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. The Millions: When did you start working this project? What drew you to the subject of school shootings? 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. [millions_ad] 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.
Michael Nye is not certain whether he considers his debut, All the Castles Burned, a sports novel. “My first response is no, this is not a sports novel,” he said. “But I think that’s just me not wanting to have my novel pigeonholed.” Owen Webb, a scholarship student at a prestigious private high school in Ohio and the novel’s protagonist, is a prodigious point guard. The friendship he builds with Carson, an older student, grows while they shoot hoops during a shared free period. Basketball is at the heart of All the Castles Burned. When thinking about sports novels he really appreciated, like Fat City by Leonard Gardner, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, or The Hopeful by Tracy O’Neill, he hit on one of the things that makes his book work so well. “These sports novels, and other really terrific ones, aren't about winning a game…Sports are just a way of getting into those themes that drive our characters to making critical choices in their lives with irreversible consequences. Does it really matter if a character hits a game-winning shot? On the surface, of course not. Beneath the surface? Maybe it does.” It’s only a game until it isn’t. The Millions: One of the things that I was most impressed by was the way the basketball games were written. How did you approach those scenes? Were there any books or pieces of writing you were looking toward as guides for how to write about the game? Michael Nye: One of the things that has always struck me about sportswriting is how rarely it makes game action vivid. For beat writers, they have to churn out the facts of the game—who scored what at what point in the game and so forth—and rarely get to describe the action in a vivid way. I wanted to avoid moments that a reader might typically see in any kind of sports story, whether it's in a book or in a movie. No miraculous shots, no wild scrambles of pure luck, no buzzer beaters. So I picked moments that Owen would experience and view in his unique way: Carson shooting a free throw, his on-the-ball defense at the end of the game, and all the small gestures that can lead to a fistfight. Each gave me the chance to do something a little different; respectively, the careful examination and memory of his friend and the mechanics of shooting; the tension and action of one moment; and the slow build up of game play leading to a drama much bigger than just a basketball game. Because I haven't seen this described in other novels, I felt free to write them however I wanted to without the restraints of influence. TM: I'm glad that you mentioned the immediate tension and the slow build up in the games because that was one of the most interesting things about the games and the novel as a whole. There's a sense reading it that that a few characters—Carson, Owen, Owen's father—could blow up at any minute. All sorts of small moments in the novel feel like they could directly or indirectly result in something explosive and tragic. What was the process of winding it so tightly like? MN: The first drafts of this novel were a bit of a free-for-all. My driving thought was to finish the book, to get to the end, hurry the story along, and I didn't think much about how to make the story tense and compelling. In later drafts, I thought of Owen being squeezed, the sense of pressure building around him. What really helped to give the book tension was thinking about how to use first person. One of my writer-friends, Rachel Swearingen, pointed this out: Owen has survived these events and is in the here and now telling the story. The reader doesn't know what the present day Owen is like, where he's speaking from, how he turned out, only that he is alive and telling the story. Owen looks back on his life and sees certain events differently, perhaps, than he did in the moment. We all do that, right? We very clearly remember yesterday; we are hazy about five weeks ago, five months ago, five years ago. Neuroscience research indicates that we change and shape our memories all the time to better fit who we are right now. The more we access a memory, the more unreliable it becomes. So, every time Owen slows down, ponders, focuses on his story, the reader is reminded of the survivor, the teller of the tale. Rachel urged me to remind the reader—sometimes, not too much—of Owen's role as narrator, and I think that really helped to construct tension and intrigue into his story. TM: How many drafts of the book did you go through? And how much did Owen's reflective narration change over that time? MN: On my laptop, I have eight drafts. But I'm not sure how significantly different each draft is from the other. When I'm revising, a "new" draft might be a complete rewrite or it might be changing the word "the" and everything else in between. In the end, I would guess closer to six drafts, but I'm honestly not sure. What changed? The book has two timelines, the first in 1994 to 1995 and the second in 2008. In early drafts of the novel, the book was split evenly between those periods. I was trying to write something sort of Nabokovian, and it only took a few months [to learn] that I don't write anything like Nabokov and don't much want to. It was the completely