THE REACH AND THE ENGAGEMENT: an interview with Rob Spillman

Posted on February 14, 2012 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews

EMILY KIDDELL

I heard a rumour that the good people of Tin House might be keen to visit Australia with a version of the increasingly popular Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. Having attended the workshop last year in Portland, Oregon, I can vouch for the magical ship that it is. Can you tell our readers a bit more about what you do and why? Is it true you are feeling the pull Down Under?

ROB SPILLMAN

I would love to bring the Tin House Festival to Australia. I love the people and what I have seen of Down Under. I had the pleasure of attending the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2009 and was deeply impressed by the literary community, especially the indies and SPUNC. I couldn’t believe how many funky little book and record shops there were. I brought my bicycle and covered as much of the city as possible, as well as two days worth of riding around Sydney.

What do I do? A lot of juggling. Officially, I am the editor of Tin House, a quarterly lit magazine based out of Brooklyn, New York, and Portland, Oregon. I have been the editor from the start, so thirteen years. Tin House also has a book-publishing arm, publishing ten to twelve books a year, as well as the annual literary workshop, held each July in Portland. I serve as a consultant for both of these ventures. My main job is to put the magazine together, to shepherd selections and keep abreast of what is happening in the world of literature. I spend a fair amount of time looking beyond the US borders for new work (I also edited the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which came out in 2009). I’ve gone looking for work at festivals in London, Frankfurt, Nairobi, Melbourne, Santiago, and St. Petersburg, to name a few places I’ve scouted out.

EMILY KIDDELL

That does sound exciting. But editing is a difficult business too, and locating talent must have its unique challenges – how do you go about choosing what to publish?

ROB SPILLMAN

The simple answer is I publish work that makes me miss my subway stop, work that is so engrossing I wind up in the wrong part of town. That said, work gets into my hands a variety of different ways—sometimes I hear a poem, story, or essay live at a reading or festival, or it comes in through the unsolicited pile. When I’m putting together an issue we’re trying to balance forms (experimental with traditional) gender, experience (new voices versus established), tone (funny/serious). What I’m looking for is voice-driven work that is a world unto itself, work in which the reader will have total confidence. We also commission work, mainly nonfiction, and usually for theme issues, which we do twice a year. There is no magic formula, which makes it continually exciting.

EMILY KIDDELL

The impression I got at the workshop is that you (and your colleagues at Tin House) are very optimistic about the future of publishing, but can you talk a little about the challenges of working within an industry that is going through a rapid transformation?

ROB SPILLMAN

People need to tell stories, whether through poetry, prose, film, Twitter, or banging rocks together. The form is always changing, but the need to use words to make sense of what it is to be human at the present moment is constant. To some, the decentralization of the industry, the removal of power from the few conglomerates to the many independents, is terrifying. We think it is exciting. I fundamentally believe that good work rises, and now, more than ever, good work can find suitable homes.

EMILY KIDDELL

Recently in Australia debate surrounding gender equality in literature was fuelled when the second all-male short list in three years was announced for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Some distinguished members of the publishing scene here have since been working to establish a new national award for female writers called the Stella Prize. Given you are the editor of the newly-released collection of all-female authors called Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime from Tin House, I’m interested to know firstly, whether you encountered any controversy as a male editor of such a collection; and secondly, why you believe it was necessary to exclude male authors? A common criticism of this kind of exclusion is that it may serve to ‘ghettoise women’ – do you believe that spotlighting the issue in this way is more powerful in changing prevailing trends than if you were to include a rough balance of writing from both male and female authors?

ROB SPILLMAN

The issue of gender equality in the arts, and particularly in literature, is definitely a topic of discussion here in the US. VIDA has been posting gender-ratio numbers of various literary organisations, including Tin House. This prompted us to do a detailed breakdown of our submission and acceptance numbers, and what we found was surprising, especially about the numbers of submissions by women who have been asked to send work. My detailed response is here.

As for Fantastic Women, I was inspired by what I saw as a trend that is gender-based, namely that there is a particular kind of fiction being written by women that pushes the surreal envelope in a different manner than what men are working on these days. Some of the most exciting work coming out of the US is being written by writers like Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. I don’t really feel that they have male counterparts, so it wasn’t a matter of leaving out one gender or another.

That said, I am very aware of the tokenism or ghettoising argument. I just don’t think it fits in this case. I haven’t caught much flak for being a male editor of a female anthology, probably because I’ve been the editor for thirteen years, have put out fifty issues of the magazine, and have edited other anthologies.

EMILY KIDDELL

If there is an area in contemporary fiction that you believe is dominated by female writers, what do you put that down to? Can particular literary traits ever be attributed to gender?

ROB SPILLMAN

With literary fiction, I don’t think there is any difference in the writing. I think the categorising and labelling are done afterwards.

EMILY KIDDELL

To some extent anthologising anything is political, but particularly when it involves a minority group (specifically in the context of Western Literature). How did you approach the task of editing Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing? Where did you start and what were some of the questions that informed the final result?

ROB SPILLMAN

Well, with Africa, you’re dealing with a continent of one billion people, fifty-four countries, over two thousand languages, hundreds of tribes, dozens of religions. There is no one Africa. What I tried to convey by the pieces I included was the variety, urgency, and vitality of current writing across Africa. I divided the anthology geographically, and tried to strike a balance of gender, region, and styles. I had my own enthusiasms to start with, and followed this up with a lot of research, asked many, many experts and smart readers for recommendations. It was daunting, and I could easily have filled three more anthologies with material I loved.

EMILY KIDDELL

I read in the recent interview you did with Ann Patchett that you grew up in Berlin in a very musical family. How did that experience inform your literary career path? Did you have any particular early mentors or literary revelations that helped set your trajectory as a writer and editor?

ROB SPILLMAN

I knew from an early age that I wasn’t going to cut it in any kind of ‘normal’ job. Growing up in the gay opera world of Berlin did not prepare me for ‘reality’. I didn’t, however, decide to pursue a career in writing or editing until I was in graduate school studying sports psychology and exercise physiology (I ran track in college). I dropped out, moved to New York with $150 to my name, but had the notion that I would start a literary magazine. Having been surrounded by starving artists from the time I was born, the idea of joining their ranks wasn’t particularly daunting, but an adventure.

As for revelations, I guess the biggest shock was that not everyone in publishing went to Harvard and had all the right internships and access. No one has ever asked me where I went to school. All editors care about is whether or not I could write, and on deadline, preferably with politeness and professionalism.

As for mentors, I would have to say George Plimpton by example. My wife was the senior editor at the Paris Review and I was fortunate enough to spend time with him, and to absorb his seriousness of purpose and what it means to be a man of letters. On the other end of the spectrum, Hunter S. Thompson was a shadow presence in my early life; I spent my summers in Aspen, where my father worked at the annual music festival. Thompson inspired me with his fierceness, intensity, and relentlessness.

EMILY KIDDELL

As you mentioned earlier, you’ve been at Tin House since the very beginning. What do you think defines the nature of Tin House and are there any goals within the organisation that are yet to be realised? Where to from here?

ROB SPILLMAN

That is a hard question, especially being so close to the magazine. I hope that the magazine retains its ability to surprise and inspire. I’m always looking to be shaken up, to reconsider what the written word can do. My hope for the future is greater engagement with readers, and to reach and engage with as many people as possible.

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