Reading Group Guide
A Conversation Between Karen Russell and Karen Thompson Walker
Karen Russell, a native of Miami, has been featured in The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and on The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 list, and was chosen as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. In 2009, she received the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. Three of her short stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories volumes; “Proving Up,” previously titled “The Hox River Window,” won the National Mag- azine Award for Fiction in 2012. Her story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Her first novel, Swamplandia!, was a New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year selection, and winner of the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow.
Karen Russell: Congratulations on The Age of Miracles and its incredible success, Karen! Like so many readers, I was blown away by Julia’s story. I feel privileged to have seen pieces of the book in utero, way back in our graduate workshop. Could you talk just a little bit about the book’s evolution? What tipped you off that this was a novel and not a short story?
Karen Thompson Walker: The book started as a short story, and it was a bit of an experiment. I’d never written anything that broke the rules of reality in any way. I got the idea for the premise— the sudden slowing of the rotation of the earth—after reading that the rotation of the earth had been affected by the 2004 earthquake in Indonesia. I found that news really haunting, and I immediately began to imagine what might happen if we ever faced a much larger change. In the original short story, the days got shorter in- stead of longer, and it was just a onetime change—the twenty- four-hour day shrank to twenty-three hours and then stabilized. But the voice and Julia’s character were both pretty similar to the way they are in the novel. I set the story aside for a few years and started working in book publishing. Eventually, when I looked back at the story, I sensed that there might be a larger narrative to tell. The real breakthrough moment in terms of turning it into a novel came when I decided to change the slowing from a onetime catastrophe to an ongoing and worsening one, becoming more extreme with each passing day. That gave me a road to follow as well as the level of momentum I needed to tell a novel-length story.
KR: The first-person narration of The Age of Miracles is retrospective—the adult Julia is reinhabiting her eleven-year-old self, looking back at the slowing through the tunnel of memory. It’s the beginning of her young life; it also appears to be the beginning of the end for all life on the planet. What made you decide to foreground the story of Julia’s coming of age—to narrate the slowing from a child’s point of view? To focus in on the microcosm of her family, her Californian neighborhood?
KTW: I love stories about childhood, especially when the voice is retrospective. An adult looking back on childhood is always a story about a lost era; we can never be children again. That simple fact gives the voice an inherent melancholy and nostalgia that seemed exactly right for a novel about what might be the end of the world. As she narrates, Julia is charting the loss of two precious worlds: her childhood, but also life on earth as everyone once knew it.
Focusing on adolescence—a time when everything feels so immediate and new—was also a way of making sure that this large- scale story about global catastrophe would feel as personal and intimate as possible.
KR: According to Wittgenstein, “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and ordinariness, everydayness. One is unable to notice something— because it is always before one’s eyes.” In The Age of Miracles, you use a planetwide catastrophe to reveal the miraculous qualities of the everyday. The slowing forces both its cast of characters and its readers to consider the scope of what we take for granted, both when it comes to “the workings of the universe” and the equilibrium within our own families. What are some of the things that the characters in your novel are now able to “see,” thanks to the slow- ing? What is revealed as precious, miraculous, to Julia? What did you come to view as most miraculous/fantastic about our everyday lives after writing the novel?
KTW: Leave it to Wittgenstein (and you) to articulate so crisply and aptly something I’ve only gradually come to realize. For me, the most memorable fiction is the kind that feels simultaneously familiar and new. I think that’s the trick of writing fiction and the pleasure of reading it: that mix of recognition and surprise. Ordinary life can be hard to write about in a way that feels interesting, but when I hit upon the idea of the slowing—the sudden and disastrous change in the rotation of the earth—I realized that it would allow me to write about the meaning of our daily lives in a way that might feel fresh. The looming catastrophe had a way of removing the everydayness from everyday life, of making the ordi- nary seem suddenly extraordinary. As I wrote the book, I felt more and more thankful for uneventful days, for the reliable rising and setting of the sun, and for the thousands of coincidences that allow human life to survive on earth at all.
