by Damon Fillman
Is it possible that we have another “Silver Linings Playbook” on our hands? Author Tom McAllister, 31, who grew up in Roxborough, is getting rave notices for his book, “Bury Me in My Jersey” (published by Villard, an imprint of Random House), a memoir describing his obsession with football and how it helped him cope with the loss of his father.
Out of 52 reviews on goodreads.com, the average rating is four stars out of a possible five. According to Publishers Weekly, “This is great reading for all who have shared a father-son kinship, football zanies and the raw sporting soul of Philly.” Maybe some smart movie producer will see the potential in the book for another “Silver Linings Playbook,” last year’s mega-hit about another Eagles-obsessed fan, played by Robert DeNiro, and his son, played by Philly’s own Bradley Cooper.
When asked about the “Silver Linings Playbook” similarity, however, McAllister said last week, “I spent some time, especially last year when everything was blowing up for that author, hoping for some of that success to carry over to my book, but I’m afraid that ship has sailed. One can only hope my next book has a breakthrough like that one did.”
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.”
Tom discovered his writing potential 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.”
“Bury Me in My Jersey,” McAllister’s first published book, explores the habits of an obsessive Philadelphia Eagles fan destined to meet some of the team’s best 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.”
As Tom became more and more fond of football himself, he recalled a professor’s lecture in grad school. “He said, ‘Write about your obsessions.’”
But not every talented writer can be successful. McAllister tried not to fall into the trap of becoming so egotistical that agents and publishers would sense it and reject his work. “It’s easy to get a big head sometimes, but when you get to grad school, you realize everyone’s better than you.
“I’m proud of the book, but it seems harder to be arrogant about something that ultimately doesn’t have this big impact. Humility should become the default option. Authors like Hemingway get caught up in their own hype. 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 may give hope to other young, aspiring authors. He said that he had reached out to an agent simply by researching on the Internet. He e-mailed dozens of agents and received numerous rejections (not to mention those who did not even respond), but he eventually elicited a positive response from an enthusiastic agent seeking a new client. His advice to prospective writers? Don’t give up.
McAllister is currently working on a novel titled “The Widower’s Handbook” which his agent is going to start submitting to publishers this week. He is also kept busy with a weekly books podcast called “Book Fight,” which Tom and a friend, Mike Ingram, started in Apri,l 2012. He has also helped to organize the Conversations & Connections Writing Conference for local writers, which was held Sept. 28 at The University of the Arts. Full details are at writersconnectconference.com.
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