Tommy Wallach '01: From zero to 100
by Sheila Anne Feeney
Tommy Wallach ’01 supported himself as a test-prep tutor, writing book after book that publishers rejected. Until he hit it big, really big, in 2015 with a young adult novel, “We All Looked Up,” about four Seattle teenagers facing the end of the world as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth.
Critics praised it for its suspense and pitch-perfect grasp of teen angst; Kirkus Reviews called it a "stunning debut ... with brilliant imagery and astounding depth.” The book’s immediate success prompted a reprinting within a week, and it stayed on The New York Times’ best-seller list for 26 weeks.
A movie may be next, and Wallach, also a musician, created a companion album he hopes may become its soundtrack.
A second well-reviewed YA novel, “Thanks for the Trouble,” followed, about a spontaneously mute teenage boy and a mysterious time-traveling girl. In what the trade press termed “a significant deal,” this fall Simon & Schuster will publish the first book of his apocalyptic “Anchor and Sophia” trilogy about two brothers on opposite sides of a holy war in a society that has eschewed all technology.
Wallach, who lives in a "stereotypical Bushwick loft” in Brooklyn, among other striving writers, artists, and musicians, spoke recently about his journey to full-time YA writer, his fierce stand in support of artists, the Lakeside teachers who nurtured his talent, and his cautionary tale of the dangers of being glib and telling your own truth on social media.
Q: You pitched each of your six still-unpublished novels to “80 or 90 different agents” whose names you found in “Writer's Market” – and still never got a book published. What kept you plugging away for more than a decade?
A: I could be the proof of that newfangled definition of insanity – “doing the same thing while expecting a different result” – but I had a fundamental belief in my ability that wasn’t dimmed by failure … When I was still in high school, I had work published in a couple of magazines – McSweeney’s and Tin House – which made me believe I had some modicum of talent. I credit a lot of my success to studying classical piano for about seven years, which was how I learned the value of excruciating long-term effort – not to mention really good support from my mom. I also performed in professional theater as a teenager and more important, auditioned for professional theater: Nothing thickens the skin more than standing onstage in front of a panel of strangers and hearing them say those six terrible words: “Thanks so much for coming in.”
Q: But there’s the practical matter of having to support yourself.
A: You do need a day job. I was able to teach the LSAT, GRE, and GMAT, and the pay for that is shockingly good, so I only had to teach for about 25 hours a week.
Q: You have said you ended friendships over people downloading content without paying. Is that because the arts can’t exist if people aren’t willing to pay for what they read, listen to, and watch?
A: There is a categorical imperative: You have to live your life in accordance with what would happen if everyone behaved as you do. I used to yell at people for fast-forwarding their TIVOs to go past the ads. I’m serious! Content on television costs many millions of dollars to produce. How do you think that is paid for? All the money that used to go to TV channels and affiliate stations has shifted away – and away from all the people who worked for them. That money does not go into nearly as many hands now that everything has moved to the internet, which primarily benefits just two or three companies – Google, Amazon, and Netflix. Everyone else is pretty much destroyed. Companies such as Google have a hysterically tiny number of employees relative to their market cap. This has macroeconomic effects that are incredibly pernicious: There is a cascading series of very terrifying ramifications that are a direct result of your individual choices that lead to the destruction of the middle class. It’s an ethical issue!
Q: Why do you think “young adult” is such a popular genre with adults as well as teens?
A: Many adults have lost the ability to read adult books about adult problems. And many older people want to escape back into their childhoods. But it was “Harry Potter” that opened the floodgates. Before “Harry Potter,” most adults would have been embarrassed to be seen reading a kid’s book, but “Harry Potter” was so enjoyable, we all read it and everyone saw us reading it. In YA, you’re not allowed to tell a boring story. (Publishers) won’t buy it and they won’t publish it. If you’re reading the best in YA, you’re reading really, really good books.
Q: Let’s address the social media storm you’ve faced. (Wallach was earlier derided for tweeting, after a terrorist attack on Paris, that the world would be a better place if more people were atheists, as he is, and for a blog post about the most “emo” suicides in literature. But a social media tsunami ensued after a tweet accompanying a new book jacket for “Thanks for the Trouble,” where he commented about the uses of the Golden Gate Bridge.)
A: People are always asking me if (a character in TFTT, who may or may not be 250 years old) jumps off the bridge. “Did she jump? Did she jump?” So I shared a tweet with the book cover saying, “That’s a damn sexy bridge right there. I could really get into jumping off it.” That was it in its entirety. I took down my post about emo literary suicides – I got that idea from a BuzzFeed article – but I absolutely stand by that piece. It’s comedy!
There are some writers out there whose brand is to get angry on Twitter. … I was absolutely willing to engage in a conversation, but you cannot engage in a conversation when everyone is calling you a murderer. Multiple, real people have cited “The Catcher in the Rye” as the reason they committed suicide, but I don’t think J. D. Salinger is responsible.
Q: Did your publisher pressure you to delete your Twitter account?
A: My agent did; he represented a few of the people who came after me … and dropped me during this. The woman who started this organized a bunch of authors … They were trying to destroy my livelihood. …
Q: Suicide can be a particularly inflammatory topic for young readers, though.
A: It might be that I should be more careful joking about suicide. I don’t believe that right now. But I am absolutely positively open to the possibility that I could be wrong.
Q: How did Lakeside inform your writing?
A: Lakeside was the most rigorous intellectual environment I’ve ever been in, and that includes NYU and Stanford. I had some beefs – like the curriculum didn’t encourage the arts as much as math and the sciences. But in 9th grade I had a teacher, Jack McHenry, who had a really interesting class and had us mimic the style of Cormac McCarthy, which I remember to this day. He is the Mr. McArthur character in “We All Looked Up.” And I studied “Ulysses” with Mr. Brian Culhane in independent study and he read my early writing. Lakeside served me well that way. In some ways, it’s a dishonest environment because it is so honest and welcoming. It was kind of like Sweden – a great utopia but a totally homogenous culture.
Sheila Anne Feeney is a writer in New York City who often wonders why she ever left civilized Seattle.