Luke Rolfes: It’s a pleasure today to talk with prose writer Tom McAllister, author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including the acclaimed The Young Widower’s Handbook and How to Be Safe. I can’t thank Tom enough for taking some time with us today to talk about his work.
LR: Tom, let’s start our conversation with your most recent novel, How to Be Safe---a book that unflinchingly approaches one of the unapproachable subjects in American discourse. The narrative revolves around a horrific school shooting in a town called Seldom Falls. There are things in this book that make me laugh out loud, and things that make me ache deep inside. It seems that every passing day in America makes the subjects/themes of this book more and more relevant. Can you talk a bit about what led you to write this novel?
Tom McAllister: I’m glad you said the thing about laughing out loud; I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people that this book is funnier than it might sound based on the description. I mean, I want people to be angry and upset and all that other stuff too, but the only way for me to write a successful version of this book was to have those moments where you’re laughing and then thinking—wait, am I supposed to laugh at that?
To actually answer your question, I started writing notes for this book in the immediate aftermath of Sandy Hook. I was just so, so angry, not just about the shooting but about the insane culture that enabled it and the broken media response. It took me a long time to find the voice and the final shape that it was in because a lot of my early pages were just rants about guns. I needed to write a lot of words before I found an entry point.
LR: Were there any books, films, or music that inspired this work or served as companion pieces?
TM: There was nothing that was a direct link, i.e., there was no point where I was thinking “I want this to be my version of X or Y.” But—and here’s a real basic answer—the first book I ever really loved beyond all reason, the one that rewired my brain in what I think are mostly good ways, was Slaughterhouse-Five. And as I got deeper into HTBS, I realized I was finally taking my shot at a book with that kind of tone and scope. I want to emphasize that I know I am no Vonnegut. But my whole writing and reading life had in some ways pointed in the direction of me trying a book like this, that’s about deadly serious subjects but written in a tone that is sometimes silly and playful, structured unconventionally, and all that other stuff. Also, I listened almost exclusively to Tom Waits, Fiona Apple, and Nick Cavs while writing this book. Not sure what that means.
LR: I'm glad you mentioned Vonnegut because I was going to ask if he was an influence. Oftentimes, my students express interest in writing satire after they read a work by Orwell or Vonnegut or someone like that. They seem especially drawn to the dystopian stuff. I often tell them that satirical novels are (for my money) one of the most difficult styles of novels to write. What do you think the best satirists have in common? Is it a sense of humor? Fearlessness? Shamelessness? An unwavering belief in their idea?
TM: My students also love dystopian stuff, though many of them simultaneously say they're sick of "depressing" stories. Though in this case "depressing" is often a synonym for realist stories about middle-aged people. I think the hardest part about satire is balancing that tone -- you need to be able to modulate between silly, didactic, angry, and trenchant sometimes all within a scene (and also the scene must be working as a story on its own merits). And also, it relies on a certain cultural familiarity for the audience. So, to use your terms, maybe it is fearlessness, a kind of confidence that the thing they are saying is actually worth saying. Without full commitment to the bit, you just can't do it.
LR: The opening chapter of How to Be Safe begins with a harrowing look at the shooter. He is eating his last meal before undertaking his terrible actions. What inspired you to start with the killer rather than the protagonist in this novel? When working with a charged subject matter, do you find it best for readers to jump into the deep end rather than wading in inch by inch?
TM: I had actually written this bit as a standalone story maybe a year before Sandy Hook. It was published in Sundog Lit. It wasn’t until late in the process of drafting the novel that I realized I wanted this piece in there too. I think it helps to establish the tone a bit, and it also puts the shooter on the page, even though for me the shooter isn’t the focus. I really wanted the book to be about the aftermath, but I figured I had this pretty tight 2000-word piece already written that exactly fit the voice of the book; why not bring them together?
LR: The town of Seldom Falls is fascinating. It is specific yet ubiquitous in its interpersonal problems, history, entrenched ways, and insecurities. In my reading, Seldom Falls is a microcosm of America as a whole. Can you talk a little bit about the setting and the role you wanted it to play in this novel? Most specifically, what led you to land in this particular town, and is it based on places you’ve encountered in your life?
