Dalcher’s novel Vox (Berkley, Aug.) is set in a near-future America whose government limits women’s speech to 100 words per day.
Previously, you had primarily written short stories and flash fiction. Why did you decide to write a novel?
The first seed of this was a contest in early 2017 sponsored by The Molotov Cocktail, an online magazine that publishes very dark flash fiction, and the theme was a doomsday scenario. So that’s where I got the idea of working with aphasia and this bioagent that could just wipe out language. And then, a little later, Upper Rubber Boot Books put out a call for dystopian short stories featuring a female protagonist with a specific skill. So I sort of turned my original flash fiction piece around a little and created this neurolinguist on the brink of curing aphasia—which is very speculative—and then the irony was that her own speech was taken away.
So Vox was not a direct reaction to the political climate?
Everybody in the world must think that I was writing this as a response to the political situation in the U.S., which is not the case. I was primarily looking at the culture of domesticity and the separation of gender roles, and how every step forward for women results in a resurgence of that domestic culture. So that’s where the scaffolding came from. The Trump administration just provided convenient timing.
How do you think your background as a linguist influences your fiction writing?
I like to play with language, and my linguistics background informs my writing, especially in my shorter fiction. It’s something unique, a little bit of an advantage—not everyone who writes fiction comes from that background. I know physicists, for instance, who write really experimental flash fiction modeled on calculus or the laws of thermodynamics.
And then, of course, language—or its disruption—is at the heart of the novel’s plot.
The only thing, aside from our brain size, that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, including our closest relatives, the great apes, is linguistic capacity. Other animals can communicate—dogs can bark and bees can do their little dance—but they don’t have language. Communication and language are different things. So the idea of a bioagent that would induce this kind of fluent aphasia, where people could speak but nothing has any real meaning, was really terrifying.
Do you see your novel as being informed by or in conversation with other feminist dystopian narratives?
I did read The Handmaid’s Tale shortly after it came out, and that’s one hell of a novel. But I’d say I was more influenced by Atwood’s style than by anything else—she writes these scenes that are like pieces of prose poetry or flash fiction—and I try to do that sometimes. At heart, though, I really wrote a thriller. It’s my favorite kind of thing to write.