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Bestselling YA Author Tommy Wallach on the books that changed him

tommy wallach_hrTommy Wallach is the Brooklyn based, bestselling author of We All Looked Up and Thanks for the Troubletwo young adult novels with characters that are real, raw, and utterly captivating.

We All Looked Up is a novel about working out who you are and what really matters when an unknown future is hanging over your head – quite literally. After learning  that there’s a 66% chance an asteroid will wipe out humanity within two months, an unlikely group of teens band together to plan the Party at the End of the World.

In Thanks for the Trouble, Parker is a fantastic listener – because he doesn’t say a word. After the death of his father five years before, he now only communicates by sign language and writing in his journal (he’s up to journal #124). When he meets Zelda – a silver haired beauty with a real ‘timelessness’ about her, suddenly all he wants to do is be able to say everything he feels out loud…

We really loved them both, and think fans of authors like John Green and Rainbow Rowell will too. As Tommy’s books contain adult references (as does this article), they are definitely best for teenagers aged 14+.

Ahead of his first trip to Australia (find out more here), we chatted to Tommy about the books he loved as a child, that inspired him as a writer, and why the best YA isn’t just for teens.

xa-wizard-of-earthsea.jpg.pagespeed.ic.W-wls9HaTNBRK: Please tell us about a young adult author whose work particularly inspires you.

I’ve always been particularly inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin (whose shatteringly good “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” gets a direct shout-out in Thanks for the Trouble). Like most of my favorite writers for young people, Le Guin also writes for adults, and very little of her work qualifies as YA as such. That said, her Earthsea books are, in my opinion, among the two or three greatest fantasy series ever written (along with Tolkien and Pullman). The vast majority of fantasy novels depend on an evil enemy for the good characters to battle against. But I find evil deeply uninteresting, because it doesn’t make much sense. Villains in these simplistic books always seem to take pleasure in being bad, but in reality, everyone thinks he or she is doing good. Simply put, villains don’t exist. The Earthsea novels manage to create a fantasy world that isn’t dependent on this reductive Manichaenism, and the result is a work of subtlety–a quality that a lot of fantasy struggles to achieve. Just as an example, in the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea, the protagonist, Ged, unleashes a shadow version of himself that functions as the novel’s antagonist. His final battle thus becomes a metaphor for finding interior wholeness and accepting one’s weaknesses. Good stuff.

BRK: What are some of your favourite book series for teens?

xnorthern-lights.jpg.pagespeed.ic.1x0fjHc7QPFar and away my favorite book series for teens is the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. I see them as a really necessary corrective to the simplistic morality of C.S. Lewis’s overwhelmingly bland Narnia books. For those who haven’t read the Pullman trilogy (or who were so unfortunate as to experience the movie adaptation of The Golden Compass), the books roughly track the attempt to overthrow the kingdom of heaven so as to ensure the continued existence of sin. This goal is eventually accomplished when the protagonists, Will and Lyra (who are 12 and 13 years old respectively) become intimate in a kind of allegorical recreation of the Garden of Eden. Though it’s never directly stated that the two of them have sex, it is powerfully implied, and Pullman himself has refused to say definitively one way or another. The boldness of this choice (and the absolute beauty of it in terms of the architecture of the series) is incredibly inspiring to me, as is the overall and unapologetic secularism of the novels.

I’m also a huge fan of Earthsea (as I mentioned) and though it hardly bears mentioning, every writer of speculative fiction owes an enormous debt to Tolkien. I’m currently finishing up the first book of a trilogy myself, and The Fellowship of the Ring has been critical to my understanding of how to engage the reader without depending on cheap cliffhangers (of course, The Lord of the Rings isn’t really a trilogy…but that’s a longer conversation).

BRK: What about some individual (standalone) novels for teens?

The Catcher in the Rye So I’m going to go classic here, because I do a really poor job of keeping up with modern YA (in the same way that a lot of musicians don’t listen to bands that sound similar to them, I don’t really like to read too much in the field I’m working  in, so as to avoid cross-pollination). Also, I think the divide between “teen books” and “adult books” is a bit specious anyway. After all, YA is now read primarily by adults anyway, and by the time I was a teen, I was mostly reading “adult books.” All of which is to say I’m just gonna hit some classics here.

flowers-for-algernonThe Catcher in the Rye is, in many ways, the ur-text for YA writers. It’s a voice-driven first person novel about social alienation and familial distress, and it still reads as modern and fearless and bold. Though I think the book has a lot of weaknesses, there’s no getting away from the fact that a lot of us YA writers probably wouldn’t have jobs if Salinger hadn’t paved the way.

A Clockwork Orange is a dystopian novel that goes real dystopian. I always find it funny that a lot of YA dystopian books shy away from any direction mention of sex. Have these writers ever hung out with a group of teenagers? You can’t feature a group of seventeen year olds and then pretend they never talk about or even think about sex! It’s insane! (Of course, A Clockwork Orange is deeply disturbing on the subject of sex and violence, so it’s certainly not recommended to the youngest of the YAs, but at least it’s not unafraid to explore what an actual dystopia would really look like!)

Flowers for Algernon also leaps to mind as the perfect entrée into science-fiction that isn’t about people firing laser blasters at spaceships. This book is as human and beautiful as any so-called “literary” novel. And did you know Daniel Keyes was asked to change the ending, both of the original short story and of the novel? He had to find new publishers for both, because he refused to sugarcoat his heartbreaking conclusion. Good man.

BRK: And finally, what books particularly influenced you as a child?

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Hitchhiker's Guide 1 Ooo, this is a tough one: I wasn’t trying to be a writer in a serious way when I was young, and though I’m sure books influenced me as a human being, I can’t quite remember what they were. I can say that the Forgotten Realms novels–a long-running fantasy series of hit-or-miss quality–were probably the first thing that made me want to write speculative fiction (though both We All Looked Up and Thanks for the Trouble are considered contemporary YA, they feature an asteroid and an immortal respectively, so I think they’re pretty darn speculative). But my early works were literary fiction for adults; my influences were primarily Nabokov and Martin Amis–a far cry from what I do now! Other youthful influences would be Douglas Adams (my first novel, about sending all the ugly people from Earth to another planet, was basically a less funny A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), the great Philip K. Dick, the less-great Piers Anthony, and the Boxcar Children books (all 800 billion of them).

Tommy will be playing some tunes at The Sneaky Grind in partnership with Beachside Bookshop and speaking at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, as well as visiting Readings St Kilda and Ford St Publishing in Melbourne. Find out more here!


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