3 interviews + 4 new essays

Four essays and three interviews I've completed recently, for those who don't obsessively follow all my tweets

1. For the Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote about the challenges of offering support to students who have much bigger problems than teachers can actually solve.

2. For Buzzfeed, I wrote about the Philadelphia Eagles taking on Donald Trump, and how they've done a fine job of not playing into his hands by getting into a stupid cable news shouting war. 

3. I contributed to Essay Daily's cool "What Happened on July 21?" project, in which writers try to document their days on 6/21/18. My piece got a little darker than I expected it to.

4. Lyz Lenz interviewed me at The Rumpus about How to Be Safe. We talked about writing from a female POV, Twitter's influence on the novel, and pre-apocalyptic books. 

5. Bradley Babendir interviewed me about How to Be Safe for The Millions. We talked about research, finding a compelling voice, propaganda, lightning, and more. 

6. The blog Advice to Writers asked me a few broader questions about what I'm reading, how I'm writing, and what advice I would give to younger writers. 

7. For The Millions, I wrote a piece called "Who Will Buy Your Book?" which quite a few people seemed to like a lot, and which seemed to really annoy a bunch of others. 

Reviews, interviews, and etc.

It's been a pretty good couple weeks of coverage for How to Be SafeA quick news round-up here, for those of you not hanging on my every tweet: 

1) In The New Yorker (!!!!), Katy Waldman writes, "the book’s alienated affect, flecked with sorrow and humor and rage, is so recognizable as one of the few rational responses to the status quo. In McAllister’s passion and exhaustion, in his struggle to communicate the incommunicable, one hears murmurs of Emma González’s speech at the protest on Saturday.”
 

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2) O Magazine (blurry pics above and below provided as proof that I'm not making this up), Natalie Beach calls the novel "searing," and "haunting." 

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3) In Time, Sarah Begley writes, "Anna sees that something is rotten in these United States, and she refuses to gloss over it. . . . Anna is messy, intelligent, absurd, rude; you might even say distasteful. You could not call this a pleasant novel. But its brutal honesty befits the times.” 

4) For Bookpage, Amy Scribner says HTBS is, "[a] prescient, achingly real novel," and, "Despite its searing subject matter, How to Be Safe is beautifully written. It’s also occasionally funny."

5) Bustle writes: "A gutting, shocking novel that circles a small-town tragedy, How to Be Safe is one of the most highly acclaimed novels of the year."

6) Entertainment Weekly included HTBS on a list of recent novels about gun violence

7) I did an interview with Midwestern Gothic about how to write about hot-button social issues, writing small towns, and writing in a female voice. 

8) I have some events coming up soon in Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Brooklyn (and also maybe DC and Baltimore). Maybe come to those events, please. 

News + more news + how I learned to teach

A roundup of links and news and so on below:

  1. In the past couple weeks, How to Be Safe has gotten starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal. A sample from Booklist: "Combining a deep character study, prescient satire, and an unfortunately all-too-timely evisceration of U.S. gun culture, McAllister’s well-voiced and remarkably observed page-turner is in almost all ways an anti-thriller—itself a comment on the current, terrifying mundanity of similar events."
     
  2. In The Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote some of the nicest things anyone has ever written about my work. A sample: "Like nothing else I’ve read, 'How to Be Safe' contains within its slim length the rubbed-raw anxieties, the slips of madness, the gallows humor and the inconsolable sorrow of this national pathology that we have nursed to monstrous dimensions."
     
  3. If this sounds like the sort of thing you would like to read, you can pre-order the book from pretty much anywhere.
     
  4. How to Be Safe is also on the LibraryReads top 10 list for April. Librarians, as always, are our favorite. 
     
  5. I've been adding a lot of events for HTBS. Right now, they're mostly in the Philly area, but I'm continuing to update that page, so please check back occasionally to see if I'll be in your neighborhood. 
     
  6. The Millions published another short essay of mine, this time about how I learned to become a better creative writing teacher by breaking away from a default syllabus and giving students more freedom. There's also some discussion of the worst day of class I ever endured. 
     
