by Karen Thompson Walker, January 21, 2019 9:49 AM
Photo credit: Dan Hawk Photography LLC
Deep into researching a novel about sleep, dreaming, and consciousness, I found out that I was pregnant.
I had always wanted to do these two things: to write books and to have children. But now that it was happening — my body busy building a child while my mind was busy constructing my second book — I was not at all sure how the combination would go, or what one pursuit might cost the other.
There’s a familiar idea in our culture that working too much is bad for a woman’s children, but there’s a newer idea, too: that having children might be bad for one’s work. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood
captures this bleak anxiety here: “It suddenly seemed like a huge conspiracy to keep women in their ’30s — when you finally have some brains and some skills and experience — from doing anything useful with them at all.”...
by Karen Thompson Walker, June 29, 2012 10:43 AM
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 also about adulthood. Children aren't some separate species. They're just adults waiting-to-be, filing away memories before they can fully understand what those memories might come to mean when they're older. I think it's the only time in life when so much is happening and yet we're so ill-equipped to process it.
The young girl in my book is named Julia. As the world struggles to adapt to a world remade by the sudden slowing of the rotation of the earth, Julia is also experiencing a series of other small-scale firsts: realizing her parents have flaws, learning how quickly friendships can form and fall away, and falling in love for the first time. In Julia, I hoped to capture both the intense emotions I felt when I was living through that age, as well as some of the perspective and insight I've acquired in the years since then.
Of course, adults don't know everything either. We're all living with only a partial understanding of ourselves and our world. Maybe that's another reason that reading about childhood can be so satisfying. These stories make literal a feeling that we never quite grow out of, the feeling that we don't fully understand what is happening to us, that all we can do is carry on, even in the face of the unknown.
But maybe the thing I love most about writing about youth is that it always means writing about a subject that obsesses me: the passage of time. In my book, Julia is looking back on what she has lost: her childhood as well as the world as she once knew it.
And in a way, every coming-of-age story is about a lost world, a time and a place when we were young. Reading books that capture youth best always reminds me of one of the simplest, most poignant facts of human life: time moves in only one direction. You can look back, but you can never
by Karen Thompson Walker, June 28, 2012 2:06 PM
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 shiny bits of material into one cohesive shape.
And I collect advice about writing in much the same way. So far, after about 10 years of searching, here are the 10 little twigs I've found most useful to my work, some of it picked up from my teachers, some from strangers, all of it helpful. I try to remind myself of these things almost every day.
1. There are no rules in fiction. (You can do whatever you can get away with.)
2. Writing a book is hard. That's just the nature of it.
3. Sometimes, the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is 17 drafts.
4. Play your own game — not someone else's.
5. Every sentence should do more than one thing.
6. Try to think of your writing career and your publishing career as two separate things. You have some control over one of them, and almost no control over the other. (This is equally useful in good times and bad.)
7. Don't be afraid to make a mess in front of yourself.
8. Try to do a little good work every day. (For me, that sometimes means writing just one good sentence.)
9. Don't take your reader's attention for granted. The reader is busy. The reader has a lot of other things to do.
And lastly, I try to think of this one every day:
10. Be patient.
Like the bowerbirds I love to watch in action, I am perpetually collecting more twigs. Find me on Facebook or Twitter if you have something to add to my list.
by Karen Thompson Walker, June 27, 2012 1:55 PM
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 lack of space. So many of my hours belonged to other people. Any minute I managed to spend alone felt surprisingly precious, like a small rebellion.
Maybe that's why a certain piece of my day came to feel so important to me during those years. It was a slim wedge of time, a brief hour each morning before work, 60 minutes of quiet, when I was free to write, to chip away at my novel. The only cost was my sleep. Instead of a room of my own, I found an hour.
At least, I always aimed for a whole hour.
I often fell short. Sometimes I'd stayed out too late the night before, drank too many glasses of wine. Sometimes I only had half an hour. Sometimes I was lazy. Sometimes I wrote standing up on the train to work, balancing my laptop with one hand. Some days I wrote only one sentence, just in my head, as I walked from my apartment to the subway.
To me, my progress seemed painfully slow. I remember when I hit 30 pages. I'd never written anything so long in my life. I remember when I hit a hundred.
Years passed, but I kept working on the novel every morning. I changed jobs. I got married. I changed jobs again. (I stayed in the same studio apartment.) By the time I was writing the end of the book, I had less free time than when I'd started.
It took almost four years. What I had written was a short book, but it had a beginning and an end, and 243 pages in between. It was the story of a young girl who wakes one morning, along with the rest of the world, to the news that the rotation of the earth has begun to slow, stretching the length of the 24-hour day.
In total, I must have spent hundreds of hours on my book. But even more important were the nooks and the crannies of days, the subway rides, the half-hours, the minutes.
No wonder I wrote a book in which, quite literally, there really are more hours in a
by Karen Thompson Walker, June 26, 2012 1:05 PM
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.
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.
by Karen Thompson Walker, June 25, 2012 10:52 AM
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, I finally recognized what, for me, has always been the true hidden pleasure of end-of-the-world stories. And it's this: stories like these remind me of the value of everyday life.
When everything normal is slipping away, everything normal takes on new meaning. The ordinary begins to seem extraordinary. Minor pleasures become major ones. Clean clothes, for example. Hot food. Soap. When a group of haggard survivors on AMC's The Walking Dead arrive at a farm house, where one family has managed to keep the zombies at bay, there's something unexpectedly meaningful about the sight of a dinner table: to eat a meal on a plate, to sit in a chair, to drink water from a glass. These simple things seem suddenly miraculous.
One of the most moving moments in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, a novel full of such moments, is when, in a ravaged landscape where little of our world is left, the father introduces his young son to something that once was commonplace, carbonated sugar water in a can: a Coke.
In Jose Saramago's Blindness, after society disintegrates and water stops running from the city's pipes, a blind woman's makeshift shower in a rainstorm — her first bath in weeks — becomes, in Saramago's words: "The most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city." And when I read that book for the first time, I remember, after so many descriptions of blindness, feeling strangely astonished by the simple fact that I could see.
The process of writing The Age of Miracles sometimes produced a similar sensation in me. How amazing, it began to seem to me, as I walked around my neighborhood, that we live on a planet that spins in space, and that the sun rises and sets when we expect it will. How extraordinary that bananas are grown far away and then shipped to our shelves. How strange and wonderful that there are creatures on earth that are born with wings and endowed with the power to fly.
I'll know I've done my job if the experience of reading my novel were to make even one person for even one moment feel that way too.