For some, Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel is a sign of neurotically anxious times. The Age of Miracles, bought by Random House in New York for $1-million (U.S.) and sold into 27 other markets including Canada, imagines a Californian family as the world stops turning. An unexplained but rapid “slowing” of the planet makes both days and nights longer and longer until clocks are obsolete, plants can no longer grow and people begin to suffer a mysterious dizziness. The environmental cataclysm is witnessed by 11-year-old Julia, who is also trying to figure out friends, boys and her parents’ faltering marriage. The novel, which began with an article in a newspaper, has changed life for the Brooklyn writer, too.
Where did you get the idea of the planet’s rotation slowing down?
I based it on something that really happened. In 2004, following the earthquake in Indonesia, the one that caused the tsunami, I read that the earthquake was so powerful it affected the rotation of the earth; after that our days were a few micro-seconds shorter. I had no idea that was possible; I found it shocking and haunting. It was a detail that really stuck with me and right away I started to wonder what would happen if something like that happened on a much larger scale.
So the initial kernel was this bit of science but right away I knew I wanted it to be told from the perspective of a woman looking back on her childhood.
What has struck people about The Age of Miracles is how it combines a delicate coming of age story with a piece of dystopian science fiction. Did you realize what a challenge you had set yourself?
I started it as a short story. Looking back, eight years later, that moment had a great effect on my life, but at the time I just thought maybe I’ll try writing a short story about that. I did not think about how hard it would be – or not – to pull off, but this was the only way I would write about a global disaster. The traditional apocalyptic story where you are following a large cast of characters, and scientists too, I love, especially movies like that, but I knew that would not be the type of book I would write. I like to write about the small scale interactions between people. Focusing it on a young child and a family felt like a way it might work. It would feel more realistic that way, a real, ordinary family experience.
Did you do much scientific research?
I did it as I wrote – as a question would occur to me, I would try to find the answer to it. I also did a certain amount of accidental research. If I was reading the paper and read a story about people who live above the Arctic Circle, what sleep disorders they have, or how we grow plants in industrial-sized greenhouses, or stories about strange weather, anything like that which was happening in our real world, I would try to adjust it slightly and drop it into the book. And then at the end, when I had a draft, I sent it to an astrophysicist. It was nerve racking. I was afraid of what he might say but I was relieved by his response, and by how many of the consequences he felt [were accurate] – once you take this leap. He helped me fix a few things.
What kind of things?
In my research I had misunderstood what would happen to gravity. In an earlier draft, the slowing had caused gravity to become weaker, and he said if gravity was affected, which it would be by a very slight degree, it would be the opposite, it would be stronger. So I made that change.
I had a great deal of liberty. Astrophysicists know better what would happen in this scenario, but nobody knows for sure.
Have you had any reaction from scientists since you’ve published?
No. I haven’t, but there was an interesting article in Slate as to whether this could happen. It is happening at an extremely gradual rate, slowing down, it has been happening for millions of years by tiny amounts. No one is predicting that it is going to change by a large degree as it does in my book, but I really like the idea of writing about something unexpected.
Some commentators are interpreting your book as part of a cultural trend toward apocalyptic scenarios. But one could also see the “slowing” as a metaphor for climate change. Where do you place The Age of Miracles?
Now that I am done with the book it is interesting to think where it fits, but I also have trouble standing outside it and considering in which category it would belong. I wanted to write a story that would feel real and true, but I did also want to write about our world. I did not write the book specifically with a message about climate change but climate change was, as a writer, a very useful parallel situation that helped me figure out how people might react to a giant catastrophe that is beyond what we would imagine – and slow moving. One thing that came to mind was that British [wartime] thing, Keep Calm and Carry On – that desire to keep things going no matter how crazy the situation is, to hold on to daily life.
You wrote the book in the mornings before going to work as an editor at Simon & Schuster in New York. How did you juggle that?
I wasn’t getting up at 4 a.m. – I would get up at 7 and write from 7:15 to 8:30.
I always wanted to be a writer and I got a degree in writing from Columbia before I started working in book publishing. I loved working in book publishing but writing was the closest thing to my heart, so I just made time for it. I’m a morning person so giving up an hour’s sleep was easier than staying up late.
But you aren’t working as a book editor any longer?
Eight or nine months after I sold my book it was just too tempting to stop and start writing full time.
So you must have a new project on the go?
I am in the early stages and I feel a little bit superstitious. It’s not a sequel but it has some things in common with The Age of Miracles – especially an extreme situation.
Well, that’s a strong hint.