  7. I think that's it.

Some Things that Happened in 2017

In a year when so many people lost so much faith in the fundamental institutions of our country (and I know a lot of people felt disenfranchised long before the past two years, and I know it’s a function primarily of good luck that I’d been able to live without that daily anxiety for most of my life), it seems pretty stupid to write a year in review post about the relatively minor events of my own life. But I feel compelled to do it anyway. Because the scope of the problems is so vast and still so unknowable that I don’t even have anything worthwhile to say about them. Because most days, the only thing you have is the personal. Because taking stock of yourself is at least one way to try to control some of the things you can control.

For the past five years, when people asked me and my wife what was new, we didn’t have much to say. We weren’t having children like so many of our friends. We were settled into the same jobs that we’d had for years. We already owned a home. Very little was changing. That was fine, even if it made for boring conversation. This year was different. A lot of things happened. Some of them were very good. Others were not very good at all.

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1. I published my first novel: It didn’t end up in any of the year-end lists and it never quite broke through the marketing noise, but it’s selling much better than my memoir, and more importantly, my publisher facilitated a number of opportunities for me that exceeded any reasonable expectations I’d ever had for my writing life. I did live radio. I spoke at events in a dozen cities. I was featured (alongside Lauren Grodstein) at the Free Library of Philly. I got reviews and interviews in major publications. I flew to Vermont for the Misty Valley New Voices event, where the world’s friendliest people treated me to a dinner and a tour of their quaint town (I know quaint could be read as patronizing, but it’s the only appropriate word), and then taught me how to ski, then gave me a wine bottle with my face on it, then had me read to an enthusiastic crowd from the altar of an old church, and then they gave me dinner again, and then I had some bourbon sitting by the fire in the lodge and I felt like everything in the world was briefly okay. This all happened a week after the inauguration. When I landed in Rutland, my driver said he didn’t understand why people wouldn’t just give the president a chance. “I mean, he hasn’t even done anything bad yet,” he said. The next morning, the president signed the Muslim ban and when I came home, I was greeted at the airport by thousands of protesters. An inconvenienced passenger stood next to me in the terminal and said he wanted to beat the fuck out of all those protester pussies.

2. I spent a beautiful afternoon in Charlottesville, after speaking on two panels at the Virginia Festival of the Book. I had a salad and three beers and sat (almost) in the sun, and next to me, a woman who kept asking the bartender confusing questions finally apologized and said, “I’m sorry, I’m a poet.” All college towns feel a little bit fake, like movie sets built for young beautiful people, but I found it to be a very nice town overall. I didn’t know anything about the city’s history then. Five months later, Charlottesville would become home base for the white supremacist mobs the president loves. On the bus ride home, I would get a call from my wife telling me her father was dead. The rest of the year has been defined by his absence, and I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about it. I’ve written so much about dead parents, I feel like I’ve used it all up.

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3. Before my father-in-law died, when he was in the hospital recovering from a minor surgery that in no way suggested he would be dead soon, I told him I was close to selling my second novel, to a new publisher and a new editor (available in April!). It wasn’t official yet, but it was close. He clapped for me in his hospital bed. Seven years ago, when I published my memoir, he called me and asked, “How does it feel to have an actual dream come true?” And I had never thought about it in those terms before. I had dreamed of doing a thing when I was young, and then that thing had happened. It seemed impossible. I was trying to act very nonchalant about the whole thing, and he gave me permission to feel good about it. Anyway, he’s dead now. It’s hard to get past that.

4. My wife and I sold our first house, which we had bought at the height of the real estate bubble, using the life insurance money from her mother’s death as a down payment. We lived there for five years, and then moved because we were able to get a good rate on a house owned by an injured police officer who told us, as we were visiting the house for the first time, that he hated New Jersey and was desperate to leave. We spent the next five-and-a-half years renting the house because it was unsellable. Real estate is miserable, and I have thought so many awful things about the municipal workers in Barrington, New Jersey that I’m too ashamed to detail them here. Since 2012, we’ve completely wiped out our savings twice for the sake of that house. We’re lucky to have good enough jobs and few enough debts that we could survive it. To even entertain the concept of savings. I’ve been a homeowner for 11 years and the one thing I’m sure of is that I do not want to be a homeowner.

