'I love them all equally, as all parents love their children'
Tommy Wallach on the characters from his debut novel We All Looked Up and his relationship to them.
From the beginning, I wanted We All Looked Up to have a collage-like structure (think the film Magnolia or the novel Let the Great World Spin), so I knew I would be telling the story from multiple viewpoints. This would allow me to show the same event from multiple perspectives, and to play games with time (the chapters overlap, so sometimes going forward in the novel ends up moving the story back a bit in time). I decided to write in the third person with four protagonists, and to keep to a very specific structure. Each character gets his/her own mini-chapter within each of the book’s ten main chapters, making for forty total chapters (with one exception). The four characters are all high-school seniors at the same Seattle high school, and at the beginning of the book, none of them are friends. They are, in no particular order:
Peter: Peter is a basketball star with a scholarship to Stanford. When the book begins, he’s just been challenged by an English teacher about whether spending his life playing sports is really the best decision he could make. This doubt, coupled with the news of an incoming asteroid called Ardor, causes him to question his entire life. Soon, he’s broken up with his queen-bee girlfriend, given up on basketball, and begun pursuing Eliza Olivi, a girl he was caught kissing in a photography darkroom the previous year.
Eliza: Eliza had been content to stay under the high-school radar, spending most of her time in the school photo lab. But when she and Peter ended up making out only a few minutes after meeting for the first time, the whole school found out, and she suddenly had a “reputation.” Since then, she’s struggled to keep her head above water, not least because, soon after the Peter fiasco, her dad was diagnosed with cancer. When Ardor arrives, Eliza retreats into photography, starting a blog called Apocalypse Already in which she documents the changes affecting society. She’s also drawn back to Peter, in spite of everything that’s happened between them, and finds herself an unlikely friend in Andy.
Andy: Andy is your prototypical skateboarding slacker. He has no plan to go to college next year. In fact, he has no life plans at all, other than to keep smoking weed and playing music with his best friend, Bobo. When the asteroid arrives, he realizes how empty his life has been, and decides to convince Eliza to fall in love with him, or at the very least, take his virginity. In the meantime, he also bonds with Anita, and the music they make together ends up changing both of their lives for the better.
Anita: Anita is a high-achieving African American girl, driven hard by her domineering but very successful father. Anita has already been accepted early admission to Princeton, but she’s hiding a shameful secret: she doesn’t want to go. Her real dream is to study music so she can be a professional singer. When the asteroid comes, she decides to rebel against her father and pursue her passion with what little time she has left. And who better to help her than a punk rocker with his own rebellious streak?
The four protagonists of We All Looked Up came to me in about half an hour, and they never really changed. (That’s lucky. That never happens. Thank you, great shiny gods of creativity.) I’ve been asked if I have a favourite, or if any of them is “me,” but the truth is I love them all equally, as all parents love their children, and there are parts of me in all of them. Andy and Eliza were probably the “easiest” to write, but in some ways that made writing Peter and Anita even more enjoyable, because it was a challenge. In the end, I’m proud of all of them.