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The Big One

The summer when I was 12, two earthquakes struck Southern California on the same day.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 all that disaster preparedness was about to give way to a real disaster.

My mother and I went to the grocery store for supplies, just in case. So did everyone else. The grocery store was crammed with people but cleared of bottled water and batteries. I remember grocery carts heaped with canned food. I remember bare shelves in certain aisles.

I spent the day imagining in vivid detail what might happen to our house and our city. I was too scared to eat or sleep.

But "the big one" never arrived.

The main character in my novel is the same age I was that summer. Like me, she's a girl growing up in California, but she is living in the shadow of a catastrophe much bigger than "the big one." As I wrote The Age of Miracles, a story in which the rotation of the earth suddenly begins to slow, I often drew on my memories of my California childhood. California is the place where I first learned to imagine disaster.California is the place where I first learned to imagine disaster.

Don't get me wrong: California was mostly a very pleasant place to live. I remember the way it smelled in summer: like cut grass and chlorine. When I think of the neighborhood where I grew up, I think of soccer fields and swimming pools, eucalyptus trees swaying like sea anemones in the wind, beach bluffs, and canyons, stucco baking in the sunshine, asphalt too hot to cross barefoot.

We always knew that the big one could strike at any time. Mostly, though, we didn't think about it. We lived as if that day would never arrive. A little bit of denial is part of what it means to live in California. Then again, maybe that's just what it means to be alive. I really wanted to explore that feeling in The Age of Miracles: how often we manage to carry on in the face of disaster, how all of us, to some degree, live in the face of uncertainty.

÷ ÷ ÷

Karen Thompson Walker is a graduate of UCLA and the Columbia MFA program and a recipient of the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship as well as a Bomb magazine fiction prize. A former editor at Simon and Schuster, she wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before work.

Books mentioned in this post

Karen Thompson Walker is the author of The Age of Miracles

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