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The Age of Miracles
A Novel
Written by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles
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Category: Fiction - Literary; Fiction - Coming Of Age; Fiction - Dystopian
Imprint: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: January 2013
Price: $15.00
Can. Price: $
ISBN: 978-0-8129-8294-7 (0-8129-8294-0)
Pages: 304
Also available as an unabridged audio CD, unabridged audiobook download and an eBook.


ABOUT THIS GUIDE

 
A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Karen Thompson Walker

Karen Russell, a  native of Miami, has been featured in The New Yorker’s  debut fiction  issue and on  The New Yorker’s  20 Under 40 list, and was chosen  as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009,  she received the 5 Under 35 award from  the National Book Foundation. Three  of her short stories  have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes;  “Proving Up,” previously titled “The Hox River Window,” won the National Mag- azine Award for Fiction in 2012. Her story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was the winner  of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was  a New York Times 10 Best Books  of the Year selection, and winner  of the New  York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. She is a graduate  of the Columbia MFA program  and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow.

Karen Russell: Congratulations on The Age of Miracles and its incredible success, Karen! Like so many readers, I was blown  away by Julia’s story. I feel privileged  to have seen pieces of the book in utero,  way back in our  graduate workshop.  Could  you talk  just a little bit about the book’s evolution? What  tipped you off that this was a novel and not  a short  story?

Karen Thompson Walker:
The book started  as a short   story, and it was  a bit of an experiment. I’d never written  anything that broke the rules of reality in any way. I got the idea for the premise— the sudden slowing of the rotation of the earth—after reading that the rotation of the earth had been affected by the 2004  earthquake in Indonesia. I found that news really haunting,  and I immediately began  to imagine  what might  happen if we  ever  faced  a much larger  change. In the original short  story, the days got shorter  in- stead of longer,  and it was just a onetime   change—the   twenty- four-hour   day shrank  to twenty-three  hours  and then stabilized. But the  voice  and  Julia’s character were both pretty  similar to the way they  are in the novel. I set the story aside for a few years and started working  in book publishing.   Eventually,   when I looked back at the story,  I sensed that there might  be a larger narrative  to tell. The real breakthrough moment in terms of turning it into a novel came when I decided to change the slowing  from  a onetime catastrophe to an ongoing and worsening  one, becoming more extreme with each passing  day. That gave me a road to follow  as well as the level of momentum  I needed to tell a novel-length story.

KR:
The  first-person  narration  of The  Age of  Miracles is retrospective—the adult Julia is reinhabiting her eleven-year-old self, looking  back at the slowing  through  the tunnel  of memory. It’s the beginning of her young life;  it also appears to be the beginning of the end for all life on the planet. What  made you decide to foreground the story  of Julia’s coming   of age—to narrate the slowing from a child’s point of view? To focus in on the microcosm of her family, her Californian neighborhood?

KTW:
I love stories  about childhood, especially when the voice is retrospective. An adult  looking  back on childhood  is always   a story  about a lost  era; we can never be children  again. That simple fact gives  the voice an inherent   melancholy  and nostalgia  that seemed exactly right for a novel  about what might  be the  end of the world. As she narrates, Julia is charting the loss of two precious worlds: her childhood, but also life on earth as everyone once knew it.
Focusing on adolescence—a time when everything feels so immediate  and new—was   also  a way of making sure that this large- scale  story about global catastrophe would  feel  as personal  and intimate  as possible.

KR: According to Wittgenstein, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden  because of their simplicity  and ordinariness, everydayness. One is unable to notice something— because it is always before one’s eyes.” In The Age of Miracles,  you use a planetwide  catastrophe to reveal the miraculous qualities of the  everyday. The slowing  forces both its cast of characters  and its readers to consider  the scope of what we take for granted, both when it comes to “the workings of the  universe” and the  equilibrium within our own families.  What  are some of the things that the characters in your novel are now able to “see,”  thanks to the slow- ing? What  is revealed as precious, miraculous,  to Julia? What  did you come to view as most miraculous/fantastic  about our everyday lives after writing the novel?

KTW:
Leave it to Wittgenstein (and you) to articulate so crisply and aptly something  I’ve  only  gradually come to realize. For me, the most memorable fiction is the kind that feels simultaneously familiar and new. I think that’s the trick of writing fiction and the pleasure of reading it: that mix of recognition and surprise. Ordinary life can be hard to write  about in a way that  feels  interesting, but when I hit upon the idea of the slowing—the sudden and disastrous   change in the rotation of the earth—I realized  that it would allow me to write about the meaning of our daily lives in a
way that might feel fresh. The looming  catastrophe had a way of removing the everydayness from  everyday life, of making the ordi- nary seem suddenly extraordinary. As I wrote the book, I felt more and more thankful  for uneventful  days, for the reliable rising and setting of the sun, and  for the thousands of coincidences  that allow human life to survive on earth at all.