TM: I must admit to being extremely pleased with myself regarding the name of this town. So, I’m glad you keep using it. The original title of the book was The Seldom Falls Massacre, and my agent said, “I absolutely cannot sell a literary novel with ‘massacre’ in the title.” Good note.
As for building out the town, I really didn’t want it to be so generic as to be read as allegorical, but I also wanted to avoid writing any specific town that would have me beholden to its rules, reality, and facts. So, a lot of it is a hodgepodge of central PA places, which tend to be semi-rural, pretty Republican, pretty gun-loving, pretty focused on hunting, and pretty proud of themselves for being “safe” places. It was important to have it happen in one of those little towns, as they so often do so that the media can suddenly discover this whole little world whose quirks and oddities and particular details, they overlook in order to fit it into a pre-established archetype.
LR: How to Be Safe satirizes the United States’ obsession with guns and masculinity. One of the things I admire about your work, Tom, is that you never seem to flinch as you tackle difficult subjects. You guide us through this nightmare with authority, yet, at the same time, you highlight the messiness and convolutedness of the subject matter, as well. There are no easy answers in this world you’ve shown us. Not everything is framed as a binary version of right/wrong. Could you speak to that balance in your work? How does a writer balance “being critical” with “being nuanced” in the writing of satire/criticism?
TM: This is probably the biggest challenge I’ve had over the course of my writing life. I have always had a tendency toward forming strident knee-jerk opinions on big issues. I’ve worked hard to tamp that down, to strive toward nuance, etc., but it’s still there. When I was younger, this bled into my writing being nothing but angry and didactic. When I tried to touch on big social issues in my stories for grad school, the only feedback I got was that everything was too on the nose. One thing I realized finally is that the messiness—besides being a better way of thinking—is more interesting on the page. I don’t mind a novel with a point-of-view, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being lectured. I don’t even want that out of nonfiction.
The really short answer here is I absolutely could not have written this book until I did. It took hundreds of pages of bad work for me to finally be able to strike that balance and to have the confidence to try to make it work.
LR: Let’s bounce over to your other novel. In The Young Widowers Handbook, you tackle the concept of a youngish, listless man who loses his wife to a horrific, sudden medical complication. It’s a sad story in totality, but also optimistic and soulful. Both of your novels revolve around persons trying to navigate their way out of tragedy/trauma. What draws you to characters who are trying to move forward after unspeakable times?
TM: Just for the record, by having read both my novels, you are in one of the most exclusive clubs in North America.
The simple, boring answer to your question is that a character in that situation lends itself to a pretty straightforward plot. In Widower, Hunter goes on that road trip largely because it gave me easy milestones to hit in shaping a plot.
The more complicated answer is that although I enjoy books where major events and big set pieces are occurring, the ones I love most are focused on the inner workings of a messy person, particularly after they’ve screwed up big time.
LR: Was it difficult to get into and stay in the headspace of the main characters in these books?
TM: Not so much for How to Be Safe—Anna is a messy person, but I loved being in her head. I thought of her as funny, caustic, and angry, and I enjoyed seeing how far I could push it with her. On Widower, I had a hard time, because I felt that most of my work was trying to be in the mindset of a young man (very much like me) losing his wife, and I could not help but run through the real ramifications if my wife died suddenly on me. Could not help feeling the same kind of despair Hunter would feel. Could not help picturing myself in some pretty dire circumstances; some days I was drained after working on that one.
LR: I was intrigued by the format of this novel. The chapters rotate between a third person and a universalizing second person. Did you, in any earlier drafts, have only one perspective, or has it always been like this?
TM: On this one, I had the basic idea of the plot (young man’s wife dies, he tries to put life back together) and nothing else. So, I just started writing, and the first thing that came out was the first paragraph of chapter one (“You don’t fall in love at first sight, or first kiss even, but many months later…”) and I just felt like I’d nailed it. It felt so right to me, the voice, and I don’t feel ready to move on with any project until I have the voice down. That first chapter, which I still think is one of the best things I’ve ever written, was done in about an hour. It needs some revisions to tighten it up, but once I had it, I knew I had something I’d be excited to work on.
