The tale of an age

Posted: Saturday, March 22, 2014 
By Matt Krueger 

“The Age of Miracles” began as a short story that sat forgotten in a drawer for two years.

Nobody knew that the 14-page tale would be revived, lengthened and transformed into a best-selling novel, that it would launch its author, Karen Thompson Walker, into the national spotlight. Had it remained sitting amongst other discarded short stories Thompson Walker had written during her graduate studies at Columbia University, she might still be a book editor at Simon & Schuster. And “Age” wouldn’t have been chosen as the 2014 “A Tale for Three Counties” book.

“It was kind of an experiment, something that would break the rules of reality,” the author said during a discussion Thursday at Richmond Memorial Library in Batavia, one of four scheduled for the annual “Tale” program. “Before that, I was doing things that were more closely related to our reality. I never would have expected that later I would turn this into my first novel. I remember at the time, I thought the premise was so outlandish the only way I could pull it off was in a really short story.”

That “outlandish” premise was derived from a news story about the 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia and how it had affected the rotation of the Earth. It was a fraction of a second, nothing anyone could notice. But it sprung an idea in Thompson Walker’s mind: “What if it were longer?”

That question led to the short story that was eventually filed away. But after two years of reading and editing other authors works, she pulled it out and thought differently of it.

“I remember distinctly that I didn’t know if I could write that novel, but I had this strong feeling that it could be a novel, that it could be on a shelf,” she said.

So she altered it. Instead of a one-time, one-hour quickening of the Earth’s rotation, she changed it to an enduring slowing, a catastrophic event that could not be explained by scientists.

Told through the voice of an 11-year-old girl, Julia, the story chronicles how society adapted — or tried to, at least — to the lengthening of days. People divided into groups, the Real Timers and the Clock Timers, and friction steadily built between the two. Birds plummeted to the ground, unable to navigate the change in gravity. Crops withered in the 48-hour sunshine.

In the middle of it all, Julia tried to steer through familial hardships and adolescence.

The story stood out from the 50 the “Tale” committee read last year and was chosen for this year’s community reading project, the 12th annual.

In her discussions Thursday at Genesee Community College and Richmond Memorial Library, and Friday at Hoag Library in Albion, Thompson Walker described how the book flowered from that initial seed idea and gave insights into her writing style.

Her biggest challenge, she said, was finding a way to make fiction sound scientific.

“Certainly, I took a lot of imaginative liberties,” she said. “This is not a scenario that scientists expect to happen, but I did want to achieve the illusion of reality, so that all of you would be convinced while reading it. I didn’t want there to be any blatant inaccuracies in the science that we know now.”

For that, she consulted an astrophysicist who explained how “the slowing,” as it’s called in the book, would affect things like gravity, ocean tides, and animal behaviors.

Then there was the idea for the open ending, to not try to explain what caused the slowing and leave the future of the characters in doubt. By not providing definite closure to the story, she upset some readers, especially the ones who want to know what happens to Julia’s boyfriend, Seth. The last anyone sees of the boy is when his father, recently widowed, takes Seth to Mexico to try to stave off the symptoms of the “syndrome,” a sickness somehow caused by the slowing.

“People ask me that a lot,” Thompson Walker said when one of about 80 readers in attendance at the Richmond discussion asked about Seth’s fate. “I just felt like I was following the logic of the story. I’m not exactly sure how I arrived at the idea of making him sick, but a lot of people were getting sick, so it had to touch some of the people that Julia was close to. In terns of what happened to him later, I didn’t want him to die in the story, but that possibility is always hanging over the story.

“I was trying so much to channel Julia’s perspective and what she could know and was attracted to the idea that she has to live with the uncertainty of what happened to Seth. Because she doesn’t know — she can’t know — what happened to him, then I feel like I don’t have a definite sense of what happened. I think in life, that’s one of the most haunting situations you can be in, when you don’t know what has happened to someone. It’s sad, but there’s something very human about that kind of uncertainty.”

Hearing the author read excerpts from the book in her own voice and explain some of the thinking behind crucial plot points changed the perception of the book for some of the “Tale” committee members.

“Listening to her made me realize how she is using that whole aspect of fear and how that plays out in the story,” said Leslie DeLooze, adult services librarian at Richmond and chair of the “Tale” committee. “I feel like I have a greater understanding of what she was accomplishing with this novel.”

Although Thompson Walker’s discussions have had less attendance than previous “Tale” authors — the cold, windy weather certainly hasn’t helped — DeLooze said she thought the committee made a great choice for this year’s program.

Nina Warren, GCC’s library director, agreed, saying Thompson Walker was “an interesting addition.”

“She is wonderfully down-to-earth and really interested in what people have to say about her book,” Warren said. “It was great having her here.”

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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