On the Appeal of the Apocalypse: A Q&A with Karen Thompson Walker


Karen Thompson Walker is the author of The Age of Miracles, the story of a young woman coming of age in a world that is spinning more slowly with every passing day. Science fiction? Literature? When you’ve got a great book, does it really matter? Walker addresses these and other questions in this short interview.

Unbound Worlds: Apocalyptic fiction has been extremely popular lately, and as I understand it, while The Age of Miracles isn’t explicitly apocalyptic, it could certainly be viewed within that context. Do you have any thoughts on why we’re looking for so much doom in our pop culture offerings?

Karen Thompson Walker: It’s definitely fair to call the book apocalyptic. It’s a story about people facing a slow-motion catastrophe that threatens all life on earth. Personally, I’ve always been drawn to stories about the end of the world, but it does seem like we’re living in a time that is especially rich with these kinds of narratives. One pet theory I have about the pleasure of disaster literature is this: When we read stories in which ordinary life is slipping away or has vanished completely, ordinary life starts to look a little more precious than it might usually seem. Maybe that simple change in perspective is especially appealing during times like these, when the future seems so uncertain, economically as well as environmentally.

UW: When I first read a description of your book, I was reminded of stories set in other worlds that are in transit between normal and something else. Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World, and Alan Deniro’s Total Oblivion, More or Less were two I could think of. What inspired you to set a story in a shifting milieu like this?

KTW: I got the idea after reading a newspaper article: In 2004, the earthquake that caused the tsunami in Indonesia was so strong that it affected the rotation of the planet, shortening our twenty-four-hour days by a fraction of a second. I was stunned by that news, and I began to imagine right away what might happen if the speed of the rotation ever changed by a much larger degree. It appealed to me to write a book about our real world, thrown off kilter by this unexpected event.

UW: What’s intriguing to me is the fact that the “slowing” in the world is treated with a degree of realism that keeps it from being just an exercise in literary fabulism. How much research did you do in exploring the outcomes of a hypothetical situation like this?

KTW: One of the wonderful things about writing a novel about such an unlikely event—the sudden slowing of the rotation of the earth—is that no one knows for sure exactly what would happen, so I felt a certain sense of freedom. But I wanted the book to feel as real as possible, so I did a fair amount of research. When I finished the full draft, I had an astrophysicist read it for scientific accuracy, which was kind of a terrifying experience. In general, though, I was really relieved by how much he found plausible, and he also helped me correct a few things.

UW: Your novel features elements that could be classified as science fiction. It occurred to me recently that genre is as much an artifact of one’s own preconceived notions of what a genre is or isn’t, as it is a convenient tool for marketing. What are your thoughts on genre? Are there any hard lines between literary fiction and genre anymore?

KTW: I like this formulation of yours: “Genre as an artifact of one’s own preconceived notions.” I do think that “science fiction,” “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” are terms that mean different things to different people, so I worry that those words obfuscate more than clarify some discussions. I like to think of books in terms of stories and sentences. My favorite books are the ones that combine lively, well-crafted sentences with imaginative stories that make me want to turn the pages. Some of my favorite examples are Blindness, Never Let Me Go, and The Road, all of which have classic science fiction elements.

UW: Your protagonist, Julia, is an adolescent. I recall this as a time when the world seemed to be turning upside down. Is the chaos of Julia’s life, both interior and exterior, something you chose to explore thematically, or is it just that you thought a teenager would be a fun character to explore the setting with?

KTW: I think telling the story from the perspective of one woman looking back on her childhood was a way of making a global story feel very personal, and it allowed me to really focus on the ways that the slowing would affect daily life for ordinary people. Many of us look back on childhood with a sense of nostalgia, but in Julia’s case, she feels nostalgia not only for childhood but also for life on earth as she once knew it. There seemed to be a natural parallel there.

UW: The Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story. Did your own adolescence mirror Julia’s in any way? Are there any elements of the story that are autobiographical? Is this in any way – no matter how distant – a bildungsroman?

KTW: All the events in Julia’s life are fiction, but I did draw on my own memories of how it felt to be her age. Like Julia, I was a somewhat shy only child. Although the book is about a worldwide disaster, it’s also a story about growing up, so yes, it could be called a bildungsroman.

UW: What’s next for you?

KTW: I’m working on a new novel. Like The Age of Miracles, this new one is about people facing an extreme situation, and it does also have certain science fiction elements.

The Age of Miracles; A Novel