Tommy Wallach talks music, writing, and the (hypothetical) apocalypse
We’re completely obsessed with Tommy Wallach’s new novel, We All Looked Up: The incredible story of how the end of the world forces four high school seniors to reevaluate their priorities and take advantage of the now. While We All Looked Up focuses on teens, its message is just as essential for those of us who happen to skew a little older — and you definitely need to add it to your reading list if you haven’t already. The book explores life, love, and all the complexities in between, and it was so wonderful that we seriously couldn’t put it down.
And because we loved the book so very much, we decided to talk with the author about everything from writing to Joanna Newsom to what he would do if the world were ending soon. Unsurprisingly, it was an absolute delight. Find out what Wallach had to say below!
HG: We really enjoyed your essay for The Huffington Post about the power of end-of-the-world stories. Just to recap, why do you think the end of the world is such an appealing concept for readers (and everyone else)?
TW: First of all, thanks so much for doing this interview! I am mega-honored to appear on your rad website.
Apocalypse stories have been around for basically forever. The Epic of Gilgamesh, which contains the original flood story, was written around 2000 B.C., and versions of that story were recreated in the primary texts of almost every other major world religion. Mary Shelley, who gave us Frankenstein, crafted the first modern work of apocalyptic fiction, The Last Man, in 1826. All of which tells us that there must be something in these end-of-the-world stories that touches something important for readers. I think the link can be traced back to the Greek root of the word “apocalypse,” which means “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known.” Apocalypse stories allow us to look at things that naturalistic fiction doesn’t. Our deepest fears are brought to life: climate change, police brutality, fascism, plague. And reading about these problems, about how people deal with them, is satisfying, in its way. Also terrifying.
HG: The book is told through the narratives of four protagonists — Peter, Eliza, Anita, and Andy — each of whom fulfill your typical high school stereotypes. But they’re multi-dimensional and nuanced, and more complex than you might think at first glance. (Personally, we got some vague Breakfast Club vibes over here.) We’d love to hear more about how the characters came to life!
TW: I wish I could say something really impressive here. Maybe I’ll make up a better answer first.
Like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, I went undercover for months at a Brooklyn high school, pretending to be the new kid from funky North Philadelphia. My four protagonists were based on in-depth studies of friends I made while undercover, including the woman who eventually became my wife.
Okay, now the real story. After I had the original idea for We All Looked Up, I sat down in front of my computer and began sketching out characters. Twenty minutes later, I had all four of them—not only their names and basic backgrounds, but exactly how the coming of the asteroid would change them. And all of that stuff stayed more or less the same from that day until publication day.
HG: What do you hope people take away from the book?
TW: Page 232. I hope they rip it right out and keep it on their person forever. Just kidding. I have been so lucky with We All Looked Up, in that I’ve received so much feedback from readers already. One awesome girl actually had Ardor (the name of the asteroid) tattooed on her wrist!
From what I’ve gathered, it seems like the biggest thing people are taking away from the novel is a sort of modified YOLO. Maybe more like YOLO,BTDMYSGOAGDEN,MLYSRBBABNTP (You Only Live Once, But That Doesn’t Mean You Should Go Out And Get Drunk Every Night, More Like You Should Read Better Books and Be Nicer To People). My only intention in writing it was to transmit to my readers some of the things I myself feel about life—that it’s scary and fragile and we should all be grateful for it.
HG: We loved that We All Looked Up has a companion album/soundtrack. (Side note, amazing Joanna Newsom quote at the beginning of the book.) How did that come together? Was it a part of your original concept for the book?
TW: The first thing I have to say is that Joanna Newsom is my favorite musician in the universe, and one of the high points of the publishing experience was getting the okay to use that quote, because it means that Joanna Newsom actually knows I exist.
Now getting to your actual question, I certainly was aware early in the process that I wanted to make an album to go with the book, but that was still a distant fantasy. You have to understand, We All Looked Up is my first published book, but it was my seventh finished novel. So it was hard not to think that this one would go the way of all the others—unpublished. Once Simon & Schuster bought the manuscript, and I realized this thing was actually going to come out and sit on store shelves and smell like a book, then I knew I could actually make the album. I’ve been a singer-songwriter for more than a decade, and I’d always wanted to bring my two passions together. Because We All Looked Up has two musician protagonists who start a band together, I knew this would be the perfect opportunity.
HG: Besides the obvious, what are some of your favorite end-of-the-world stories? How about YA books?
TW: Hm. I’m not sure I know enough apocalyptic YA novels to claim a favorite, but I definitely know some great ones outside of YA. My favorite is called A Canticle for Leibowitz, and is set in the distant future, after a nuclear war has devastated the planet. It charts a few hundred years at a monastery where the monks have dedicated their lives to preserving the collected knowledge of the past. It rules. I also really love Margaret Atwood’s MaddAdam trilogy, which is primarily about genetic manipulation. And though I haven’t read it yet, I hear Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is amazing. (The only reason I haven’t read it is because I’m writing something similar, and if her book is as good as people say it is, reading it will utterly demoralize me.)
HG: Do you have any tips for writers just starting out and still finding their voice?
TW: I do, but it’s so boring! I want to impress the HelloGiggles readership with my incredible creativity! Sigh. Sometimes the truth is just dull. And here it is: if you want to be a writer, just write all the time. Set yourself a word limit, and stick to it every day, without any exceptions ever, no matter how much you want to watch reruns of Parks and Recreation. Also (and a lot of people I respect deeply would disagree with this part), I personally recommend that you don’t count diarizing/journaling as writing, but as a valuable but separate activity. All writers write about themselves, but fiction writers transmute those experiences into fiction. If a fiction writer is what you want to be, then start fictionalizing!
HG: We have to ask: What would you do if you thought the world was ending in two months?
TW: Okay, so being totally honest, I’ve answered this question a bunch of times, and I have developed an official joke answer, and also a more serious answer.
Joke Answer: I would fly to Los Angeles and convince Natalie Portman to fall in love with me. But then, as she was leaning in to kiss me for the very first time, I would put a finger over her lips and say, “Hush, Natalie. It’s just not our time.” Then I would walk away in slow motion as the world exploded.
Real Answer: I would go somewhere pretty with the people I love, and we would eat delicious food (it’s quite possible I would give up on my vegetarianism in such apocalyptic circumstances) and swim in crystal-clear waters and sing Joanna Newsom songs around fires and drink expensive whiskeys and share all of our secrets.
HG: Just for fun, we read you were a Gallatin grad. What was your concentration and what was your colloquium about?
TW: So get this: I totally forgot. I had to go spelunking through my old college files to find it. Turns out I wrote my paper on “The Breakdown of the Family in Literature.” Yuck. How pretentious was I? That said, I basically ended up focusing on creative writing. I finished my third novel while I was at Gallatin, and it went out on submission right after I graduated. You’re welcome to read it, but I should warn you, it sucks. A lot.
HG: What’s next for you? We heard you have another book coming out early next year!
TW: I do indeed! It’s another standalone called Thanks for the Trouble. It takes place over the course of a single weekend, beginning when Parker Santé, a boy who doesn’t speak, meets Zelda Toth, a girl who claims to have been born in 1770. The flap copy describes it as “a unique story of first and last loves,” which I think captures it perfectly. I’m real proud of it. Beyond that, there will be more books, one of which is what I will now get back to working on. Right after I finish drinking this scoop of ice cream covered in espresso.
(Image courtesy of author.)