5. For the first time in my employed life, I worked on a two-year contract. I have to reapply for my job again in March, but for one year at least, I was certain that I would be employed in consecutive years. I think I’ll probably get another new contract, but also public education is being dismantled piece-by-piece and nobody wants to be an English major anymore. And I’m sorry, because this was supposed to be one of the positive items.

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6. My dog died the night before my wife and I flew to Paris to celebrate our tenth anniversary. We’d owned her for three years. She was one of the dumbest animals who has ever lived, but she was very sweet and had had a hard life, and, though my wife cared for her deeply, the dog was more closely bonded to me. I spend a lot of time alone in the house and it’s nice to hear a dumb old dog snoring under the desk while you work. It’s nice to see her roll onto her side and slap her tail against the carpet just one time, summoning you for a belly rub. It’s nice to have some external motivation to go for a daily walk. With the dog, I felt more like an actual part of my neighborhood than I ever have in my adult life. I spoke to neighbors. I let their children pet the dog. I saw the subtle changes in people’s homes. The dog died because we chose to make her die. She had stopped eating and drinking most days, and for the last two months, she rarely left our bedroom. We were certain she would die while we were on vacation, and at least this way felt like we were doing something sort of humane. Having a dog is often a burden, and it’s expensive, and they make the house filthy. I’ve promised my wife we will wait a while to get a dog, and still I check Petfinder once a week just to see who’s available and who needs a home. Two nights ago, in the rain, I carved a hole in a Rubbermaid container and then into a Styrofoam cooler, which I placed inside the Rubbermaid, so I could construct a makeshift shelter for a feral cat we’ve named Oreo. We put food out overnight and it disappears, but I have no idea whether we’re feeding a cat or a family of rodents. It feels good to be taking care of something, even without the reciprocation of a dog’s heavy, dumb head dropping into my lap when she’s lonely.

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7. What am I supposed to say here about Paris, besides that going to this city had been one of my wife’s goals since she was old enough to know Paris existed? We ate so much food. We drank a lot of wine (I spent a lot of this year experimenting with drinking more, and found that it works pretty much any day of the week). I struggled with the language. The toilet in our AirBnB stopped working on day 2. The Eiffel Tower was one of the seediest, most unpleasant landmarks I’ve ever seen. Crowds at massive tourist attractions behave monstrously. While we were there, the American president called self-identified Nazis “very fine people.” I had to email my mom every day to let her know I had not been killed by a terrorist. Everywhere we looked, there were police and military patrolling with massive guns. The crepes were great. We rode the Metro all over the city. We felt free and in love and for days at a time we could forget about all the other nonsense. You can be in a place where terrible things are happening all around you and still feel good about being alive if you’re with the right person. Platters of cheese help.

8. I wrote a short essay about guns that has almost certainly been read more than any other thing I will ever write. I wrote it in an hour, and it's one of the only complete pieces I've written since mid-summer. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to say about that either.

9.  I taught an advanced fiction course and then the fiction capstone course, retaining many of the same students, and it was the best teaching experience of my life. Most days, I felt actual joy walking through the door to the classroom, looking forward to hearing what strange, funny, insightful things my students would say. I learned a lot about anime and also about swords. I was floored by their ambition and commitment to writing, which is so much greater than mine was at their age (I wanted people to think of me as a writer, but I had very little interest in writing; I barely even read anything then). We talked about whether fiction and art even matter in a world like this, and they continually reaffirmed my sagging faith.

10. I read a lot of books. Some of the books I liked a lot: Sweetland, The Red Car, Ghost Story, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Closely Watched Trains, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, Mrs. Bridge, Girl at War, Dirty Diamonds #8, Massive Cleansing Fire. Some writers keep incredibly detailed records of their annual reading, and though I think it would be nice to be one of those people, I am not one of those people. It’s possible I’m a bad reader. You can find more about these books by searching for them on the internet.

What makes something a good year? I have no idea. A year is an accumulation of days in which you hope more good things happen than bad things, and then you make some promises to yourself to try to make the next one better. It all keeps happening no matter what you say or do.

