Ecstatic, Beautiful, Cutting-Edge: Inside One of America's Most Successful Literary Magazines
Rob Spillman is Editor of Tin House, a ten-year-old bi-coastal (Brooklyn, New York and Portland, Oregon) 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. 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 is also editor of Gods and Soldiers; The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Fiction.
Interview by Rachel Worrall
Give me a little background on how you came to start the magazine.
I started the magazine 13 years ago with Elissa Schappell (who happens to be my wife). We were going to edit it together but the week we agreed to start the magazine we found out that she had received a two book deal for her fiction and that she was pregnant with our second child. So she became editor-at-large and I became editor. We always wanted the magazine to be bi-coastal. NYC is where the publishing world is but we also wanted to harness the creativity of Portland. Our publisher is in Portland and more than half of the Tin House staff is out there. The two halves keep each other sane. Portland especially takes you out of the hype loops that can form in NYC.
How do you choose the editions' themes?
A mix of zeitgeist choices, what's in the air and what kind of pieces we're getting. A few years ago we did an issue devoted to 'Work' that was triggered by Dorothy Allison’s story, "The Scone-Maker"; it started a discussion about writing about work. There's no real formula for choosing themes. It's what excites us at the moment and what we're interested in.
Do you encourage general submissions at all?
Absolutely. Every single issue I publish a poet and fiction writer who has not been published before. We're actively looking for unpublished people. It's a thrill to be able to call someone up and say 'I'd love to publish your story' and be able to root for them throughout their career. It requires a fair amount of labor to commit to that but we're absolutely dedicated to it.
Which writer do you wish you had discovered and why?
Someone who is really innovative and surprising like Anne Carson who blends and transcends genres.
How many manuscripts do you get on average per edition?
Between 1500 and 2000 a month, so per issue between 4500-6000.
How much editing do you do with a new writer?
It depends on the piece. We're willing to work on things but the less known the writer the less likely we are to work with them because we don’t know what they are capable of. If we see something we really like that has some serious problems we'll ask for a revision with some suggestions. If it's a pretty obvious flaw, say the beginning or ending, we'll explain why and ask for a re-write.
What percentage of the average edition is commissioned?
The theme issues tend to be more commissioned. Fiction is not usually solicited but pieces always come in because I send out the theme announcements to agents, publishers, and past contributors. The non-fiction tends to be more solicited as we work on particular themes. Our winter issue is our 50th anniversary issue. Our Fall issue is 'Ecstatic'; Winter is 'Beauty' and Spring is 'Weird Science'.
Do you think you publish a particular style?
We tend towards voice-driven pieces and I tend to favor things that are a little messy and emotional versus tidy and clean with small epiphanies. That's my own flavour or preference - but it's whatever's out there. I love to be proven wrong and that's what keeps it interesting for me. I am looking to be jolted and surprised. I have pet peeves, for instance second person stories. I generally don't like them so my editors go out of their way to find second person stories for me and I love it when they find them - for example the Jennifer Egan story "You (plural)" written in the second person which I thought was just devastating.
Do you publish mainly established poets and writers? What percentage of the average edition comes from established writers and what from new writers?
Just because of limited space 80% of the magazine is filled by more established writers. But it differs by issue. Sometimes we'll get more from emerging writers. The simple fact is it's easier to get someone's attention if you're established. Agents and people who send me pieces know what I like. The best agents won't send me much but what they do send me will make me happy.
What do you feel qualified you to become an editor of a magazine like Tin House?
I don't know that I was. I think you learn by trial and error. Tin House could as easily have failed as succeeded in the beginning. Being a voracious reader and knowing what's currently out there where my main qualifications. I had worked at other magazines like the New Yorker and Vanity, wrote the book column forDetails Magazine. I did have practical experience. But I think passion goes a long way. If you don't enjoy this then you have no business doing it.
So you don't do your own writing?
It was very hard at first but I do enjoy both. I also enjoy being in the greater creative community and that's one of the reasons I choose to be in NYC - I'm on the membership committee of PEN, the boards of the Brooklyn Literary Festival,CLMP, 826NYC, WFMU - a lot of things I can engage with where I feel I can make a difference and help younger writers.
What are you most proud of in terms of the journal?
