The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Karen Thompson Walker

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week, we talked with Karen Thompson Walker about her bestselling, debut novel The Age of Miracles, which just hit shelves last month. Gripping from the first page, the book is the kind of literary page-turner for people who don’t normally like literary novels. It kicks off with Julia, a sixth grader, and her parents as they anxiously watch news reports about the Earth’s rotation having inexplicably slowed down. As nights stretch up to 48 hours, Julia’s family builds up paranoia like a cloud. Soon, invisible threats derail their California suburb, brimming with religious and political diversity, into an apocalyptic dystopia. Hate crimes spike, families disappear to join desert communes. Green soccer fields get swarmed in ladybugs, churches slide into the sea, and hundreds of whales surface on the Southern California beaches. And amidst the Earth’s decomposition is a precocious, quiet love story as Julia grapples with the contradicting terrors of middle school life. Walker joined us to talk about her new novel, the inherent anxiety of living in the suburbs, and the phenomenon of the literary page-turner.

Arthur Krystal wrote recently for The New Yorker that “For the longest time, there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction: one was good for you, one simply tasted good.” Many novels recently (i.e. Chabon, Diaz) are blurring those boundaries, as they’re methodically accessible while still provoking serious cultural and political thought. Do you see this as a trend in American fiction right now?

I hope so, although I’m not sure I would characterize the divide in exactly that way. The literary fiction I love — from Madame Bovary to Lolita to The Roaddoes taste good. I don’t believe that a piece of fiction can be successful if it’s merely “good for you” and not at all enjoyable. For me, the key ingredient is always great writing. If a book is not well written, I just can’t get into it, no matter how thrilling the story. The books I love most, though, are the ones that combine wonderful writing with a wonderful story. (A few of my relatively recent favorites in this category are The Virgin Suicides, Blindness, Housekeeping, The Namesake, The Lifeboat, and Never Let Me Go.)

Science fiction often doubles as social commentary. Did you have a larger discussion in mind when writing The Age of Miracles, or did you simply concentrate on the mechanics of the story and leave interpretation to the reader?

I really believe that fiction functions best when stories are allowed to develop in an organic way, so I didn’t set out to deliver a specific message. Instead, my goal was just to tell this unlikely story in a way that would feel as convincing as possible. I wanted the characters — and their various reactions — to seem as real as the disaster. But it’s definitely a book about our present world, thrown just slightly off-kilter, and I think it does reflect some of the discussions and concerns of our time.

Many of Julia’s observations show a rise in unpredictable behavior in her Southern California neighborhood after the slowing. Girls shave their heads, vandalism and violent crimes spike. It reminded me of Joan Didion’s essay “Los Angeles Notebook,” where she writes about how the Santa Ana Winds, the forest fires, and the constant threat of earthquakes contribute to a disillusioned paranoia unique to region. Could you talk a bit about your decision to set your novel in SoCal? How did you feel the setting accessed the material you were trying to get at?

How interesting that you mention that Didion essay. That one definitely struck a chord with me when I read it for the first time. I set the book in California because I grew up there, so I know its geography and its atmosphere very intimately. That’s the place where I lived when I was the same age as Julia, the young girl at the center of the book. When I was her age, I was sometimes haunted by the possibility of earthquakes and brushfires, so in a way, my novel grew out of a lifelong habit of imagining catastrophe. But life in California is mostly very pleasant, in spite of the possibility of disaster, and that feeling — the combination of danger and denial — is something I really wanted to capture in my book. Although the story is about a catastrophe much larger and more extraordinary than “the big one,” it’s also about how ordinary life continues in the face of profound uncertainty.

In your recent TED talk, you quoted Nabokov saying that the best reader has two sides: the artistic and the scientific. Did you act as a scientist when you worked for an editor at Simon and Schuster? And in the writing of your novel, what was your experience editing your own work?

Well, to be a good editor or a good writer, I think you really need to be a great reader first. Working as an editor was like being a professional reader, and the better I became at reading the better I became at writing. My sentences got sharper and my stories more efficient, and I gradually learned to imagine the reader more clearly and to empathize with that imagined reader, which is a crucial part of learning to tell stories. I really like Nabokov’s description of what makes for the best kind of reader, and I think it applies just as much to writing and to editing. To do either well, you need to have some creativity but you also need to be able to read with the “coolness of judgement of a scientist,” as he puts it. As I wrote The Age of Miracles, I really tried to edit it in the same way I would edit someone else’s book, which, of course, was itself an act of the imagination and wasn’t always possible.

Where do you see American fiction going — or, perhaps where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

That’s a hard question. As a writer and a reader, I don’t really think in those terms — though as an editor, maybe I should have thought more along these lines! I just hope that readers and publishers continue to appreciate good writing and good storytelling in all their various forms. And I hope that people continue to read books, even though we have so many other options for entertainment.

The fun question: what’s the last good book you read?

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. This book is fantastic, a really inspired and inventive combination of the miniature and the epic. It’s the sweeping story of an entire generation of women, but it’s all packed into these beautifully spare sentences and only a little over a hundred pages. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.

Illustration by Allison Pottasch.