Agents & Editors: Rob Spillman

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

Tell me about the gender balance of what the magazine publishes.
It is definitely 50/50 now. Because of VIDA we are consistently even. Actually, we publish slightly more women than men. When the first VIDA count came out, our numbers were among the best, but not where I wanted them to be. It was like 60/40, skewed toward men. I was surprised by this because I thought we were even, and that was the internal perception of all of us—both men and women. But then we dug deep into the numbers.

We found a lot of surprising things. Our slush pile was pretty much 50/50, and when we’re drawing from the slush, the numbers match that ratio. Solicited work, from agents, was two-thirds male. I also started looking at things like who resubmits after I send them a direct letter. Women were four times less likely to follow up than men on a direct re-solicit. You know: “This isn’t working for me, but please send me your next piece.” Men, 100 percent of the time, and usually like ten seconds later, will send me something. Women took rejection more personally. Being married to a female fiction writer I totally see this. It’s a cultural thing.

This is a generalization, but women tend to send me much more polished material, especially on the nonfiction side—really airtight, complete work—whereas men will jot down an idea on a napkin and slide it to me at AWP. That’s how we men have been taught to roll: “Of course, we’re entitled, there’s an editor, I’ll go pitch him.” Women tend to be more thoughtful. I shifted my soliciting to be more direct in following up with women: “No, I really meant it, please do send me something!”

If a woman doesn’t send something after you solicit her next piece, do you follow up a month or two later?
Yeah, or when I run into her, I’ll say, “I really meant that.” I basically stopped soliciting men; I just don’t need to. I’m notnot soliciting men. But I don’t need to make that much of an effort. I still go after specific people.

Another interesting thing I found was in our Lost and Found series. Our numbers of writers was exactly 50/50, because my editor Emma Komlos-Hrobsky was dialed into that already before VIDA came out. But our subject matter was 80/20: Both men and women were writing about men. Men would usually write about men, and women half the time would write about men.

Do you think that’s because of the historical pattern of publishing?
Yes. It makes sense when you’re writing about unappreciated or lost books. We started tweaking our solicitations to ask specifically for women writers who are underappreciated and things like that, to manipulate the numbers back to gender parity.

Have the changes you’ve made to enact gender balance in the magazine left a noticeable effect on the quality of the magazine, the size of its readership, or anything else?
Our readership has gone up. VIDA has pointed to us as a group that actually walks the walk, and I think people support us for that. There’s been zero drop in volume as far as I can see, and we’re still getting the same number of inclusions in the Best American series, the O’Henry and Pushcarts, and so on. Those prizes are impossible to predict but we haven’t seen any drop off at all. 

Something like Best American is a total crapshoot. The series editor selects a hundred and twenty finalists, and then the guest judge selects the twenty after that. Every year, we have an internal pool—we think something is definitely going to be in, and we’re wrong all of the time. We can never predict. It’s often a piece that barely got into the magazine because half of us were vehemently opposed to it. But when we’re fighting over something, that means there’s something to engage with. Those have been our longest-lasting pieces—the ones that we still return to. 

What else do you pay attention to as you determine whether an issue has been a success? 
There are on-stand sales, but those are hard to predict unless an issue has to do with sex or includes Stephen King. He’s written for us a couple times, and his fans are completists. They’ll buy anything he does. I look at the engagement—if people are really talking about something. It’s easier to measure what people are talking about on social media. Claire Vaye Watkins’s essay “On Pandering” broke our website when that issue came out. We had forty thousand views in one afternoon, I think, which crashed our server. I happened to be in Jerusalem at the time and it was trending there. That’s what I’m looking for, when you publish something that really strikes a nerve.

Tell me about that essay and its path to publication.
Claire gave a version of that essay as a talk at the Tin House workshop, and the whole room was just vibrating. She was articulating something that a lot of women had felt and were really uncomfortable talking about: writing to please this sort of inner straight white male, this stereotype of literary authority. Even when you have role models and mentors, there’s still Colonel Sanders hiding in the corner of your brain. She was vulnerable and open about it, and it was this incredibly electric atmosphere. I thought, “We’ve got to put this out there in the world.” I worked with her on shaping it into an essay and it generated that same reaction in the world as it did in the workshop.

