The Ultimate Postmortem: English Faculty Member Talks Buzzworthy New Book
by Sara Curnow Wilson
The word “postmortem” is sometimes adopted to refer to a conversation about why a relationship ended. With this in mind, Tom McAllister’s new novel The Young Widower’s Handbook might be called the ultimate postmortem. The novel follows 29-year-old Hunter Cady as he takes a road trip across the country with the ashes of his late wife, Kait, and reflects on their relationship along the way. It’s heartbreaking and funny and has earned itself a spot on the spring 2017 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers list. We caught up with McAllister, who teaches composition and creative writing, to talk about the novel, his podcast and why he loves Temple students.
The Young Widower's Handbook is your first novel. Your first book, Bury Me in My Jersey, is a memoir about your late father and the Philadelphia Eagles. Do you think it’s harder to write fiction or memoir?
This is going to sound very bad, but one area of writing where I really struggle is plot. That is, certain skills come a little more easily to me, and one where I really need to push myself is in shaping coherent, propulsive plots. So in that sense, the memoir was a little easier, because I was drawing from my own life, and because there's a little bit less of an expectation for memoir "plots" to be as well-shaped as a novel plot needs to be. So with The Young Widower's Handbook, I had the premise, the characters, and the voice in mind, and I knew there would be a road trip element. But the absolute hardest parts for me were in making sure the road trip was always compelling, believable and interesting. In my early drafts, the book just died once Hunter hit the road. I needed a lot of feedback from my friends, my agent, and my editor to help me shape it into what it is now.
The concept of the novel is great — man's wife dies suddenly and in his grief he takes her ashes on a road trip across the country. Where’d you get that idea?
My wife and I came up with it together, while we were having dinner on our anniversary. We were on vacation, and we'd had some wine, and we just started talking about death. What would I do without you? Which of us would be better at living alone? That kind of thing. I realize it sounds morbid, but we've both had a lot of family members die over the years, and she works in the medical field, so we're both pretty comfortable talking like that. Anyway, by the time dessert came, we'd sketched out the two main characters and come up with a rough plot for the book. I wrote half of the first chapter on the flight home.
The book is sad, but there's a lightness to it due to the absurdity of the kinds of things that happen when one is on the road. Have you ever taken a road trip? Did you drive?
I hate driving! My wife does all the driving when we're together. We once took a two-week driving trip through Ireland, and she drove about 980 miles while I did five, just to say I'd done it. I'm a very anxious driver, though I love the idea of being on the road. That is, in theory, I'd love to be the kind of guy who gets an RV and just goes. But in practice, I can't imagine actually doing it.
I asked about driving because we find out almost immediately that Kait was the default driver and Hunter isn’t too comfortable behind the wheel. That turns out to be a symbol of their broader relationship. There’s a great description of how Hunter kind of skates through his college experience. Do you see Hunter in a lot of your students?
I do see it in some students, and I also picture Hunter as sort of an exaggerated version of the worst parts of me. I did well in school, but it took me a long time to get serious about doing the work. Honestly, it wasn't until after grad school that I felt like I was treating writing like a job. With Hunter, I didn't have any of my particular students in mind, but I did have a couple of my college friends in mind: very bright, gifted, lots of privileges, but also lazy and afraid to take anything seriously.
Kait got her degree in finance, Hunter in English. One passage reads—“There were times over the past half-decade when Hunter wondered whether he should have skipped college entirely and gone into a trade, learned to fix elevators — an industry on the rise, he would have said every day — or building bomb shelters or just about anything besides having spent four-point-five years in pursuit of an English degree with a minor in Philosophy that was long on intrinsic value and short on practical applications. Because understanding Petrarch doesn’t pay the gas bill. Being able to quote Kant doesn’t help you upsell a customer from a compact car to an SUV.”
English is your field. Do you ever wish you’d done something else?
I've been very, very lucky to have the life I have, where I get paid money to go in a room and talk to smart young people about books. It seems miraculous that people still get to do that. That said: I've definitely run through alternate scenarios, where I still did all the writing, but worked in a more lucrative field, or understood how to repair things, or understood things like money. I do worry sometimes about how joking about the degree could discourage someone from taking it on, though, because there are lots of great jobs for English majors that have nothing to do with academia and teaching.
Temple students come into the room ready to get in a debate, and they want to make their voices heard.
What’s your favorite thing about teaching at Temple?
I love the students, how they're willing to say anything. I've taught at other places where you had to beg students to have an opinion. Here, it's often the opposite. Temple students come into the room ready to get in a debate, and they want to make their voices heard. Sometimes that leads to challenging situations, but it's great for teaching. It's the thing you want to happen in a college class.
Do you think about a future for your characters? If so, what happens to Hunter?
I think he does okay. He's maturing by the end of the book, and he's also finally feeling like an equal partner in his love. He's finally been forced to stop complaining and do something. That doesn't mean he'll suddenly become the most likable guy in town, but by being forced to live outside his own head for a while, he becomes a better and more competent person. He's a little less afraid of putting himself out there now, so I think he's on an upward trajectory.
You co-host a podcast called Book Fight with Mike Ingram, who also teaches at Temple. Can you tell us a little about it? Do you have a favorite episode?
We started Book Fight because we thought there was room, and a potential audience, for a books podcast that didn't take itself so seriously. In some ways, we wanted to replicate what it was like for us when we have heated discussions about books in bars with our friends. They can be fun, profane, full of digressions, and (we hope) smart, and we wanted to create an atmosphere where our listeners could feel like they were joining us at happy hour, rather than sitting in a classroom while we lectured. I have so much fun doing it, even though sometimes it's a lot of work. We won a Philly Geek Award for Best Streaming Media Project in 2015, which was really unexpected and helped us grow our audience. I think one of our best episodes is this one with guest Leslie Jamison. Our Christmas episodes are always a lot of fun too.
How else do you spend your time?
I waste an obscene amount of time on the internet. But also I have a 10-year-old dog who needs walking, and I've spent the past 10 years learning on the fly how to take care of a house. My wife and I spend a lot of time going out in the city, trying new restaurants. And we travel as much as we can, though we're limited by budget and work-related constraints. This past summer, we went to Portland, Maine to celebrate our 15th dating anniversary, and, with any luck we'll celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary in Paris this summer.
Any parting words of advice for the aspiring writers out there?
The thing people told me a lot, and which I ignored for a long time, was to have patience and give the work time to develop. I was always in such a rush to finish things quickly, send them out, and hope to skip ahead past all the grueling, hard parts of the job. But, in hindsight, I've learned the most in those times that aren't exciting or glamorous, when I've been stuck on a sentence for days, or am on the ninth draft of a story that just won't work, or am waiting interminably for a response on something I've submitted. It's not always fun, but there's value in the process, and I wish I'd understood that sooner.