Two out of five stars to 2017, a mostly shitty year in which some good things happened for me.

What to do with my body

This morning, as I tried to process the news about the shooting in Las Vegas, I wrote a very short essay called "What To Do With My Body In the Event I Die in a Mass Shooting." I had intended to maybe not share it at all, or just post it on this site, but the good people at The Rumpus liked it and published it this afternoon. 

You can read it here. It starts like this:

 

Take that body and don’t even clean the blood off the skin, don’t wash it out of my clothes. Don’t change my facial expression or adjust my posture. Don’t do anything to hide the reality of my death. Let people see me exactly how I was in my last moments, my face twisted in horror and confusion, my body curled unnaturally as if hunching my back could ever protect me from the bullets (nothing can protect you). I want them to see my mouth agape, my eyes feeling betrayed but also weary, because in those final moments, I know I would be shocked but not surprised (you can’t be surprised by something that happens every day; nobody is surprised to see the sun rise in the morning).

The Future of Print Literary Journals

I have a new essay up at The Millions, discussing the future of print literary journals in an era when most writers submit to online journals first and printing can seem like a huge waste of money and time. As I note in the piece, I don't think I'm smart enough to come up with the perfect formula, so I talked to editors at a number of other journals and gathered their thoughts. Here's a paragraph from that thing: 

 

In February, I joined thousands of other writers at the annual AWP Conference, at which several hundred exhibitors were selling books and literary journals, and many people were happily stuffing their tote bags. Among writers and editors, there is clearly still a demand for print. If we accept the premise that editors will continue printing, then the question isn’t “Is print dead?” but rather: what should print do to distinguish itself from digital? How can we justify the existence of this product in the face of cheaper, more accessible alternatives?

Book Extras: A Re-imagined Life

Note: In Fall 2016, I wrote a short essay about the origins of The Young Widower's Handbook for The Algonquin Reader. For those who weren't able to get their hands on a copy, I've reproduced the essay below. 

A RE-IMAGINED LIFE

First you start drinking, then you start talking about death. It’s a natural progression.

At least it is for my wife and me.

We’d been dating for two years when my father died of esophageal cancer. A year later, her mother died of ovarian cancer, the byproduct of a hereditary predisposition that she passed on to my wife. We were in college then. Time suddenly seemed very limited. The future seemed like a place other people got to visit, but not us. I moved to Iowa City for grad school and she stayed at home with her dying grandfather.

After two difficult years of maintaining a long-distance relationship, I was in both a personal and professional crisis: I’d wasted my time in grad school, drinking every day and never writing, and I was coming home carrying no completed work and about thirty extra pounds. I had applied for a temp job and had no marketable skills. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to marry her. I proposed after my graduation, and then we drove home together, our first real road trip. I called my brother from the parking lot of a Bob’s Big Boy to tell him I was getting married. We got lost in western Pennsylvania and drove until midnight looking for a place to sleep. I don’t remember much else from the drive, except the feeling like I’d passed through something, like I was finally entering the good part of my life.

Four years later, we were in Seattle, celebrating our third anniversary. The year before that, we had gone to Ireland, and before that, we were in San Francisco, and there had been a number of shorter trips in the interim. Since then, we’ve traveled to Italy and a dozen other places. I’m an anxious traveler—about the logistics of flight, about the crowds, about visiting the right places at the right times, about being lost—and I wouldn’t have gone on any of these trips without her. I would have talked about going, but never committed. And, as much as I’ve enjoyed our travel, I realized recently that it’s never so much about going to a specific place as it has been about being with her while we are in that place.

There has been an unspoken urgency to our travel: to see as many places as possible while it is still possible, while we are still physically able, and while we’re still both alive.

By the time of our Seattle trip, we were both in our late twenties; if we were fated to die at the same age as our parents, then we had already crossed the midpoint of our lives.

I know it sounds melodramatic. But the deaths of our parents were foundational for us; they made us acutely aware that at some point one of us will be alone again, and quite possibly that will happen long before we’re ready, if being ready is even a possibility.

