On the road with Tin House

Reed College
Reed College

For one week each year, two-hundred-and-some word lovers converge on the stunning Reed College campus in Portland, Oregon, for the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop.

This year I was one of them. In the romantic setting of red-brick Harry Potter style buildings surrounded by lush trees, each morning we would roll out of bed, fill our bellies with delicious food and then our minds with lectures, workshops and good conversation. Evenings would be spent chatting over wine and beer, listening to readings from some of the top writers of the day, and occasionally out-cringing each other at karaoke. The jury is still out as to whether poets make better singers than novelists.

Tin House is a rare breed: a successful, engaging, top-of-its-class literary magazine that has been publishing the cream of established and emerging talent since it first launched in its namesake building in Portland around 15 years ago. It also has a books division, which publishes novels, poetry and non-fiction.

Rob Spillman
Rob Spillman

Editor Rob Spillman, who is based out of the magazine’s New York offices, has been with Tin House since the start. By strange co-incidence, I discovered that he would be visiting my home city for our annual Brisbane Writers Festival this year.

Spillman, widely published himself, from GQ to Salon to Rolling Stone magazine, has previously worked for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Working with a team of Tin House editors around the world, he is the man who brings us the newest and best writing of the day. He also has exceptional taste – in music as well as books.

Ahead of his visit to Australia, he agreed to chat to girlreporter.net

I’m sitting comfortably, please tell me the story about how Tin House began…

Tin House started in 1998, and has been based out of Portland, Oregon, and Brooklyn, New York from the start. Our publisher, Win McCormack, approached myself and my wife, Elissa Schappell, about the idea and we ran with it.

You receive up to 2000 submissions a month. What grabs your attention in a piece of writing?

One word: Authority. Another way of putting it is that I’m hoping to miss my subway stop because what I’m reading is so engrossing that I look up and I’m in Harlem and I live in Brooklyn. I’m looking to be taken into someone’s world, whether past, present, future, whether experimental or straightforward, with authority.

What makes you reject a piece? What are some common flaws or “rooms for improvement” that you often see?

Lack of confidence. Lack of faith in the reader. A tendency to explain too much, to have everything be neat and tidy, or black and white, which isn’t what life is. I want complication, not simplification.

What authors are you excited about at the moment?

I like genre-defying artists. I’m very excited about anything Maggie Nelson does, particularly loved her book Bluets. Also Rachel Kushner and her novel Flamethrowers, which is the most exciting novel I’ve read in a long time. Along with Dana Spiotta, loved both Eat the Document and Stone Arabia.

What are some of your top tips for breaking into the literary market?

Be a good literary citizen. Support your own–buy books from new writers, go to readings, buy and subscribe to literary magazines. Support the ecosystem you want to be a part of. And, of course, do the work.

There’s a lot of talk about the death of literary fiction. Should we be getting out our violins?

Hardly. I’m very excited about what I’m seeing. Particularly with fiction coming from around the world. I was teaching in Lagos, Nigeria last summer, and I was seeing a lot of vital work. The urge for storytelling is universal, and I’m excited about its possibilities.

Tell us a little more about yourself. Where did you grow up, what writing did you fall in love with and what were your first steps into the publishing world?

I grew up in Berlin, lived there until I was ten. My parents are American classical musicians. I was always surrounded by art, music, and books. I was a voracious reader from early on, but I was also an avid runner. I went to grad school for sports psychology, but dropped out and moved to New York with $150 and no connections, but with the vague idea of working in publishing and starting my own magazine.

What was it like to work for The New Yorker and Vanity Fair?

Exciting and intimidating. The best part was seeing the work of great writers like Joan Didion from start to finish. This was a great eduction.

Who are your all-time favourite authors or books?

The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces; A Secret History of the 20th Century (tracing the origins of punk and Situationism back through history).

Favourite bands or artists?

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (live in NYC in 1990, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen). My Bloody Valentine (also, in top five of live shows, both in 1992, with Pavement opening, and last year). Animal Collective, Sonic Youth (lived around the corner from me in the late 80s, so saw them a million times), Of Montreal, Chemical Brothers. Artists include Gerhard Richter, Zak Smith, Cindy Sherman, and the performance artist Marina Abromovic.

Favourite cities to visit?

I was just in Cuzco, Peru, which I loved. Also just in Florence, which, despite its touristy nature, is fabulous. Berlin, of course, as it is my home town. Lisbon is where I would go to hide out. I found Lagos amazing–incredibly dysfunctional, but wonderfully optimistic and full of life. Lamu, off the coast of Kenya and Somalia, an ancient Muslim trading port, is one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. I fell in love with Melbourne when I went to the festival there a few years ago, so am very much looking forward to seeing Brisbane, where I have never been.

Captive audience
Captive audience

I very much enjoyed my time at the Tin House Writers Workshop. What do you love about it and what were some of your highlights of the past workshop?

We try to surround ourselves with the best writers who also play well with others. It only works because the faculty all support each other, go to each other’s lectures, so there is a cumulative effect. I leave very inspired. Some of the highlights include Denis Johnson, Wally Lamp, and Deborah Eisenberg taking a Raymond Carver story and turning it into a play. Any reading by Dorothy Allison, Joy Williams, Jim Shepard, and Karen Russell.


So Brisbane, make sure you head down to the Writers Festival this year, from September 3-9. Tin House alumni, I’d love to know your workshop highlights. And literary fiction, moribund or death-defying? Discuss.

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