Agents & Editors: Rob Spillman

Michael Szczerban
From the November/December 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

As an editor with one of the largest trade publishing houses in New York, I’m usually inundated by new material from agents, feverishly working with writers on books I’ve already acquired, worried about the ones that have just landed in stores, and excited by the dozens of titles a year that my colleagues publish. The work is all-consuming and feels important—which makes it all too easy to believe that American book culture begins and ends with what we at the Big Five see fit to publish.

But as much as I might like to think that our books are the center of the literary universe, the truth is more complicated. That’s why I look forward to reading this magazine’s annual Independent Publishing Issue: Some of the most engaging and adventurous work published today comes from presses far beyond the reach of conglomerate media companies. From coast to coast, indie publishers are responsible for contributing to a rich and varied literary landscape and are essential to the health and creativity of the industry at large, as well as the communities where they reside.

One of the most prominent figures in independent publishing is the editor and writer Rob Spillman. Now the editor of the literary magazine Tin House, Spillman entered the book industry the old-fashioned way: with a much-loved job at a used bookstore in high school. After college, in the late 1980s, he stuffed envelopes for a year as a publicity assistant at Random House and began to write for the trade publication Kirkus Reviews. Then, as a fact checker and freelance journalist, he worked for Spy magazine, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. Later, he was the book columnist for Details magazine and has since written for many other magazines and newspapers.

In 1999 Spillman and his wife, writer Elissa Schappell, launched Tin House with Portland-based publisher Win McCormack. Sixty-seven issues later, the magazine is a bicoastal destination for literary writing of all kinds, and the organization has expanded into book publishing (Spillman serves as the executive editor of Tin House Books) and workshops (the Tin House Summer Workshop, which Spillman cofounded, is approaching its fifteenth year). In 2015 he received the PEN/Nora Magid Award for Editing and the VIDO Award from VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

As our conversation began, I asked Spillman about his coming-of-age memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, which was released by indie publisher Grove Atlantic this past April.

Are you still busy promoting your book?
I’m still out there talking about it. I’m going to a bunch of fall festivals. When I toured in April, I did thirty straight days, thirty straight events…or some of those days I was doing two a day. I was going to colleges and all through the Midwest and Texas and California. I was reliving it and talking about it every day. It was a little insane.

Did you put together that breakneck tour yourself, or did Grove Atlantic?
It was a combination. Grove has been amazing. They said, “You don’t have to go to Arkansas. You can build in some days off.” They tried to get me to back off the crazy schedule. But I get asked to do events at a lot of colleges that wouldn’t otherwise work out to visit.

That is, to speak to students as the editor of Tin House?
Yes, and people who know me had heard about the book and invited me as well. I packed in a whole bunch of college things, and then put in bookstores and reading series around there. I visited almost everybody who’s ever asked me to visit, especially in places to which I wouldn’t otherwise be able to make a dedicated trip—like Grinnell, in the middle of Iowa. I drove all the way from Chicago to Denver.

That had to be a singular experience.
It was intense. The only thing I can liken it to is being a roadie for my daughter’s band. She was very successful—she was in a teen feminist band called Care Bears on Fire. They played Lollapalooza, were on Letterman, and performed at a lot of festivals. I was their main roadie. I would drive the van around and do sound check and things like that. The big difference is that musicians are treated a lot better than writers at most places.

I had a sort of awakening in L.A., five years ago, when they were playing the Viper Room on the Sunset Strip—a hard-rock club where Guns N’ Roses played. I had simultaneously set up a reading at Book Soup. I got to the Viper Room for sound check, then went over and did the Book Soup thing, and came back to the actual gig. At the Viper Room, there are all these people to help us load in, and there’s a big food spread, and they’re asking, “What else do you need?” Then I get to Book Soup, and they’re like, “Oh dude...yeah...the reading, man...I guess we should put out some chairs. We don’t have any water but I’ll give you a couple bucks to go to the 7-11 for some.” I was like, “Wait a minute! I’m totally in the wrong business here.”

The book tour felt a little like that. I went to a lot of places that are off the normal tour circuit, but those were some of my favorite places.

That tour must have been half promotion, half research into the audience for literary publishing. Who’s out there?
The best part was meeting a lot of the legendary booksellers who are out there. I went to the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, where I met the most passionate group of readers. I’m a voracious reader, but I felt like such a slacker in comparison to the booksellers. They’re the best-read group of people I’ve ever met, and so passionate. They were excited about the obvious books that were going to be huge, like Emma Cline’s The Girls. But the big story there was Maggie Nelson. Everybody was lining up to talk to her.

Every indie bookstore I went into, I’d ask, “What are you excited about?” and it would often be something like Brian Blanchfield’s Proxies. Multiple people were pushing that. It’s from Nightboat Books, a small press. But it was everywhere. At Prairie Lights [in Iowa City], Brazos [in Houston], Powell’s [in Portland, Oregon], that was the book that people were excited about.

