Hi guys! Today I have something very special for you: an interview with author Tommy Wallach on his recent debut, We All Looked Up, about an asteroid that is about to hit Earth and four teens who try to deal with what that means to them and the world.
If you read my review, you know that I loved WALU, and I felt like I learned a ton just from reading it – partly because the very concept of death and annihilation scare me and I needed to hear from others who felt the same way as I did.
After I finished, though, I was desperate to talk to Tommy about all of the wisdom that he imparted through the book. I begged him for an interview, and he very generously obliged. Minor spoilers for the entire book ahead, but if you’ve read it, I think you’ll be interested in Tommy’s answers.
MYAL: How did you come up with the concept of We All Looked Up? I know in interviews you’ve talked about Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (which was one of the most devastating movies I’ve ever watched; I immediately thought of when I heard the concept of the book, so good job!) – why did you decide to go with teens dealing with the asteroid?
TW: The idea came to me as a teen idea. I thought there was a wonderful match between the emotional landscape of a teenager (in which everything feels like the end of the world, because it’s being experienced for the first time) and an apocalypse narrative (in which it really is the end of the world). It allowed for a parallel that you can’t get in something like Melancholia or The Last Policeman (another great apocalypse trilogy, if you’re in the mood for an adult take on the same asteroid concept), which was really exciting to me.
MYAL: Death is something I think a lot about, and annihilation is one of my biggest fears. Are you afraid of those things? Did you think about them a lot as a teen? How much of you is in Peter, Eliza, Andy and Anita and their opinions about annihilation?
TW: Absolutely. I think about it all the time. I’m very pessimistic about the state of the world, particularly when it comes to issues like climate change. This means I spend an inordinate amount of my time thinking about the upcoming apocalypse. And yes, I thought a lot about that stuff even when I was younger, though the situation has become several magnitudes of order worse since then. Eliza’s “countdown” fear (in which she starts counting down how many times she’ll shower, or watch a film, or drink coffee) is something I’ve done ever since I was a little kid. Every time I watch Wayne’s World, I’m thinking “So how many more times will I watch this before I die? Ten? Twenty? Two?” Scary, right?
MYAL: In WALU, there are two teachers who begin having philosophy discussions with students after everyone finds out about Ardor. How did this idea come into being, and how much research did you do to write the formal philosophy parts of the book? Are you as comforted by philosophy as the characters are?
TW: I am consoled by philosophy (the name of the class those teachers run is taken from a classic philosophy text by Boethius called “The Consolation of Philosophy) as much as it’s possible to be consoled. Really, I don’t live in a hopeful world myself, but I find that being confronted with the hopelessness of other great thinkers is comforting, in its way. It goes back to the quote from my book that readers have been most drawn to: ““The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little bit less alone in the world.”
MYAL: You decided to include Barack Obama as the President in WALU. Why did you choose a real-life figure to deliver the news about Ardor?
Ha! I had to fight for that one! My editor wanted me to take it out so the book would be more…I don’t know…”outside” of time. But I wanted this book to feel like the real world. If I made up a president, then that would have drawn a huge amount of attention to the non-reality of the world. Basically, I didn’t have a choice. I wanted the kids to see the president give a speech (because I think there would be a speech, in these circumstances, and I think everyone would watch it), so I had to use the actual president!
MYAL: Music and art play a huge role in this book, with Eliza’s photography blog becoming a catalyst to unite people for a party, to Anita and Andy’s unexpected friendship through music. Does art matter more in a life-or-death situation? Should it?
TW: To me it definitely does. Art provides a lot more consolation than philosophy (to the average person, at any rate). I do think that a lot of people would turn to the making of art in the face of catastrophe, or at the very least, to the consumption of art. I’ve always believed that one of the top two reasons I’m on this planet is to experience other people’s amazing art, which moves and touches me, and makes me a better person. That would be even more important at the end, wouldn’t it?
MYAL: As the news about Ardor sinks in, we get a lot of different takes on what the best approach is when you know you’re going to die – from the extreme nihilistic views of Bobo and Golden to the beatific approach from Chad. Which character’s approach do you think you would take if the end was coming?
TW: I really would like to think I’d be Chad-like (in spite of my self-described pessimism). Honestly, I’ve been very lucky in this lifetime, luckier than any reasonable person could ask for. If everything were to come to an end, I think I’d figure, “Well, that was bound to happen, given how lucky I’ve been up until now.” So I’d just spend time with the people I love, eat some yummy food, and wait.
MYAL: You wrote an entire companion album to We All Looked Up. Tell me about the process of creating this album? Did the album come first, or the book?
TW: A combination of both. About a third of the album was written specifically for the book, after the book was completed. Another third was written before the book, but in later drafts, I included the actual songs in the STORY of the book (as songs that Anita and Andy write together). The final third is made up of songs that really have nothing to do with the book (they were written before I started), but that I felt fit with the general themes of the novel well enough to belong on the companion album.
Lightning round! Favourite philosopher?
TW: Khalil Gibran goes down smoothest, because I get bored by really analytical philosophy pretty fast.
TW: Too hard. Belle and Sebastian have seldom let me down. (Except on the last album. Sigh.)
Favourite place on earth?
TW: I’m pretty happy wherever I am, but for the sake of argument, I’ll say the south of France in the summer.
What colour best evokes Peter? Andy? Eliza? Anita?
TW: Whoa. I have no idea, so I’ll go on instinct. Peter – blue. Andy – pavement grey. Eliza – darkroom light red. Anita – silver. Totally random.
You’re at a bar on the second last day before the end of the world. What do you drink?
TW: I’m not a drinker, to be honest, BUT in light of the impending apocalypse, I’ll have a bourbon, thank you.
MYAL: What would you want your last words on earth to be? Who would you say them to?
TW: “My secret treasure is buried in the…” BOOM! (To anyone who would listen.)
MYAL: (this question has a major spoiler, highlight to read) We All Looked Up ends before Ardor hits. You’re probably not going to answer this, but I had to ask: who wins, Earth or Ardor?
A better question would be “What constitutes winning?” An even better question would be, “How come you never see any baby pigeons? Where are all the baby pigeons?”
Thanks so much, Tommy, for answering my many, many questions. If you’re intrigued by We All Looked Up (and seriously, how could you not be?), why not enter my giveaway to win a copy?! And yes, it’s international!