KR:
I thought  the pacing of your novel was superb,  and I really admired  the way you generate suspense  within  the slowing by taking  advantage of the retrospective narration to hint at some imminent  development—for  example, right  before  a major plot turn, Julia recalls, “It was just a moment  later that  I lost her. It was later estimated that we were traveling  at forty-five miles per hour.” Was pacing something  that came naturally  to you, or part of the revision process? How  much of the story  did you know in advance? Were there any out-of-the-blue  developments that shocked you, things  you never guessed would happen when you started writing your novel?

KTW: I think pacing is one of the  hardest aspects of story- telling. It can be difficult for a writer  to evaluate the pacing of his or her own novel, but readers are great at it. Readers always notice when  a story  is moving too fast or too slow.  For me, the  key to learning to write fiction was learning  to read my own work as if I were reading someone else’s. That process, which I try to do at the same time  as I write, is a major  act of the imagination,  one that’s just as important  to my writing  as the imagination it takes to create the characters and the story. When I was writing  The Age of Miracles, I had a general idea of the arc of the novel, but I didn’t always know what would happen in the next  chapter. I like to feel  a little suspense  as I write, and I hope that carries over to the reader.

KR: Throughout the book, I was dazzled by the quality  of your details, how fully you imagine  the  consequences of the slowing, both  large and small—earthworms sizzle on patios and birds  fall from the sky, the “flesh of avocados turns black from  the frosts,” en- vironmentalists make ominous  pronouncements about the world’s dependence on  crops  “guzzling  up light.”  Flannery  O’Connor writes,   “Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest  attention to the real—whether  the writer is writing a  naturalistic story or a fantasy. . . . I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s  strain on credulity,  the more convincing the proper- ties in it have to be.” Can you talk  a little bit about the work you did to make your premise feel so frighteningly   real?  What kind of research did you do? What  was the most surprising  thing you learned during  your research? Which of the  many changes that you imagined here did you find most personally haunting or upset- ting? (I am still thinking about  Seth’s sunburn,  and the children petting  the dessicated whales, for example.)

KTW: What a  great quote from  Flannery  O’Connor. I completely  agree with   her.  My goal was to treat this story  as if I were writing realism. I wanted the premise  to feel as convincing as the characters, so that the reader would feel true concern for the people in the book. In order to make the slowing feel as real as possible,  I took  a lot of details  from  daily newspaper stories:  strange weather, extinctions of species, studies  on human  circadian rhythms  and even the unfolding  of the global financial crisis. I also showed the book to an astrophysicist,  which was a nerve-racking   but crucial experience. Fortunately, I was relieved by how many of my details he found  plausible,  especially once you take the imaginative  leap that something   completely  unexpected has  happened. He also helped me fix a few  things. For me, the most haunting consequence in the book is probably the simplest, the one that inspired  me to write this story in the first place: just the idea of not knowing  when or if the sun will ever rise again.

KR:
One of the fascinating developments in the slowing  occurs when world governments  ask their  people to “carry on  exactly as we always  had.” Most people live  on “Clock Time”—persisting on the twenty-four-hour  clock, even as the earth’s rotation continues to slow  and the spacing between daylight  and darkness grows more erratic. Is their commitment to “normalcy” courageous or foolhardy? More generally, in an irreversible movement like the slowing, is nostalgia   a life-preserver or a  trap? Sometimes  Julia’s parents’  insistence  on maintaining  an ordinary  home life in the face of the slowing seems like an act of supreme  courage; at other times, their nostalgia for their lives pre-slowing reads as stubborn, delusional. It puts Julia at risk. I love  the  scene  where  Julia’s father lingers in the house of his former girlfriend on the beach—a literal and figurative relic, which is filling with seawater.

