If dystopia is a hop skip and a jump away from our present-day reality, Tom McAllister’s novel How to Be Safe imagines it. The world of the novel is both absurd and deeply real—one of crime, harassment, abuse, guns, armed teachers, the death of school children, and manic media frenzies.
The book follows Anna Crawford, who was fired from her job as a teacher only days before a mass shooting at the school. She is falsely implicated in the crime, thanks to a manic media frenzy, and what follows is a slow unraveling of a town impacted by violence and woman, lost in the furor.
McAllister is the author of two other books, The Young Widower’s Handbook and Bury Me in My Jersey, and the nonfiction editor for the literary magazine Barrelhouse. Recently, I spoke with him about workshops, Twitter, dystopia, and narrative voice.
The Rumpus: First off, Tom: the point-of-view of a woman?
Tom McAllister: This book began just as a Word document and once I realized other people might eventually read it, one of the first thoughts I had was people like you, like Elisa Gabbert—friends who are women, who are smart writers, and don’t have a lot of tolerance for men fucking it up… I was like, Man, I hope this book doesn’t really miss the mark.
I had the really rough, vague idea that it would be interesting to write a school shooting-related book. It took me a really long time to get to a point of view because for a while I was writing from the shooter’s point of view. I actually found that really boring, aside from the little prologue there.
Then I had this idea that I would do the point of view of a dozen different people in the neighborhood. I knew it was going to be this big, five-hundred-page thing. I think it was only when I wrote Anna’s voice that I was actually interested in working on it.
For me, it ended up being about more than a school shooting. It became about fear and power and vulnerability, things that are embodied more so by a woman than by a man.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to me that we’re still having this debate about whether men can write in women’s voices. It’s been done successfully, and it’s been done horribly, but we’ve been discussing it for eons. Why are we still talking about it?
McAllister: I think in some ways it’s good that the debate comes up because we are living in a time when people in positions of privilege are being asked to justify some of their choices instead of just saying “Well, I want to do it, so I get to.” I think it’s good in the sense of just having to justify your authorial choices.
A while back on the Book Fight! podcast, we spoke with a Philly-based writer named Annie Liontas. We talked about a James Baldwin book that is told partly in the perspective of female voice. I liked the book a lot. I think we all did, but Annie said one thing where she’s like, “The voice is beautiful, but it was obvious to me in every chapter that it was a man writing it, no matter who the voice was.”
She had a hard time pinning down why. She was just like, “You just know when you’re reading it.” This character is noticing the things a man notices, interpreting things the way a man would. I don’t know that I had a solution to that, but I definitely had that voice in the back of my head as I was working on the later drafts especially.
Rumpus: The way that this character talks and thinks is very quippy. The writing in this novel felt like it was born of the Internet. It’s informed not only by social media as a force in the book, but it also felt like social media was part of your process.
McAllister: Yeah, it absolutely was—and part of it started as kind of an accident, and then it was definitely intentional. I stumbled into a couple of those, brief, quippy, one-liner type things. Some lines in the book actually are tweets that I almost sent, and then I said, “No, wait. I cannot give this away for free.”
I’ve been extremely online for a long time. I got banned from the Prodigy message boards when I was like twelve years old. Some guy questioned whether I was a big enough fan of Nine Inch Nails.
Part of it is, I enjoy that voice. Some of the people I follow on Twitter are the sort of people, like Sandra Newman, who can twist this absurd concept that is really funny, but it also has something going on deeper beneath it, and in 280 characters or less. I was partly imitating them. Twitter has affected the way I think. I probably have brain disease now.
Rumpus: So social media is an influence and a presence in the novel, but how do you feel about that influence and presence? Are you okay with it? I can see people being like, “Well, it’s the downfall of writing,” or whatever. Tom, your book is the downfall of writing.
McAllister: If only it could be important enough to be the downfall of something. I made the mistake of reading one review on Goodreads. It said something like, “It seems like it’s written for short attention spanned Internet people.” In a way, it sort of is.
Probably my attention span has been wrecked. There have been books like that around forever. One book that we read for the podcast a while back was Holy Land by DJ Waldie. It’s this memoir of growing up in one of the first suburbs in California, like the first planned suburban development.
In my mind, when I started, when I finally found a structure for the book, I was kind of imitating Waldie, where he’s got these three lines and an asterisk, then a paragraph, and then another bit. It’s one of those books where I read it and I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do this.”
Rumpus: You are an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate. How did that influence you?
McAllister: Going there, and being exposed to other people who were in the program at the time, like Leslie Jamison, showed me what a serious writer looks like and how they act, and how they approach their work. Not the actual content, but how they think about writing.
One of my biggest influences comes from outside my MFA. Dave Housley from Barrelhouse. Basically, he comes at it from different angle where he was just a working professional into his mid-thirties. Then he went and got an MA and he just started publishing. He’s outside that little world.
His advice is: Most of us, nobody’s ever going to read our books outside this time period. Why waste your time writing stuff that doesn’t get you really excited? It seems so obvious.
Rumpus: You were a senior in high school when Columbine happened. Did you have that in mind when you wrote How to Be Safe?
McAllister: In high school, the guys I hung out with were all the band guys and the metal guys. In the immediate aftermath, a bunch of us were actually called to the office to be asked whether we are part of a trench coat mafia. We said, “No, we like Metallica, and we don’t like our classmates.” There’s a huge difference between that and shooting our classmates.
