Accomplished author places ordinary people into surreal situations

Karen Thompson Walker
(Dan Hawk Photography)

In her writing, novelist Karen Thompson Walker takes ordinary people and puts them in the most unusual - even bizarre - circumstances.

Her first novel, “The Age of Miracles,” follows the lives of her characters when the Earth’s rotation suddenly slows, causing days and nights to become longer, gravity to change, and disruptions to affect the natural world.

In her new book, “The Dreamers,” set for release by Penguin Random House in mid-January, a student in an isolated Southern California college town falls asleep in her dorm room, and doesn’t wake up. Soon, more people both within and outside of the college are succumbing to the mysterious sleeping malady, setting off panic and chaos. Doctors detect unusual levels of brain activity in the sleepers, indicating heightened dreams.

As with her earlier book, said Walker during a recent telephone interview, the new novel allowed her to chronicle “ordinary people facing extreme situations,” and to examine what happens to the bonds between people when they are tested by highly stressful events.

“I think a strange premise like this just really captures my imagination,” said Walker, who will talk about her book at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 17, during an appearance at Warwicks’ bookstore, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla.

“The Dreamers” is set in a fictional college town that Walker said was patterned after Lake Arrowhead. Her first book, “The Age of Miracles,” was set in an imagined version of Del Mar, where she grew up and where her parents still live. Walker attended elementary school in Del Mar and later graduated from Torrey Pines High School.

In the year between her graduation from UCLA and graduate school at Columbia University in New York, she worked as a writer for the Carmel Valley News and Rancho Santa Fe Review.

After graduate school, while working as a book editor for a publishing house, she wrote her first novel in the mornings before work, sometimes while riding on the subway, according to her website.

The cover of “The Dreamers”

While she creates strange situations for her characters to deal with, she considers her fictional scenarios as a way of probing more commonplace themes such as loss and love. The new book, she said, allowed her to ponder the mysteries of human consciousness, sleep and the world of dreams, as well as the intersection between dreams and reality.

“My hope is that this story reflects and casts back on more ordinary situations, as a lens to look at more ordinary highs and lows in life,” she said.

As an example, Walker said, she drew on her own experiences of having a baby as she wrote about a father who tries to protect his newborn child when his wife contracts the mysterious sleeping illness.

As she awaits the release of “The Dreamers” in bookstores and online outlets, Walker is also looking forward to the possibility that her book will one day become a television series. Warren Littlefield of Fox 21, who produced two of her favorite shows, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Fargo,” has obtained the TV option for her new novel, said Walker.

If “The Dreamers” does make it to the small screen, she said, it won’t contain all the sentences she painstakingly crafted while writing the book, but will instead be its own, different art form, which she hopes will capture the essence of her book.

“I’m excited to see how it might turn out,” she said.

Along with her own writing, Walker also nurtures the writing of undergrads and graduate students at the University of Oregon, where she is an assistant professor of creative writing.

She has found that academic life contributes in important ways to her work as a novelist.

Questions that her students ask, she said, “lead to new insights I didn’t have before. The discussions we have enrich my own thinking.”

Walker lives in Portland with her husband, novelist Casey Walker, and the couple’s two daughters.

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