Creating a community. I think we've done a good job of creating a community. We run a literary festival out in Oregon and that's an extension of the magazine and the book imprint. Every summer for the past seven years we’ve hung out with our favorite writers. It's great to feel like you're part of a greater artistic discussion that transcends the page and borders.
Outside the magazine?
I would say the fact I edited Gods and Soldiers - the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African writing. That was definitely a labor of love.
What do you see as your role as an editor?
What kinds of things do you like to focus on in your editorial? What do you like to use it for?
Sometimes I use it as a platform to rally for a cause of some kind or another. We did a controversial thing last fall where we were trying to get people to support their local book store and we asked people who submitted pieces to send us one receipt from one book store. People called us elitist for doing it but we were trying to rally people behind what I believe is a good cause, namely supporting the ecosystem that everyone in publishing lives in and needs to support in order for it to sustain itself.
What do you see as the magazine's role?
I think it is in the literal meaning of 'avant garde' - in the front lines. We're out there seeing what the younger and less established writers are doing and also people at the top of their game. We seek to reflect the most interesting work. We try to lead by example, we're more curators, we're more enablers: holding up the banner and charging into battle, helping people to charge across the creative fields.
What do you think Tin House contributes to the literary dialogue in America (and worldwide)?
The literary dialogue is really diverse these days. There are opinion-forming journals, even Twitter. It's easy to see what's going on and what people are talking about but it's also very fractured. I'm a firm believer, though, that interesting and good work rises and there's a general buzz about it very quickly and it's easier to have a dialogue about it now even though there are so many different ways you can have that dialogue.
What would you most like people to know about the journal?
That it's staffed entirely by writers who are very passionate and very open and willing to read just about anything. I'd like people to know that we're passionately looking through everything trying to find great work.
Has the journal changed over time?
It's changed in that it's a little bit easier to find work these days - once you get known it's easier to approach people for work. Hopefully it hasn't calcified into something predictable.
Any forthcoming on-line edition?
We're definitely putting more and more up on-line. We just relaunched our website and we're going to put up more and more pieces - more of our back issue articles for example. We're going to do more web exclusive work as well. We won't have a payment wall. I'm a firm believer in getting the work out there and that it will be repaid in kind and that it does no one any good if the work is not read.
Do you think you are at all influenced by your location - you are, after all, named for it?
Absolutely - you can't help but be influenced by that - we exist in a physical world and I run across writers and editors here in NYC all the time. Culturally we're based in such a vibrant place. It's the same out in Portland.
How do you make most of your money / how are you supported?
We have one fabulous backer, our publisher, Win McCormack - he's our publisher and he's been with us from the start. He's backed the festival, the book division, everything.
Tell me a little about the success of your book division.
I think it's a great moment for indie presses right now - the big ones are so stuck with huge overheads. Books like Tinkers, which should have been published by a major house, was published by tiny Bellevue Literary Press.
How far ahead do you work?
Depends on the theme but generally almost a year. We're already looking at stuff for spring and summer 2012.
What are you looking for in the writing you publish?
Simply to miss my subway stop.
What's the last thing that made you do that?
Kevin Brockmeier's story “Ryan Shifrin”, which is in the Winter issue.
Whom do you see as your typical reader?
A mix of students, writers and the publishing industry. Other book publishers and agents all read it. We're increasingly adopted by MFA classes. Through the CLMP lit-mag adoption program, they'll get a half-price subscription, then can pick an issue and discuss the work with an editor. It's been very illuminating for me - you get real critical feedback, both good and bad.
How do you select the artists for the cover?
It's a collaborative process with our art director out in Portland. We increasingly feature Portland and Brooklyn artists.
What do you think has been the influence of the MFA on fiction in the States today?
That is a hot button subject. It's definitely increased competence and basic craft over all - we see a lot more competence and generally well-crafted pieces but that doesn't mean that they're transcendent or wonderful. It actually makes our job harder. It used to be that we could reject things easily but now a lot of things are put together in a competent way. It's just they don't have heart. There are good programs. There are bad programs. There are great teachers and there are bad teachers. I'm going to stop there. I could go on about this for hours.
Rachel Worrall is a writer and model from the UK. She is crazy about reading and equally crazy about writing. She is currently working on her second novel 'Amen'.