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Authors, readers, critics, media — and booksellers.


Karen Thompson Walker: The Powells.com Interview

Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel, The Age of Miracles, is, as Aimee Bender states, "glowing magic....at once a love letter to the world as we know it and an elegy."

Julia is 11 years old when the earth, suddenly and inexplicably, begins rotating more slowly on its axis, forcing days and nights to get longer and longer. People try to adapt at first, but a division arises once the government switches back to "clock time" and holdouts to "real time" are shunned and ostracized. Earth's magnetic field changes, birds fall from the sky, and whales start beaching themselves around the world. Meanwhile, ordinary life goes on; young Julia's friendships are changing, her family is fracturing, and she might be falling in love.

The Age of Miracles is both an inventive dystopian novel and a beautiful coming-of-age story unlike anything you've read before. Nathan Englander raves, "The Age of Miracles is pure magnificence. Deeply moving and beautifully executed." We are proud to have chosen it for Volume 34 of Indiespensable.

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Jill Owens: How did The Age of Miracles begin?

Karen Thompson Walker: I got the idea after reading a newspaper article shortly after the 2004 earthquake that caused the tsunami in Indonesia. One of the effects of that earthquake was that it was so massive it affected the rotation of the earth and shortened our days by a few fractions of a second.

When I read the article, I had no idea that was possible. I just thought it was really stunning.

Jill: I didn't know that about that earthquake.

Walker: Yeah. It happened again, I read, last year after the earthquake in Japan, again by a tiny, tiny, tiny amount. That detail stuck with me, so I wrote a short story trying to imagine what would happen, how people would react if a change like that occurred, but which was much more significant.

Obviously, in the book, the rotation changes a lot more than a few microseconds. But that's where I got the idea, and right from the start the main character was going to be a young girl. It was Julia's voice from the beginning. It was always a combination, I guess, of those ideas, of having the rotation of the earth slow down and having the story told through the eyes of a woman looking back on her childhood when this happened.

Jill: I think that's actually one of the things that makes the book so effective and realistic. We all look back at our childhoods or early adolescence with this nostalgia and loss, but then it has this added dimension of strangeness because of the earth slowing down.

Why did you decide to write it from that perspective?

Walker: It definitely came to me. I read that newspaper article, and then I sat down a few weeks later to write a short story about it. Just immediately that voice came to me. I think maybe it was a way of keeping the story focused on the people more than the scientists who were trying to figure it out. Even though I wanted the scientists to have a role in the book, in the background, I really wanted it to be about daily life and how ordinary life is turned upside down by these events.

I'm also just interested in adolescence. I think it's a time that I remember really vividly. Julia is definitely not me and is a made-up character, but I did draw on some vivid memories that I have of that age, when everything just seemed so intenseJulia is definitely not me and is a made-up character, but I did draw on some vivid memories that I have of that age, when everything just seemed so intense; social structures are changing so fast, and friendships form and fall apart amazingly quickly.

I did feel like that was something I knew I could draw on, the memory of those feelings. Especially the more I wrote, I realized there was an interesting parallel between the upheaval of adolescence for Julia and the upheaval of what the entire world is going through because of the sudden change in the rotation.

Jill: Yes, I like the way those two things parallel each other in the book. There's that wonderful tension when Julia's trying to figure out how much to blame on the slowing and how much these relationships would have fallen apart or changed on their own.

Walker: Right.

Jill: Another thing I really liked about the book is that everything in it seemed to serve the idea of time becoming elastic or malleable. Partly that's because it is to an adolescent anyway. But it's also reinforced by things like her grandfather's memory of his two years in Alaska, which expands to become the most important, largest time in his life.

Walker: Yes. I do think that, when I was writing the book, the ideas swirling around the story were always in my head. I think those ideas maybe invade every moment in the story or every event that happened, even if it doesn't, on its face, have to do with time and the rotation.

I hadn't thought about that with the grandfather, which is really interesting that you would point that out. I think it might be more subconscious than planned. But I did feel like the whole time I was writing the book I was thinking a lot about time in the literal way, how it affects people. I guess it makes sense to me that it sort of seeped into all the smaller events that were happening.

Jill: To me, the death of the birds and the tides dramatically changing were some of the creepier aspects of the slowing. What kind of scientific research did you end up doing?

Walker: I definitely wanted it to seem realistic, so I did a certain amount of scientific research. But some of those things, especially the birds, I just invented. I felt like some creepy things would start to happen, and I wanted it to be something visual.

I had read stories about mysterious bird die-offs that happened in our real world for reasons that we don't understand. It struck me as a particularly haunting image, of a whole bunch of birds dead in a field for unknown reasons. That really stuck with me. So, I guess I borrowed from that.

