Karen Thompson Walker | "I did want to try to write a book that if I heard about it, I would want to read"

Karen Thompson Walker | "I did want to try to write a book that if I heard about it, I would want to read"

Every so often one hears of a novel with a hook so strong as to be irresistible. In The Age of Miracles, the first novel from American Karen Thompson Walker, the Earth's rotation has slowed, making days and nights longer and longer, and causing a creeping environmental catastrophe.

It's a brilliant premise, ensuring thateven in what is turning into a bumper year for début novelsThe Age of Miracles stands out. It has already been the focus of media interest here, as S&S paid £500,000 for the UK rights. Random House, who will publish in the US, paid a reported seven-figure sum, and rights have sold in a further 25 territories to date.

In the novel, the news of what people come to refer to as "the Slowing" at first means little to 11-year-old Julia, living with her mother and father in suburban California. Her mother panic buys and stockpiles food, but Julia has the usual preoccupations of a pre-teen; her best friend, soccer practice, a boy she likes but is too shy to speak too. But her life is about to change irrecoverably.

"It's a story about a young girl struggling to grow up in an utterly altered world," says Thompson Walker, over the telephone from her agent's office in New York. "It's a world where some of the things that we think of as certain, and that we most count on, have become uncertain."

As the days lengthen, gravity is affected and the natural world is thrown out of balance. The US government makes the decision to stay on the 24-hour clock regardless of the length of the days, and so Julia goes to school in the pitch black, and struggles to sleep while the sun blazes outside.

In The Age of Miracles, the reader sees events both through the eyes of 11-year-old Julia and also the adult Julia, as she looks back: "I was very interested in how [the events] would specifically affect someone of Julia's age, but I wanted to have access to an adult's way of seeing the world . . . and to dip back and forth."

Dystopian novels are currently a big trend in books and in films. Thompson Walker wouldn't describe The Age of Miracles as dystopian ("although I don't mind if people do"), and makes the point that "classic" dystopian novels are often set "10 years, or 50 years, or 100 years after the world as we know it has fallen away because of some event, and a whole new society has replaced it".

Things fall apart

In contrast, in The Age of Miracles Thomson Walker is exploring the immediate aftermath of a cataclysmic event: "I was focused on the world as we know it, but with this slight and then eventually profound change. I was most interested in how our society could unravel." This is what makes the novel so very powerful; the slow and utterly believable collapse of everyday life.

The seeds were sown while Thompson Walker was studying for an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, and read a newspaper article about the 2004 Indonesian earthquake. It contained the striking fact that the earthquake was so powerful that it had affected the rotation of the earth, and had shortened the length of a day by a few microseconds. "As bad as I know earthquakes are," says Thompson Walker, who grew up in earthquake-prone southern California: "I didn't realise that that was one of the things that could happen."

It was a fact that stayed with her, and inspired first a short story and then The Age of Miracles, which she wrote while working as an editor for Simon & Schuster in New York. She joined the publishing house as an editorial assistant, working mainly on serious non-fiction; politics, history and science. That first job in publishing was quite an eye-opener: "Working in book publishing prepares you for disappointment, thinking that the first novel you write, nothing will happen with it . . . and if you're really serious you just have to get back on it."

That wasn't a problem Thompson Walker had to deal with in the end. The worldwide appeal of The Age of Miracles has enabled her to leave S&S and write full time. She's working on a second novel nowalthough she'll need a break for the extensive publicity campaigns. S&S is bringing Thompson Walker over for a big trade and media "event" on publication day (21st Junethe longest day of the year). Trade and bookshop events are planned in major cities across the UK including London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Bristol, and there is strong interest from broadcast media already.

"I did want to try to write a book that if I heard about it, I would want to read. Then it's just a question of how close you can get to that; what you imagine."