'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Friday 10 June 2016

Guest Post: Tommy Wallach - No Promises

Kids' Book Review is delighted to welcome Tommy Wallach, author of YA novels We All Looked Up and Thanks for the Trouble, to share his perspective on the obligation of fiction to reflect the realities of life's uncertainties. 

In my short year and a half as a published author, I have found one tried-and-true, never-fail method for immediately alienating the entirety of my audience at any given event: describe my problem with the ending of Harry Potter.

Now, if you're an obsessive Potter-head who refuses to hear of any possible flaws in the most famous seven-book series of all time (sorry C.S. Lewis), read no further. But if you think you can handle it...get ready to have your world rocked.

The epilogue to Harry Potter is lame. It’s SUPER lame. It’s so lame, I'm getting bummed out just thinking about writing about it. You know the part I’m talking about, right? It's where we jump forward into the future and discover that Harry has married Ginny and Ron has married Hermione. Not only that, but they have children. Not only that, but their children are about to head off on the exact same journey that their parents did, enrolling at Hogwarts School of Wichardry and Wizcraft (I got that right, didn’t I?).

Boo! Boo to this! Does anyone really buy it? The takeaway seems to be that everyone marries the first person they ever love, makes babies, and then raises those babies to be just like themselves. It sends a bunch of romantic but entirely unrealistic messages. Good things never end. Love is forever. One's experiences will be mirrored and repeated in the experiences of one's children. There is a single right way to live, and that’s to marry young and have children.

If literature has an obligation to "hold the mirror up to nature," as the saying goes, then an ending like this one is failing in its literary obligations (and don't even get me started on where Katniss ends up; as my girlfriend put it after watching the movie, "So the message is the only way for a woman to be happy is to move back to her hometown and make babies?"). Life, unlike, simplistic novels, doesn’t make us any promises (or if it does, it seldom keeps them).

Though I've only published two books to date, nothing was more important to me than to push back against the trite certainties offered by the novels mentioned above. Richard Wagner, the famous opera composer, said that "We must learn to die...the fear of the end is the source of all lovelessness." As dark as that may sound, it is something I live by. Great literature teaches us how to be empathetic, caring, selfless, and accepting in the face of the difficulties we all must face. When books refuse to acknowledge difficulties (i.e. that nothing is permanent), they cannot teach us anything of value.

My first novel, We All Looked Up, is about four teenagers at a Seattle area high school who discover (along with the rest of the world), that there is an asteroid heading for Earth. The asteroid has a 2/3 chance of colliding (i.e. killing everyone), and will arrive in about two months. The book tracks the four protagonists during those two months, as they attempt to make some sense out of their possible extinction. Without giving too much away, the book ends without a firm resolution vis-à-vis the apocalypse, and the romantic relationships that develop are discussed in terms that imply they might also be ephemeral.

In my second novel, Thanks for the Trouble, the protagonist, Parker Sant√©, spends a romantic weekend with a stranger he meets in a hotel, the enigmatic Zelda Toth. Zelda claims to be hundreds of years old, and to be planning to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge when she receives a certain phone call. Though these mysteries are resolved over the course of the book, new questions immediately rise up to take their place, and I receive many emails from confused readers asking me to tell them the “secret ending” I neglected to spell out in the text itself.

I am very happy (and relieved!) to report that the majority of my readers understand and enjoy what it is I try to do with my books. Sure, they don’t leave you with a firm sense of closure, but neither does anything else in life! When a person dies, they don’t just disappear. They stay in your mind and your heart and your photographs forever. When a new relationship begins, it doesn’t simply erase every relationship that came before. Real endings are always complex and partial. We all know this. So why is our literature so afraid to reflect the reality?

Tommy Wallach is a Brooklyn based author of young adult fiction. His novel We All Looked Up was a New York Times bestseller. His most recent book is Thanks for the Trouble is published by Simon & Schuster. Visit Tommy's website and Facebook page for more information about his books and author events. You can also listen to Tommy's music on Spotify.