I tried for a while to do it all in 2nd, but that fell apart quickly. I realized I liked the contrast between the voices and also being able to use 2nd as a means of quickly changing the pace and tone. Some people have asked about the logic of the 2nd person chapters (“Who is writing them?”) and my answer is I don’t know. I like how they sound.
LR: I am inclined to describe this novel as picaresque. Hunter is on a road trip across America with his dead wife’s ashes. He gets into episodic adventures, encountering a variety of folks: from a Renaissance Festival troupe to a drunken bachelorette party. What about this itinerant format appealed to what you wanted to say about grief?
TM: This also comes back partly to a practical consideration. Plot is not a thing that comes naturally to me. I feel confident in sentences, in scenes. Little moments. But building out a compelling plot takes a ton of work. So, for a while, it was just a matter of figuring out where he might stop and how I could make some interesting stuff happen there.
Grief, I think this was helpful in that it forced him to encounter lots of different types of people. Basically, each moment and each person forces him to slightly recalibrate his relationship to his own misery. He desperately wants to hold onto the grief for most of it; it’s his thing now, being the sad guy. And there’s a gradual prying away that happens over the course of the book.
LR: You explore parent/child relationships multiple times in this book. An interesting character in this book is Paul, who also lost his wife, and is also on a sort of quest for closure that he will never finish. He takes on an almost fatherly role and seems to understand Hunter in ways that Jack (Hunter’s dad) does not. Jack is under the impression that life can be terrible, and that’s that. There is never really any closure between Jack and Hunter, yet I don’t think, as a reader, I wanted that type of moment from them. Can you talk a little bit about the relationships between kids and parents in this novel?
TM: Paul was a late addition. I felt like I needed one more person to try to reveal/uncover different layers of Hunter. Hunter’s never probably going to get along with his dad, and he’s not exactly in search of a father figure, but he’s also someone who is craving advice from a person who knows what it’s like. I’m interested in these broken family dynamics, the way people find surrogates for whoever disappoints them in their own family, and the way we try to build something new with the random folks we meet across the span of our lives.
LR: I’d love to hear about any new projects in the works. What are you up to currently?
TM: Well, I’ve got two book manuscripts circulating out there right now. One you know about—it’s a memoir in which I’ve written a short essay for every year of my life. I published a bunch of the essays in lit mags, including Laurel Review, and am submitting it as a full book right now. Back when I had an agent (long story) she didn’t think she could sell it. And I think she was probably right that it’s a small press book. I am actively trying to find a home for it.
The other is my attempt to write a book that can be described, above all else, as fun. It’s a locked room mystery kind of thing that gets very absurd and very silly. I think it’s a pretty fun one. I think it’s also one where people will actually be turning the pages. Really, I want to publish a novel that, when I describe it to normal people, they won’t immediately go, “Wow, that sounds heavy” and then sidle away. That’s out on submission too.
LR: And finally, since you’ve published a great deal in both fiction and nonfiction, can you talk a bit about switching between genres? Do you see yourself as a fiction writer first and foremost? A nonfiction writer? A writer of prose? How do you know whether to tackle a project as fiction or nonfiction?
TM: I think “writer of prose” probably covers it. Most of the time, when I work with fiction, I’m thinking in terms of novels, not stories. Mostly the opposite for nonfiction. I love the challenge of being locked into a made-up world for a long time and trying to make it compelling, coherent, etc. For nonfiction, I am most drawn to writing about smaller subjects, and trying to see how I can make ideas move – how quickly can I shift the ground beneath the reader’s feet, and can I get them to follow me on some unexpected riffs into this place they never thought we’d end up going to. Really, I am a writer of riffs, and then I figure out how to add enough other fancy stuff around them so that people will let me publish.
LR: Thanks so much for your time!!
Bio: Tom McAllister's novel HOW TO BE SAFE was named one of the best books of 2018 by the Washington Post and Kirkus Reviews. He has also published another novel (THE YOUNG WIDOWER'S HANDBOOK) and a memoir (BURY ME IN MY JERSEY), and his short stories and essays have appeared widely, most recently in The Rumpus, The Millions, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Third Point, Hobart, and Cincinnati Review. he is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse and co-host of the Book Fight! podcast. He lives in New Jersey.