Tom McAllister’s third book, How to Be Safe, begins with Anna Crawford being accused of a school shooting she did not commit. The news reports, “Former Teacher Had Motive.” Law enforcement interrogates her. When they realize she is innocent, she is left to process the anger and grief that comes from having worked at a school where one student chose to kill 19 people and wound 45 more and from living in a country that can’t seem to do anything about it.
McAllister’s debut novel, The Young Widower’s Handbook, about a man who takes a cross-country road trip after his wife passes away unexpectedly, came out in 2017. Bury Me in My Jersey, McAllister’s memoir about his father’s death and his Philadelphia football fandom, came out in 2010. Alongside writing, he is an associate professor at Temple University, an editor for the literary magazine Barrelhouse, and a co-host of the literary podcast Book Fight. (Read his recent essay for The Millions on how to survive the publishing process.)
We spoke by phone about the process of writing How to Be Safe, how he felt about its reception, his work as an editor and a podcaster, and more.
Tom McAllister: I started on the original notes started after I was reading in horror the news about the Sandy Hook shooting. I always tell my students they should be writing about their obsessions and the things that are preoccupying them. And sometimes I don’t take my own advice, and in this case I said, “Oh yeah, you need to do this. This is a thing you’re constantly talking about and reading about and thinking as someone who’s teaching at a college.” I didn’t actually start working on the book meaningfully until about a year later once I finally solved some narrative problems and geared myself up to do it.
TM: What were you working on over that year? What was the research process like?
McAllister: There are some fiction writers who are really great researchers and conduct database and library research, and they do really thorough stuff, and a lot of my research is very Wikipedia level. I read a few books—like I read Columbine by Dave Cullen, which is a really incredible book. I read One of Us by Åsne Seierstad about the mass murder in Norway by Anders Breivik.
But then a lot of it was not so much research as it was trying to figure out what I wanted the book to be. I had the really vague idea of writing about a school shooting, which is not a plot or characters or anything. It’s nothing, right? It’s just a premise. And so a lot of that time was actually trying to figure out who my point-of-view character was going to be. Originally I thought the plot would be a thriller sort of thing, where we build up to the shooting at the school and we’re in the head of the shooter most of the time. And instead I ended up going the exact opposite way, where the shooting happens basically off the page in the prologue and then we follow the aftermath.
TM: How did that big shift in focus for the book happen? The prologue is from the shooter’s perspective and then the shooting happens and we move on from that.
McAllister: The prologue, in a slightly different form, was originally just written as a short story that got published in the online journal Sundog Lit. And those were the first words that I produced related to this project. I liked the tone of it a lot. But then I didn’t think I could sustain interest, my own personal interest in the shooter’s story over the length of a book. And then I tried to write from the perspective of lots of different people in this town. Teachers and some neighbors and so on. And I had started character sketches basically of who these people are and trying to map out their relationships. And I got really bored by a lot of them, too. And it wasn’t until I started writing Anna, the current point-of-view character, that I was actually excited to get back to work on it.
TM: What do you think it was about Anna’s character that made her more appealing to you as a writer?
McAllister: I think there are probably two things. One is the voice. The thing that draws me in, more than any other characteristic of a book that I’m reading, is a compelling voice. This is one where I had fun writing it. Anna is pretty dark and cynical, but I thought that other people might have fun reading it. I really enjoy getting into the head of a character that is kind of a mess and being stuck in their worldview. I also like the idea of having someone who is a little bit separated from the shooter, so that she can be defined by characteristics besides the fact that she’s related to the shooter.
I thought about writing from the shooter’s mom and staying in her head. I feel like there’s a bunch of different waves of trauma. There’s obviously the victims and the victims’ families. There’s the family of the person who commits the crime, which is…They have to deal with a lot. But then there’s all these other people who have to deal with not only the fear but also a survivor’s guilt thing, where they know that it’s completely random chance that they weren’t killed. And so like the idea of having someone who was maybe two degrees away from this kid who knew him and had interacted with him but really had nothing to do with him except that they happened to be in the same town.
TM: Would you consider this to be a political novel?
McAllister: On one hand, I get that it is a political novel because it touches on some really charged hot-button political topics. On the other hand, I was really hoping when I was working on it to avoid writing something that would turn out to seem like propaganda. I was trying to avoid it just being an anti-gun pamphlet and trying to keep it compelling as a story. But I think however one may define it, it probably has to be categorized broadly as a political novel because it’s really engaging in some pretty massive social issues.
TM: I’m interested in how you came to address those social issues in the book. How did you build out the book’s political world from the original anti-gun idea? Did it come from Anna’s character?
McAllister: That was the key to me unlocking this and making this actually a book. I was worried it was going to be too one-dimensional. And the more I wrote about Anna and the more I thought about who she was, I saw her as sharing some characteristics with a lot of women I know. She’s in her late 30s and she spent a lot of her life trying to politely follow the rules and not make waves. And she’s reached her breaking point, and she’s sick of apologizing and sick of being nice and sick of protecting the feelings of the men around her.
