Anticipated novel describes a gentle apocalypseby Euan Kerr, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — One of this summer's most anticipated titles at the bookstore is "The Age of Miracles," the debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker.
It tells the story of slow-moving global catastrophe from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl named Julia. What makes the story so disturbingly gripping is how gently the apocalypse approaches.
In "The Age Of Miracles" Julia wakes up to get ready for another day in junior high, when she, along with everyone else on the planet, learns something has gone horribly wrong.
"On the 6th of October the experts went public. This of course is the day we all remember. There had been a change they said, a slowing. And that's what we called it from then on, the Slowing."
For unknown reasons the Earth is spinning more slowly. Days and nights grow longer. The balance of nature is changing and panic sets in.
"The grocery stores were soon empty, the shelves sucked clean like chicken bones. The freeways clogged immediately. People heard the news and they wanted to move. Families piled into minivans and crossed state lines. They scurried in every direction like small animals caught suddenly under a light. But, of course, there was nowhere on Earth to go."
Walker says the idea for "The Age of Miracles" came to her after the earthquake which caused the tsunami back in 2004.
"I read that that earthquake was so powerful that it had affected the rotation of the earth," Walker recalled. "After that our 24-hour days were a few microseconds shorter. And I felt, as soon as I heard that I found it really haunting and stunning that something I had thought was steady — the predictable movement of the sun across the sky and the predictable rising and setting of the sun — the idea that that was in flux, was really scary."
Walker enjoyed figuring out how people might deal with a slowing earth. Her story is about the effect on sleep cycles and gravity, the changes in animal migration. It's not your standard apocalypse.
"Sometimes, I think in books and movies where overnight people who are leading ordinary lives suddenly are murdering each other, that actually rings a little false to me," Walker said.
In "The Age of Miracles" during the early days of panic people realize the early effects of the Slowing are manageable, and in many ways life returns to normal, or as normal as it can be as days and nights lengthen. Walker decided to tell the story from Julia's perspective so she could write about the smaller details of a life where a crush on a boy is way more important than the end of the world.
"And I thought that might be away to make this big story feel kind of small scale and intimate," Walker said.
She also decided to tell the story through the mouth of a grown-up Julia, looking back, to allow her a broader range of expression.
However, that introduces a level of uncertainty. The novel is about the passage of one year in a girl's life, but as the older Julia hints at horrors to come, she divulges little. Walker says in many ways the book is about how much we don't know as human beings.
Walker took an unusual literary route, becoming an editor before a published author. Over several years she spent her mornings working on "The Age of Miracles." In the afternoons she worked for a New York publisher, first as an editorial assistant and later an editor.
Having seen many wonderful novels languish unpublished, Walker was nervous when she sent in her manuscript.
"I had seen how much chance there is of disappointment on the road to getting a book published," Walker said. "I was really bracing for that when I sent it out to publishing houses, you know, I was bracing for the opposite."
However, the novel was one of the most sought-after manuscripts in recent years and the week it was published the book went straight in to the top 10 on the New York Times bestsellers list.
Walker will read from "The Age of Miracles" tonight at 7.30 at the Magers and Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis.
She may also discuss what she learned in the publishing business about improving a piece of writing.
"How to make sure your sentences are really polished and clear. How to make sure characters feel real. How to keep the pace up and at the right level through a long project," Walker said. "All those things were things I had to learn as an editor but then I was also applying them each morning in my own novel so I think in the long run it helped."
- All Things Considered, 07/26/2012, 5:54 p.m.