The Writing Life: An Interview with Karen Thompson Walker
Editor’s Note: In preparation for this Thursday’s Magers & Quinn Booksellers and Hazel & Wren co-presented event featuring Karen Thompson Walker reading from her debut novel, The Age of Miracles (read our review from last week here and a writing prompt based on the novel here), we asked the author a few questions about the book, her writing process, and what’s next for her.
Hazel & Wren: In your bio, it says you wrote the book in the mornings before your then-day job as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Can you talk about the motivation behind making time for your writing on top of a full-time job?
Karen Thompson Walker: Finding time to write while working full time was a challenge, but I was a writer before I was an editor, and it never occurred to me to stop writing. The only time I could find to write was in the mornings before work. It took me about four years to write this novel that way. Sometimes the progress seemed painfully slow, but I think the experience made me more disciplined, so I’m grateful for that.
H&W: Do you think your writing is affected by your work as an editor (i.e., do you look at writing differently with your experiences as an editor)? If yes, how so?
KTW: I think working as an editor made me a better writer. An editor is like a professional reader, and as I became a better reader, I also became a better writer. As I wrote The Age of Miracles, I tried to apply the lessons I was learning at work—what makes for a compelling story, a realistic character, and clear and vivid sentence—to my own novel.
H&W: What is your writing process?
KTW: I write in chronological order, finishing one chapter before moving on to the next, which helps me feel in tune with the reader, who is obviously going to read the book in that same order. I like to edit my sentences as I write them, rearranging them again and again before moving on to the next one. In general, my writing process is kind of slow and meticulous.
H&W: What resources were most helpful to you when writing, rewriting, and editing this novel that other writers could benefit from?
KTW: The most important resources were the novels on my bookshelves. Whenever I come across a book that I love, I try to learn as much as possible from the strategies the writer has used to tell his or her story. (Some favorite examples: The Virgin Suicides, The Interpreter of Maladies, Housekeeping, Blindness, The Road.) Also crucial are my first readers, which include my husband and several good friends who are also writers. My book would not be the same without them.
H&W: The book is centered around a scientific phenomenon (whether it’s an actual possibility or not). How much research did you do into the effect of longer days and night on the earth and its inhabitants? How important was it to you that the premise be based in scientific fact?
KTW: The Portuguese writer Jose Saramago once said that his work, which often involved fantastical premises, was about the logical development of the impossible. I wanted The Age of Miracles to function that way, too. The premise involves a certain imaginative leap, but after that, I wanted all the science to seem logical and convincing, to feel as real as the characters. I did research as I wrote, and I eventually consulted an astrophysicist, who helped me make a few things even more realistic. I also felt a certain amount of creative freedom since no one knows for sure what would happen in this scenario.
H&W: The reasons for the slowing of the earth in the novel are vaguely tied to possibly be the result of real problems due to human action that we see today, such as pollution, etc. Was this what inspired the premise? Why did you choose to ultimately leave those reasons for the slowing of the earth unknown?
KTW: The slowing takes everyone, including scientists, by surprise. It seemed realistic to me that it would take a long time, years or maybe decades for scientists to understand the cause. It was appealing to write about a disaster that people didn’t quite understand. The Age of Miracles is a story about living with uncertainty, about being confronted by the unknown. I tried to learn from parallel situations in our real world, especially climate change, but I wanted this story to be about ordinary people and how they would respond. I wasn’t trying to convey a specific message.
H&W: The point of view is told by an adult woman, Julia, through her memories as a 12-year-old child. Can you explain your decision to tell it as a flashback?
KTW: I love books about childhood, especially when the narrator is an adult. This perspective allowed me to access the intense vision and sensitivity of a young girl as well as the wisdom and insight of the adult Julia. She’s really looking back on two different lost worlds: the lost world of her childhood as well as life on earth as we all once know it.
H&W: There are a number of moments in the book when Julia experiences things for the “last time”: eating particular foods, seeing healthy plant life, and so forth. These moments are made especially poignant because, at 12, it’s a time in her life when she is also experiencing many things for the first time: love, loss, disenchantment. Was it a deliberate decision to have Julia be a 12-year-old? What advantages did her age give you as the writer?
KTW: Focusing on the life one young girl was a way of making sure that this story—which is about a global catastrophe—would feel personal and real. I really wanted this novel to be as much about the ordinary as it is about the extraordinary, and I wanted to explore how a giant catastrophe would affect individual lives. It did seem especially meaningful to write about all the ordinary firsts of adolescence, since Julia’s generation might be the last to experience them.
H&W: What’s next for you? Another novel? A different writing project?
KTW: I’m excited to be working on a new novel. It’s another story about people in an extreme situation.
H&W: What is the most important piece of advice you can give to other writers trying to break into the literary world with a debut novel?
KTW: I think it’s important to focus on the writing itself. It’s really hard to get a book published, even a good book, but the better the book is the better chance it has of eventually catching someone’s attention.