HITTING SHELVES #20: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak Louisa Hall

Speak by Louisa Hall comes out today!

It’s the story of artificial intelligence: why we create it, what we can do with it, and how it makes us human. Written in the form of primary documents by a cast of characters throughout history—including the diary of a Puritan girl on a ship bound for America, the personal letters of Alan Turing, and the memoirs of a tech entrepreneur in the year 2040 who’s been imprisoned for breaking the law—Speak is a novel of uncanny breadth and ambition. And depending on how the next few years play out, it might also be a very useful guide to staying human while technology evolves around us.

We asked the author one question.

How are you celebrating the publication of Speak?

Louisa Hall: I’ll launch Speak at the lovely Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. That morning, I’ll wake up in a hotel room and try to persuade myself that it’s just another regular day, because I’ve always hated special occasions. When I was little, I cancelled three consecutive birthday parties on the day of the party. After that, my Mom stopped planning celebrations. Even now, as an adult, I generally have a complete panic attack the morning of a celebration and inevitably try to cancel it, usually too late, when the guests are already arriving, or after they’ve had their first drink.

Louisa Hall

Louisa Hall

What I love about writing is that I get to wake up every morning and spend time alone with my thoughts. Sitting with my characters in the silence of my bedroom is my favorite kind of party. I like imagining conversations that won’t ever happen. Actually, that kind of one-sided talking is sort of what Speak is about. Most of the characters spend a lot of time talking long after their chosen audience has given up and gone off. I’m interested in that kind of conversation. There’s something lonely and luxurious about devoting so much of yourself to language that isn’t immediately taken up. You have time to polish every word, to make your side of things perfect. You don’t have to worry so much about the hurtful errors that happen when you’re speaking in real time. Isaiah Berlin once told a friend that he preferred speaking to writing because spoken words vanish into thin air and don’t linger to embarrass you later. I feel the opposite. Embarrassing, thoughtless, or cruel spoken words do linger forever, and the risk that you’ll make a mistake is less when you’re writing. I’d like to live in a world in which every meaningful conversation is submitted in advance on a nice sheet of paper.

So on the morning Speak comes out, I’ll probably drink coffee alone in my room. I’ll work for a while on my next book, then spend some time wandering around Boston. I’ll be reluctant to head to the launch despite the fact that Harvard Bookstore is one of my favorite places on earth. On my way there, I’ll probably consider ways of canceling the event. I’ll tell myself it would be more in keeping with the spirit of the book to read it out loud to nobody. I’ll imagine writing a very nice apology note.

But in the end, I’ll go in, and as soon as I’m inside, I’ll be glad that I’m there. Bookstores are the best special occasions. They’re full of thousands of characters speaking to no one, millions of thoughts polished in silence. They’re lonely and luxurious in the same way writing is. Bookstores and the people inside them are devoted to words for which responsibility has been taken. I’ll realize that this isn’t an event with me at the center, but a celebration of words that don’t vanish, and I’ll be very glad to be at the party.

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