The Feeling of Yes: Rob Spillman on “All Tomorrow’s Parties”

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For a man so scared of exposure, Rob Spillman, founder of Tin House, has taken a great risk with his memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties.

A deeply personal work about love, art, and authenticity, All Tomorrow’s Parties leaves few places for the author to hide. The book alternates between two narratives. The first is Spillman’s chaotic and lonely childhood, shuttled between Cold War Berlin, where he lived with his opera singer father after his parents’ divorce, Upstate New York, the Deep South, Aspen, and eventually Baltimore, where he lived with his mother while he attended a prestigious and loathsome all-boys prep school. The second story is Spillman’s decision, at the age of twenty-five, to leave his bustling life in NYC and move with his wife, writer Elissa Schappell, back to Germany just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At every turn, Spillman chafes at convention and rules — at one point, he and his friend play Russian roulette with his car and barely escape with their lives — feeling that the only way to live and be an artist is through constant disruption. Spillman says of his young adulthood, “I distrusted happiness, mistaking it for complacency.”

Ultimately, though, the emotional risks Spillman takes in his life and in this book pay off. Readers will relate to his struggle toward vulnerability and presence, and the unexpected satisfaction he finds in a more rooted idea of family and home.

I caught up with Rob at the tail end of his national book tour and talked about the power of music, learning to sit in the same room as the people one writes about, and what it means to be fearless.–Amy Gall

 

The Barnes & Noble Review: How was editing your own work different from editing other writers’ work?

Rob Spillman: That’s a really good question. One of the big lessons of the book was realizing that you can’t see your own work. It took me ten years to write this book, and seven years were figuring out the form and excavating the material. You’d think that as an editor I’d be able to get there faster, but I really had to figure it out. Even when it was bought and went through the first round of edits, the manuscript came back covered in red marks, and I was like “Oh, shit.”

BNR: Was that painful?

RS: It was really painful. It was also great, and it made me more empathetic with the people I’m editing. I kept editing the book all the way through January, when the last page proofs were signed off on. I kept trying to push myself and not let anything go at all.

BNR: I think the form was one of the most successful parts of the book. How did you decide on the dual narrative of your youth and your return to Berlin?

RS: I tried, at first, to write it chronologically, and no matter what I was doing, it just didn’t feel alive to me. By the time I got back to Berlin I was just so bored with myself. And I thought, If I’m bored with myself, most readers will also be bored. But once I figured out that I could alternate back and forth between my childhood and my time in Berlin as an adult, I was so freed up to mess around with the form that I was able to manipulate time a bit more and I was able to reference things from my childhood that hadn’t happened yet in the story and put a value judgment on them as foreshadowing and that added some tension. It became more fun. But you also have to apply your fictive tools to memoir to make it a story, and at that point I had to start cutting things that weren’t serving the narrative. Which was painful.

BNR: Right, because it’s cutting your life.

RS: Right. My editor would say, “Chapter 8, is not doing the thing.” And I’d feel like, “Wait, but that was so important to me!” But that’s where it’s great to have someone from the outside come in and say, “I don’t care about the eighth year of your life.”

BNR: Did you formally interview your parents for the book?

RS: I interviewed them years ago, and then I showed them the manuscript about two months before the galley deadline, which was really hard. My father said, “Cool, you’ve made art out of your life.” My mom, on the other hand, was not happy. I say many times in the book, “Surely she must have known about this or that,” and in reality either she didn’t know or didn’t want to acknowledge, so it was rough. When she read it, she got on the train in Baltimore and brought the manuscript to my house in New York and sat at my kitchen table for five hours and went over the manuscript with me. “Did this happen? Is this true? Did you really feel this way?” It prompted a long-overdue conversation that was hard but also gave me a lot of deep background on things I didn’t know about, which I added to the book and which made her more complicated and empathetic as a character in the end.

Dorothy Allison told me, “You have to be able to sit in the room with the people you write about.” I thought she meant that metaphorically. [Laughs] Now any negative review is like, whatever, I had to sit with my mother!

BNR: Do you think those conversations made you and your mother closer?

RS: Absolutely. She’s still stunned, but she’s also proud. Three nights ago, I read in Baltimore, and I read in front of my mom and all of her friends. And I was able to say, “I’m sorry, Mom, for being a teenager and making your life really difficult.”

BNR: Each chapter begins with a quote and a suggested soundtrack. I listened to some of the music, and it really did add a layer to the reading experience. Was that a directive to the reader or just a way of showing the reader what you were thinking about and listening to while you wrote?

RS: It’s both. There is literally a Spotify list with the music from all fifty-seven chapters. For me, I was in conversation in my head with all these writers and musicians and I was trying to create an almost parallel text to the narrative. I wanted to expose my tendency to hide behind other people’s beliefs and other people’s art and make that hiding very explicit.

BNR: What do you think the connections between music and writing are? What can music do that writing can’t and vice versa?

RS: I think you feel music in a more visceral, primal way. But I think there is a crossover. When I teach, I tell my students, “You have to read your work out loud.” Because you end up feeling it in a nonintellectual way. You feel it in a body way. There’s this bullshit detector that your body has that tells you when you’re faking it.

