#77: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Rob Spillman, by Liz Mathews

The 5th annual Slice Literary Writers’ Conference is in two days, and we’re so excited about the amazing community of writers and publishing professionals that is about to crowd into our corner of downtown Brooklyn. As we count down, we chatted with Tin House editor Rob Spillman about his work in both magazine and indie book publishing. We’ll hear more from Rob on Saturday at our panel Where They’re Looking for You: Literary Magazines and Indie Presses. You can see the full panel schedule here.

At Tin House, what are you looking for when reading unsolicited submissions? Do you just get a feeling when you know something is top notch?

My simple answer is that I am looking to miss my subway stop. I want the work—fiction, poetry, nonfiction, haiku, whatever it is—to be all that can possibly exist for the time I am reading it, to be so authoritative that only that writer could have written it.


Because Tin House has theme issues and open issues, do you find one or the other easier to read submissions for? And how do the themes get chosen?

They both have their challenges. With each I am looking for a balance of new and established voices, experimental and traditional forms. I’m also looking to balance for gender, race, class, and geography (both global and national). We talk about possible themes at our edit meetings, and sometimes they will be suggested by a single piece (for example, a story by Dorothy Allison about a baker triggered the idea of doing a theme around Work), or it could be a theme that we would like to see addressed by our favorite writers, like The Future of Politics or Faith.

Do you notice a difference in your approach to being an editor of Tin House magazine and the editorial advisor of Tin House Books? Do you have, say, a different set of “eyes”?

The stakes are higher with the book division. We publish 12-15 books a year, so there is pressure to make each one meet our expectations. They have to stand alone, whereas a piece for the magazine can be a perfect compliment to another piece we’ve already chosen.

After so much experience in being a columnist and writer for a variety of magazines, what drew you to Tin House?

When Elissa Schappell and I started the magazine in 1999, literary journals had a feel of being like Castor Oil—they were supposed to be good for you, and therefor had a bland, boring feeling. We wanted to be provocative, introduce humor, have it be visually arresting, and to not have the same tired old voices that seemed to dominate literary magazines of the time.

Do you have any hints for writers wanting to be discovered? Where are lit mags and indie presses looking for them?

Concentrate on your work. Make it as strong as possible before you send it out. I’m a strong believer that good work rises. I’ve seen it over and over these last seventeen years. Divorce your ego from the process. You have to be in the right place at the right time. I frequently reject really good pieces because they don’t fit in with the upcoming issues, and then I’ll see them in Best American Stories. The process is fickle and unpredictable. What you can control is the quality of your work.

Rob Spillman is editor of Tin House magazine and editorial advisor of Tin House Books. He was previously the monthly book columnist for Details magazine and is a contributor of book reviews and essays to Salon and Bookforum. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, among other magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. He has also worked for Random House, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker.

Liz Mathews is a former publishing veteran recovering from her years in New York by living in Minnesota. After years as a copywriter for a science fiction and fantasy publisher, she now attends science classes, thinks about statistics, and sells books to business people in her spare time.