics – at the time I was in a mas­ters pro­gramme – I said ‘ Char­lie, how the hell does any­one write 300 or 350 pages on one thing?’ He said, ‘ Well that’s easy, you write one chap­ter, and then you write the next one, and then when you’re done with that, then you write the next chap­ter.’” Dalcher is a big Stephen King fan, “Ev­ery time some­body asks him how he can write a novel, he says ‘ one word at a time, man’. And that’s true, it’s one word, one sen­tence, one para­graph.”

That me­thod­i­cal “just do it” ap­proach to writ­ing is what got Dalcher here, with a talked- about book, do­ing news­pa­per in­ter­views about dystopia, and re­fer­ring to coun­tries as “mar­kets”. When we talk, it’s four years and 23 days ( by her count) since she first started writ­ing fic­tion aged 46. Hav­ing lived away from the US for seven years, in­clud­ing in Abu Dhabi and Sri Lanka, Dalcher and her hus­band re­turned to Amer­ica and, af­ter meet­ing a nov­el­ist friend, she woke one night about 3am and nudged her hus­band and said, “‘ You know, Ellen [ her friend] writes, Stephanie Meyer wrote that Twi­light book. Maybe I could write a book? That would be fun,’ naive as I was. And so that’s what I did.”

Vox is in the near fu­ture, women are lim­ited to 100 words a day. This ver­bal al­lowance counts down on a bracelet that de­liv­ers an elec­tric shock if the limit is breached. The in­spi­ra­tion for this premise was a story Dalcher read as a child, which she has never been able to find again: a vil­lage where peo­ple were vol­un­tar­ily lim­it­ing them­selves to 10 words a day, “They wanted to hear the rest of things go­ing on in the world and not clut­ter it up with their own speech. I al­ways kept that in my ideas folder for a po­ten­tial flash fic­tion story.” By flash fic­tion, she means very short sto­ries, the tight­est ex­am­ple of which be­ing “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Per­haps an even greater chal­lenge than par­ing one’s speech down to 100 daily words, would be to find a re­view of Vox that doesn’t men­tion The Hand­maid’s Tale. “Ev­ery­body seems to think my book is in­flu­enced by that other book,” Dalcher says, omit­ting the ti­tle of Mar­garet At­wood’s fa­mous novel, “but re­ally, the one I had in mind the most was prob­a­bly The Step­ford Wives, be­cause that wasn’t about re­pro­duc- tive rights, it was about a re­turn to the cul­ture of do­mes­tic­ity, the ‘ hal­cyon days’ of the 1950s where fa­ther knew best and women knew their place.”

Vox’s premise is flash fic­tion in and of it­self, and made richer by the fam­ily dy­namic of the lead char­ac­ter Jean McClel­lan ( a neu­rolin­guist). Her young daugh­ter nav­i­gates the lim­its be­ing placed on her, much to McClel­lan’s heartache, and her son sounds like he’s spend­ing too much time read­ing men’s rights rants on what­ever Red­dit is in the near fu­ture. Her son’s misog­yny and the ex­treme pa­tri­archy of broader so­ci­ety is pierced when the bad guys need McClel­lan’s help. It’s at this point, that Vox veers away from a juicy premise that surely had more to be squeezed from it, and in­stead goes down a well- trod­den path of try­ing to conquer an evil govern­ment, with a whack of ro­mance thrown in. It’s pulpy and zippy, with the anti- woman dystopia feel­ing like a lever be­ing pulled, rather than the full ma­chine.

Re­mark­ably, Dalcher wrote the novel be­tween May and July of 2017. Dalcher’s short jour­ney to pub­lish­ing her first novel is ex­cel­lent book mar­ket­ing ma­te­rial. In Jan­uary 2017, she wrote a piece of flash fic­tion about a dooms­day sce­nario, in which a bio- agent de­stroyed the lin­guis­tic ca­pac­ity of all hu­mans. Then a bet­ter idea formed, “the word- count­ing thing”.

In April 2017, she wrote a short story that was “the skele­ton as what you now know as the novel”. The speedy writ­ing time was a combination of her own de­ter­mi­na­tion, and the fact that her lit­er­ary agent was about to have a baby, so in or­der for the novel to be pitched in au­tumn 2017 as op­posed to spring 2019, she had to fin­ish it at speed.

“Part of that mad­ness came from one, my own habit; and two, this very hard and firm dead­line that was not go­ing to change be­cause ba­bies don’t wait for nov­el­ists. It has been said that ‘ oh, this is a book for the # MeToo move­ment, the Times Up move­ment’, move­ments like this were in their in­fancy. I hadn’t even heard of them at the time I was writ­ing.

“What I did know though was that there

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