New York Daily News

‘Miracles’ of adolescenc­e

In Karen Thompson Walker’s first novel, a middle schooler braves the end of days


Karen Thompson Walker slows the Earth on its axis in her novel “The Age of Miracles” (Random House, $26), out Tuesday. Meanwhile, her life is quickening.

Formerly an editor at Simon and Schuster, she received a seven-figure advance for a first novel that is sure to be one of the most talked about and most read books this summer.

“It’s a big change,” says Walker, 32, who left her job six months after the book sold for a reported million dollars — she won’t confirm the figure — within two weeks of her finishing it. She went home to Park Slope, Brooklyn.

“I was tempted by the idea of trying to write full time for a while. I get up early and write in the morning. In the afternoons, I read. I have so much more time to read for pleasure, and I’m always learning from things I read.”

Indeed, “The Age of Miracles” was inspired by a newspaper article about how the earthquake that triggered the tsunami that engulfed Indonesia in 2004 actually sped up the Earth’s rotation by a few microsecon­ds.

“I hadn’t known that was possible. I found it, uh, unsettling.”

In the novel, she chose to slow its spin, unleashing catastroph­ic change over time. Many details gleaned from articles about weird phenomena — from flocks of birds dying to a cluster of whales beaching — found their way into her fiction. But while science shapes the startling original premise, the story belongs to its 11-year-old narrator, Julia.

“This was middle school, the age of miracles,” Julia observes, when everything changes. But for the kids of this Southern California­n town, what’s new is beyond the sudden appearance of braces or bra straps.

Both night and day grow dramatical­ly longer and the gravitatio­nal pull is stronger. All this happens globally, but Julia’s view is almost completely restricted to those she knows and sees daily. “Miracles” is already drawing comparison­s to Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” another summer publishing phenomenon. Both give voice to young girls as tragedy unfolds.

“The novel never existed without Julia,” says Walker. “It started in that global way, but as soon as I started to write, that first-person perspectiv­e of a woman looking back on her childhood was there.”

The government dictates that society will stay on the 24-hour clock. Outpost communitie­s of “real-timers,” dedicated to sleeping through the increasing­ly lengthenin­g night, spring up. People start falling ill from gravity sickness. Astronauts are stranded in the space station, unable to plot a reliable trajectory home. Full menace manifests when crops fail to thrive and energy becomes scarce.

Meanwhile, her parents’ marriage is disintegra­ting and Julia falls in love. Her world is ending and starting at the same time.

“I was an only child like Julia,” says Walker, who grew up in San Diego. “I drew on the emotions of that age, the sudden changes. And Julia is very observant in the way of an only child.”

She researched the science only as questions occurred to her when the plot needed a new developmen­t.

“I would see if anyone had written on a particular subject but I didn’t feel the need to call on the offices of NASA, for instance,” she laughs. “I did a lot of the research online. I wasn’t looking to be absolutely accurate. I just needed to write about the effect realistica­lly.”

It was only when she came to the end that she worked up the nerve to approach an actual physicist for a technical review.

“I was mostly relieved that what I had written was at least based in real science, though there was one thing I misunderst­ood,” she recalls. “I had assumed that gravity would become weaker, and it was actually the opposite.”

Walker, whose father was in finance and mother taught school, says her own childhood was normal with one possible exception: She always wanted to write. She joined Simon and Schuster shortly after graduating from Columbia’s MFA program. There she worked with

‘I didn’t need to call on the offices of NASA. I just needed to write about the effect realistica­lly.’

Colin Harrison, an editor and the author of several high impact thrillers, as well as the legendary editor Alice Mayhew.

Although she was learning the art of crafting a book from the best, she was still stuck on the short story form, intimidate­d by the length of a novel. She wasn’t at all sure she could do it.

“It was like a light-switcheson moment,” she says. “I tried and tried with stories, and then suddenly it occurred to me how to write a novel, at least this one.”

She wrote “The Age of Miracles” an hour at a time, daily before starting work. She did have an agent, but no certainty that it would sell, never mind for a million dollars and a movie deal with River Road Entertainm­ent (“Brokeback Mountain,” “The Tree of Life”).

“You never know how it’s going to go,” she insists. “Being in the business, I was very aware of all the disappoint­ments that can happen. I was bracing for that.”

Now that success has come instead, she tries to keep the focus on her writing, even though there are more challenges ahead. Her husband, Casey Walker, will be starting at the esteemed Iowa Writers’ Worship in the fall. She will be a student’s wife who is also, quite likely, a best-selling author.

“I would assume if you go to Iowa as a spouse you are sometimes also a writer,” she says. “I’ll have so much in common. I hope that it means that Casey’s friends will be my friends."

Meanwhile, she will be continuing work on her next novel, about which she is not prepared to say much beyond promising something extraordin­ary, at least in terms of plot and premise.

“I like to write with an extreme situation in mind. I do find it fruitful.”

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