KR: I thought the pacing of your novel was superb, and I really admired the way you generate suspense within the slowing by taking advantage of the retrospective narration to hint at some imminent development—for example, right before a major plot turn, Julia recalls, “It was just a moment later that I lost her. It was later estimated that we were traveling at forty-five miles per hour.” Was pacing something that came naturally to you, or part of the revision process? How much of the story did you know in advance? Were there any out-of-the-blue developments that shocked you, things you never guessed would happen when you started writing your novel?
KTW: I think pacing is one of the hardest aspects of story- telling. It can be difficult for a writer to evaluate the pacing of his or her own novel, but readers are great at it. Readers always notice when a story is moving too fast or too slow. For me, the key to learning to write fiction was learning to read my own work as if I were reading someone else’s. That process, which I try to do at the same time as I write, is a major act of the imagination, one that’s just as important to my writing as the imagination it takes to create the characters and the story. When I was writing The Age of Miracles, I had a general idea of the arc of the novel, but I didn’t always know what would happen in the next chapter. I like to feel a little suspense as I write, and I hope that carries over to the reader.
KR: Throughout the book, I was dazzled by the quality of your details, how fully you imagine the consequences of the slowing, both large and small—earthworms sizzle on patios and birds fall from the sky, the “flesh of avocados turns black from the frosts,” en- vironmentalists make ominous pronouncements about the world’s dependence on crops “guzzling up light.” Flannery O’Connor writes, “Fiction is an art that calls for the strictest attention to the real—whether the writer is writing a naturalistic story or a fantasy. . . . I would even go so far as to say that the person writing a fantasy has to be even more strictly attentive to the concrete detail than someone writing in a naturalistic vein—because the greater the story’s strain on credulity, the more convincing the proper- ties in it have to be.” Can you talk a little bit about the work you did to make your premise feel so frighteningly real? What kind of research did you do? What was the most surprising thing you learned during your research? Which of the many changes that you imagined here did you find most personally haunting or upset- ting? (I am still thinking about Seth’s sunburn, and the children petting the dessicated whales, for example.)
KTW: What a great quote from Flannery O’Connor. I completely agree with her. My goal was to treat this story as if I were writing realism. I wanted the premise to feel as convincing as the characters, so that the reader would feel true concern for the people in the book. In order to make the slowing feel as real as possible, I took a lot of details from daily newspaper stories: strange weather, extinctions of species, studies on human circadian rhythms and even the unfolding of the global financial crisis. I also showed the book to an astrophysicist, which was a nerve-racking but crucial experience. Fortunately, I was relieved by how many of my details he found plausible, especially once you take the imaginative leap that something completely unexpected has happened. He also helped me fix a few things. For me, the most haunting consequence in the book is probably the simplest, the one that inspired me to write this story in the first place: just the idea of not knowing when or if the sun will ever rise again.
KR: One of the fascinating developments in the slowing occurs when world governments ask their people to “carry on exactly as we always had.” Most people live on “Clock Time”—persisting on the twenty-four-hour clock, even as the earth’s rotation continues to slow and the spacing between daylight and darkness grows more erratic. Is their commitment to “normalcy” courageous or foolhardy? More generally, in an irreversible movement like the slowing, is nostalgia a life-preserver or a trap? Sometimes Julia’s parents’ insistence on maintaining an ordinary home life in the face of the slowing seems like an act of supreme courage; at other times, their nostalgia for their lives pre-slowing reads as stubborn, delusional. It puts Julia at risk. I love the scene where Julia’s father lingers in the house of his former girlfriend on the beach—a literal and figurative relic, which is filling with seawater.
KTW: The slowing introduces a sudden chaos into the lives of everyone on earth. In a world in which the twenty-four-hour clock no longer corresponds to darkness and daylight, and no one can predict when the sun will rise and set, it seemed natural to me that many people would respond with a strong desire for the familiar and the orderly. Thus, most of society clings to the stability of the twenty-four-hour clock, even though it means that children sometimes go to school in the dark and people must try to sleep during daylight. Whether that impulse is courageous or foolhardy is hard to say—perhaps it’s both things at once. There’s no good solution to the situation these people are facing. All they can do is try to carry on in the face of the unknown. In that sense, their lives are not so different from ours; it’s just that unlike most of us, they can no longer ignore the basic uncertainty inherent in every human life.
