TORONTO - Karen Thompson Walker has a word to describe the overwhelming buzz surrounding her debut novel and the attention lavished upon her by the publishing world that has suddenly shifted the course of her life: "surreal."
It's a fitting word for the 32-year-old author, given that one of the major themes of "The Age of Miracles" is as surreal — and intriguing — as a Salvador Dali painting.
"Age of Miracles" overlays an 11-year-old girl's sweetly tender coming-of-age story against a backdrop of global cataclysm. The Earth's rotation has begun to slow, leading to increasingly longer days and nights, and sweeping environmental fallout that irrevocably alters the world.
While the premise may seem, well, surreal, there is scientific precedent for such a "slowing," albeit on a virtually imperceptible scale.
Walker's imagination was sent soaring after reading about how the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia was so powerful that it altered the Earth's rotation, shaving a few microseconds off the 24-hour day. Late last week, scientists at the International Earth Rotation service also reported adding a "leap second" to make up for a gradual slowdown in the planet's daily revolutions.
"When I heard that, I was really shocked," Walker said of the earthquake's effect in Indonesia. "I didn't realize that something I had always thought was so steady — the predictable rising and setting of the sun — was actually in flux.
"Even though it was such a slight amount, it still sort of struck me and I wanted to know right away what would happen if a much larger change event took place," she said this week during a Toronto stop on her Canadian book-promotion tour.
Walker originally penned a short story based on the idea of the world speeding up, seen through the eyes of her prepubescent narrator, Julia. But digging it out two years later, she wondered about reversing that idea and having the Earth turn more slowly.
"And something about that opened up the story in my mind and it felt like maybe this could be a novel."
The book, which spawned a bidding war among eight international publishing houses that was won by Simon & Schuster in the U.K., contains some parallels to Walker's own life. Like her young protagonist, she too grew up an only child in California, living in suburban San Diego.
But the events that shape Julia's life as she tries to navigate the innocence-destroying, emotional roller coaster that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood — complicated by her parents' strained marriage and the catastrophic effects of "the slowing" — are all products of her imagination, said Walker, who describes her own childhood as "nice and stable."
"I did try to create situations, put Julia in situations, that would evoke the same feelings I remember having. You know, just worrying about where you fit in the social world and how quickly friendships can both form and fall away at that age," she said.
"And when you start to notice the adults around you, that they're not perfect and they have flaws. So I drew on the memory of those feelings."
The title is an homage of sorts to a Billie Holiday song of the same name, which Walker heard while in the early stages of writing. In the book, she likens middle school to an age of miracles, a time when kids lives are "changing so quickly that it seems almost impossible, so there's a feeling of impossibility in the reality."
"The word miracles, it's definitely in a looser sense than we usually think of it, but the way I thought of a miracle was as an event that breaks our rules of reality as we understand them. So certainly the slowing seemed to fit that definition of a miracle, even though it has a lot of negative consequences."
Advances and royalties have allowed Walker to quit her job as an editor with publisher Simon & Schuster in New York — where she honed her craft working on other writers' manuscripts — and to become a full-time novelist.
Walker wrote "Age of Miracles" while employed at the publishing house, carving out an hour before she left for the office each day to work on the novel.
"I would get up at seven and write from 7:15 to 8:30 and then go to work," she said. "I tried to preserve that time, and I feel when I woke up that was the time when I hadn't yet started to think about everything that was going to happen at work that day. That's why that time was so important.
"So the first hour of my day, I was a writer and could focus on that, and then when I finished, that's when I started to think about my job."
It took about 3 1/2 years to complete the book, which she thought might be read by a few friends, then possibly relegated to a shelf or a drawer.
But not only has the novel been published to critical acclaim, but film rights to the book have been optioned by River Road Entertainment, which produced "Brokeback Mountain" and "Into the Wild."
"It feels really surreal. It definitely has changed my life. I wasn't expecting to get to be a full-time writer. And I don't know if I always will, but it's really a luxury to feel like I can give this a shot."
In August, she is moving from Brooklyn to Iowa City, where her husband Casey Walker — also a fiction writer hoping to be published — will attend a writer's workshop at the state university.
While living there, Walker plans to continue work on her second novel. She's superstitious about too saying much about the story, except that it involves another "extreme situation."
And although "Age of Miracles" touches on many of the ills affecting our planet, from climate change to loss of animal species resulting from far-ranging habitat destruction — Walker said she wasn't trying to get a particular message across.
"I wanted to write a book that would be the kind of book that I like to read as a reader. I just wanted to tell a story that would feel intriguing, obviously, but that also feels true even though it has this fantastical premise. I just wanted to tell a story about people and something that would feel moving and true and accurate."