Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2012: In The Age of Miracles, the world is ending not with a bang so much as a long, drawn-out whimper. And it turns out the whimper can be a lot harder to cope with. The Earth's rotation slows, gradually stretching out days and nights and subtly affecting the planet's gravity. The looming apocalypse parallels the adolescent struggles of 10-year-old Julia, as her comfortable suburban life succumbs to a sort of domestic deterioration. Julia confronts her parents' faltering marriage, illness, the death of a loved one, her first love, and her first heartbreak. Karen Thompson Walker is a gifted storyteller. Her language is precise and poetic, but style never overpowers the realism she imbues to her characters and the slowing Earth they inhabit. Most impressively, Thompson Walker has written a coming-of-age tale that asks whether it's worth coming of age at all in a world that might end at any minute. Like the best stories about the end of the world, The Age of Miracles is about the existence of hope and whether it can prevail in the face of uncertainty. --Kevin Nguyen
Q&A with Karen Thompson Walker
Q. In The Age of Miracles, you envision a natural phenomenon that threatens the entire world. This "slowing" is global, yet you decided to focus on Julia. Why?
A. Julia's voice--the voice of a young woman looking back on her adolescence--came into my head as soon as I had the idea of the slowing. It was the only way I could imagine writing the book. Adolescence is an extraordinary time of life, a period when the simple passage of time results in dramatic consequences, when we grow and change at seemingly impossible speeds. It seemed natural to tell the story of the slowing, which is partly about time, in the context of middle school. It was also a way of concentrating on the fine-grain details of everyday life, which was very important to me. I was interested in exploring the ways in which life carries on, even in the face of profound uncertainty.
Julia felt like a natural narrator for this story because she listens more than she speaks, and she watches more than she acts. I think the fact that Julia is an only child is part of why she's so observant. Julia also places a very high value on her friendships, and is unusually attuned to the subtle tensions in her parents' marriage, which increase as the slowing unfolds.
Q. The details of how such a slowing would affect us and our environment are rendered quite realistically. How did you get these details right?
A. No one knows exactly what would happen if the rotation of the earth slowed the way it does in my book, so I had some freedom. I did some research at the outset, but I came across many of my favorite details accidentally. Whenever I read an article that contained a potentially relevant detail--anything from sleep disorders, to new technologies for growing plants in greenhouses, to the various ways people and governments reacted to the financial crisis--I would knit it into the fabric of the book. After I finished the book, I had an astrophysicist read it for scientific accuracy, which was an extremely nerve-racking experience. I was relieved by how many of my details he found plausible, but made some adjustments based on what he said.
In general, I wanted my book to seem as real as possible. I recently read a Guardian interview with the Portuguese writer José Saramago, who said that his books were about "the possibility of the impossible." He explained that even if the premise of a book seemed "impossible," it was important to him that the development of that premise be logical and rational. That's exactly the way I wanted The Age of Miracles to function.
Q. Like Julia, you grew up in Southern California, where natural disasters are always looming. Do you think this influenced you in writing of The Age of Miracles?
A. I grew up in San Diego on a cul-de-sac of tract houses much like the one where The Age of Miracles takes place. In most ways, California was a very pleasant place to grow up. But it could also be a little scary. I remember how the sky would sometimes fill with smoke during fire season, how the smoke hung in the air for days at a time, burning our throats and turning everything slightly orange. I remember the way the windows rattled at the start of every earthquake, and the way the chandelier above our dinner table would swing back and forth until the shaking stopped. I sometimes couldn't sleep at night, worried that an earthquake or a fire would strike at night. But when I think of those years now, I realize that my novel grew partly out of my lifelong habit of imagining disaster.
If I've given the impression that I was constantly afraid as a child, that's not right. In fact, one of the things I remember most vividly about living in California is the way we mostly ignored the possibility of danger. We always knew that the "big one"--the giant earthquake that scientists believe will one day hit the region--could strike at any time, but mostly we lived as if it never would. Life often felt idyllic: We played soccer, we went swimming, we went walking on the beach. A little bit of denial is part of what it means to live in California. Then again, maybe that's also just part of being alive. I really wanted to capture that feeling in The Age of Miracles.