How much editing happens of the pieces that you accept? 
Everything gets edited—by whoever brings the piece in, or whoever is most passionate about it. I have several hands-on editors, so everything gets worked on to a greater or lesser extent.

The nonfiction tends to get worked on more because fiction is pretty airtight by the time it comes to us. For fiction, the editing is more like, “The ending feels a little rushed; let’s add a couple beats.” It’s not, “Let’s rethink this character.” If something is really good but missing one key factor, I’ll go back and say something like, “If you flesh out this character, we’ll look at it again.” But once I commit to something it’s got to be close. On a line level we’ll look at it and look at it and go back and forth. And then we have a copyeditor who’s ruthless. She’s just brutal. She works over everything, and I feel very lucky to have her.

I want to go back to what you were telling me about the VIDA numbers. That’s fascinating. 
What I’m now really concerned with is race and class. Those are harder things to deal with. Subject matter is obvious. But it’s not always obvious what someone’s race is or what their class is.

How do you begin to attack that?
It’s a systemic issue. With our workshop this year, we had our most diverse faculty and our most diverse participant group as a result. You know, “Build it and they will come.” If you have one or two people of color and one LGBTQ person on your faculty, you’re not going to get that many diverse participants. This year, we got a ton of applications—more than we’ve ever gotten—but we didn’t have to select for gender or race. The quality was just there. When we were looking at the final numbers, we saw, “Wow, we’re really diverse.”

The applications reflected the fact that we’ve made it known in the world that we’re looking to publish people of color and we’re very open to LGBTQ voices, so we get a fair amount of submissions.

A harder thing is that structurally, I only hire from within—people who have been interns. If someone’s been an intern for six months, if there’s an opening, I’ll give them the job. That’s the way we work. But particularly in New York, the people who can afford to intern limits class and race. I’ve been talking to Brooklyn College about doing a paid internship for someone of color. That’s an industry-wide problem. It’s not hard for me to find work by people of color, but we need more diverse workers.

Sometimes it seems like everyone’s from Smith College. Even back in the late ’80s, when my wife hired interns for theParis Review, she was like, “Is there an underground passageway from Smith to New York?” All these Upper East Side, beautiful, young women in black cocktail dresses would be at the parties. No one had invited them. They were just thereand we would ask, “Where did they come from?” It’s still that way.

In Portland we have a much easier time because of the cost of living. Our interns there are much more diverse. 

Is there a story that you think of as an iconic Tin House piece of writing?
One was Adam Johnson’s novella Dark Meadow, which we published two summers ago. It’s about an IT guy in California who scrubs child porn off of people’s computers for a living. That’s his job: He removes it from your computer so you don’t get in trouble. It’s a bit long for a story, ten thousand words, and it’s morally challenging. You just don’t know where to situate yourself at any time. You are uncomfortable from beginning to end. It’s one of my favorites because it’s so difficult but also so surprising. That you care deeply for this IT guy is an extraordinary feat.

On the nonfiction side, Jo Ann Beard has written two essays for us. Both were terrific, both were in Best American. The first one was called “Undertaker Please Drive Slow,” and it was about one of Jack Kevorkian’s last patients. Jo Ann tangentially knew this woman and interviewed her daughter, then re-created this woman’s last two years from diagnosis of breast cancer to assisted suicide. She wrote about it in the first person from the woman's point of view and called it nonfiction. We fought over that. “Can you do this? Can you call it creative nonfiction if you’re writing in the first person from the perspective of someone who’s dead?” I thought this was an amazing act of empathy, and for me, it really pushed the envelope of what is possible in that form. That was maybe eight years ago now.

Are there people who had their first publication in Tin House who have gone on to become more widely known?
Many have started with us. Victor LaValle was probably the earliest—he was a new voice in our second issue. His wife, Emily Raboteau, was also a new voice. We published her first short story, called “Kavita Through Glass.” It had been rejected by twenty-seven other places before she found about Tin House and submitted to us. We took it and it wound up in Best American. Years later she met Victor and they married. 

