A Conversation with Karen Thompson Walker

Coordinator of the If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book Program, Karen vanMeenen, interviews Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles.

KTW

Writers & Books: What kinds of writing inspired you as a youth, and what do you tend to read now?

Karen Thompson Walker: As a child, I always loved Roald Dahl, the way he mixes the ordinary with the fantastical, and how the stories are dark and strange and full of whimsy. I still enjoy fiction that combines these elements, especially if the writing is also really great. A few favorites include Blindness by José Saramago, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

W&B: I have read that news about the slight slowing of the earth’s rotation after the major earthquake in Indonesia in 2004 first inspired you to think about this topic.

KTW: That earthquake was so powerful that it affected the rotation of the earth. After that, the length of our 24-hour day was a few fractions of a second shorter than it was before. I found that news incredibly haunting, and I began to imagine right away what it might mean for humanity if we ever faced a much larger change.

W&B: The narrative in The Age of Miracles touches on the changes in daylight vs. darkness, of course, but also alterations in gravity, the earth’s magnetic field, tides, and more—all of which affect plants (including agricultural crops), animals, and humans. What kind of research did you (could you) do on these topics?

KTW: I did do a lot of research, especially for the physics, but I also borrowed many of these details from our own real world—exaggerating them only slightly. Whenever I came across a story about the mysterious extinction of a species or an extreme weather event, I imagined how something similar might happen as a result of the “slowing,” as the phenomenon is called in the book. I also eventually consulted an astrophysicist, who helped me correct a few things I had misunderstood, especially about what would happen to gravity if the rotation of the earth suddenly slowed. That said, this is certainly a work of fiction, and I relied as much on my own imagination as I did on scientific research.

W&B: Can you talk about the varied responses of readers to the actual science that is implied by the narrative?

KTW: A few readers have wished for more scientific detail and for an explanation for the slowing. For me, though, it seemed likely that scientists would be baffled by such an unexpected change and that it might take decades for them to understand it. The book is partly about that: how much we still don’t understand about the universe.

W&B: There is indeed a state of wonder that is palpable throughout the book. How do you see this novel fitting in with other speculative fiction, or that of the dystopian or the fast-increasing post-apocalyptic fiction genres? Or even that of magic realism, as at least one reviewer has noted?

KTW: As I wrote this book, I tried not to think too much about categories like these. I just wanted to try to tell this particular story in a way that would feel convincing and moving. For me, that meant focusing on the ordinary moments in people’s lives and all the ways that this extraordinary event would (and would not) change them. Even though the premise is fantastical, I wanted this book to feel like realism.

W&B: And using a young narrator certainly helps to achieve that, I think. Can you speak about why you think about middle school as an “age of miracles” and how this led you to create Julia, a pre-teen female narrator for the novel?

KTW: Middle school is such a strange time. I think of it as an “age of miracles” because kids change so quickly that it feels almost surreal. This radical change is hard for Julia, who is smart and shy and still feels more like a child than a teenager. I wanted the book to be as much about the highs and lows of growing up as it is about facing a global disaster. Both scenarios are about weathering extreme events.

W&B: How did your own coming of age in Southern California play into Julia’s experiences and fears?

KTW: My decision to set the book in California was initially just a matter of convenience. If I was going to write a book about the life of a young girl, it made sense to set the book in the place where I lived when I was a young girl. As I wrote the book, though, California became an increasingly important part of the story, and I began realize that my own memories of growing up in a land of earthquakes and brushfires was helping me imagine what it might be like to face a much larger disaster, especially what it might be like for a child. When I lived in California, I always knew that an earthquake could strike at any moment, and yet, most of my days there felt idyllic and uneventful. You learn to live with the possibility of catastrophe. That skill is not unique to Californians, but California is the place where I learned to do it, and I wanted to capture some of that in my book—how it’s possible to carry on with daily life, even in the face of great danger.

W&B: That is what struck me as unique about the novel when I first read it: how it explores an uncertain, slow-moving catastrophe and how reactions to it in many cases (at least at first) are just as measured. How did each of the main characters come to life for you? I am especially interested in the “real-timers.” It is interesting that so many apocalypse-related narratives highlight groups of people who leave the mainstream culture after a traumatic social or environmental event. Most recently, I am thinking of Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers and its outliers, the “Guilty Remnants.”

KTW: The characters came to me gradually. I came to understand who each one was by figuring out how he or she would react to the extreme changes brought on by the slowing. In that sense, the story helped me build the characters—I couldn’t really think of them separately. As for the real-timers, it seemed inevitable to me that some people would refuse to accept the old 24-hour clock, now that the earth’s rhythms had changed so profoundly. It also seemed inevitable, though, that these rebels would have great difficulty continuing to live in society, so I imagined these remote communities in the desert, where people would live off the grid and according to their own version of time. I’ve always been interested in settlements like these in our real world. There’s something so fascinating (and maybe doomed) about the idea of trying to build an alternate version of society.

