‘How to write a book? It’s one word, one sentence, one paragraph’

Christina Dalcher explains how flash fiction triggered her dystopian debut novel, ‘Vox’

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.”

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

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."


Pared down

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 reproductive 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.

It has been said that, 'oh, this is a book for the #MeToo movement, the Time's Up movement.' I hadn't even heard of them at the time I was writing

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 Time's 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 were lots of women who had started becoming more vocal, writing their senators and their congressmen, marching on Washington. They started to get a little bit louder, particularly after Trump was elected and inaugurated. If there's a reactionary element in Vox, I would say it had to do with noticing that these women who were much more vocal politically and imagining there must be some faction of other people in this country looking at them going 'I wish you would just shut up'."

Free speech

Another theme that underpins Vox is the American version of free speech. "I think freedom of speech has to be a categorical kind of a right," Dalcher says, "as opposed to a gradient right, meaning that you either have it or you don't, not that you have some but not really. Or you can say 'this' but not too much."

Besides shouting “fire” in a movie theatre where there is no fire, for example, Dalcher believes, “all other speech should be protected, even though – and this is probably going to make me unpopular – even though it runs the risk of making some people uncomfortable.”

Dalcher references the George Orwell quote engraved outside Broadcasting House in London (“If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”)

“We have to ask ourselves, and I think Orwell would probably want us to ask ourselves, what does that mean? How do we take that to heart? Is that true? Should we be able to say things that other people don’t want to hear? Where can it lead if we start making decisions that are contrary to that? How far will we go? This is why we can look at freedom of speech as categorical – you either have it or you don’t – or we can look at freedom of speech as something that is on the spectrum: you can say this but you can’t say that. That gets very tricky. A yes or no is very clear, it’s a bright line between the two. With a gradient spectrum like that, where’s that line? And can that line move? Control can come from all different sides. It can come from the right, it can come from the left, it can come from conservatives and liberals, it can come from the religious and less often the a-religious, the non-religious. I generally think, and this is my political philosophy, that control is never really a good thing, wherever it comes from.”

For now, Dalcher is catching up on herself. Her tips for new writers are to read the oft-cited On Writing by Stephen King, and she has also found Blake Snyder's beat sheet screenwriting method made famous by Save The Cat very useful. Her next book continues the near-future dystopian theme and also examines eugenics. Is she surprised that she got this far, this fast?

“Are you kidding? Of course. I sit around sometimes with my mouth hanging open. What? Did I do this? I am astounded. Where did this come from? I had never done this before and never thought I could do it. If anybody had told me more than four years and three weeks ago that I would become a writer, I would have laughed at them. Absolutely I’m surprised.” Dalcher cites her stubbornness as an attribute in her success, along with another important attribute, “I’m going to go back to my old professor Charlie Jones here. He gave me the greatest compliment once, he called me fearless . . . [Writing] is all about letting go of fear. Life is about letting go of fear. That’s a big thing. It’s no small trick.”

Vox is published by HQ