Living in Brooklyn, and bouncing between here and Portland, I’m used to super-liberal, very well-read, highly educated domains. But going through the Midwest and seeing passionate readers everywhere, in Decorah, Iowa, or Manhattan, Kansas, was heartening.

Did your college stops give you a new perspective on the American student or the state of the literary academy? 
I saw a real range out there. As I said, I went to Iowa but also Luther College and Grinnell and Kansas State. I was really impressed with the off-the-road schools, their non-entitlement and real hunger for storytelling.

There were two in particular that are really being affected by right-wing Reaganomics governors: Northeastern Illinois, which had its bookstore closed down and summer school classes shut down because they ran out of money, and the same with Kansas State. Education is on the front line of all cuts. They’re having to battle just for basic services. Here, I teach a seminar at Columbia, where it’s sort of the opposite; we’re resource rich.

There was a real appreciation for going into those places. They have no money. At Northeastern Illinois, there was a good chance I was going to be the last invited reader because all funding had been cut. But it’s just incomprehensible to me that education would be the first thing cut on a state budget. 

Let’s back up a bit. You were born in West Berlin to expat musicians, and moved back to the States when you were nine or ten years old. Tell me about growing up that way.
It was a little like Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. I would go straight from school to backstage, and didn’t spend a lot of time playing with other kids. When I moved here, my father taught at the Eastman School of Music, and I did the same thing. In Germany I spent a lot of time backstage and running around in the rafters, and I was also on stage a lot. I would get thrown into any kid’s role at the opera because I was around and would actually do it.

I was born in 1964, the same year Dr. Strangelove came out, and the Berlin Wall had gone up in August of 1961. We were in the epicenter of the Cold War. I went to the JFK International School and you could see fully-loaded B52s flying over every day. There was an Army base nearby that would scramble at night, and we’d literally see tanks in the street. During the Prague Spring of 1968, an Army friend of ours called my father and said, “If I call again, just hang up and go to the airport. Just pack and go,” because the city was about to get closed off again. German-Russian troops circled the city in case there was an outbreak like in Prague. So there was a sense of tension that I was vaguely aware of.

At the same time, West Berlin was also this incredibly liberal cultural mecca. Because it was deep inside Communist territory, it was really cheap. Berlin was also a neutral city, meaning that if you were a resident, you didn’t have to do your two years of compulsory service—kind of a wrinkle of the postwar treaty. So if you were a liberal German, you would move to Berlin to get out of the draft. And, of course, there was a cultural war going on, so the arts were heavily subsidized and it became a great place for artists and musicians to go. We never had a lock—I don’t remember having a key to our apartment. I was completely unaware of racism then. I didn’t have American TV. I was culturally blind to what was happening in the U.S. until I moved here. 

How did your parents get to Berlin, and why did they return to the United States?
They were drawn by opportunity. They both got Fulbrights to go after graduate school and then it was the place to be for classical musicians. You could make a living right away out of grad school there. Here, you’d have to scrape. 

My parents split when I was about three because my father is gay. My mother decided to come back to the U.S. first. She went to graduate school at Tulane to get a teaching degree, and I stayed with my father for several years. Then he got a job at Eastman, and that’s when we moved. But there were several years where it was just the two of us and I would go visit her in New Orleans.

Do you have any siblings? 
No. And without any references to the contrary, I thought my childhood was totally normal. 

What happened when you returned to the States?
I spent two years in Rochester, New York, and then moved to be with my mother. She remarried and moved to Baltimore. My parents had met at Eastman, and my mother remarried a classmate of theirs, a trombone player who was in the Baltimore Symphony. I enrolled in the Boys’ Latin School there, which was all white, male, racist, homophobic, and anti-intellectual. I hated it so much that I took courses to graduate a year early, at sixteen. But I was totally unprepared for college, and it was a total disaster. I left the University of Rochester and slid back to Baltimore. Where we were living downtown was worse than The Wire. I used to get mugged once a month at my bus stop. I took the city bus out to the suburbs and it would be the same group of kids, shaking down the dorky white kid at the inner city bus stop.

They were your age?
Yes. They went to the metal-detector high school near where I lived. I would have been the only white person to go to that high school. But I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t know what segregation was. I was like, “What’s going on?”

I had felt totally safe in Berlin. The only time I felt unsettled was in East Berlin—it was scary over there. But in West Berlin I never felt scared at all. When I moved to Baltimore, my mom gave me a shiny new Schwinn bicycle. I started riding around downtown Baltimore. I rode right through the middle of a football game in the middle of a street in the worst neighborhood. They were all teens, no shirts, tattooed, and I rode right through the middle of the game, like, “Hey guys!” They all just stared. Finally, one kid said, “Somebody take his bike!” I said, “What?” Then they started laughing at me and another kid said, “Oh man, let him go. He’s from Oh-kla-HO-ma.” I’ll never forget the way he enunciated it. I looked so dorky. I pedaled back home and my mom had to explain that maybe there were places I should not go with my new bike.