Then from there, I tried to imagine and have people in the book theorizing what was causing the problem for the birds. But it ended up growing in the opposite way — I thought, What if they just woke up and the birds were starting to die?

There were other things, too, especially later in the book, like the details related to the magnetic field, where the effects that I wrote about grew out of research that I'd done on my own. I did eventually show it to an astrophysicist because I was most nervous about the specifics. He helped me make things more realistic, if I had stretched something too far.

Jill: What was something that you might have stretched too far in an earlier draft?

Walker: The main thing I changed was that I had assumed if the rotation of the earth slowed down, gravity would be weaker, because I misunderstood an explanation I'd read somewhere. The astrophysicist said that actually, if it had an effect on gravity, it would be that gravity becomes very slightly stronger. So, I reversed that.

Jill: Maybe we're just all being taught badly about gravity, because I had the same impulse. When Julia begins talking about it getting stronger, I thought, Wait, wouldn't it get a little weaker?

Walker: He explained it to me, but it's still hard to visualize. The rotation of the earth now produces this very slight counter-gravity effect. I guess it has the opposite force because we're on a spinning object. It's a very, very slight opposite effect on gravity. It's very slight. But then if the rotation started to slow down, we would lose some amount of that force, so gravity would be left to be slightly stronger. But it is complicated.

Jill: The book is so much about Julia and her friends and her family. It's a dystopian novel, but it's kind of a quiet one compared to some of the other dystopian novels where it's more about the science fiction or the end of the world immediately, for example.

Walker: When I wrote short stories before this, I always wanted them to feel convincing and real. I think it just seems more realistic for people to be behaving fairly similarly to how we see people behaving in our real world.

I could have written a totally different novel where everything fell apart and ordinary people became savage murderers. But that didn't strike me as the most realistic outcome.I could have written a totally different novel where everything fell apart and ordinary people became savage murderers. But that didn't strike me as the most realistic outcome. I guess in trying to keep it in the tone that the book has, it was partly my way of trying to make it more convincing. I really wanted it to feel like our world now but just shifted by one or two degrees. I wanted it to be recognizable as our world and for the people to be recognizable as ordinary people.

I also wanted this book to be really about the transition between our ordinary world and something that might come afterward. I didn't want to jump to some sort of extreme dystopian situation, specifically because I have an interest in the transition, seeing how people would and wouldn't adapt.

Jill: I think it does feel extremely realistic, the way the government responds, both initially when people are trying to adapt, then also when they move back to "clock time."

Walker: Oh, good.

Jill: Out of curiosity, would you be a "real timer" or a "clock timer"? [Laughter]

Walker: I think I would probably admire the real timers for their purity of belief. But I'm a pretty practical person. I think ultimately I wouldn't want to leave society the way that they end up having to. So, knowing my personality, I think I would probably be a reluctant clock timer.

Jill: The way the clock timers are treated is kind of mirrored by the way Julia is treated when Hanna is initially gone and she doesn't have any friends. I like the way you work with the outsiders and the insiders dynamic in both stories.

Walker: That's an interesting point. And it's another one that I don't know if I fully thought of as I was writing it. But it's that same feeling of isolation and alienation, definitely. That's in there with purpose.

Jill: I love how conscious Julia is that she's an only child because that really does feed her sense of isolation.

Walker: I was an only child, so it might be drawing on that a little bit. It's interesting you said she was clearly conscious of it. I do think that affects her personality. That's what I was thinking as I wrote, that it would make her maybe a little more observant than other kids would be. All her friendships would take on extra meaning.

Jill: This is the also the time when Julia starts to worry a lot, like her mother does. Before, her father says she used to be braver. But this is a transition of becoming more fearful and becoming more worried about things that she can't control.

Walker: Right.

Jill: Which is a great thing to point out about growing up. [Laughter]

Walker: Yes. I think it's also sort of the time when you start to notice things that you might not have noticed before. Sometimes part of that is noticing fearful possibilities that you might not have had fear about when you were younger, or at least I feel like that was my experience of adolescence.

Jill: There's also a really beautiful first-love story. I was wondering how you thought about Julia and Seth's relationship.

Walker: As I was writing the book, I didn't always know that that was going to be a big part of the book. I wrote the book in order. I was finding out what was going to happen next as I went. [Laughter] But as soon as I did have Seth in there, and Julia's interest in him, I wanted to make sure that there was something enigmatic about him and something that he was holding back, and it would be natural that someone like Julia would be compelled by that.

