How did you become a writer?
I think there are two parts to this answer: 1) how did I get into books and writing in the first place, and 2) how did I transition that into doing it professionally.
I started reading and writing in earnest when I was in 7thgrade, after reading my first “real” book for school, Of Mice and Men. My father had always been a voracious reader, so the house was filled with books anyway, and we played lots of word games (Scrabble, games in the newspaper, etc), and so it’s not like reading was new to me, but it was the first time I thought about writing as a real thing one could do.
In college, I started as a journalism major because I was pretty good at writing and knew that was a job that could lead to being paid for writing (in theory). I hated those classes, though. I took an elective with Justin Cronin, who had not yet become the big, famous author he is now, and that changed my life. Though it was probably more gradual than this, I remember it as a single moment of epiphany, saying, “Okay, this is what I want to do with my life. I want to be like him.” He helped me take writing seriously, and helped me get into grad school, where, for the first time in my life, I was surrounded by talented, dedicated writers who pushed me to demand much more of myself.
I still didn’t publish anything at all for another 2 years after grad school, but that was how it got started.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Teachers: Justin Cronin, Frank Conroy, Charles D’Ambrosio. Also a number of non-writers who taught me in high school and college and encouraged and supported me in incredible ways.
I think the question of influential books is a little tricky, because the books I love now are not the ones I loved when I was 20, and vice versa. But some books that have had a huge impact on the writer I am right now: Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut), Pastoralia (George Saunders), Play it As it Lays (Joan Didion), The Antagonist (Lynn Coady), inscriptions for headstones (Matthew Vollmer), Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson), An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Elizabeth McCracken), Men We Reaped (Jesmyn Ward), everything by Jo Ann Beard.
When and where do you write?
I teach at Temple University, and lately I’ve had early classes, so on teaching days, I try to get work done in the afternoon before my wife gets home. On non-teaching days, I try to write in the morning, getting most of my work done before lunch time, if possible. It’s when my head is relatively clear and it prevents me from doing that thing where you keep tricking yourself into thinking the day is infinite, and eventually you’ll get to it. I’m fortunate, too, that my job allows me a summer break, when I try to get a ton of writing done, if possible.
Where I write: the answer is boring. I have an office in my house, with a standard desk and a standard computer and the standard knick-knacks on and around the desk.
What are you working on now?
I’ve had two novels come out in the past 16 months (they were both written over a long period, and the release dates are sort of a fluke), and all the activity around that has slowed me down some. I’m in the very early stages of drafting a new novel, but I hate even calling it a novel; right now, it’s 10,000 words in a document on my computer. It’s nothing. Maybe in a year it will be something.
I’ve always been working on a number of essays that I’ve been half-writing for years.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Right now, as I’m being more unproductive than usual, I don’t think I would call it writer’s block. I’m distracting myself. I’m on social media and I’m obsessing over the news, and I’m wasting time. That’s not about being blocked, though; that’s about slipping out of my good habits and doing sloppy work.
The only time I could say I was feeling truly blocked, unable to do anything, was in grad school, when the deadlines paralyzed me with fear. Now, I have so many notes, and so many partially started ideas, and so many writing prompts I could use, that I only have myself to blame if I’m not getting something done.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Is it cheating if I name two?
One, from a variety of writers and teachers: if you’re getting bored while you’re reading it, then it’s boring. Don’t try to convince yourself it’s not.
Two, from my friend Dave Housley, who has written a number of books (most recently This Darkness Got to Give): don’t be afraid to get weird. Take that dumb idea you’re afraid nobody is going to like, and write that, because only you can do it.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Stop measuring yourself against other writers. Very, very few of us will ever achieve anything close to fame or longevity; the only goal is to tell the truest, best, most interesting version of the story you want to tell. Every single other thing is out of your control.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower’s Handbook, and the memoir Bury Me in My Jersey. He co-hosts the podcast Book Fight! and is the nonfiction editor at Barrelhouse. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.