wrong influence for my writing and, more specifically, this book. As I thought about what this book was really exploring, about male friendship and class, I focused on Owen's formative teenage years, and saved the present for a much shorter period of time. Shifting in both time and character (from a Nabokov antihero to, say, a Richard Russo storyteller) reshaped Owen, both who tells the story and the events he chose to share. TM: I was really interested in how you dealt with class throughout the book. Owen is a scholarship student at an expensive private school and Carson is from a very rich family, and there are things about his politics sprinkled throughout the book. I was wondering how you were thinking about class in a political context as you were working on this book. [millions_ad] MN: There have always been class divisions, in 1994 and of course today, anytime in civilization, really. I wanted this sense of class to be particularly to Cincinnati, to the Midwest, to the era. By attending a private school, Owen becomes aware of what he doesn't have, which is often how we think about wealth: what is denied or unattainable rather than valuing what we already possess and cherish. So much is in the details, the things that Owen is learning to become aware of, and how easily, as Carson shows, that leads to entitlement. TM: Can you elaborate on how you approached the particularities of the place and era? MN: I graduated both high school and college in the 1990s, so all pop culture elements like movies, books, TV shows, world events, the O.J. Simpson trial, and so forth, are fairly ingrained in my memory. There are enough details in the novel to get the facts right, but I'm reluctant to rely to heavy on culture references to make characters vivid or to move a plot along. In some ways, I want to deemphasize this by having the characters aware of, but dismissive, of events such as the Russian invasions of Chechnya or the Republican takeover of the U.S. Congress in 1994. In fact, thinking about it now, the lack of cell phones really helps to force action into a story. Owen can't find out about Carson with a Google search. Caitlin can't post selfies. Google didn't exist. Teenagers are always going to find ways to be bored or kill time, but something as simple as "I need to use a phone" helped add tension to the novel by forcing Owen to go home, leave messages, wait for phone calls. I want this world to be recognizable as another era, but I didn't want to be steeped in nostalgia that it would feel kitschy or forced. TM: Was that something you found difficult to avoid, having been the same age around the same time? MN: I have no idea how effectively I truly balanced the nostalgia in this book. You know how you often only see a story or novel clearly once you've been removed from it for a time? Organizing my home office, I recently came across my story collection, and started flipping through it, and mostly thinking "ugh." I really didn't find the nostalgia hard to avoid. While I had a perfectly fine childhood, I'm suspicious of nostalgia in narrative art. It always rings false to me. I often think I'm not remembering my past correctly: I tend to sugarcoat things, so as a fiction writer, I distrust my own memories and avoided using my specifics in the novel. Which is a good thing: I know then I'm writing Owen's story rather than some bastardized version of my own life. I didn't heavily research this era. I didn't want to be tied down to the facts when writing fiction. I double-checked that the references to music, film, and television shows were correct along Owen's timeline, but in doing so, I was operating as a fact checker rather than looking for influence for the story. I don't particularly enjoy doing research. And, really, the past never seems that long ago to me. When thinking about being a teenager in the 1990s, I never think "that was so long ago!" until I glance at the calendar. That's the thing about the past and memory: when called up, it's so visceral and sharp that it seems recent, urgent, right there in the room with me. Owen feels the same way; the Owen at the end of the novel doesn't so much look back on his past as he relives it and carries it around with him all the time. TM: I think my favorite piece of 1990s culture in the book were the scenes of Owen watching basketball MN: BOOMSHAKALAKA! The 1990s is when I fell in love with basketball and the NBA (and, clearly, NBA Jam) so writing about that era was fun. I'm not sure TV ever got better than when you had a big dumb box with buttons on it, the cable literally attached to the back of your TV, that you had to thwack to change stations. TM: Who were your go-to NBA Jam pair? MN: For a long time, my go-to with NBA Jam was the Hornets: Larry Johnson and Kendall Gill. But! In NBA JAM: Tournament Edition, I'm pretty much unstoppable with the Warriors. Tim Hardaway and Chris Webber. Having a combo of one player for threes [and] steals and the other for rebounds [and] blocks is key. I'm a pretty big fan of 16 bit arcades/bars where I can go nuts on that game for a solid two hours. TM: You’re a big Celtics fan, so here’s the most important question: are the Boston Celtics going to make the NBA finals this year or what? MN: Well, why not? I'll be a complete and total homer right now and insist they are making the Finals because Cleveland is a dumpster fire and I have no faith that We The North are anything but a regular-season team. Banner #18, baby!
