Author Tom McAllister, 29, who grew up on the 300 block of Hermitage Street, returned last week to Manayunk to promote his book, Bury Me in My Jersey, a memoir describing his obsession with football and how it helped him cope with the loss of his father.
McAllister, who now lives in New Jersey, remembered a time when kids on the block were forced to attend the school nearest to their home, but that he somehow managed to attend Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Catholic school in Andorra. He tried to play football for the school, but he quickly earned his role as a spectator of the sport.
“I had played football for one practice,” McAllister said. “I didn’t like that at all.”
When McAllister graduated from Immaculate Heart of Mary, he attended La Salle High School where he couldn’t let go of his trademark shyness—not until he began his teaching career at Temple University in 2006 was he able to get rid of it.
“My mom likes to joke about how I was painfully shy for a long time,” he said. “When I went to grad school I was suddenly in front of a group of 25 people where I had to perform, I was terrible at talking in front of groups of people.”
He discovered his writing abilities when he attended graduate school at the University of Iowa, where he graduated in 2006. But when he found out that he was required to teach for the program, he needed to learn how to overcome his fear of performing in front of groups of people.
McAllister never planned on becoming a teacher, but in eighth grade his aspiration to become a writer started to develop. He figured that if he couldn’t be a writer, he’d try to be a marine biologist, even though the two were worlds apart.
“I’m still interested in [marine biology], but I’m also terrified of the ocean,” he said. “But writing and reading I was always good at.”
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, a tale of two migrant workers during the Great Depression, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a science fiction novel with elements of political and social satire, inspired McAllister to pursue a career of writing.
“I read Of Mice and Men and thought it would be cool to be a writer,” he said. “Then I read Slaughterhouse-Five and thought he wrote differently. It opened up possibilities for me to be a writer.”
How does one go from desiring to replicate the great literature of our time to writing about sports? By being inspired by a father’s preference for the games that define our lives, he says. Specifically, the hard tackles and exploding testosterone found in football.
Bury Me in My Jersey, McAllister’s first published book, explores the habits of an obsessed Philadelphia Eagles fan destined to meet some of the team’s most distinguished players while simultaneously overcoming the loss of his father, Joseph McAllister, in 2003. In one scene, he depicts his methods of spying on players at the local supermarket. In another scene, he inspects the bond between a father and son and the game that strengthened it.
“[My father] hated baseball,” McAllister said. “Football was basically the only sport that he watched. That’s what first got me into sports because I really wanted to watch sports with my dad.”
The more McAllister invested in the sport by watching it at home, the more fond he became of it. It became a fixation for him and he recalled a professor’s lecture reminding him to focus his writing on those obsessions.
“I had a teacher in grad school that said ‘write about your obsessions,'” he said. “Which is a different thing because if your obsession is unhappy marriages or something you don’t necessarily have to know about unhappy marriages to write about it.”
But not every talented writer can be successful–McAllister’s humility help set him apart. He tried not to fall into the trap of getting so egotistical that agents and publishers would sense it and reject his work.
“It’s easy to get a big head sometimes and it’s easy to realize nobody cares,” he said. “When you get to grad school you realize everyone’s better than you.”
Instead of celebrating the publication of his recent memoir, McAllister decided to embrace the challenge of future endeavors and acknowledge the locality and limited global impact of his book.
“I’m proud of the book,” he said. “But it seems harder to be arrogant about something that ultimately doesn’t have this big impact. Humility should become the default option.”
He joked about the difficulties of getting publishers on board with his work, and that the novel he is working on now, a fictional piece about a wrestler, was still in the publisher shuffle. His humor also shined during his comments about Ernest Hemingway.
“Authors like Hemingway get caught up in their own hype,” he said. “Or even James Fry now who claims he is the new Hemingway. If you become that arrogant, you lose the empathy to become a great writer.”
McAllister’s success story gives hope to a legion of writers in the Manayunk area yearning for a chance to shine in the spotlight. He said that he reached out to an agent simply by researching on the Internet. He e-mailed a few of them and got a response from an enthusiastic agent seeking a new client. His advice to prospective writers? Don’t give up.
“I did a lot of waiting, basically,” he said. “Here is an example of me not being humble: I thought my book was only worthy of the top 10 agents out there. Four of them still haven’t responded.”
After a plethora of rejections, he decided to send his material to agents with the fastest rejection times. Within 13 minutes, he got a rejection e-mail. Although he found it surprising, he shrugged it off with his good humor.
Some of McAllister’s fans have tormented him over his decision to move to New Jersey, all while maintaining his devotion to the Philadelphia Eagles. At last month’s book discussion at The Spiral Bookcase on Cotton St., one such fan spoke up.
“I told a few people I was putting my house up for sale,” McAllister said. “They said, are you moving back to civilization?”
He had to explain to them that he moved to New Jersey because his wife bought a house in the state.
“I followed her,” he said. “I’m her tenant until we can find a place together.”