When we were in Seattle, the weather was so perfect it was suspicious (had everyone been lying about the rain just to keep visitors away?), and we were sitting outside at a French restaurant that served homemade sausage that tasted better than almost anything I’ve eaten in my life, and we were both feeling very lucky to have a life that allows us moments like this. We were deep in that giddy mid-vacation high where we had convinced ourselves that not only could we move to Seattle, but we should. We ordered the fourth-cheapest bottle of wine to avoid looking like the kind of cheapskates who just pick out the lowest-priced bottle regardless of quality. We started talking about where we would travel for future anniversaries, and then she said something about how I’d better not die on her.

I promised not to be dead—or rather, I promised to try really hard to not be dead—and then I asked her for the same. Soon, we were discussing how I would handle it if she died suddenly. Would I still talk to her family? Would I sell the house and move a thousand miles away? Would I ever date anyone again? Would I even leave the house? Would I completely collapse (this was my prediction)? Would I eventually find some way to rebuild a decent life? Friends are sometimes horrified to hear that we used this occasion, of all occasions, to talk about my hypothetical life as a widower. But it’s not like I was plotting her murder. It’s not like I was looking for an escape hatch. We were a little drunk and we were in love and we were capable of talking like adults about sad things.

At some point, I joked about how I could carry her ashes with me and travel to the places we’d never seen.

“That really sounds like a book,” she said.

It did sound like a book, I agreed. I hoped it wasn’t already a book.

We ordered another bottle of wine.

Over the next hour, The Young Widower’s Handbook came to life. We brainstormed the general shape of the novel together: the backgrounds of the young couple, the cause of the wife’s death, the road trip, and potential stops the widower could make. I scribbled notes on the backs of receipts, and she tapped out text messages to me so we could have the ideas stored somewhere.

When we returned to the hotel, I sat and scrawled two pages of notes in our room; in the morning, I couldn’t read some of them, but many of the notes from that session have survived, in some form, to the final draft of this novel. That morning, I wrote the opening paragraph, which hasn’t changed since that day.

This novel comes from a place of great love and great fear. Before meeting my wife, I was a very sad, very angry young man, and her love and compassion showed me how to be a decent person in the world. We’ve been together for almost fifteen years, and so the person I’ve become is so intimately tied to her and our relationship that I can’t envision who I would be without her. In writing The Young Widower’s Handbook, I envisioned the protagonist, Hunter Cady, in a similar relationship, and wanted to explore his despair as he not only tries to properly honor his dead wife, but has to learn to re-imagine himself in a new life. Starting in Philadelphia, he carves a jagged path across the country, hitching on the final leg with a group of travelers, and ultimately arriving in San Francisco. Nothing on the road trip goes according to plan,  but each interaction with a stranger in a strange city is a chance for him to redefine himself, to try to be the man his wife always believed he could be.

In writing these scenes, I wanted to face my own fears. I wanted Hunter to honor his wife’s memory while trying to overcome his fear of the future. I wanted him to discover a version of himself that he could be proud of—the version that his wife had always seen. And I wanted readers to feel exactly what I felt that night in Seattle, on our anniversary, when my wife and I were celebrating the best days of our lives.

Two new essays

Another quick post just to note that I had two new essays published last week. 

First, this piece at The Review Review, in which I offer advice to writers on how to conduct themselves at readings when promoting their books. Here's a sample:

A lot of these tips, I admit, come down to issues of personality. Your job is to just try to act normal for a couple hours. This is difficult for some people; if you’re an asshole, you can’t fix it, but you can at least try to hide it for a while. Some days, selling even a single book seems impossible. You need to do everything you can to improve the odds.


Next, Miracle Monocle, the literary magazine from the University of Louisville, released their latest issue, which includes my travel essay, "The Least Authentic of All Experiences." It's a little longer than the travel essays I wrote on this site last summer, and it's about Italy, romance, authenticity, vanity, and a lot of other stuff. A sample of this one:

On this trip, we will see so many priceless artifacts that I will get tired of seeing them. Before this vacation, a friend described seeing the Pietà as one of the most moving experiences of his life, witnessing such a profound testament of love and beauty. I look at it for a long time and agree it is well-made, and then I look longer, wondering why I haven’t been moved in the same away. I take a picture and walk to the next sculpture. When we get to the Sistine Chapel, the woman in front of me falls to her knees in tears, and my first thought is: okay, we get it. You’re moved. And my second thought is a deep well of regret for being so cynical I would assume this emotional reaction is contrived. I want very much to be the sort of person who sees amazing art and falls to his knees in wonder, but this doesn’t seem like something you will yourself toward.

