The Young Widower’s Handbook: An Interview with Tom McAllister

02/08/2017 11:55 am ET

I almost never interview male authors, but the vulnerability and honesty of Tom McAllister’s young widower, Hunter Cady, at the heart of The Young Widower’s Handbook drew me in. The novel alternates between Cady’s ill-fated cross country trip with his wife’s ashes and second person reflections on the nature of grief and longing. This structure immerses the reader in Cady’s broken heart as you root for him to make it through to the other side.

Your first book, Bury Me in New Jersey, also deals with grieving and fitting in as a man. What was your process for revisiting these themes in fiction this time?

The thing that strikes me most about grieving and death is that period after the active period: a month after the funeral, once everyone has stopped coming around to check on you, to drop off casseroles and flowers, and they expect you to get back to normal. The memoir dealt with that lingering, ongoing grief, and my failure to process my dad’s death, and this book is in some ways a continuation of that theme.

I tried to approach it from a different angle this time, because a dead spouse is obviously different from a dead parent. If you’ve been married to someone for a long time, your lives become inextricably intertwined in so many ways—your social circle, your daily routines, your finances, everything. So, for a young person like Hunter to lose his wife, there’s more than just grief to deal with. There’s the challenge of reinventing himself, and finding a new way to define his life. He’s not just part of this couple anymore; he’s just a guy who isn’t quite sure how to function in the world on his own, and now he finally has to figure out who he is, independent of anyone else.

Hunter spends a lot of time cultivating his image and cataloguing his trip via social media. What impacts do you see social media having on individuals and how they express themselves in both good times and bad?

I waste so much of my time online, it’s an obsession that tends to bleed through in everything I write. I very much want the time I spend on Twitter to have been meaningful or productive, but so often it’s not. It wasn’t part of the plan to include social media when I started this book, but a) it’s inevitable that someone on this kind of grief-stricken journey would end up sharing some of it online, and b) Hunter is exactly the kind of guy who would take on this kind of performative expression of his feelings rather than just being direct and honest about it.

To answer your question more directly: I think social media offers this great promise of building community and bonding with people in ways that were once unthinkable, and sometimes it actually fulfills that promise. I have some close friendships that started with online connections. But it can turn so ugly so quickly. And it can consume you, the way you start to second-guess the version of yourself that you’re presenting, or which version of yourself you even want to be. When things are going pretty well for me, I tend to be quieter on social media. If you see me tweeting a lot, it probably means I’m stressed and anxious and avoiding all my real responsibilities, but trying to look like I’m not freaking out about it all.

I loved the use of the second person chapters; what inspired you to pursue this structure? What did you like about it? How did it challenge your writing?

The thing that drove me toward those chapters first was the voice. I came up with the basic premise of the book during an anniversary dinner with my wife, when our conversation took a dark turn toward discussing what I would do if she were to die before me. I ended up starting the first chapter that night, first in bits and scraps at the dinner table, then on a legal pad back in the hotel room. So those first lines, “You don’t fall in love at first sight, but many months later at that indelible moment…” were there from the start, and I loved them. I just felt very good about the rhythm, the tone, everything that came through in that first chapter.

I didn’t want the whole book to be in second person, though. I worried it would be too claustrophobic; the reader needed some time to come up for air and get outside of this guy’s head. That’s why I decided to keep the second person chapters shorter, just as brief glimpses into the raw emotional life of this guy who is otherwise so bad at expressing himself. The biggest challenge from there was to make sure those chapters didn’t come across as self-pitying or too self-indulgent; I wanted them to be emotionally raw, but not cloying. My editor was a big help in pulling back on the points where I pushed too hard on sentimentality there.

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