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.
At the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he studied fiction, Tom McAllister became known as “the ultimate Philly guy.” No wonder, considering he grew up in a row house, attended La Salle University, teaches at Temple, and even worked in a cheesesteak shop. But a person cannot be so reduced, as McAllister explores in his new memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. His book is a look at how his relationship with two of the major forces in his life — his father and the Philadelphia Eagles — have shaped him as a man and as a writer. As Justin Cronin says, “Within these unflinchingly honest pages lies a profound and personal meditation on manhood itself—on fathers and sons, on the inheritance of place, on the customs of a tribe and finding one’s place within it.” A moving and very funny memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey transcends mere sports writing to form a portrait of an individual through the prism of the team and city he loves.
The Millions: I’m curious about the structure of this book. It opens with the Eagles in the Super Bowl and you in your friend’s basement, watching the game. From there, we move forward and backward in time before eventually arriving back in that basement. Was this always how the book opened? How did you decide that the Super Bowl had to be the opening?
Tom McAllister: I had originally considered starting with the eventual second chapter, which had been published as an essay in Black Warrior Review. I still think that’s probably the best written chapter in the book, and one that presents a good overview of all the issues in the book: the football obsession, the message boards, my dad’s death, my relationship with my wife, and so on. Pretty much the only major theme it doesn’t cover is the stuff about growing up in Philly.
I decided to start with Super Bowl XXXIX, though, for two reasons. First, it was very pivotal time for me, both personally and as a fan: the Eagles, obviously, were at their peak, but I was at one of my lowest points, as I was drowning in grad school, trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, and still struggling with my dad’s death, among other things. In hindsight, I realized how much I’d pinned my hopes on the Eagles, as if a Super Bowl win would somehow save me, which, of course, is short-sighted, but which is a pretty common trope in sports (think of all the stories about how the Saints Super Bowl last year made post-Katrina New Orleans all better). Second reason: once I started writing that scene, I came up with the eventual first line (“This book, like so many other stories in this city, begins and ends in the same place.”) and right away, I knew that line was exactly how I wanted to open the book. It hit the exact voice and tone I wanted to establish.
Okay, one more reason: I was very focused on organization in this book, and was determined to avoid a chronological retelling of my life as a fan. That seemed a) boring, and b) not conducive to good storytelling, because I didn’t want to have to go season-by-season. That would have killed any narrative drive I tried to establish.
TM: Considering that this is a deeply personal story and one that couldn’t have been easy to tell, were you ever tempted to make it a work of fiction, to try to process your relationship with your father through the veil of a story or novel?
McAllister: I was most tempted to make it fictional when the real-life details were inconvenient to the narrative. There’s a chapter that’s focused entirely on a winter night I spent camping outside Veterans Stadium for Eagles tickets, along with 5000 other drunk Philadelphians. People were wild, starting fights, breaking into the bowels of the stadium, setting everything on fire to stay warm, and even then my friends and I were sure we were on the verge of a riot. And if the book were a novel, it absolutely would have escalated to bloodshed. But what happened in real life is that everyone inexplicably stopped being crazy and in the morning stood in a single file line to quietly buy their tickets and go home. So I had to write a sad disclaimer within the chapter saying, essentially, “I know this is disappointing, but that’s what happened.”
When it came to the personal stuff, that wasn’t as big an issue for me. Initially, I had to clear the hurdle of revealing myself, but I really enjoyed the level of self-analysis required by this project. If I’d gone with some sort of thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, I think I would have been too tempted to go easy on myself, to be less revealing and less emotionally honest. I can see how the fictional approach would be important for some writers, but for me, the only way I felt like I could do this story justice was to just lay all the facts on the line and let them speak for themselves.
TM: I’ve written about my own internet message board obsession here before, and an Eagles message board plays a pretty significant role in this book (it’s the first memoir I’ve read in which a message board is a prominent setting). How do you think the internet has changed sports fandom? What has it offered you as a fan that you can’t get from your friends – many of whom are also Eagles fans?
