Living for Art: A Conversation with Rob Spillman

ROB SPILLMAN, CO-FOUNDER, with his wife, Elissa Schappell, of Tin House magazine, started writing All Tomorrow’s Parties 10 years ago. The brave, sophisticated memoir recounts his life as a child of divorced musicians, first as a boy in West Berlin, then as an adolescent in the United States. But Spillman’s story fits into a larger context: his narrative is infused with observations from what he calls a “historical bubble,” East Berlin in the year between the fall of the Wall and reunification with West Germany.

In 1990, when young newlyweds Spillman and Schappell transplant themselves from New York to Prenzlauer Berg, Spillman hopes the city of his youth will embrace him as its prodigal son. Interspersing scenes from Berlin with snapshots from growing up in the 1960s, he weaves a tale urgent in its central questions: What is a life devoted to art? Will he be able to find that sort of life back in Berlin? Is there any such thing as home?

During an interview at the New School in downtown Manhattan, Spillman, now 51 and a father himself, discussed the complications of opening up in his memoir, the challenges of recollecting decades-old material, and the craft of storytelling in literary nonfiction.


STEPHANIE NEWMAN: In All Tomorrow’s Parties, you write that you can’t imagine anything more romantic and ideal than living for art. As a reader, this impulse seems inextricable from your desire to move back to Berlin. Why did you choose Berlin as your stage for artistic pursuit?

ROB SPILLMAN: It’s true I had this romantic yearning to be an artist. Besides being born in Germany, in my mind, that’s where artists went: they moved to Berlin. After the Wall fell in 1989, the choice seemed clear to me. My wife Elissa and I left New York, and we ended up living through a historical bubble that can’t be replicated.

Was capturing this bubble a motivation for starting your memoir?

My memories from Berlin certainly influenced me, and I held onto images from those years. While working on the memoir, for instance, I was obsessed with the color gray that dominates Berlin in the fall and winter skies, the Brutalist architecture, and, of course, the Wall. There were also many shades of emotional gray I was trying to get at. My primary motivation for writing the book, though, was analyzing myself — specifically my rage.

And yet your tone throughout the book is so measured and self-deprecating. How did you balance your present-day perspective with the younger, more enraged version of yourself in the memoir?

It was hard in earlier drafts. My present-day self kept coming through. But because I started journaling as a kid — as early as age 10 — many of the childhood scenes and a lot of the dialogue came straight from my journals. I did have to ask myself: Am I remembering this, or am I remembering writing this? I showed the manuscript to the people who were there at the time. Of course, sometimes we remembered things differently.

Were these contradictions unsettling? How did you resolve them?

I listened to other people’s versions and adjusted accordingly. But I also kept things that I felt absolutely sure about. Some scenes are as clear to me as when they happened. For example, in one chapter I run away from camp and bike to the beach. That’s a formative memory. It was even scarier than smuggling money into East Berlin, which I did as a kid with my father.

There were also some surprises. For instance, my mom claims not to have known the specifics of certain events that, in the book, I suspect she knows. When I crashed my car as a teenager in Baltimore, I was convinced she knew the truth behind the accident. At the time, I kept thinking, “She knows, she knows.” But it turns out she didn’t.

I remember that being a tense moment in the book. But it seems like a lot went unsaid between you and your mom. What were her reactions to reading the memoir?

I showed the manuscript to my parents before it went to galley. It was tough. My mom was very unamused by the material. She was raised in the kind of family that did not discuss family secrets. After she read, she caught a train up to New York from Baltimore, and we sat in my kitchen for five hours airing it out. That was probably a conversation that should have happened a long time ago. With my dad, it was totally different. He thought the book was great. He just said, “Awesome, you made art.”

I can almost hear him saying that to you, based on your portrayal of him as both a supportive figure and devoted musician. How about your own kids? Do they have the same artistic drive as you and your parents?

My daughter Izzy and I have always bonded over music, and still do. We send each other music all the time. She’s actually the drummer in a popular punk band.

Really? What’s the story there?

The band is called Care Bears on Fire. She named it when she was 10, and they got big when she was 14. Actually, the licensing company for Care Bears called us, concerned, and wanted to know: How was this band going to disparage the Care Bear? Once we explained that the band loves the Care Bears, they got on board. The band opened for Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez at Lollapalooza in 2009. Then, when my daughter was around 17, the label wanted her to drop out of school and tour 300 days a year. And Disney offered them a show. But the players had higher aspirations. They decided to go to college and Izzy ended up at Wesleyan.

You write that punk was an influence for you as a teenager, as well. Did you listen to punk music while writing? 

Not really. The music I listened to was pretty obliterative. I’m talking about Acid Mothers Temple and Japanese noise bands. It fit the mental state I was in, which was punishing.

I can imagine that a 10-year writing project would have its low points. What was your biggest creative challenge? 

When I started off, the narrative was linear, but it didn’t work. I had to find a way to put Berlin and 1990 first, and then to go back through my childhood. I learned that you have to use fictive tools in memoir. I love the metaphor that a story is a taut string that needs to keep its tension. For every scene, I need to ask myself: Does this move the story forward? Whole chapters in the memoir were jettisoned at the last minute because they didn’t. And there were interesting things that happened to the characters after the memoir ended, but I made a strategic choice to cut the story off in 1990.

I noticed in your acknowledgments that you thank your editor for talking you “off the ledge.” What was the ledge?

The ledge was doubt in my ability to keep pushing through to the end. It took me a decade. I made every cringe-worthy mistake possible — sometimes I’d feel like Pete Townshend smashing his guitar, unsatisfied with the sound. Obviously the material is personal, and editing the personal is hard. Corinna Barsan, the senior editor at Grove/Atlantic, was amazing and patient. 

Was your wife involved in the editing process?

I got to the point where I couldn’t go any further with the manuscript until getting Elissa’s feedback. Elissa won’t submit any of her own writing until it is airtight, and showing her an early draft of the memoir was probably my most nerve-wracking moment as a writer. Being that vulnerable in front of someone you love is really miserable. I’d actually tried to protect Elissa in my first drafts, and what she told me when she finally read was that I had erased myself and came across as boring. But you have to write to discover. That’s part of the process.

How do you balance your responsibilities at Tin House — especially the influence of reading other people’s work — with your own writing?

I try to write in the mornings before I read other people’s work and have their voices coming into my head. Because my job is so fluid, though, I have no set routine. I wrote All Tomorrow’s Parties on planes, trains, in hotel rooms, in my office, at the kitchen table. The most important thing, to stay inside the material, was to work every day. Virginia Woolf didn’t come down to breakfast until she wrote 1,000 words, and then any other writing she did that day was a bonus. Toni Morrison had a job when she started her first novel, and she woke up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to write before work.

Back to rage, for a minute. In the book, you talk about your anger in relationship to privilege and injustice. Given that you’ve pioneered a prominent literary magazine, what do you think about the inequalities that still exist in publishing?

As far as Tin House goes, just in terms of submissions from men and women, we’ve seen the numbers even. We did notice that when we rejected men with encouragement, they would resubmit about 99.9 percent of the time. When we did the same to women, they were only half as likely to send us new work. At this point, I’ve stopped soliciting men altogether.

Otherwise, while I mainly work on Tin House, I also do nonprofit/advocacy work. I’m the chair of the PEN Membership Committee, and I’m on the board of Narrative 4, which does story exchanges around the world.

I really admire Narrative 4’s work to use global storytelling as a tool for empathy. And now your own story is headed out into the world. Has the process changed you? 

What’s changed is that I’m finally satisfied with the material.


Stephanie Newman is a writer and consultant living in New York City.


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