I remember it vividly. Watching all the stuff, and then watching the Michael Moore documentary, Bowling for Columbine, a couple years later. I read the book Columbine, by Dave Cullen, while I was working on this, too.
Rumpus: I think a central tension of your book is there’s so much to be afraid of in this world. How did you enter that mind space of constant fear?
McAllister: My wife is usually the first reader for whatever I’m doing, but she’s been taking grad classes and she was too busy to read the whole thing. I would show her occasional scenes, or just say, “What would you do in this situation? Compared to what I would do.” Or, “How aware are you when you’re on the subway of all the men around you.” (The answer is, “Extremely.”)
This actually relates to the Twitter thing, too, where before Twitter, women talked about all these things, but it wasn’t as easy for someone like me to just hear, on a daily basis, from hundreds of women saying, “This is what it’s like, every day.” It is not just the most nightmarish stuff, it’s the day-to-day harassment of female journalists, and things like that.
It’s a shame that Twitter is the tool that’s going to destroy our entire world, because there’s a lot of good things about it, too.
Rumpus: Your book is so relevant, and yet it’s relevant because of violence and pain. How do you promote a book that fits into that space?
McAllister: The book came out April 3, and that was the day the YouTube shooting happened. I was doing my first reading for the book, and then an hour later I saw that had happened.
The timing… on one hand, obviously it’s a big reason why places like the New Yorker and Washington Post have covered the book, but on the other hand, it can feel gross and weird. And I very much am trying to avoid being a thread guy on Twitter.
Rumpus: But all book promotion is awkward. I heard you once tell a story about sitting at a sports bar with your memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey.
McAllister: That was one of the two least successful events I’ve ever done, both for that book. That was near where the Eagles used to have their training camp, basically their first practice of the summer, in Bethlehem, PA, by Lehigh University. My idea, which I still think was a good idea, had it worked, was basically to set there because thousands of Eagles fans go to these practices. The idea was like, I’ll call the bar, I’ll set up a table at the entrance and I’ll sell books about being an Eagles fan to Eagles fans. We were there for six hours, and we sold one book—because my father-in-law eventually convinced the bar manager to buy a copy.
I did get a free chicken sandwich, which was nice. But it was a very discouraging day.
Rumpus: Do these experiences give you any sort of insights into books, writing, and marketing, or are you just like, Fuck it, nobody knows how to sell these things. Let’s just all sit in bars for six hours and eat chicken sandwiches.
McAllister: Actually, yeah. I’ve done three books, each with a different publisher. It still seems completely mysterious to me. I keep hoping that there will be some, not like there’s a magic bullet, but I’ll make some breakthrough where I’ll say, “Oh, here’s something I could have been doing all along.” So far, I don’t know what that is. Maybe I should just start doing long Twitter threads.
Rumpus: Bleak. Speaking of bleak. This book… it sets up a kind of dystopia that doesn’t feel too far away. Were you anticipating that while writing this?
McAllister: There’s a line in the book when [the protagonist] writes the congressman saying, “We should just start making children bulletproof.”
Now they’re selling Kevlar school gear and backpacks. And it’s like, “Oh, Jesus Christ, I thought that was what we wouldn’t do.” Partly though, it’s kind of a mystery though, because then I was thinking back to when the Virginia Tech shooting happened.
I was very active at that time, primarily on an Eagles message board, but it had a political section, which is always a mistake to go to, and to which I always went. After that shooting there were two lines of discussion. One was blaming the creative writing teachers for not seeing that the shooter’s stories were weird.
The other was people saying, “Well, if those teachers were armed, nothing would have happened.” Which, number one, overlooks that this occurred at a major military school. Number two, it’s crazy.
Some of the lines in the book that I think are the most blunt, direct ones are almost lifted exactly from things that I’ve heard. One way to show the absurdity of something is just to say it directly back to someone’s face. I wanted to do some of that. I wanted to mix that in with the more absurd stuff, like the sun, in theory, like the drones patrolling town and whatever.
The book was trying to express all the frustration with the ongoing chaos that we have in the world. A lot of it was written pre-2017. I officially sold the book in early 2017, so most of it was written and done before Trump even became president, but a lot of the preexisting conditions of our insane rhetoric were there. Most of the political types who are most objectionable, like Paul LePage or Steve King, those people were already there.
Partly, the book is trying to project a worse future. A slightly more apocalyptic future, but also, partly the book is trying to say, “Look, this future is here.”
Rumpus: The book is a fractured narrative with some nonfiction elements.
McAllister: I worried that some readers will be like, “This is way too fractured. I want a straight narrative.” I really liked the idea of the victims’ chapters, especially because they were basically little flash stories that I got to have, leftover from my notes from back when I thought it was going to be a book about everybody in town. I was able to incorporate little bits.
I’ve read a lot of books that I really enjoy that seem to just like… Like Geoff Dyer is an author who is on the record as not caring at all whether his books are categorized as fiction or nonfiction. He says, “I’m just, like, writing things.” I think, there’s a certain type of reader and a certain type of academic who is really obsessed with categorizing which parts of a story are true and which are not. I like books that play with people’s expectations about what is true.