 

 

News roundup, part 2

A quick roundup of news related to my novel, my life, and my other writing-related activities:

1. NJ.com reviewed The Young Widower's Handbook and said a lot of nice things about it: "Though terminal ennui could become tiresome, McAllister adroitly deals with a major issue: How does one partner keep going after the other dies?"

2. The Seattle Times included TYWH in a roundup of 4 noteworthy debut novels, and also said some very nice things about it.

3. The Washington Independent Review of Books said, "Be warned, this is among the most heartbreaking first chapters in contemporary literature," and also they seemed to like the other chapters a lot too.

4. Shaun Bossio interviewed me for Redivider about my book, my writing routine, and the failure of English departments to articulate their value. 

5. At the end of the month, Mike Ingram and I will be among the many authors featured at the new UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay. This will likely involve a like episode of Book Fight, in addition to some other events. Due to time and budget constraints, this looks like the only stop I'll be making in the midwest for now, so if you're near the area, I hope you'll consider coming out. 

6. I wrote a short essay about the inner lives of sports mascots for The Classical, and had a lot of fun with it. It starts like this: 

The sports mascot ecosystem is a strange and unsettling place. The animals within it act in ways that are both familiar and wholly unexpected. Even if we put aside pressing questions about the suspension of traditional predator-prey relationships during games, and focus on their biographies, we still know so little about the interior lives of these creatures.

7. As it turns out, I may not be able to make it to DC for the Barrelhouse Conversations & Connections conference, though if you live in the area you should go, because there are so many great people there, and featured authors Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Sarah Sweeney, Geeta Kothari, and Tara Campbell are worth the price of admission alone. 

 

Audio Entertainment

A number of options for those of you who have a burning desire to hear my voice (which, as an aside, one thing I've learned over the past four years that babies really like my voice for reasons I can't explain, they just stop what they're doing and snap to attention, so maybe if you have young children, you can set up a playlist of me talking about things and your baby will be soothed and calm and everyone will be happy*). 

1. I was on the Otherppl podcast with Brad Listi. We talked about sports fandom, death, and mourning. 

2. I was on the #CNF podcast with Brendan O'Meara. We talked about podcasting, editing Barrelhouse, shifting between fiction and nonfiction, and finding urgency in your writing. 

3. I was on The Drunken Odyssey with John King. We talked about my memoir "Bury Me in My Jersey," the problem of being a football fan, structuring books, writing about love, and a bunch of other stuff. 

4. The Young Widower's Handbook is available as an audiobook through Audible. A sample below:

 

5. On Monday, 2/6, I will be on WHYY's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane from 11-12. 

EDIT: If you missed the Radio Times episode live, the audio is up now.

6. If you still need to hear more of my voice, you can always listen to the latest episode of Book Fight!

*happiness not guaranteed

Quick updates

1. Last week, the literary journal JMWW published my short essay, "See You in a While." It's about drinking beer on my deck with my dog and trying to appreciate good things. It'll take you less than 5 minutes to read. 

2. Today, the lit website The Millions published a piece I wrote about how podcasts can build communities and change the way we discuss books. As I say in the essay, "Literary podcasts are like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine." I say more stuff besides that too. Read it here.

3. Booklist reviewed my book and said, "McAllister’s debut novel is at turns funny and touching, particularly in the vignettes sandwiched between the narrative, which delve into Hunter’s thoughts and feelings about his marriage and his wife. Expect comparisons to Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby." So that's a good thing.

4. I've been adding lots of events over the past week. Starting 1/21, I'll be making the rounds, with a bunch of stuff in Philly and South Jersey, but also events in VT, GA, Boston, DC, and hopefully some more places soon. See the full listing here, and check back for future updates.