Karen Thompson Walker, a former book editor at Simon & Schuster, wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before work—sometimes while riding the subway. This lovely and unique story is intriguing from start to finish, and has been compared to Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day and Alice Seybold’s Lovely Bones. Here’s more from Karen:
Jennifer Haupt: How did this story first come to you?
Karen Thompson Walker: From the beginning, I was interested in exploring the ways in which an unexpected global catastrophe—the sudden slowing of the rotation of the earth—would affect daily life for ordinary people. The main character is a young girl, and the book is as much about growing up as it is about a gradually unfolding natural disaster. I got the idea for the premise from something that really happened. In 2004, our 24-hour days were shortened by a few microseconds as a result of the earthquake that caused the tsunami in Indonesia. As soon as I heard that, I began to wonder and imagine what might happen—and how people would respond—if a much larger shift occurred.
JH: What authors/books inspired you?
KTW: The books I love most are the ones that combine some sort of gripping story with really beautiful or stylish writing. Some of my favorites are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Blindness by Jose Saramago.
JH: How did Julia, the 12-year-old narrator first appear to you? As an entirely formed character, an idea, a feeling?
KTW: The first piece was her voice, that of a woman looking back with nostalgia on the days of her childhood—as well as on the world as she once knew it. The rest of her character grew from her voice.
JH: Why did you decide to tell the story through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl?
KTW: I think adolescence is a really fascinating phase of life, a time when a lot of things are happening for the first time: Julia is realizing that her parents have flaws and that friendships don’t always last forever, and she’s also falling in love for the first time. It appealed to me write about all those ordinary firsts because, in the book, Julia’s generation might be the last ones to experience them. Focusing on one young girl and her family was also a way of grounding the story—which is about a catastrophe that affects the whole world—in the small moments of everyday life.
JH: What was the most challenging aspect of developing this story?
KTW: The hardest part was figuring out what the consequences of the slowing would be. I really wanted the situation to feel real, so I did research into the physics as well as the biological repercussions, from the effects on plants and animals to the ways the longer days and nights would affect human circadian rhythms.
JH: It’s amazing that you wrote this novel in the mornings before heading off to a demanding job as an editor, working with other stories all day. How long did it take you to complete this novel? How much faith was involved in this process? How did you “keep the faith” of persisting?
KTW: I was a writer before I was an editor, and it felt important to my sense of identity to keep writing, even though I had a full time job. But finding the time to write was a struggle. I tried to write almost every day, but it still took me about four years to finish the book. The progress often felt excruciatingly slow, and I had no idea if it would ever be published, but it never occurred to me to give up on the book.
JH: How does your editor self help/hinder your story-telling self?
KTW: For me, the two sides are intimately linked. I like to edit my sentences as I write them. I rearrange a sentence many times before moving on to the next one. For me, that editing process feels like a form of play, like a puzzle that needs solving, and it’s one of the most satisfying parts of writing.
JH: Do you have any writing rituals that might surprise people?
KTW: I’m not sure how surprising it is, but I get a lot of my ideas when I’m not actually at my desk. Sentences or solutions occur to me in the shower, or while running on the treadmill, or riding on the subway. But it usually happens after I’ve spent a while sitting at my desk, trying to work.
JH: What’s the one true thing you learned from Julia?
KTW: As I wrote the book, which is partly about the fragility of life on planet earth, I became increasingly aware of the small pleasures of ordinary life, like the steady rising and setting of the sun, fruits and vegetables on grocery store shelves, and the value and the meaning of the small interactions between people.
Karen Thompson Walker was born and raised in San Diego, California, where The Age of Miracles is set. She studied English and creative writing at UCLA, where she wrote for the UCLA Daily Bruin. After college, she worked as a newspaper reporter in the San Diego area before moving to New York City to attend the Columbia University MFA program. She is the recipient of the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship as well as a Bomb Magazine fiction prize. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.