Rob Spillman on Keeping Diverse Voices in the Light


An Interview by Allegra Frazier

  Photo credit:   Thomas Sayers Ellis

Photo credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis

Rob Spillman, co-founder and editor of the bi-coastal journal Tin House and executive editor of Tin House Books, is enjoying a big year. In addition to working on an anticipated memoir about growing up in Berlin during the Cold War (Grove Press, 2016), he has won PEN America’s Nora Magid Award for Editing, a career achievement award honoring an editor “whose high literary standards and taste have, throughout his or her career, contributed significantly to the excellence of the publication he or she edits.” 

As long time readers and admirers of Tin House, we here at Origins were so excited to hear about this award, and to ask Rob a few questions about how editors (and writers, and teachers, and readers) can positively impact a publishing environment that is redefining itself both in terms of logistics and inclusivity. 

ORIGINS

This has been a divisive year for the PEN America Awards. While some very high profile members boycotted over Charlie Hebdo, attendance at this year’s recent World Voices Festival was higher than ever.  What are your thoughts on receiving the honor during such a time, and what’s the role of an editor in this environment?

SPILLMAN

It is a great honor to receive an award from PEN, an organization I feel so strongly about. I realize that as an editor I am a gatekeeper and have a certain amount of power. I have always wanted to hear from under-represented voices, and now, with Tin House, I am able to bring under-represented voices to greater audiences. 

ORIGINS

At this year’s festival, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggested that we fetishize the fear of causing offense.  Where do you see this fetish hurting contemporary literature most?

SPILLMAN

That lecture was brilliant. I believe that this fetish causes a sameness of stories and points of view. Also, it fosters an atmosphere of non-engagement and simply reinforcing one's opinions and worldview. It is hard these days to have an intelligent debate with someone with an opposing view, especially in the digital realm. That's why I seek them out, and why I had a debate with a pro-Amazon writer, and why I am running a pro-gun essay in my next issue. 

ORIGINS

Nearly ten years ago, you wrote that American writers who are immigrants or the children of immigrants seem to grapple best with the cruelties and absurdities of American culture, whereas many contemporary American writers with more traditional backgrounds tend to refer to those concepts more obliquely. I would take it one step further and say anyone marginalized by mainstream American culture is the writer best equipped to comment on the specific absurdities and cruelties that result in the group they identify with being overlooked or even oppressed. Have you seen any change in American writing in the past decade? Is there a meaningful trend toward including marginalized voices, or toward commenting on our culture more aggressively?  How can the publishing community, indie or otherwise, do better by these writers and their stories?

SPILLMAN

Good points. Writers tend to be the quiet observers, the ones who take note of the strangeness of their worlds while most everyone else is happily going along, either complicit or in denial of the absurdities and cruelties. In the last ten years, however, the United States has been forced to face itself—first with 9/11 and the endless wars in the Middle East, then with Occupy and increased awareness of inequality, and now with Black Lives Matter and the increasing awareness of systemic racism and violence toward minorities. Not to mention LGBTQ and women's rights. All of this is hard to ignore if you are a writer today, though I do see a lot of oblivious submissions and can't help wondering, "what time period are you writing in?" 

There is also a problem of who controls the means of production of storytelling. Traditional literary publishing is still dominated by straight white males. We are the gatekeepers. I only hire from within, promoting interns and readers. Who can afford to be an unpaid intern or reader? Usually white privileged people. I am now actively recruiting non-white, non-straight interns and readers. At Columbia, where I teach, I make sure my curriculum is diverse, and always call out my students when they are asked to bring in examples and don't push themselves. Same with putting together panels and readings or when I am nominating for awards or prizes. VIDA has really opened the literary community's eyes to gender inequality, with a ripple effect spreading out to cover all inequities. It is an exciting time, being able to see the increasing awareness and also being exposed to new, urgent voices because of these changes.

ORIGINS

Your upcoming memoir is about growing up in Berlin during the Cold War. How has that origin influenced the way you approach your task as an editor? How has it influenced your writing?

SPILLMAN

Growing up as an ex-pat, I've always felt like an outsider. Berlin was a very, very multi-cultural, dynamic place to grow up, and I've been searching for that feeling of possibility and openness everywhere I've gone since.

ORIGINS

After your experience as an ex-pat, do you feel like you have found that openness and possibility anywhere, or anything resembling it?

SPILLMAN

Good question. New York comes close, but it is so fractured here, and the economic pressure on artists has really damaged the cultural vitality. Artists in the East Village were complaining about this in 1986 when I moved here, but it has gotten much, much worse over the last ten years. I find this feeling virtually, that I am able to now connect with artists around the world via the internet, which I find exciting and stimulating. Though nothing compares to in-person connections. I love the cultural energy of places like Lagos and Melbourne, and in the US, Portland, Oregon, with its co-mingling of different kinds of artists, though it is hardly diverse like Berlin, which has, and continues to have, ex-pat artists from all over the world.

ORIGINS

Is it necessary to consider the origins or identity of a writer when reading their work? 

SPILLMAN

Interesting question. With fiction, less so. Though I do tend to look skeptically at cultural appropriation by the more powerful, as in a white, Western person writing from the POV of a slum-dweller in Mumbai. Of course, there are exceptions to all writing rules. With nonfiction, I definitely consider the origins and identity—who are you to tell this story?

ORIGINS 

In a Salon piece about self publishing, you mentioned it was strange that someone would think of you and Tin House as representing one of the “big guys,” since you regularly find yourself railing against a system that seems to favor even bigger guys, like The New Yorker (and Amazon). I won’t waste a lot of time convincing you that being published in Tin House is viewed as a career milestone on par with The New Yorker by many writers, but it really strikes me that even you see a bigger, stronger, more favored entity. This speaks to a problem I think both writers and editors have: your achievements always feel just shy of something. Having just achieved an even higher level of prestige, for both yourself and Tin House, can you comment on that nagging and seemingly universal feeling?

SPILLMAN

Sadly, it is the nature of the writer to feel on the outside, permanently. I don't think this is a bad thing. It is our role to observe, to say the things that everyone else is thinking or has on the tips of their tongues. It is dangerous when this feeling of outsiderness tips into paralyzing self-loathing. That is why it is important to have a core of compassionate but critical readers for your work, people who will encourage but also push you. With Tin House, if I ever felt complacent, I would quit on the spot. I am always restless, always searching for new voices, always hoping to be surprised, to be proved wrong, to have my assumptions completely undermined.

ORIGINS 

Finally, who are some international writers we’re just not reading enough of?

SPILLMAN

So many. Even someone like Patrick Modiano, who just won the Nobel Prize, is under-read. I look to writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, who is one of Africa's leading queer voices. Everyone should follow him on social media as he is constantly championing LGBTQ voices across Africa and around the world. The suppressed voices of China are also important to support and champion. With them, I take the Quaker approach of "keeping them in the light," as they are operating in such darkness.

Posted on June 8, 2015 .