Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
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Interview – Rob Spillman


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An Interview with Rob Spillman.

William H. Coles

Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman is Editor of Tin House Magazine—a literary magazine that has been honored in Best American Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, O. Henry Prize Stories, the Pushcart Prize Anthology and numerous other anthologies–and he is also the Executive Editor of Tin House Books. His writing has appeared in BookForum, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Nerve, the New York Times Book Review, Real Simple, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Worth, among other magazines, newspapers, essay collections, and online journals. He has worked for Random House, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker.

 

July 17, 2008.

Tin House summer writing festival at Reed College campus in Portland, Oregon.

I’m sitting outdoors in the student quadrangle at a round table in evening light with Rob Spillman, the Editor of Tin House Magazine, and Executive Editor of Tin House Books.

WHC

It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to talk with you. Thank you for agreeing to this interview for www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

RS

My pleasure.

WHC

I’d like to start out with a general question. Is the literary story surviving? Is it healthy? Or is it declining?

RS

I think it’s actually thriving. My anecdotal evidence is that I get 2000 submissions a month, which means 24,000 per year, and there are a lot of very good literary magazines out there, One Story, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly, and if you look at Best American Stories, Pushcart Prizes, and the O’Henry Prize Anthology every year, there is really high quality work. But I also think that looking around the world, I’ve gone to festivals in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in Nairobi, Kenyon, that the rest of the world is certainly embracing the form and I see a lot of energy and vitality in foreign writers and particularly seeing a lot of second generation American writers embracing the form and doing a lot with it. So I see as lot of really good work.

WHC

And it is an American form?

RS

I think the new generation of foreign born or second generation American writers people like Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Yuyin Li, and Nathan Englander–who bring in a different slant on that bring a new sense of urgency to the story.

WHC

On the sort of negative-symptom side, I heard you say that five thousand would be a good sale on a collection for a publisher, and for a small publisher, two or three thousand might be what one could expect. . . .

RS

Per book.

WHC

. . . that means one in 90,000 or 100,000 Americans might buy a book of a collection of short stories. Is the economics solid enough to continue to consider that publishers will publish and readers will read?

RS

I think it’s unrealistic to make a living as a short story writer, just as it’s unrealistic to make a living strictly as a poet; even Robert Pinsky, the Poet Laureate (1997-2000) is a teacher and lecturer, and I bet you he gets a lot more money from lectures and teaching than the sale from his early books. Now, he might have caught up, but look at the most successful short story writers; Lorrie Moore, she teaches, she came to our festival, and it depends on what kind of writer you are, but teaching and lecturing is a part of the permanent scene. Not too many people are pure and permanent writers, like Cormac McCarthy, locked away, just doing their thing.

WHC

Is their any thrust in the United States to seek government funding to create an archive for published and unpublished short stories in an attempt to save the American short story as an art form, without going through a filter of publication before being archived?

RS

I think the private sector is doing that much more so than government. I think Google Book Project is scanning, Project Gutenberg, I think the electronic data base . . .

WHC

But still scanning published books?

RS

Yeah.

WHC

Is there another way to vet these books (rather than just through publishing)?

RS

No. I think it’s nonhierarchical and it’s self-selecting. I think more and more literary magazines, including us, are putting up more and more material for free, and . . . it self-selects. The good stuff gets found. It’s like I’m a real firm believer that good work rises. One of my favorite publishing stories at Tin House is from when I was judging a competition for the festival in Russia. They had a scholarship to go to this conference, and we received six hundred and fifty applications. I pulled out one story that I really liked from the six hundred and fifty and at the same time one of my readers pulled out a different story from the unsolicited pile in-house and put it in front of me and said, “You really should read this story.” And I read that story and I loved that one too, and I didn’t put together they were by the same person–a forty-one year old woman. She’d never published anywhere else before and she’d just started sending out her stories and through two different sources her stories rose up. Her name is Dylan Landis and she is about to have her first collection of short stories out. But these two different stories rose up from two different stacks of work, and they both jumped out.

WHC

And the message is: get your writing to a level that it can rise.

RS

Yes.

WHC

What is the most common mistake that writers make in failing to engage a reader in their stories, and also what is the mistake that they make when they lose the energy and vitality in their stories?

RS

I see over and over two common mistakes, especially with beginning writers. The first one is throat clearing at the beginning of a story where you work your way into a story, which everybody does, everybody feels their way into the story, but a good writer will throw away the first four pages, and start. My example is–someone walks across this beautiful campus and then sits down and insults you. No one cares about the walk across the campus, start with the insult. The other one is what I call the Doogie Howser syndrome, which is from the television show about the teen doctor, but at the very end he always sat down at his computer and typed into his diary “What I learned today is that friends are invaluable.” And even good writers will do this. They will keep you engaged for twenty pages and then they will pull back and say, “What I learned today is that friends are invaluable.” No, No. No, No. You’ve been showing us for twenty pages. You don’t need to. Those (mistakes) are both very fixable. The other thing–the main thing–is confidence. I don’t care what genre, what voice, where the setting, I will go anywhere if it is confidently told. If you firmly take me . . . that’s a hard thing, you know, to never apologize, jump in, and tell your story.