KR: You know, like Julia, I too had a crush on that Seth Moreno! The slowing is one heck of a dramatic backdrop for first love—how do you think the hothouse bloom of their romance is affected by this crisis? How did you see the slowing altering the ordinary course of their development more generally? To me, Julia and Seth often felt simultaneously regressive, childlike, and preternaturally adult. They sneak out at night, trespass, have old-fashioned summer fun, but of course they will never have an old-fashioned summer again, now that the slowing has changed everything.
KTW: I think the relationship between Julia and Seth is the emotional core of the book. I didn’t always know that their young love story would play such a large role in the novel, but I loved writ- ing about it. When we’re going through adolescence, our romantic interests feel incredibly pressing and meaningful, but once we grow up, I think we tend to be kind of dismissive of those early bonds and crushes. Letting this love story unfold against the backdrop of an apocalyptic scenario was a way of injecting new meaning into the small-scale highs and lows of adolescent relationships. Seth and Julia do the things that many of us did as children or teenagers— they tell one another secrets, hold hands, and share a first kiss—but in their world, theirs may be the last generation to experience all those familiar rites of passage. I hope that fact makes their story feel as urgent as our own love stories felt when we were their age.
KR: There are many mysteries in The Age of Miracles, from the cause of the slowing itself, to people’s inexplicable personality changes and erratic behavior, to the disappearance of Julia’s grand- father. Some of these mysteries are solved by the novel’s end, but many remain. I thought that the scientists’ bafflement made the crisis feel that much more credible. What guided you as you decided which mysteries to resolve and which questions to leave un- answered?
KTW: The book is very much about uncertainty, so I knew I didn’t want an ending that would suddenly answer every question and resolve every conflict. The slowing baffles scientists—they cannot explain it and they cannot change it. Similarly, Julia will never completely understand the people around her. As a species, I think we tend to think we know more than we do, but there’s still so much—about the universe as well as one another—that we can- not yet comprehend. I think there’s a certain beauty in that mystery, but it’s also unnerving, and I hoped that The Age of Miracles, particularly the ending, would capture both of those qualities.
1. As readers, why do you think we’re drawn to stories about the end of the world? What special pleasures do these kinds of narratives offer? And how do you think this element works in The Age of Miracles?
2. Julia is an only child. How does this fact affect who she is and how she sees the world? How would her experience of the slowing be different if she had a sibling? How would her experience of middle school be different?
3. How much do you think the slowing alters Julia’s experience of adolescence? If the slowing had never happened, in what ways would her childhood have been different? In what ways would it have been the same?
4. Julia’s parents’ marriage becomes increasingly strained over the course of the book. Why do you think they stay together? Do you think it’s the right choice? How much do you think Julia’s mother does or does not know about Sylvia?
5. Julia’s father tells several crucial lies. Discuss these lies and consider which ones, if any, are justified and which ones are not. Is lying ever the right thing to do? If so, when?
6. How would the book change if it were narrated by Julia’s mother? What if it were narrated by Julia’s father? Or her grandfather?
7. Why do you think Julia is so drawn to Seth? Why do you think he is drawn to her?
8. Did you identify more with the clock-timers or with the real-timers? Which would you be and why?
9. The slowing affects the whole planet, but the book is set in southern California. How does the setting affect the book? How important is it that the story takes place in California?
10. How do you feel about the way the book ends? What do you think lies ahead for Julia, for her parents, and for the world?
11. The slowing throws the natural world into disarray. Plants and animals die and there are changes in the weather. Did this book make you think about the threats that face our own natural world? Do you think the book has something to say about climate change?
12. If you woke up tomorrow to the news that the rotation of the earth had significantly slowed, how do you think you would respond? What is the first thing you would do?