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Author Archive: "Karen Thompson Walker"

Why Books about Childhood Are Really about Adults

Even though I wrote a novel about a global disaster, I knew right away that my story would focus on just a few characters, one ordinary family, and especially one young girl.

I guess it's not surprising that I chose this point of view. Some of my favorite novels focus on childhood. I love how radiantly The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides captures suburban adolescence, how he somehow relays not simply the events of high school, but also the dreamlike way we remember those events as adults, the mythic quality of memory itself. In Housekeeping, through the haunting description of a much stranger childhood, Marilynne Robinson creates an amazing portrait of a family, adults included. And Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, which is perhaps my favorite literary love story, is all the more heartbreaking because we know that his young people won't live long enough to be anything ever but young.

For me, a great book about childhood is always ...

Ten Pieces of Advice I’ve Never Forgotten

The writing process can be hard to describe. Maybe that's why we writers use so many metaphors to illustrate it. If you Google the phrase, "Writing is like..." you'll find it compared to everything from baking a cake to driving at night to giving birth.

I'd like to add one more metaphor to the list: a writer is like a bowerbird.

Male bowerbirds build elaborate and often very beautiful decorative structures from twigs, rocks, and leaves, or whatever else catches their eye, even colorful bits of trash. These astonishing structures are not nests. Instead, they have a more artistic purpose: to delight. These bowers are designed to impress the female of the species.

So intricate and so unique are these bowers that some people have even argued that they should be considered a form of art. (If you've never seen a bowerbird in action, watch one of the many videos on Youtube, or check out some of their creations here.

For me, writing a book is a lot like building a bower. It's a process of collecting hundreds of details and insights and then slowly, very slowly, assembling those ...

An Hour of My Own

To write fiction, said Virginia Woolf, a woman must have a room of her own. But as a young writer in Brooklyn who for years shared a small studio apartment with my husband, a room of my own was a luxury that my bank account could not support.

For almost five years, the two of us shared 350 square feet of space: fifteen floors up, one room, one window, one door. These were years when I did not even have a desk of my own. Instead, my husband and I — both of us writers — took turns sitting in our only desk chair, which, if you backed up too quickly, would slam into the nearby bed.

I was working in book publishing at the time, answering phones all day and editing other people's books on the weekends and at night, so I felt squeezed in two senses: in time just as much as in space. For most people, of course, this is what it means to be young in New York.

For me, it was the lack of time that bothered me much more than the ...

The Big One

The summer when I was 12, two earthquakes struck Southern California on the same day. They hit early on a Saturday morning. Where we lived, just north of San Diego, these twin earthquakes did little damage. They rattled our windows and woke us up. They sloshed the water in our Jacuzzi.

But the big news that day was this: certain experts speculated that these earthquakes might be precursors to a much larger quake. I remember scientists appearing on television to warn us that "the big one," the giant earthquake that will inevitably one day hit the region, might arrive in the next 24 hours.

I was used to practicing for earthquakes. I was accustomed to the drills. At school, we had often rehearsed what we would do: crawl beneath our desks, turn our backs to the windows, beware of falling glass. At the start of every school year, each kid in my class had to pack a Ziploc bag full of nonperishable food, enough to last three days. This was the food we would eat if a major earthquake stranded us all at school.

Suddenly, it seemed that ...

The Secret Pleasures of the Apocalypse

I've always been drawn to stories about the end of the world — or the end of the world as we know it, anyway. If an unknown planet is set to collide with the earth (Melancholia) or a man is having visions of the apocalypse (Take Shelter) or an epidemic of blindness is quickly spreading across a city (Blindness), I will be there to watch.

I know I can't resist these kinds of stories, but it has taken me a long time to figure out why.

Eight years ago, I began to write my own disaster story. In my novel, The Age of Miracles, the rotation of the earth has suddenly begun to slow. As a result, the days stretch far beyond 24 hours, darkness and light fall out of synch with the clocks, gravity is affected, people panic as plants and crops start to die and birds begin to fall from the sky.

As I began to trace the effects of these events on the lives of the main character, Julia, an 11-year-old girl, and her family, ...

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