WHC

Confidence, not competence.

RS

Yes. Confidence. Confidence can overcome incompetence sometimes. I would much rather be taken off a cliff with a story than read a boring work with all the ribbons and bows in place.

WHC

And is that voice?

RS

Yeah. I think that’s voice and confidence. Take me wherever you want to take me confidently.

WHC

Memoir has been on top for at least a few years and certainly has shoved literary fiction to the side somewhat. What would be your advice to writers? Should they be preparing to write memoir-like, or memoir, or should they write what’s in their hearts?

RS

I think it’s what’s in their hearts. For some people the memoir form is perfect for them. It really is their way, they can’t deal with it fictionally, they have to deal with it in a nonfiction way. And that’s fine. My feeling is that the material chooses itself. I know a lot of people who have bounced back and forth trying to write the same story, whether fiction or nonfiction, and one way then clearly clicks with them. You know they don’t have the freedom they need with nonfiction so they just do it fictional, or they don’t feel like their telling the truth in fiction and so they need to do it with nonfiction.

WHC

When it does click, what are the pluses for fictionalization as a technique. What does it do for a story?

RS

That nonfiction can’t do?

WHC

Yes.

RS

Well, you are the master, you can take the seed of the situation, if it’s based in reality, you can take the seed of the emotion, but then you can amplify, you can alter the chronology, you can add brothers and sisters to make it even more dramatic. With memoir, you can play with the form, like Nick Flynn does with his memoir, but you really . . . the facts are the facts. You can’t invent a brother or sister with your memoir.

WHC

You can but you’ll get sued.

RS

You can but it’s not right.

WHC

Is there a difference between stories you like and the ones you publish?

RS

I publish what I like. It’s a collaborative process with my editors, but I love my job because I get paid to read what I like, then I get to publish them.

WHC

Writers shouldn’t try to write for your tastes.

RS

No. There are . . . my advice for people who are just starting to submit is “really do your homework.” I tend to like very voice-driven fiction and nonfiction, which is not what everybody does. I really think you need to do your homework and look at literary magazines. Start off by looking at Best American Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology and really look at these anthologies and you can see who publishes what kind of fiction because you see where they come from . . . do your reverse homework and then if you say . . . if you look at Pushcart and you see five things and they are all coming out of Tin House, One Story, or Ploughshares, or whatever, then you say this really is . . Oh, then when you start submitting you can say in all honesty I just read the most recent issue of Ploughshares and I really enjoyed this story. It makes a difference.

WHC

What do you look for in structure and style in an author’s stories.

RS

Again it’s confidence. If you jump in time, jump confidently. I have a pet peeve against the second person that I call the second–person accusatory: “You are walking down the street.” I go, “No, I am not walking down the street.” I hand those stories to another editor who likes those kinds of stories and they will hand it back to me if they really are good. Formally, I love to be surprised. Flashbacks are hard. Being in the scene is the most important thing. Tell it in scenes

WHC

And that may be the most difficult to write.

RS

Yeah. The general rule is tell it in scene.

WHC

When you recommend authors to read, do you recommend reading all the work of one author or single selected works of many authors?

RS

If you come across an author that particularly speaks to you, I think its worth it to read a lot by that particular author because there are not that many writers that really speak to you. Toni Morrison talks about finding a writer who gives you permission to be yourself. You know, it’s not necessarily like this is exactly me, but when the little voice in your head says if this single mother getting up at four in the morning, this is what Toni Morrison did, she got up at four in the morning before she went to her job as an editor, who was writing her first couple of books, I mean if she can do it by God, I’m going to give it a try. No whining.

I personally read by recommendation, so I tend to jump around, so when I’m starting, (I’m) depending on my friends saying you haven’t read X or Y, but I think it’s really good exercise to find really classic great stories, stories that you really respond to, and then sit and type them out. Copy them word for word. By typing them you feel the rhythms of how they do it, and also you notice the best short stories have no wasted words. No excess. If you actually type it, you feel the rhythm. Also reading out loud, whether it’s your own work or the story, you hear the music of the story. I think it’s very important for writers to read their own work before they send it out.

WHC

Do you think people will start reading stories short and long on computer screens, and what will be the impact on writers for the next couple of decades?

RS

Well, I think it’s a … I read a lot on the computer because I get a lot of submissions and I read a lot of international writers that I can only find through the Internet, and I don’t like to print things out to read them, generally . . . but I think with nonfiction their are more opportunities to embed stories in your work but for fiction I think there is always going to be the sort of tactile pleasure of holding the object, and that’s one of things we did with Tin House. We wanted to make a nice tactile thing that you could carry around and keep. And I think it is a one-on-one experience with your magazine and book. I think there is always going to be that pleasure. When I read something on online, I also want to have it in my hand.