KTW:
The slowing  introduces  a sudden chaos into  the lives  of everyone on earth. In a world  in which the twenty-four-hour  clock no longer  corresponds to darkness  and daylight,   and no  one can predict when the sun will rise  and set, it seemed natural  to me that many people would  respond with a strong  desire  for the familiar and the orderly. Thus, most of society clings to the stability  of the twenty-four-hour clock, even though  it means that children sometimes  go to school in the dark and people must  try to sleep during daylight. Whether  that impulse is courageous or foolhardy  is hard to say—perhaps it’s both things  at once. There’s no good solution to the situation  these  people are facing.  All they  can do is try to carry on in the  face of the unknown. In that sense, their lives are not so different from ours; it’s just that unlike most of us, they can no longer ignore the basic uncertainty inherent in every human life.

KR: You know, like Julia, I too  had a crush on that Seth Moreno! The slowing is one heck of a dramatic backdrop for first love—how do you think the hothouse  bloom of their  romance is affected by this crisis?  How did you see the slowing altering the ordinary course of their  development more generally? To me, Julia and Seth often felt simultaneously regressive, childlike, and preternaturally adult. They  sneak out at night, trespass, have old-fashioned summer fun, but of course they will never have an old-fashioned summer again, now that the slowing has changed everything.

KTW:
I think the relationship between Julia  and Seth is the emotional  core of the book. I didn’t always know that their  young love story would play such a large role  in the novel, but I loved writ- ing about it. When we’re going through  adolescence, our  romantic interests feel incredibly pressing and meaningful, but once we grow up, I think we tend  to be kind  of dismissive of those early bonds and crushes.  Letting this love story  unfold  against the backdrop of an apocalyptic   scenario   was  a way of injecting  new meaning into the small-scale  highs  and lows of adolescent relationships. Seth and Julia do the things  that many of us did as children  or teenagers— they tell  one another secrets, hold hands, and share a first kiss—but in their world,  theirs  may be the last generation to experience all those familiar  rites of passage.  I hope that  fact makes their story feel as urgent as our own love stories  felt when we were their  age.


KR:
There are many mysteries in The Age of Miracles, from the cause  of the slowing  itself, to people’s  inexplicable personality changes and erratic  behavior,  to the disappearance of Julia’s grand- father. Some of these mysteries  are solved by the novel’s end,  but many remain. I thought  that  the scientists’ bafflement  made the crisis feel that much more credible. What  guided you as you decided which mysteries to resolve and which questions  to leave un- answered?

KTW:
The book is very much about uncertainty,  so I knew I didn’t want an ending that would suddenly answer every question and  resolve  every conflict.   The slowing baffles scientists—they cannot explain it and they  cannot change it. Similarly,  Julia will never completely  understand  the people around her. As a species, I think we tend to think we know more than we do, but there’s still so much—about the universe as well as one another—that we can- not yet comprehend. I think there’s a certain  beauty  in that mystery, but it’s also unnerving, and I hoped that The Age of Miracles, particularly  the ending, would capture both of those qualities.



FOR DISCUSSION

 

1. As readers, why do you think we’re  drawn to stories  about the  end of the world? What special pleasures  do these  kinds of narratives offer? And how do you think this element works in The Age of Miracles?

2. Julia is an only child.  How  does this fact affect who she is and how  she  sees the world? How would her experience  of the slowing  be different  if she  had  a sibling? How would her experience of middle  school be different?

3. How much do you think  the slowing alters Julia’s experience of adolescence? If the slowing  had never happened, in what ways would her childhood  have been different?  In what ways would  it have been the same?

4.  Julia’s parents’ marriage becomes increasingly  strained  over the course of the book. Why do you think they stay together? Do you think it’s the right choice? How much do you think Julia’s mother does or does not know about Sylvia?

5. Julia’s father tells several crucial lies. Discuss  these lies and consider which ones, if any, are justified and which  ones are not.  Is lying  ever the right  thing  to do? If so, when?

6. How  would  the  book change if it were  narrated by Julia’s mother? What if it were narrated by Julia’s father? Or her grandfather?

7. Why do you think Julia is so drawn to Seth? Why do you think he is drawn to her?

8. Did you identify more with the clock-timers or with the real-timers? Which would you be and why?

9. The slowing affects the whole planet, but the book is set in southern  California.  How  does the setting  affect the book? How important is it that  the story  takes place in California?

10. How  do you feel about the way the book ends? What  do you think lies ahead for  Julia,  for  her  parents,  and for  the world?

11. The slowing throws the natural world into disarray. Plants and animals   die  and there  are changes in the  weather. Did this book make you think about the threats that face our own natural world? Do you think the book has something  to say about climate change?

12. If you woke up tomorrow  to the news that the rotation  of the earth had significantly  slowed, how do you think you would respond? What is the first thing  you would do?





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