W&B: Yes, utopian communities, real and literary, so often become anything but…. The celebrated Portuguese novelist José Saramago, who you mentioned earlier, has said that he writes about “the possibility of the impossible.” Do you think about the narrative of The Age of Miracles in this way?

KTW: I love that quote from Saramago, and I think of it often as I write. As a writer of many fantastical novels, he aimed to treat his premises—however unlikely—in a realistic and logical way. With The Age of Miracles, I aspired to do that, too. Even though the scenario I described is probably impossible, I wanted it to feel true. I wanted it to feel possible.

W&B: Can you imagine the coming of age story without the slowing? How would it significantly differ?

KTW: That’s a good question. For me, the two were always intertwined. The only way I could imagine telling the story of this global catastrophe was through the memories of a woman looking back on her childhood. It was a way of making this unlikely story feel personal, and, I hope, realistic. Similarly, I’m not sure I could have written the coming of age story without the slowing. For me, the looming catastrophe helped call my attention to everything that’s precious and meaningful about an ordinary suburban childhood.

W&B: The narrative certainly echoes the possibilities of climate change, which some consider a looming catastrophe, making the story extremely timely. But in its focus on how people react to a changed world, it is also reminiscent of such Cold War post-apocalyptic narratives as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach from 1957. Did you work with such scenarios in mind?

KTW: I really wanted the story to work on its own terms and feel as convincing and realistic as possible, so I didn’t want it to function simply as an allegory for climate change. However, as I tried to imagine how people would react to a worldwide global catastrophe, I thought a lot about the way we as a species have reacted to the news of climate change—the mix of fear and denial.

W&B: In practical terms, how did working as a book editor (at a New York publishing house) help you as a writer?

KTW: I always say that working as an editor is like having a job as a professional reader. And the better reader I became, the better my writing got. I really try to read my own work as if I’m editing someone else’s, which means I’m always looking for ways to sharpen the sentences and tighten the scenes. I like to revise as I go, word by word, so I’m always editing at the same time as I write. My experience as an editor probably solidified that habit.

W&B: Did it affect how you thought about audience (or perhaps more pointedly, about marketing possibilities) when you were writing the book, for example?

KTW: It’s hard to say for sure all the ways it affected me, [beyond knowing] that it made me a better writer…. I tried not to think about the market, which can be distracting and maybe ruinous to a writer’s imagination. That meant trying to actively shut out certain thoughts, since my job as an editor required me to think about the market every day. In terms of audience, I just tried to write a book that I would want to read, and I just hoped other people might, too.

W&B: What was your experience of being an editor looking for an agent? How did your knowledge of publishing affect your efforts to sell the book?

KTW: Working in publishing meant that I had a pretty good sense of what kinds of books certain agents liked. The one who became my agent, Eric Simonoff, already represented several of my favorite writers, which is why I approached him. We had similar taste, I think, and admired some of the same writers, so maybe those influences showed in my style of writing. But I was just an associate editor then, and I didn’t know him, so it was incredibly nerve-wracking to send my pages to him. I still feel very fortunate that he connected with my work. He’s a great reader as well as a brilliant agent, who helped make the selling process a lot smoother than it could have been.

W&B: Was it more challenging to work with a book editor having worked as one?

KTW: In a way, my own experience (as a much less senior editor) made me appreciate the talents of my editor, Kate Medina, even more than I otherwise would have. I was amazed by her sense of detail, and her ability to read and reread my book, seemingly always with fresh eyes. It’s always a challenge to incorporate an editor’s suggestions, but Kate’s edits really improved the book and pushed me as a writer.

W&B: Tell us more about your writing process.

KTW: When I wrote The Age of Miracles, I was working full time as a book editor, so I had very little time to write. I wrote this book in small increments in the mornings before work. But I’ve always been a slow and meticulous writer—I write only a few sentences each day, rearranging them again and again as I go—so working for only an hour each day suited me. Now, I have a more flexible schedule, but I still find that I’m most productive in that first hour of the morning.

W&B: Of course, many readers have called for a sequel to The Age of Miracles. And many would like to see the novel interpreted for the big screen. Where do those possibilities stand and what are you working on now?

KTW: As for a sequel, I really wanted this book to stand on its own, so I don’t have plans to continue the story in another book. But I’d be thrilled to see it made into a movie. A company called River Road (Brokeback Mountain, Into the Wild) has optioned the film rights, so that’s exciting, but it’s hard to know what the timeline will be. I’m working on another novel about a different kind of disaster, but it still feels a little early to say much about it.

 

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