A Conversation with Karen Thompson Walker and her editor, Kate Medina
KATE MEDINA: The “slowing” you envision threatens the entire world. What made you decide to focus on Julia? What is it about Julia, do you think, that makes her such wonderful narrator, such a keen observer of the world around her?
KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: Julia is naturally quiet. She listens more than she speaks. She watches more than she acts. These qualities make her a natural narrator. She reports whatever she remembers noticing—about the slowing, about her parents, about other people—and she notices quite a lot.
I think the fact that Julia is an only child is also part of why she’s so observant. I’m an only child myself, so I know the territory well. Julia spends more time alone than her friends who have siblings do. As a result, she places a very high value on her friendships. She is devastated when they begin to change, to disintegrate, and then elated when she starts to form a bond with Seth Moreno, who is as quiet as she is. Julia is also unusually attuned to the subtle tensions in her parents’ marriage, which increase as the slowing unfolds.
KM: The details of how such a “slowing” would affect us, and our environment—changes in gravity and tides, increased insomnia and impulsiveness—are quite realistically rendered. How did you do your research to get these details right?
KTW: I did do some research at the outset, but I came across many of my favorite details accidentally, just through the daily reading of newspapers. Whenever I read a story that contained a potentially relevant detail, I would knit it into the fabric of the book. This included studies on sleep disorders, stories about new technologies for growing plants in greenhouses, and even articles about the various ways people and governments reacted to the financial crisis.
The most intense research I did was on the physics. 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, but some consequences are more likely than others. After I had finished the book, I had an astrophysicist read it for scientific accuracy, which was an extremely nerve wracking 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 seems “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.
KM: You call middle school “the age of miracles.” What do you think is special about this time of life?
KTW: I knew from the very beginning that Julia would be of middle school age. For some reason, her voice—that of a woman looking back on a specific moment in 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.
I also think that looking back at our adolescence is something we all do—it’s one of the most extraordinary periods of human life. Middle school is an era when just 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 this distinct perspective. It’s 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.