Part of the influence was just my wife and my peers and my friends. We’re all getting older, and a lot of the women I know are reaching that point where they’re like, “OK, I’m 40 years old and I’m tired of doing this.” It’s also definitely influenced by social media and being exposed to not just women writers but also accomplished women who have used that platform to express these ideas. I feel like I’ve read a lot of books by women and about those kinds of issues with sexism. But to see women expressing those points of view and discussing their experiences on a day-to-day basis was really influential.
TM: The way that the politicians in the book try to answer the question of how to keep their constituents safe was fascinating and also depressing. Someone proposes that teachers should be armed and that there should also be a cavalry of trained armed kids. My first thought was, “That’s crazy,” but it’s also not all that far off from stuff that’s actually been proposed. When you were writing that, did you think the ideas were dystopic, or were you trying to write something nearer to reality? Or both?
McAllister: It’s kind of a mixture. There are drones and the sentry robots set out on the road. That was me trying to be ridiculous. And then some of the other ones are almost word-for-word on some of the stuff people have said in the standard playbook after the shootings. After the Virginia Tech shooting, I remember people were saying, “Well, if the teachers had been armed…” I feel like sometimes taking the exact things that we say in one context and just putting them in a new context shows you how absurd they are. There’s a bit early on where something is said about how we should make the children bulletproof. And I thought, you know, this is pretty absurd. And nobody’s proposed that exactly yet, but it didn’t take long for them to start selling Kevlar backpacks and trying to market bulletproof vests to children. And it seems crazy to me that we just have to accept that the bullets will be there and need to find some way to help children dodge them better.
TM: Another significant piece of the world in How to Be Safe is that the sun over the town has disappeared. It’s an odd element of the story because at first it seems metaphorical, but then they start putting in lights and it becomes very literal. What were you trying to accomplish with that?
McAllister: I’m shocked that has come up so little. It’s in the first line of the book after the prologue. I liked the sound of that first line and then I said, “Well, let’s experiment and see what happens.” The more I worked on it, the more I liked the idea of presenting it in a way where the reader isn’t really sure whether to take it literally or not.
Over the past several years, I have come to really enjoy reading poetry, fiction, whatever, that has these kinds of magical elements that it doesn’t bother to explain. The first example I think of is Etgar Keret, who has a lot of these great stories. There’s a story called “Bottle” where a magician goes into a bar and says, “I bet I can put you inside this bottle.” And then he does. And then a guy spends most of the story living inside a bottle, and it’s never explained. So I thought, “Let’s see if I can pull that off myself.”
TM: So the last book-related question I have is also just a general background question. What’s your relationship with guns? Did you grow up with them or have you never interacted with them or somewhere in between?
McAllister: So my wife has three conditions that she says would result in immediate divorce. One is if I start smoking. Two is if I were to buy a snake. And three is if I were to buy a gun. I think she’s not 100 percent serious about that, but she might be. I knew some people who were police officers, so we had family members and friends who had guns. I had some acquaintances who would go hunting with their dads on the opening day of deer season and that kind of thing.
TM: On top of editing at Barrelhouse, writing, and teaching, you also host a podcast called Book Fight with another Barrelhouse editor, Mike Ingram. When you have guests on the show, you always ask them three questions at the end of your “lightning round.” If you’re all right with me stealing your intellectual property, I’m going to ask you those questions.
McAllister: Oh, man. You’ve really turned the tables on me.
TM: First: who is one author, living or dead, that you would like to fight?
McAllister: I don’t want to be like everyone else on the show and just say Jonathan Franzen, who actually doesn’t make me that mad. You know, I would fight Joseph Conrad. Because I realize I’m supposed to like his books, but I’m so mad about all the time I spent reading them in high school and not liking them. And he writes too much about boats. I don’t think boats are interesting. That’s my piece.
TM: That’s as good a piece as any. What is the book or who is the author you have most often pretended to have read?
McAllister: That’s probably still Moby Dick. I’ve got a thing where I’m really interested in whales, and I’ve read all these other books on whales and people just assume—and I let them continue to assume—that I’m very familiar with Moby Dick.
TM: And even though this is not a lightning round like it is called on your show, the last question is: Please share some thoughts about lightning.
McAllister: Just the other day, my wife and I were babysitting my 5-year-old niece and her younger brother, and we were talking about lightning. She was talking about how terrifying it is because lightning can destroy your house. And on one hand, we wanted to reassure her. But on the other hand, she’s not wrong. Of course, we did. We said, “No, no, it’s fine. Has it ever destroyed your house before?” I mean, we just put out some 5-year-old logic. We used to have a giant tree in front of our house. Every time there was a thunderstorm, I was sure it was going to collapse on the house. It was torn down and now we have a 5-foot tree that I am desperately trying to keep alive. Anyway: lightning. Scary.