Bushwick wunderkind Tommy Wallach, is on a day-job quitting roll.
His young adult novel, “We All Looked Up,” about a cadre of Seattle teenagers facing the end of the world as an asteroid hurtles toward Earth, has been acclaimed as a remarkable triumph. Kirkus Reviews called it a “stunning debut … with brilliant imagery and astounding depth.”
Praised for its suspense and pitch-perfect grab of teen angst, “We All Looked Up” was snapped up by Paramount Pictures six months before it was published late last month, and a movie is now in the works. The book’s immediate success prompted a reprinting within a week of its release.
Wallach, 32, is also a musician, performing music that sounds like a cross between Ian Axel and Rufus Wainwright. He created a companion album for his novel, writing and performin songs reprising its apocalyptic themes. While he’s been too busy to check how it’s doing on iTunes and Bandcamp, a recent show at Joe’s Pub (“SO fun!”) sold out.
Wallach has found a way to get paid doing what he loves — writing and making music — at a time people are increasingly reluctant to pay for what they hear or read.
While “We All Looked Up” is his first published book, “this is my seventh novel: I had no success at all with the other six. It’s been a long journey,” said Wallach, who has been writing “seriously” since he was 17.
Wallach is the only child of a devoted single mother to whom his novel is dedicated. While modest concerning his own accomplishments, he doesn’t hesitate to “brag” about Stephanie Wallach, the woman who raised him, “the 10th female commercial airline pilot in America!”
As a child actor growing up in Medina, Washington, Wallach attended the prestigious Lakeside School in Seattle (the alma mater of Bill Gates). He hopscotched through various colleges before graduating from NYU with a degree in independent studies and then scooping up a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford in 2009. After a stint in San Francisco, he settled in Brooklyn, surrounded by other striving writers, artists and musicians.
Working as a test prep teacher for mostly affluent people taking LSATs, GREs and GMATs bought the self-proclaimed “bleeding heart liberal” time to write. “The pay is very good. Shockingly good. It’s a great artist’s day job,” said Wallach, who allowed he is “good at taking tests,” but “the world would probably be a better place without standardized tests.” Generous wages permitted him to teach 25 hours a week while he wrote novel after novel, laboriously pitching each one to “80 or 90 different agents” he found in “Writer’s Market,” to seemingly endless disappointment. When an agent finally bit on one bygone effort “I thought, ‘this is it! This is my career!’ but I worked on it for six months and my agent didn’t show it to a single publisher.”
His book’s success means he can at last quit tutoring aspiring lawyers and financiers and write full time.
While Wallach was not influenced by the enthusiasm for “Hunger Games” and vampire themes, he concedes he was grateful that his idea for “We All Looked Up” — which he rewrote extensively after agent John Cusick picked it up two years ago — was “more sale-able than my other ideas.”
And popular. “The YA world is INSANE,” said Wallach, noting that “WE All Looked Up” inspired one fan to get an asteroid tattoo, an homage both flattering and frightening. (While he lives in a “stereotypical Bushwick loft,” he is tattoo-free.) “There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of bloggers: Every kid who cares about reading has a blog,” and “they’re wonderful at it and very supportive and positive,” Wallach said.
Wallach has done three “blog tours” and while he is wary of being gobbled up by “huge and necessary” social media demands, he has so far responded “to everyone who writes to me … If I stopped responding to people on line, Simon & Schuster (his publisher) and my agent would be rightfully livid.”
He hopes songs from his “We All Looked Up” album can be incorporated into the upcoming movie because “that’s one of the ways musicians can make money,” he explained. “You can still make a living as a writer — it’s not all that remunerative, but you can make a life. If you’re a musician, the best you can hope for is touring a lot and making money by being away all the time,” and Wallach identifies as an introverted homebody.
He paid “more than half” of his book’s advance on recording and to the other musicians who appeared with him at the Joe’s Pub gig.
“I’m a really loud voice in favor of paying for things,” said Wallach. “I’ve ended friendships over this: You can’t be friends with me if you steal all your content. I have starving artist friends who have no money and I don’t argue with that, but I really object to people who make a philosophy out of stealing from artists. One of the great things about the YA world in particular is people still buy books!”
Wallach success is a testament to the power of a relentless work ethic, married to almost supernatural persistence. And his devotion to his craft hasn’t flagged now that he finally has a hit on his hands. His next book, “Thanks for the Trouble,” a love story about a boy who doesn’t speak and a girl who may or may not be 250 years old, comes out next year.