It was just following that connection. Even when they aren't together, there's the sense that they both have something they're not showing to everyone. They would understand that in each other, and it would be a bond. That just became clear as I wrote the book.

Jill: Why did you set it in California?

Walker: I grew up there. It definitely made sense to me to set it there because then I was able to draw on the settings that I remember from that age — what kind of plants were growing near the bus stop and what the weather was like at school and everything. That was handy.

But I also think there's something about California, especially maybe for children, something distinct about growing up there because you are always aware of the possibility of a natural disaster, especially earthquakes but also brush fires and floods.

Even though you don't think about it most of the time and most of the time it's such a beautiful, idyllic place to live, that combination of knowing that a terrible disaster could happen and having to be prepared for it even as children is unique, the combination of the generally pleasant and beautiful feelings combined with the strange disaster preparedness. That memory that I have of growing up that way, of being so aware of both things, felt useful as I was writing the book.

I definitely used some of the things that come from my California childhood. Every year in school, at the beginning of the year, one of the things we had to do was bring a Ziploc bag full of non-perishable food. It was supposed to be a three-day supply. Then we'd put it all in a plastic bin that just sat in the corner of the classroom. That was the food that we would eat if a huge earthquake struck and stranded us at school and we had to live at school for three days.

Jill: Wow.

Walker: Yeah.

Jill: That's creepy. [Laughter]

Walker: It was creepy, but, at the same time, it just felt normal. Obviously we had earthquake drills and stuff, too. There was that feeling of a possible looming disaster that is also removed enough that daily life continues perfectly normally otherwise.

Once there was a series of earthquakes when I was about Julia's age, and whatever it was about where the earthquake had struck and the magnitude, scientists said right away that there was a certain chance — I think I remember someone saying it was a 50 percent chance — that the big one was going to strike in the next 24 hours.

I remember that really, really scared me. I went with my mom. We went to the grocery store to make sure we had bottled water and batteries and stuff. When we got there it was a mob.We went to the grocery store to make sure we had bottled water and batteries and stuff. When we got there it was a mob. Tons of people were there with more than one grocery cart, and grocery carts heaped full of food, and certain aisles, like those with baby food and bottled water and batteries were cleared out. That's a very vivid memory.

Then, of course, it didn't happen. That was the end of that series of earthquakes and the big one didn't strike. So, it wasn't necessary in the end.

Jill: You're an editor at Simon & Schuster, right?

Walker: I was. I actually left my job in the fall. Now I'm writing full time. But I was an editor.

Jill: Oh, that's great. How do you think that affected, if it did, your work, since you've been through the life cycle of a book so thoroughly from the other side?

Walker: I think it definitely did affect me. When I first started working in book publishing, it was kind of scary to be a writer in that world, because you find out quickly just how hard it is to publish a book and how hard it is to get attention for a book, especially literary fiction or maybe fiction in general. So, it was a little discouraging or just frightening, as a writer, to realize... I never thought it would be easy, but to realize just how bad the odds are and how much disappointment there can be.

But it was also really good for me, especially learning to do the actual editing. I had a couple of really great mentors, and I know that it made me a better writer. Just spending so much time at work trying to figure out what makes the clearest, best sentence, what makes a story move at the right pace, what makes a character seem convincing or not, what information needs to be in the story versus what doesn't need to be, all of those things helped, which was what I was doing as an editor every week.
Those things were helping me for sure as a writer. Sometimes when I was going through periods of editing my own book, I would try to purposely pretend that I was editing someone else's book, which obviously you can only take so far. [Laughter] But it was a useful exercise to have had that experience.

Jill: Who are some of your favorite writers and/or do you have any writers that you think of as influences?

Walker: Let's see. I do have favorite writers. But I usually find that it's really that I have a favorite book.

My favorite books are The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Blindness by José Saramago. I love pretty much anything that Jhumpa Lahiri has written. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Those are some of my all-time favorites.

Jill: That's a great list.

Walker: I would say they were all influences at one time or another on what I was doing in my own writing.

Jill: What's the most recent book that you read and loved?

Walker: I just read The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka and loved it. I thought it was amazing.

Jill: That's good to hear. I meant to read that but haven't yet. It's still at my house somewhere. I should pick it up.

Walker: Oh, yes, you should take a look. I think the style is very intense and rhythmic, which I loved. You basically have to go for the voice or not, and I'm for it. It's really beautifully written in an understated way, but it also manages to feel epic, even though it's only, I think, less than 150 pages. But somehow it feels like I read a masterpiece, and yet it's so short and written in this really precise way. I loved it. I highly recommend it.

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