Both Matthew and Michael Dickman, who are poets, were new voices for us. We wound up hiring Matthew as our poetry editor. That was a fun discovery. They’re also both from Portland.

Every single issue, agents call us about people who don’t have a book out yet. This last issue it was Caoilinn Hughes, an Irish writer—a crazy flurry of agents getting in touch with me over her. I think her bio said that she’s working on a novel, and that was catnip. She just came to New York and talked to a whole bunch of agents.

One of my favorite discoveries, which made me really believe in the power of the slush pile, came when I was reading for the SLS contest, the Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was the judge and we got six hundred applications. I pulled out a story and put it on my desk at the same time as the magazine slush readers pulled out a story and put it on my desk. I loved both stories and was excited that they had both come out of the slush piles. My assistant said, “You know they are written by the same person, right?” I didn’t. I’m just reading the readers report usually, and then I jump right in.

But both stories were by the same person, Dylan Landis. She’s forty-one. I bought them both; even though the SLS one was for the contest, I wanted it for the magazine, too. They were her first two published stories. She has gone on to publish three books now. That made me really happy: to see that good work does rise, that the stories had come to me through two separate groups of readers.

I’ve rejected so many stories that I see in Best American that maybe weren’t my cup of tea, or we were all in a bad mood when we talked about it. Or we had too many really dark stories and we were looking for something funny, or we just published a story on a similar theme. Just being at the right place at the right time is half the battle.

How do you sequence the magazine, and decide the order in which the chosen pieces should go?
I try and find a balance tonally, with subject matter, weird serendipity, things playing off of each other. You need an intuitive feel for that. I’ve also been looking at the run sheet for a long time, and might move things around to create a cool contrast. “Oh, this would be the evil flip side of this story” or something like that. We have all those things in mind when we’re selecting for an issue—especially a theme issue. With a theme issue, if it’s predictable, we’ve failed.

How does the topic of a theme issue arise?
It might be something we want to see our writers engage with—like when we did “future politics”—or it might be something that is suggested by a single piece. Dorothy Allison gave us a piece that was from the point of view of a stone worker. It was really tactile, really working-class. It got me thinking about writing about physical labor and how a lot of writers have moved away from that, because they have only had white-collar jobs or writing internships. Writing about actual labor is a missing thing. We made a whole issue about work based on that one piece. There is no set formula. Some of the things that we think will be really easy are like pulling teeth, and the weirder ones…who knew that so many people were thinking about that subject? We try to keep it a little open so that we can get surprised.

Do you have a reader in mind when you’re putting the magazine together? From our conversation so far, it seems that you’re trying to choose the best work as you define it and trusting that your audience is there for it, rather than selecting work specifically for that audience.
That is definitely the philosophy. I have my reader in mind more for the whole issue than any of the individual pieces. I’m thinking about how it fits together, and what the reading experience is like, and whether you are getting a complete experience from the whole magazine. Do we have a pleasing mix of different kinds of things so the experience isn’t monotone? I try to expose readers to cutting-edge and surprising things. Hopefully the things that surprise me will surprise my readers. I love pieces about things I had no idea I was interested in. Here’s an example of that, on the nonfiction side: A favorite piece we ran was by the linguist Arika Okrent—she wrote a whole book about invented languages—and the essay she wrote for us was on Klingon, which was invented for Star Trek by a linguist. It had to be a plausible language, because there’s a scene in the first Star Trek movie that’s in Klingon, and with Trekkies being as nerdy as they are, someone was going to determine whether it was gibberish or an authentic language. It wound up being a fantastic essay about what languages are made of. I had no idea that I would care about Klingon, but it was all in her writing. I love pieces like that.

What’s frustrating is that I see a ton of pieces where the subject matter is great but the writer blows the material because they think the subject will carry the piece. We see a ton of things that are, for instance, set on the front lines in Falluja. Not to be cynical, but we all have CNN and we know about the physicality of the frontlines in Falluja. But then you get a Phil Klay story about what it’s like to be a gunner operating a huge Howitzer, where it takes nine people to operate the gun, and they’re trying to figure out who got the kill. That’s a story. That’s morally interesting.