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The Scarlet & Black

Rob Spillman spills all

Spillman was able to share insight from his experiences as both an editor and memoir writer. Photo by Minh Tran.
Spillman was able to share insight from his experiences as both an editor and memoir writer. Photo by Minh Tran.

Rob Spillman, the co-founder and editor of literary magazine “Tin House,” visited Grinnell this week as part of the Writers@Grinnell series. Spillman recently published his memoir, “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” about his younger life and connection to the city of Berlin. He spoke to students about being an editor on Monday, April 18 at 4:15 p.m. and gave a reading from his new book at 8 p.m. The S&B’s copy editor Susanne Bushman sat down with Spillman to talk about Tin House, editing and his new book.

The S&B: What made you decide to go out and start your own literary magazine? How did you hope that Tin House would be different?

Spillman: At the time when I started — I agreed to do this in ’98 — literary magazines were kind of boring. It was a common attitude that they were supposed to be like medicine, they were supposed to be good for you. So I wanted Tin House to have fun and look good — I wanted to hire an art director to make it something you actually wanted in your house and on your coffee table. I wanted writers to write whatever they were passionate about and give more space for creative nonfiction than was traditional in most literary magazines.

And have you lived up to those expectations?

I think so. We were also at the right place at the right time because at the time a couple of famous literary magazines, including Story Magazine, folded. The New Yorker actually used to publish two stories a week and went to one right at that time. And some other big magazines stopped publishing fiction altogether, so we came along at a really good time to pick up the slack. So, we were lucky and good at the same time.

How do you develop good relationships with your writers, especially when a lot of the work you publish is voice-driven and very personal?

Well, I think editing, first and foremost, is an exercise in empathy. Your job is like, “I see what you’re trying to do here, but maybe you’re doing too much here or too little,” or “Is this really the word you want to use?” You’re just pointing these things out. You’re not rewriting it for them. And good writers will take whatever I suggest and see that there’s a problem and rewrite it themselves in their own words. But, you know, having just been edited myself, that made me more empathetic to writers because I saw my editor pointed out all these things that I just couldn’t see myself.

It came up during the roundtable conversation that Tin House publishes a lot of previously unpublished writers. Why is that important to you and to Tin House? How do you know which new writers are worth taking risks on?

I think good writing just sort of pops out. The reason I keep doing this — I’ve been editing the magazine for 18 years — is to be surprised and challenged and excited by a new voice. … It’s great that you can say the big names — the people who are at the height of their power — but it’s really exciting to be able to say, ‘I discovered this writer,’ and follow them throughout their career. Like, I can say I published Victor LaValle’s first short story or something like that.

So, at what point in your career did you decide you wanted to start writing the memoir that recently came out?

I knew I wanted to write about the material for a long time and it took me 10 years to write it. So, there just reached a point where I just wanted to wrestle with the material and interrogate it and be done with it. Unfortunately for me that took 10 years. And seven of those years were failing — failing with the structure, failing in all sorts of different ways until I finally found a structure that worked. And then the last three years were more productive.

For a memoir, you book has a very forward-looking name: “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Is that indicative of the themes in some way?

Well it’s the title of a Velvet Underground song, so it’s actually about someone who is so forward thinking that they’re not living in the moment. So, one of the themes of the book is not being able to be fully present and always thinking that the next party or the next scene is where they should be versus actually being in the moment and being in their own scene and being in their own creative self.

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