WHC

Are there favorite classics that you recommend to learn the craft?

RS

You can’t go wrong with looking at the masters of the form: Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Aimee Bender . . . you know everybody learns for the masters and there are really some good . . . Deborah Eisenberg is another one, Joy Williams. There are some very strong writers working right now, working in the short-fiction genre.

WHC

Do you recommend films to look for story structure?

RS

I think the films of Todd Haynes, Safe (1995) and Velvet Goldmine (1998), and I’m Not There (2007). Anything that gets you thinking outside the box because we are so linearly trained that . . . even going to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction where he starts the movie a third of the way through the story and then comes back and finishes. It can be middle in the beginning. It’s a good exercise. Start with the end, then the middle, and then the beginning. You know, give yourself these challenges to break yourself out of the box.

WHC

What is you concept of voice? It seems difficult to define. And how do writers develop it internally so it becomes external?

RS

Unfortunately it’s not simple and it’s hard work. It’s literally writing thousands and thousands of words and just keep writing and writing and hopefully things will start to click. I’m trying to think of the writer—who wrote LA Confidential?—

WHC

I can’t remember.  (James Ellroy)

RS

There is a famous story about him when he turned in a novel. I think it was his third and it was seven hundred pages long but his editor said this is brilliant but it really has to be five hundred pagers; I just can’t publish seven hundred pages. So he and his agent looked at it, and the agent said, “You know, instead of cutting scenes, let’s cut words.” So they took the page and cut words from each sentence and they made it much snappier, and then they didn’t cut any scenes, and they cut from seven hundred to five hundred and they compressed the language, and as they were doing this the were saying this is so much sharper and better.

WHC

And it strengthened voice too?

RS

Yeah. And the voice just popped. And it became his voice.

WHC

As an extension of voice, what are the common point of view errors do you see. In classes, there seems to a special struggle with first person.

RS

I think one of the problems is being too interior; I think that is a common problem with beginning writers where the writer goes “Where am I? Where am I in space and time?” You should always have a note to yourself—where am I in space and time? And also I think, especially beginning writers, if they are writing something about reality, something that is true to them, they don’t paint the scene, because they are seeing everything in their own head. But you’re not conveying it to the reader. So I strongly advise everybody—if you’re doing something based on reality—sketch the room, just a little architectural drawing, a box, and draw what’s in the room and use skittles as your characters and move them around in the box, and if one skittle’s facing west they are looking at some things, and the other skittle is looking east what are they seeing? It takes you out of your head. And also, where am I in space and time? Because you want to keep the reader in your story at all times. And if the reader is going—wait, the sun just set, why are they talking about breakfast? You forget a transition. Anything that takes you out of the moment questions the authority and competence of the writer, which you never want to do. I want to forget there is a writer and I want to look up from the story and go, oh, wow.

WHC

And you lose the reader at that point and they don’t come back.

RS

Yes. And as an editor who is first looking at these stories, I will say, “Well this writer has no control, so why should I keep reading?” A couple of those incidences will take you out.

WHC

If somebody wants to submit to Tin House, there are two places. Could you give an overview?

RS

Our website, www.tinhouse.com, has our guidelines. The New York office is only for solicited work so it is only through agents and our contributing editors. The Oregon address is where are readers are.

WHC

Is that (Oregon) where the two thousand come?

RS

Yes,

WHC

Is that a combination of both?

RS

That is a combination of both.

WHC

I would like to thank you very much for contributing to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com. It’s been a pleasure.

RS

My pleasure.

 


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3 Responses to “Interview – Rob Spillman”

  1. howie Says:

    Rob,
    Does it ever hurt to be so f—ing terminally hip? I mean you’re a male feminist and all and that’s got to require a shitload of effort. And, you wear those too-tight-fitting shirts. You’ve done that for years. Isn’t it uncomfortable? Is that the price you pay to be so ‘effin cool? And that haircut, GAWD! that haircut. Is that professionally mussed or does it “just happen”? I really, really, really want to be like you some day, but it just looks like such an effort. Could you please tell us Philistines how you pull it all off? BTW – has anyone ever told you your talent level is marginal, but your hipster quotient is through the roof!!!???? You’re all Aces, Robby!!

  2. MostlyFiction Book Reviews » FANTASTIC WOMEN edited by Rob Spillman Says:

    [...] Interview with Rob Spillman [...]

  3. Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence | Literary Story Fiction Writer's Blog.com Says:

    [...] may find these interviews with Butler, Shepard, Carlson, Spillman and others interesting. They provide insight into the differences in the ways authors think about [...]

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