McAllister: As I see it, Internet sports coverage makes us more cynical. The relentlessness of the news cycle means there’s a constant pressure to expose us to every bit of corruption and stupidity in sports, the kinds of things that may have been overlooked in the past are now front page news (i.e.- a philandering athlete now somehow necessitates the use of live helicopter footage of his home, whereas it was just kind of okay for guys like DiMaggio and Mantle). Every time someone accomplishes something remarkable, there’s suspicion of performance enhancing drugs. It’s harder to be a fan who just watches the game and loves what they’re seeing, because when you look out on the field, you see a quarterback with two DUIs, a halfback who cheated his way through college, a tight end with seven children in six different states, an offensive lineman who’s been accused of steroid use, etc.
Not that it’s bad to expose corruption. It’s just very different.
TM: There are a couple of moments in the book when you have a chance to meet one of the Eagles in person. You chase [Eagles defensive back] Sheldon Brown on the freeway and run into [Eagles tackle] Tra Thomas at a Whole Foods. But you don’t actually talk to either of them. Do you think in the pre-internet era you might have acted differently?
McAllister: I think I may have been even more reluctant to approach them, pre-internet. There was a greater distance between player and fan then, and it was harder to view these guys as regular people. But now you have access to all the information you could possibly want– including athletes’ Twitter and Facebook pages– so it’s not entirely unreasonable to convince yourself that you’re already friends with each other, in a way.
By the time I saw Tra at Whole Foods, I knew pretty much everything one could reasonably know about him: hometown, college, the size of his family, marital status, health status, religious views, and so on. So it became easier to fall into the delusion that maybe, if I just followed along, he might want to talk to me or be my friend or something.
Same deal with Sheldon– he was my favorite player for years, so I knew even more about him than I did about Tra. I doubt I would have been able to “know” him so well if not for all the online access. The Internet, in this case, served to deepen my obsession and to fuel my desire to meet these guys.
The only thing that held me back from actually speaking to them was my own social awkwardness, which is sometimes powerful enough to keep me from even saying hello to my neighbors when they’re waving to me from across the street.
TM: So has the web improved sports at all or just created this veneer of companionship?
McAllister: There is a positive angle to sports coverage on the internet, because one of the big promises of the web is that you can always find a community of like-minded people. No matter what crazy thing you’re interested in, you can find someone out there who is just as interested, and who can help you to deepen your appreciation. You can know that there’s someone else out there who cares about the things you do, and who feels the same way you do when your team blows a big game. There’s an enormous comfort in that kind of knowledge. For as lonely as it can be to be reading a message board at 2 AM, at least you’ve still got an outlet to talk to someone. At least you know you’re not completely alone.
TM: You say that at Iowa you felt that writing didn’t offer the catharsis you hoped it would. Do you feel any differently now that you’ve written this book and it’s out there in the world?
McAllister: Surprisingly, yes. Not so much re: my dad’s death. I think it was just time that softened the blow on that one—we’re 7 years removed from his death now, and after a while, wounds will heal themselves, even if they do leave a scar.
But the act of writing this book has been tremendously cathartic as far as my fandom goes. I used to do everything I could to fit the obnoxious Philly fan stereotype. I was proud of myself for hurling beer at opposing fans and generally having no regard for human decency on gameday. I thought everyone else was crazy for not flying into a rage when the team lost, and I had no qualms about breaking bottles, punching holes in walls, sulking for weeks after a playoff loss. But writing about it all from a distance, forcing myself to confront the reality of my behavior, I felt like I was getting that all out of my system. I like to think I’m a rational, reasonably intelligent person, and there’s no way I could continue to think of myself like that if I wrote this book and then immediately went back to acting like a lunatic on Sundays.
I finished working on it in early summer 2008, a few months before the start of football season. I didn’t watch any preseason games or read any articles online; I detached myself almost completely, as if going into detox. It got to the point that my wife asked what was wrong with me, and I had to explain that I was just trying to distance myself a bit.
For the record, I still watch every game and still read about the team just about every day, but I do feel like I’ve found a happy medium. It’s been a long time, for example, since I woke up on Monday morning with a football hangover, still dwelling on yesterday’s loss.
TM: You talk about the inherent bias against sports in the book, and it seems to me that football is especially victimized in this regard. It’s always been acceptable to be a baseball fan, and recently, more and more intellectuals seem comfortable with basketball, but football remains the sport of cretins in the minds of many so-called intellectuals. How do you view the book – as a writer and as a fan – in light of what you know will be a bias? Do you even consider this book to be a work of sports writing?