You had a lot of catching up to do with American culture. How’d you do that?
When I entered school here, the lingua franca was television and sports—but not soccer, though I was huge soccer fan. It was baseball and football and what was on TV. But I’d had no access to American TV at all, so I had no idea who Charlie’s Angels were or anything like that. I would go home and watch reruns just to figure things out.

I started reading heavily, but it wasn’t to figure out U.S. culture. It was more to escape and to find myself. I felt more comfortable in fictional worlds than in my own skin—much more comfortable in Narnia than in my mother’s house in Baltimore, where I didn’t know who or what I was. But in Narnia I related to the Pevensies; I wanted to be with them much more than I wanted to be at home with myself. By the time I got to Baltimore I was alienated from everything. I considered myself a Berliner even though I had no family there and my military brat friends had left too. I didn’t fit in America, but there was nothing to return to in Berlin. Reading was an escape. Trying to find other alienated people—that’s what drew me in. I think I’m still that way. I just finished the Elena Ferrante series and I felt so invested in that brutal Naples neighborhood. It felt more real to me than my own life somehow.

It’s interesting how many alienated people find a community in books and then go on to make a profession of publishing. That’s a theme of this Agents & Editors series.
Whenever I talk to up-and-coming writers or students I emphasize the non-hierarchical nature of literature, in that the only difference between them and me is that I’ve been doing it longer. The only real difference is that I’ve figured out how to be on the other side of the podium. Almost everybody in this business is a socially awkward book nerd who just loves to read and feels more comfortable in books than in their own skin.

When young writers are going out into the world and submitting their work, they need to imagine they’re submitting to someone who’s essentially just like them. You are preaching to the converted, not someone who’s sitting up on the top of a tower with lightning bolts looking to zap the puny mortals.

Plus, so much of this work is serendipitous. A lot of the work I got when I was first starting out was from being in the right place at the right time: doing something for one editor and then being in conversation with them when something else came up, and they say, “Oh, my wife happens to be an editor…. You should talk to her about that!” You could send twenty-five pitches on that same subject and get completely shot down everywhere, but an offhand remark leads to an open door. 

So you washed out of Rochester and returned to Baltimore. What was your path forward?
I was running at the time. I ran cross-country in high school, and wanted to run track in college, but I was too young to run at Rochester—I was going to start my sophomore year. I enrolled at Towson University; back then it was Towson State, the local giant state school, and they had a good track team. My short-term goal was to run and fumble my way to any kind of degree. And I worked at a used bookstore—the Kelmscott Bookshop in Baltimore—and it was one of the best jobs I've ever had. It was run by this great couple, the Johansons, who were ex-Hopkins literature professors who drove around the city buying up estate sales. They completely crammed an old row house with books.

I was their first employee. They had a back room where they had thrown all the books they couldn’t deal with. It was so filled that the door would only open an inch and they were pushing books up and over the top. My first job was to clear out that back room. There were two years of books back there. It was kind of moldy and there was a bad smell coming from the back corner. By the time I got there, I found some desiccated rats that had gnawed their way down into the floor.

But it was a great job because they were absent-minded professor types who read everything. I would be trying to shelve something like The Magic Mountain, and one of them would say, “So, Rob, having been in Germany, you obviously must have read Thomas Mann.” I hadn’t read Thomas Mann—I was seventeen and didn’t want to read a seven-hundred-page book about a sanatorium. But they’d tell me about it and press the book into my hands, urging me to take it home and read it. It was a constant seminar on the history of literature. 

Were you receptive to that? 
It was great. I was a voracious reader, and they were constantly buying more stuff. It was a Sisyphean task to catch up with everything they bought.

I got a psych degree at Towson. I started spending my summers in Aspen, because my father ran the music side of the opera program at the Aspen music festival. I’d go out there and run in the mountains all summer, and worked at the one gas station in town. It was self-service, and only rich tourists would come in, so traffic was pretty light. I sat in a lawn chair in the middle of the lot with fives, tens, and twenties wrapped around one set of fingers to make change and with a book in the other hand. I read a book or two a day.

How did you make your way to New York? 
Even though I had worked in the bookstore and was a big reader, I had this feeling that publishing was a cool-kid club dominated by the Ivy Leagues. You had to have gone to the right schools and had the right internship and known somebody to get in. I didn't think that someone who had failed out of one school and gone to a crappy state school could work in publishing.

After college I got into the University of Arizona graduate program in sports psychology and exercise physiology. After maybe six weeks in the desert, I thought, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” I dropped out and took a redeye to New York with $150 and no connections and no idea of how publishing worked at all. I just wanted to be here. I slept on a friend’s sofa and got a job at a postcard factory in SoHo.

The cheapest apartment listing I could find in the Village Voice was a three-bedroom share on Staten Island. My rent was $90. This was 1986, and even then it was pretty cheap. I got the apartment and slept on the floor for the first two weeks. After my first paycheck, I bought a futon. I worked in the factory for a year and then through my girlfriend, now wife, I got an interview at Random House for an entry-level publicity job stuffing envelopes. I didn’t seem like a maniac, so they gave me a chance.