Karen Thompson Walker & The Age of Miracles

Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson WalkerIt is seldom spring, and I seldom have a chance to wear my out-of-fashion spring sweater with the asymmetrical flower print.   But it was spring last night, and I wore it to Karen Thompson Walker’s talk about her lyrical first novel, The Age of Miracles.

In Walker’s gracefully-written apocalyptic novel, set in California in a not too-distant future, the earth’s rotation slows and shatters the basis for the 24-hour day. Sometimes sunrise is at noon, sometimes at night. Sometimes the hours of daylight are long, other times short.  The cycle of light and darkness may mean a 26-hour day, or a 60-hour day. The government says the country will remain on a 24-hour clock, but a few rebels are “real-timers,” waking in the light and sleeping in the dark.

The slowing also affects gravity and the earth’s magnetic field.  Trees fall down. Plants die.  Birds die. Whales are beached. It becomes harder to kick a soccer ball across a field.  People get sick.  Their circadian rhythms are off.

The novel is narrated by Julia, an adult looking back on the first year of the catastrophe from the perspective of her 11-year-old self.

This is the second apocalyptic novel I’ve read this spring from the perspective of an adolescent, the first being Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape.  Lethem’s Pella is more rebellious than the shy Julia, but both girls must face a reality of  a bleak planet, viruses, death, mass suicides, and rednecks who target people who are different.

I was very curious to see what Walker would have to say about her book.

Walker, a smiling young woman in a floaty peasant top and casual trousers, began her talk breathlessly, but soon gained confidence and charmingly read from the opening pages of her book.

Much of the novel is written in the lyrical first-person plural:

We were distracted then by weather and war.  We had no interest in the turning of the earth.  Bombs continued to explode on the streets of distant countries.  Hurricanes came and went.  Summer ended.  A new school year began.  The clocks ticked as usual.  Seconds beaded into minutes.  Minutes grew into hours.  And there was nothing to suggest that those hours, too, weren’t still pooling into days, each the same fixed length known to every human being.”

Walker, a native of San Diego and a graduate of UCLA, wrote a short story while in the MFA program at Columbia about the slowing of the earth’s rotation.  After reading  in 2004 that an earthquake in the Indian Ocean had affected the earth’s rotation, she was fascinated by the ramifications. Her other stories had been realistic, so this was a challenge.

Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Thompson Walker

“It was the first time I experimented with a fantastical premise,” she said.

After graduate school, she worked as an editor at Simon and Schuster, and did not have leisure for writing.  At 9:30 or 10 she went to work, took phone calls, wrote jacket copy, and met with authors.  At night she did her reading and editing.

But she wanted to turn the short story into a novel, and began to write 45 minutes or an hour every morning before work, sometimes on the subway.

She set the book in California where she grew up, because she knew the threat of earthquakes and the puzzlement or fear of children who must bring a three-day supply of non-perishable food to school every year in case of disaster.

She remembers a day when there were two earthquakes and a 50% chance of  another big one.  Like Julia and her mother in The Age of Miracles, she went to the grocery store with her mother and “it was swarming with people.”

Walker interweaves ordinary life with catastrophe.

“I wanted the book not to be just about how people panicked but about how they went on in normal living day by day,” said Walker.

The novel explores the emotions of Julia as she sees the world fall apart.  She also records in minute detail the beauty of the dying world.

Walker read aloud from a section about beached whales.  Julia and her friend Seth go to the beach to see the beached whales and help the rescuers.  They pick up two plastic cups and rush to the ocean, thinking the water will keep the whales alive until they can be moved.

We ran barefoot down to the water, cups in hand.  It was a long run.  The mud sucked our feet.  Creatures slithered unseen beneath my toes.  Dead fish sparkled in the sun as my hair whipped in the wind. When we reached the lapping water and looked back, the humans on the beach were barely visible.  Their hairline arms and hairline legs fluttered soundlessly around the whales.  The only noise was the churning of the ocean.”

Age of MiraclesWhen they return, they pour water over a dry whale with flies on its eyes.  They want to help, but then a man tells them, “That one’s already dead.”

And that is more or less what is going to happen.  People, too, will die.

The novel is a hybrid of literary fiction and science fiction, though Walker doesn’t mention science fiction.  But she says she loves Nobel Award winner Saramago’s Blindness, a novel about a plague of blindness in a modern city, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, the story of five sisters who commit suicide.

She admits she likes apocalyptic novels.  “It’s sort of a secret pleasure to read a novel about ordinary life falling away.  It makes us realize how extraordinary ordinary life is.”

She mentions some apocalyptic films people like, the TV show “Walker” and the new Tom Cruise movie, “Oblivion.”

She didn’t consult a scientist until she sold the book.  “I didn’t want to bother anyone about a book that would never leave the computer,” she said.  The scientist corrected a few errors and explained that gravity would be stronger rather than lighter if the earth’s rotation slowed.

Will wonders never cease?  Katherine Hardwicke, the director of Twilight, has signed on to direct the film version of The Age of Miracles.

An excellent novel, and a lovely evening in the company of Karen Thompson Walker, who currently lives in Iowa City with her husband.