Over the last few years, I’ve developed a certain pattern for whenever Jonathan Safran Foer or his writing come up in conversation. First, I admit that I’ve read all of his books and liked them. Second, I provide the caveat that I was a teenager when read them and haven’t looked at them since. Third, I say that I still stand by Eating Animals and find it to be an interesting piece of literary journalism, but that, of course, I no longer have a high opinion of his fiction. Much of the literary community seems to feel the same way, if they were ever on his side in the first place. Cursory research indicates that even at the beginning of his career he was a polarizing figure, winning awards and making end-of-the-years lists alongside middling reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. This time around, it seems a little more universal. Here I Am received negative reviews from The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and many other prominent outlets. Is the book that much worse than his others? Or are we just different? My first encounter with Foer’s work was in an English class my junior year of high school. After reading many of the canonical American works -- Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, etc. -- we closed out the year with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. The book is about a nine-year-old boy, Oskar Schell, whose father passed away in the September 11th terrorist attacks. I was around that age in 2001 and had similar youthful difficulty making sense of what happened. Unlike much of the other work that I had read in English classes up to that point, I felt like I really understood what it was trying to do. The novel was also built on a series of formal techniques that I had not seen before. He dispersed letters from grandparents throughout the narrative and used photographs in contexts that seemed unconventional. These elements created the illusion of complexity, which dazzled me at the time. The summer after this class, I read Everything Is Illuminated. In it, a character named Jonathan Safran Foer sets out to Ukraine to learn about a woman who saved his grandfather’s life during the Holocaust. Just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it switches between two storylines, and just like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it resonated with me deeply. I had never read anything else like it. In the years since this, I have come to think about these novels as sentimental and emotionally manipulative works. It does not take a particularly good writer to make the story of Oskar Schell an emotionally resonant one. The same goes for the story of (the fictional) Jonathan Safran Foer in his first novel. Centering books around flashpoints of international trauma is a quick way to the heart of a reader, and there is something about the way he does it that does not feel earned. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, uses 9/11 as a prop to make its narrative heavier and more believable. His father could have died any other way, and he still could have found the envelope with the word “Black” on the front, and he still could have gone on his adventure. Perhaps, outside the specter of international trauma, it would be unbelievable that all these strangers are willing to speak with this child, but it is unbelievable within the specter of international trauma, anyway. In fact, the collective trauma has nothing to do with why people are so open to him, because in the end the reader learns that it was his mother pulling strings for him the whole time that made it possible. Similarly, Everything is Illuminated relies heavily on the fictionalized history of the real town of Trochenbord, an exclusively Jewish shtetl located in Poland before the Nazis and the Soviets invaded during World War II. Almost all of the residents were murdered before the Holocaust ended. But replacing the real history with an imagined one turns a town that experienced tragedy into a device that coerces sympathy from the reader. The book takes the name and weight but leaves the substance behind, repurposing real-world suffering into a gimmick. Still, I couldn’t deny that I found his books deeply moving, and if art is deeply moving, is it possible that it failed? If the impact is there, does it matter whether the writer “earned it” or not? They were gimmicks and tricks and manipulative, yes, but does it matter that they work? It has been six years since I read his fiction, and it has been 11 years since he has published any. I was curious to see how his writing has changed over the years, as my perception of his work also changed. To bridge the gap between perception and reality, I read his new book. Here I Am is a much more straightforward family novel than his prior two. The three central conflicts are also basically familial: Jacob and Julia, middle-aged parents of three, are spiraling toward divorce. Sam, their eldest, is 13 but does not want to have his bar mitzvah. Isaac, the great-grandfather, is deciding whether he wants to kill himself or be moved to a nursing home. These three conflicts are done well, or at least well enough. Foer’s dialogue is also strong, crackling with energy reminiscent of gatherings with my own Jewish family. He proves especially proficient in busy scenes with more than two speaking characters. However, there are long stretches of time when nobody is speaking, and interiority is not his strong suit by any means. Julia’s inner life is constructed particularly poorly. The writing is overwrought and leans on lists of superficial opinions to create the illusion of character depth, and sometimes it borders on unreadable. When he is willing to allow actions to characterize her, they are bizarre and unbelievable. Once, she asks Jacob to stare at her vagina in order to bring her to orgasm, which works. Another time, she masturbates with a doorknob she got from a hardware store. These moments are predictably unconvincing. As if to prove that his sexual misunderstanding is not sexist, he also devotes an enormous amount of page space to men thinking about their penises and talking about them with other men. These also fail to appear believably on the page. The major events of the book are similarly hard to believe. About 275 pages into the book, there is a major earthquake in the Middle East, causing devastation in Israel, Jordan, and other surrounding countries. This leads to a series of events that make sense if you squint and are maybe a little drunk, including a total and unconditional withdrawal of Israeli soldiers and citizens from occupied territories and the unification of Jordan and Saudi Arabia into Transarabia. All of this leads to pretty much every country in the region declaring war on Israel. The point of this, of almost starting World War III, is not to highlight the instability in the Middle East or the danger citizens of the region face or to even add to the conversation about Israel and its relationship with those around it. Instead, the point of this is to highlight the dissonance involved in being an American Jew, and specifically being Jacob, an American Jew who feels like a feckless wimp because he is a feckless wimp and struggling to bear the weight of how “manlier” men see him. And all of that is very bad. It feels wrong in the moment, and the more one thinks about it, the worse it gets. It is, in a lot of ways, exactly the issue I started to see in his work as I grew up a little and read a lot more. The tragedy that is supposed to give the book its power is a shortcut, a way of giving the book emotional muscle without doing any weightlifting. Still, I can’t avoid the way I felt at the end. Once the utter bullshit of the “war” falls away, once we are back with the family, the ending works. It is sad, and it made me feel sad. In spite of Foer’s issues, in spite of the flaws wounding Here I Am, in spite of the fact that it’s at least 100 pages longer than it needs to be, when I closed the book for the last time, I was genuinely moved. It ends quietly with a scene that is inevitable, but no less excruciating for it. Foer is the writer I thought he was. I have a hard time saying the book failed. Maybe Foer’s project is bad, or too sentimental. But if he was trying to get me to feel something, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t work.