An Interview with Karen Thompson Walker
I completely fell in love with Karen’s debut novel ‘The Age of Miracles’, and she kindly agreed to take part in a short interview with me, explaining where the story came from, and how it evolved into the magnificent book it is today. ‘
The Age of Miracles’ is out today, and you can read my review of it here.
In short, The Age of Miracles is about the slowing of the Earth’s rotation, told through the eyes of 11-year-old Julia. The idea of the ‘slowing’ is a fascinating concept, where did you get your ideas?
I got the idea from something that really happened. Shortly after the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia, the one that caused the tsunami, I read that the earthquake was so strong that it affected the rotation of the earth. The result was that our 24-hour days were a few microseconds shorter than they were before. I had no idea that this kind of sudden change was possible, and I began to wonder right away what would happen if a much larger shift ever took place.
Some would describe your novel as part sci-fi, and part coming-of-age. Were these two ideas always there from the beginning, or did one come before the other? And how difficult was it to mould them together into the novel it is today?
The idea began with the slowing of the rotation, but I knew before I wrote the first sentence that the book would revolve around the life of a young girl. I think adolescence is a really fascinating time of life, and I wanted to explore it in this strange context. I didn’t exactly think of the book as specifically science fiction or specifically coming of age. I just wanted to tell a story about people, one that would feel moving and real.
Julia is a very awkward, lonely young girl approaching adolescence. She has to deal with argumentative parents, cruel peers, fickle friends, and of course, the first sharp pangs of love. Her character is written in such a way that I would challenge anyone not to be able to identify a piece of themselves within her. How much of yourself went into her character?
Everything that happens to Julia is invented, and I had a happier childhood than she did, but I tried to evoke in the book some of the intense feelings I remember having at that age. Like her, I was an only child who was a little shy and not quite sure where I belonged. Hers is an age when you experience a lot of firsts: for Julia, that means realizing her parents have flaws and that friendships can sometimes be fragile, and yes, she’s also falling in love for the first time.
You mention science fiction author Ray Bradbury in the novel, was his work an influence when writing it? Or have any other authors inspired your work?
I particularly loved Bradbury’s stories when I was Julia’s age. In general, my favorite books are always the ones that marry a gripping story with really wonderful writing. Some of my favorites, books that definitely influenced me as I wrote The Age of Miracles are: Blindness by Jose Saramago, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, and The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
I’ve heard that you wrote The Age of Miracles in the mornings before work. It seems amazing to me that such a beautiful novel could come out of a time that is usually so frantic for everyone else! How easy was it to motivate yourself, and make this time work for you?
It definitely was not easy to motivate myself! But not writing at all would have felt much worse. Before work was the only time I had when my mind was clear enough to concentrate on my own book. I always aimed for a full hour, but there were plenty of days when I overslept. I always regretted it, though, which made it a little easier to get out of bed the next day.
Within the novel most people choose to still live by the 24 hour clock, despite the days increasing to over 60 hours long. A small minority choose to live by what you call the ‘real time’. I’ve struggled to decide exactly which one I’d live by, but if the slowing really did happen, which would you choose and why?
Good question. I admire the real-timers for their purity of vision, but I’d be much too practical to leave the 24-hour clock. I wouldn’t want to live outside of society, as the real-timers eventually must.
How did you feel when you discovered your novel was chosen as one of this year’s Waterstones 11, which is known for highlighting the best debut fiction? Have you read any of the other novels chosen?
I was absolutely thrilled to be chosen, especially among such an exciting group of writers. I hope to read them all, though I’ve had a lot less time for reading lately than I’d like. I was especially happy to see Charlotte Rogan’s The Lifeboat on the list, since I had fallen in love with her manuscript when I was still working as an editor. I tried to acquire the book for my company, but we lost it to another house. I love the story as well as the beautifully spare writing style.
After finishing The Age of Miracles, I couldn’t help but hope that this isn’t the last we will see of your tremendous talent. Can you tell us if you’re working on anything else?
I am excited to be working away on a new novel, but I feel a bit too superstitious to say much about it yet.
I don’t know how much time you have to read at the moment, but it’s virtually become a tradition to ask; what are you reading at the moment?
I recently read an amazing novel: The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. Her story about Japanese picture brides is an extraordinary combination of the epic and the miniature, and every sentence reads like poetry.
A massive thank you to Karen and the lovely people at Simon & Schuster for agreeing to answer my questions! If you haven’t read ‘The Age of Miracles’ yet then I urge you to do so right now! You won’t regret it!