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The best advice Alena Graedon received, ‘Focus on the words in front of you’

Alena Graedon's debut novel, The Word Exchange, takes a dystopian premise – that of a world in which a computer virus called "word flu" has made the jump to humans, rendering even spoken language gibberish – and spins it into a cliffhanger.

Why did you write your new book?

In many ways, my novel evolved out of my fascination with the shift from print to digital media. I've been really grateful for everything that's been made possible by the Internet and by increasingly sophisticated electronic devices. But from the beginning, I've also had some wariness about the ramifications of migrating so much of our information to a potentially vulnerable, virtual space, and of mediating so many of our interactions through screens. On the one hand, we can now access just about anything, anywhere. On the other, though, that means that information exists everywhere and nowhere. Without physical records, it becomes even easier for those who might want to change a narrative or make inconvenient facts disappear to manipulate or erase data. It's also become easier for large institutions to consolidate holdings of things – news, music, books, films, judicial records, etc. – and to control how we consume them. I was interested in taking some of these ideas to a logical extreme by applying the model of digitization and privatization to language, arguably one of our most human traits.

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Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?I've always loved Nabokov's language for its brazen inventiveness, its aural and visual richness, and for the associations that he creates, spanning sentences and centuries. His language is totally unafraid – to be musical, melodramatic, alienating, beautiful, brilliant.

What's the best advice you've ever received?

The best writing advice I've ever gotten is to keep your head down and do the work. That no matter what's happening in the wider world, whether people seem to love or hate or be indifferent to the most recent thing you've put out there, don't let that be a distraction. Focus on the words in front of you.

Which historical period do you wish you'd lived through, and why?

I'm happy to be around now. Even with all the strangeness and potential estrangement of contemporary life, and all the inequalities that still persist, I'm glad to live at a time when I'm allowed to vote and own property (not that I do own any), and when the idea of human rights is taken fairly seriously in many parts of the world.

Would you rather be successful during your lifetime and then forgotten or legendary after death?

Maybe this is a fantasy that springs from my desire to just put my head down and do the work, but I don't think I'm really driven by either of these unlikely possibilities. I try to make work that surprises me, and that I hope will surprise and engage readers. I'd be really glad if that happens in my lifetime. As for after I'm dead, I just hope that my work isn't used as the basis for some strange cult. (I'm not losing sleep over it.)

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What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

I have a love-hate relationship with Jane Eyre, which I had to read several times in college even though I wasn't an English major. What a tour de force it is, maybe especially given the social and cultural context in which it was written. But I get a little frustrated with it, too – this formative, paradigmatic example of a literary trope that I have a hard time with: the wounded woman rescued by a man. It's a much more complicated story than that, of course. I should probably give it another try.

Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Sherlock Holmes, that superhero of the mind. He breaks all the rules. It's hard to understand how a story can be compelling if its hero thinks of everything and can solve virtually any puzzle. And yet he's so irresistible that he keeps being reinvented every few years in a seemingly endless series of adaptations.

Which fictional character do you wish you were?

Not Sherlock Holmes. He doesn't seem to have a very rich emotional life. Maybe Nora Charles, if I'm sticking with mysteries – but with a slightly less booze-saturated (and murder-focused) existence. The truth is, though, that I'm pretty happy living my own life, and imagining characters' lives just through reading and writing them.

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