With writing, I think you can go a lot deeper. You can more completely create an entire universe that encompasses all the senses. I think you can completely escape into a book. Some music is that way, but with a book, you can project yourself into something and have it take you over. When I read Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts I felt like I was completely in her world. I totally identified with her, even though I’m not a pregnant queer woman. She so swept me up, I was completely empathetic.

BNR: You say that you have a tendency to hide behind other people’s work. Was it difficult to write something that was so thoroughly yours?

RS: Yeah, that’s why it took me ten years to write it. My tendency is to be curatorial and I talk about that in the book. When I was young, I’d put together all these crazy people and live vicariously through them. And in a way, that’s what editing is. You’re curating and you’re promoting other people and other people’s works. And you are basking in their attention and glory. But when you’re putting your own work forward, there’s no hiding. You have to own what you’re writing. You have to be able to look your mother in the eye and say, “These are my feelings.”

BNR: I felt a lot of empathy for you while reading. There’s so much terror running through the book, of needing anything, especially from your parents. Do you think that fear has lessened as an adult, and especially now that the book is done?

RS: I hope I exorcized those demons. But who knows? Since I’ve been on the road for thirty-five days, I have no idea who I am. [Laughs] But I’ve hopefully rounded the corner. I’m ready for that period of my life to be over with. I definitely have come to grips with it as best I can.

BNR: Did having kids change that for you?

RS: Absolutely. It made me more empathetic to my own parents, especially my mother, who found herself as a young woman in Berlin, 6,000 miles removed from any support and suddenly divorced and responsible for a human life.

BNR: You write about your early connection with the idea of the outsider and outsider art being the truest form of expression. And on some level, especially with punk, part of the message of that kind of art seems to be, “I’m alone in this world, and this world is fucked up and I don’t need anybody.”

RS: [Laughs] It’s a combination of rejecting any kind of status quo, but also rejecting privilege. Opera and that world felt so privileged, and Boys Latin [Rob’s high school] also felt so privileged. Any kind of privilege pisses me off. What’s really weird now, is that because I have power, people call me the establishment, and I’m like “Wait a minute, I’m the outsider. I don’t understand!” But I think my impulse is still to do whatever I can to put forward the non-privileged.

That’s why I’m involved with PEN and CLMP and Narrative 4 and the Brooklyn Book Festival. Whenever I can lend my power, I do so. I’m acutely aware of how I wouldn’t have been given these opportunities if I weren’t a straight white man who could act like he went to an Ivy League school. I could pass as someone who fit the type of person who could work in publishing in the 1980s. I had an undergraduate degree in psychology from Towson University. I’ve taken one literature course in my entire life. I worked in a used bookstore. Those are my “qualifications.” But I was let in the back door because I could pass, and then I was given all these opportunities along the way.

BNR: When you aren’t passing, or blending in, who are you?

RS: When I get into a situation where I am the other, then there is no passing. I taught in Lagos for a couple of years, and there’s no faking it there. I was the one white person, and for my hosts, I was a liability. We had to choose where we could eat because the only white people you see in Lagos are oil execs, and they are targets for kidnapping. So they’d say, “Oh, we want to go to this restaurant but we have Rob with us. Can we put him in the back where no one can see him?” Even in the classroom, there were Nigerians from all over the country, and we’d start talking about work, and it became quickly apparent that the real, subtle nuances of Nigerian caste society and politics . . . I was just scratching the surface, no matter how much empathy I’m bringing in, it’s not enough. There are fifty-four different languages and all this history, and I was not getting it all. A small part of me had always thought, I can go anywhere and blend in anywhere, and that was a really humbling experience. Even in East Berlin I got to a point where I felt like, this isn’t my fight and I don’t actually know what’s going on here.

BNR: How did Elissa [Schappell] feel about the book?

RS: When I first started writing the book, she was like “OK, you’ve started something, that’s great, but this Elissa character is just so boring and flat, I want to punch her in the face.”

I realized that maybe I was being a little protective of her. And then I realized I was being protective of myself and everyone else as well. She really pushed me hard. She is my harshest critic in the best possible way, because she is also really protective of me. She told me if I was going to do it I had to really do it and be honest. And she also holds me to a really high standard because being in the industry, we both can write the negative reviews before they even come out. Like, “You would think as an editor, Rob Spillman would be able to write a book or even a sentence.”

Elissa pushed me all the way. But it was really hard because she had to relive really painful moments in her life and try to look at them both personally and artistically, over and over and over again, because she would continually reread.

BNR: What’s your favorite thing about language?

RS: Well, that you can constantly be surprised by it. There are infinite ways of expressing something. I love the idea of being surprised but at the same time having this feeling of recognition, like when someone is able to articulate something that you intuitively know, but you’ve never heard before. And the accompanying feeling in your body of yes. It can be something really simple too, like Karen Russell using the phrase “couth and kempt.” I’d of course heard “uncouth and unkempt,” but when she wrote that, I thought, Of course. I think that’s also why I keep doing the job I do at Tin House. There’s enough times where I’m like, “Oh shit, that’s exactly it.” It keeps me excited.