By Kathy Day
The tale of a Del Mar girl who reportedly received a seven-figure advance for her first novel truly qualifies as a hometown success story.
On top of the monetary bump in her career, Torrey Pines High School graduate Karen Thompson Walker is earning rave reviews from national and international critics for “The Age of Miracles,” which depicts what life might be like if the rotation of the earth suddenly slows down.
Walker, who worked as a reporter for this newspaper before moving to New York City to study fiction writing through Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program nine years ago, describes the book as the story of a young girl and her family, set in the face of a global catastrophe. Even with that hanging over their heads, she said in an interview between book signings in New York last week, “I tried to capture the ordinary lives of the characters – especially Julia.”
The tale is told through the voice of Julia, now a woman looking back at her memories as a 12-year-old girl in Southern California, which the author acknowledges “is set in a place a lot like Del Mar.”
On the book’s website, www.theageofmiraclesbook.com, Walker answers questions about the work, including why she focused on Julia: “Julia is naturally quiet. She listens more than she speaks. She watches more than she acts. These qualities make her a natural narrator. She reports whatever she remembers noticing – about the slowing, about her parents, about other people and she notices quite a lot.
“I think the fact that Julia is an only child is also part of why she’s so observant. I’m an only child so I know the territory well.”
That only child has a couple of proud parents who still live in the house where she grew up in the Del Mar Heights area.
“They are super excited,” she said of their reaction to her hit novel. “They often know things (about the book) that are online before me.”
Walker, now married, graduated from Torrey Pines in 1998 after attending Del Mar Hills Elementary School and Earl Warren Middle School, which she wrote in an e-mail “was kind of the setting I was picturing when I wrote the book.”
But, she added in last week’s interview, while she drew on intense feelings from her own middle school memories, “all those things in the book are inventive – not from my life.”
While set in a familiar place, the book draws on what she calls a “big premise.”
As the 24-hour clock fails to correct itself and the characters find the sun setting at 9 a.m. and rising at midnight, the story revolves around how their lives are changing.
“It unfolds at a slightly slower pace than other apocalyptic stories,” she said.
She came up with the idea for the story after the 2004 earthquake and tsunami off Indonesia when she read that the quake was so powerful that it altered the rotation of the Earth by a few microseconds.
“I didn’t know that could happen,” Walker said. “It was kind of creepy.”
At that point, she wrote a short story and “put it in a drawer” but, in 2007, she decided to see if she could turn it into a larger story.
“For a long time I wrote only short stories,” she explained. “The light bulb went off at a certain point with this one.”
Conceding that the whole idea of writing a novel was “a little mysterious, at page 30 she said she got excited because she had never written anything that long. When it was finished, she had written 250 pages.
Because of her former job as a book editor with Simon & Schuster, she had knowledge about the publishing process, an agent and editorial assistance from associates, including one editor she had worked with who helped her “understand how a story can unfold.” (According to Walker’s web site, she wrote “The Age of Miracles” in the mornings before work — “sometimes while riding the subway.”)
While “Age of Miracles” has been called science fiction and speculative fiction, Walker relied mostly on her own research about the scientific basis for her story line because she “wanted it to feel real … The point of view is focused on the woman’s memories, their experiences. The book isn’t about scientists trying to solve the problem.”
But she did turn to a graduate student studying astrophysics to review the book and help her iron out a few factual issues, adding that she was pleased at how much he found plausible.
Although currently living in Brooklyn, Walker and her husband Casey will be moving in the fall so Casey – an El Centro native who recently finished a Ph.D. in English literature at Princeton – can enroll in the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a two-year program leading to a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing. Iowa Writers’ Workshop alumni have won 17 Pulitzer Prizes.
“He’s my first reader and is really a great editor,” she said via e-mail. “He is really excited about the book.”
And well he should be. It will be published around the world, and Entertainment Weekly reported “the movie rights have already been optioned by River Road, and it’s easy to imagine Sofia Coppola directing.”
The industry publication’s reviewer, Melissa Maerz, said Walker’s novel “perfectly captures what it’s like to be a teenager: always feeling like the world is going to end, waiting for the day when life goes back to normal, until you grow up and discover that it never really does.”
The British newspaper, the Globe & Mail, called it a “dazzling debut,” and Amazon.com recently listed it in their top 10 books of the year so far.
The New York Times reviewer wrote that Walker’s decision to “recount the unfolding catastrophe from the perspective of Julia... turns what might have been just a clever mash-up of disaster epic with sensitive young-adult, coming-of-age story into a genuinely moving tale that mixes the real and surreal, the ordinary and the extraordinary with impressive fluency and flair.”
The rush into the spotlight – NPR interviews, book signings, national and international book reviews – has been a learning experience for Walker, who said she’s always been nervous about public speaking. “But I’m getting better at it.”
“It’s been kind of strange — the idea that people I don’t know have read my book,” she said.
But the dreams of that young Del Mar girl who always wanted to write fiction are sinking in, and she’ll be home this month for a book signing on Sunday, July 15, at 6:30 p.m., at Warwick’s in La Jolla (7812 Girard Ave.).
Walker is the recipient of the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship, as well as a Bomb Magazine fiction prize.