LEE RANDALL talks to Karen Thompson Walker about her haunting vision of the end of the world
No-one notices immediately when the days begin to lengthen. Then birds fall from the sky. Crops burn and shrivel under relentless sunshine, but when nights a week long take over, energy supplies dwindle, as people fight off the cold. People divide into Clock Timers – adhering to 24-hour schedules – and Real Timers, who adapt to nature’s new, fluctuating rhythms.
Amid this global disruption, 11-year-old Julia is undergoing her own cosmic shift, moving from childhood to adolescence as she learns about the impermanence of friendships, the inconstancy of adults, and the giddy excitement of first love.
This is the premise of debut novel The Age of Miracles, from California native Karen Thompson Walker. It’s being hailed as “a love letter to the world as we know it and an elegy”. The manuscript sparked a bidding war, with Walker’s American publishers, Random House, paying a cool £1 million, and Simon & Schuster spending a reported £500,000 for the UK rights.
Catching up with Walker in London, I find a young woman who’s neither cocksure nor cowed by her good fortune. A former book editor herself, she actually did what every self-help article recommends: woke up an hour early to write before heading to work.
She explains that after writing full-time while earning her Masters in Fine Arts at Columbia University, she missed it terribly when she went to work. “So I got up around 7 and wrote from 7:30 to 8:45, before getting dressed. It was like a little treat, and almost religious. It was sort of meditative to go into this other world for an hour every morning.”
Like Julia, she is an only child, but the 31-year-old dismisses any notion that her San Diego childhood provided a template for Julia’s. Nevertheless the emotions are authentic, because she vividly remembers being that age.
After studying English at UCLA she spent a year writing features for a small, local newspaper. “I did mostly profiles, and loved it, because I like meeting people – locals, not celebrities – and having an excuse to be nosy.” Graduate school brought her to New York City, and from there she entered publishing, but she’s now left her editing job behind to write full-time.
The Age of Miracles began as a short story inspired by the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia. “It was so powerful that it knocked the earth’s axis, and shortened the length of a day by a tiny, tiny fraction.
“It seemed haunting and creepy, that something we think is so fixed – the sun rises and the sun sets, every day – could change. I didn’t know that could happen. I wanted the cause to be unknown. The fact that the earthquake and tsunami in Japan happened [afterwards] was just a weird coincidence.”
She wanted her novel to feel immediate and a little mysterious. The year is unspecified, enhancing the sensation that “this will happen tomorrow, [in] the very near future.” Walker’s goal was a novel that felt logical and plausible, but didn’t distract with technology.
Research happened along the way, but she did show the manuscript to an astrophysicist. “That was nerve-wracking because I was afraid he was going to say this whole thing is just entirely wrong. He helped me with a few details that didn’t make sense for the science and suggested smart ways to fix it. One thing he told me, that I didn’t change, is that things would probably be a lot worse, a lot faster!”
Certainly her novel underscores the fragility of our ecosystem. “As I wrote it, that made me focus on the small little ordinary pleasures that came into relief under that pressure.”
What about the title, which is baffling for those who associate miracles with good outcomes. “It comes from the song A Foggy Day (in London Town):
‘But the age of miracles hadn’t passed,
For, suddenly, I saw you there
And through foggy London Town
The sun was shining everywhere.’
“Not that the song has any bearing on the book, but it stuck with me. Then I wrote a section about adolescence, and the changes from childhood. There is a phrase, ‘this was middle school, the age of miracles, when people are growing 6 inches overnight’. In the larger sense, though you’re right, it’s not the usual meaning of miracles. I thought of it as things are happening that break our understanding of the laws of reality. So the miracles were her age and this strange era in the world.”
The cynic in me wonders how much being an insider influenced what she wrote. Unfazed, she replies, “ It’s impossible to say all the ways that working in [publishing] might have subconsciously affected me, but I [began] this as a short story at graduate school, when I was pretty naïve to the crassness of the industry. Learning to be an editor made me a much better writer on a sentence level, so that was very positive and that was conscious. Seeing what works and what doesn’t in other people’s work, made me a sharper writer.
“It was depressing to find out how many clearly talented people write novels, and how hard they are to sell to publishing houses. There was a process of growing a skin for that, and it means that I spent a lot of the years while I was working on the book trying to steel myself against the possibility that nobody would buy it.”
It just remains to be seen whether readers will be as enthusiastic as the industry. My best guess is that this is a book we’ll be talking about for, well, an age.
• The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is published this week by Simon and Schuster, price £12.99