McAllister: Sometimes when people ask me for a synopsis, I see them losing interest as soon as I say the word “football.” They say, “I’m not really into football. But my brother is!” as if that’s somehow a consolation for me. One thing I try to do is emphasize that while football is the driving force in the book, the real heart of the memoir is about relationships and maturation. Often, they don’t believe me, and they patronize me for a bit before moving on.
Despite its amazingly complex play designs and intricate strategies, football bears the stigma of being a sport for dumb brutes to run into each other arbitrarily. Of course, football does little to combat this notion: when a player expresses outside interests, he’s mocked and his priorities are questioned. Myron Rolle probably lost out on about $5 million because he was a Rhodes Scholar, and NFL coaches didn’t trust someone who seemed a little too smart.
So with this stigma in mind, I’ve tried to be very clear with the publisher that I don’t want this memoir marketed as “just a sports book.” I worried that it would be relegated to the ghetto of the sports section in the bookstore, which many serious readers avoid assiduously. There’s a perception that sports writing equals bad writing. It’s not a totally unfair perception either; things sure have changed in the world of popular sports writing since the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck writing for Sports Illustrated.
Do I consider this book sports writing? On one hand, sure of course it is sports writing. On the other, it seems different from the most popular sports books on the market, which are almost entirely focused on reporting stats and facts, with little room for introspection.
If pushed to categorize this book, maybe I would go with literary sportswriting? Is that a category? Maybe it should be.
TM: Agreed, it should be. I actually think it’s a great contribution to what might be called the literature of the fan (as distinct from the whiskey-infused, good-old-boy sports writing that professionals do). I’m thinking here of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes (to which you refer in the book), and even some of Bill Simmons’ early work, before he went all Hollywood. It’s a book about the way we actual live with sports, about what it does to us and how it shapes us as people. Where should they shelve that?
McAllister: Where would they put it or where should they put it? Sometimes shelving decisions are mystifying to me. I went to a local Barnes & Noble on my release date to see what my book looked like on an actual shelf, and I found it in the Pennsylvania section (which I didn’t know existed) filed next to something about the history of rivers in PA. About 15 feet away, there was a big display table with a sign that said “Vampire Books!”
Anyway, I think the place to put something like that would be, ideally, between the Fiction/Literature section and the Non-fiction section, as kind of a bridge. Actually, I wouldn’t mind an overall revision of the way we categorize fiction and non-fiction anyway. Not to horn in on David Shields’ territory, but it seems to me that they’re much more similar than we often like to admit. Maybe I’m thinking like this because I recently read Geoff Dyer’s amazing Out of Sheer Rage, which has no regard at all for traditional distinctions of fiction vs. non-fiction. But that’s all a bit ambitious, perhaps.
TM: I can’t let you go without getting your take on the Donovan McNabb situation (I realize I’m now pinning you into that role of “go-to guy for Philly sports takes” that you found yourself playing in Iowa). In the book, you argue that much of the criticism of McNabb is tinged with racism – that he’s too “uppity,” etc. At this point, do you think he’s done? Too banged up to win? Did the Eagles make the right choice going with Kevin Kolb as their quarterback? (Full disclosure: I’m both a Redskins fan and a Syracuse football fan, from back when they still played D1 football and McNabb was their star quarterback.)
McAllister: I thought it was time for a change in Philly. I was ready for the change about halfway through the ’08 season, but then they went on a totally unexpected hot streak to get to the conference championship. When they blew it again, it should have been clear the old core wasn’t good enough to win a championship. So last year was just more of the same, and they finally had to make a move. I don’t know if Kolb is the right replacement, or if the trade will work out in the long run, but I do think the concept of moving McNabb made sense, because it was time to close the book on that era. He’s not as good as he was– too inconsistent, too streaky– but still a solid NFL quarterback; definitely an upgrade for the Redskins, but not someone I think is capable of winning a championship at this point.
But I don’t hate McNabb like some in Philly do– a local sports anchor went to a Philly bar after the trade for people’s reactions, and about ninety percent of the people he spoke to were giddy about the Eagles having just traded one of the best players in franchise history. The next morning, a sports talk radio show counted down the top 10 reasons they hated McNabb as a person. He never seemed as funny as some people said he was, and I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to meet him for happy hour, but I never got why so many people here truly despised him. If he weren’t a Redskin I would wish him well. But since he is a Redskin, I hope he never wins again, and I get to see hundreds of shots of [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder clenching his tiny fists in impotent rage.