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When it comes to writing and editing, there’s no denying that Rob Spillman has some serious cred.
Editor of Tin House magazine. Former books columnist for Details. Previous posts at Random House, Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker. And most recently, memoirist, thanks to his new book, All Tomorrow’s Parties.
Spillman’s not hoarding all that expertise for himself though. This Friday, he’ll stop by Lighthouse to teach Establishing Authority. The class will look at how authors can use confidence, control, and urgency to grab a reader’s (or, say, Tin House editor’s) attention.
After his class, Spillman will stick around for a free reception, where he’ll read from and talk about All Tomorrow’s Parties. Spillman’s publisher, Grove Atlantic, describes the book as “a colorful, literary, and music-filled coming-of-age portrait of an artist’s life that is also a cultural exploration of a shifting Berlin.”
Ahead of his visit, Lighthouse member and Book Project alum Susanna Donato caught up with Rob to talk about the challenges of writing memoir, safe havens for punk, and his current playlist.
Q. You have an exceptional reputation as an editor with Tin House, yet it’s a real challenge for any writer to shape a narrative from their own life. Did you have a light bulb moment when you figured out how to create urgency and flow in your story? Or did the book evolve gradually, or emerge in some other manner?
A. For seven years I struggled with everything about the book—form, language, excavating emotional truths. It wasn’t until I settled on the form of alternating chapters from Berlin after the fall of the wall and my childhood along with what led to me returning to Berlin that I was able to put all of the pieces together. You would think being an editor I could get there faster, but like everybody else, I had to go through the hard work of figuring out what the material dictated.
Q. You wrote about Berlin at a pivotal time, just after the wall fell. You’ve spent the past couple decades living in Brooklyn and publishing out of Portland. All of these places have experienced rapid gentrification/revitalization/destruction, depending whom you ask. As you head to Denver, which U.S. News & World Report last month named the best city to live in the United States—about the least punk honor a city can receive—what was it like to write about those old days in Berlin and the East Village? Did writing about those times and places change how you see the world? Is “gentrification” even a thing anymore, or is the whole so-called first world a maelstrom of gentrification? Is there a punk “place” in this world now?
A. My feeling is that alternative culture is always changing and moving. When I moved to New York in 1986, there were a lot of people saying, “The East Village is dead.” I’m optimistic. There are interesting scenes all over the place, like Pittsburgh or—on a different scale—Decorah, Iowa, where I just was. And especially online. You don’t need physical proximity to connect with like-minded and artistically affiliated people. There is incredible creative energy coming from African cities like Lagos and Nairobi. I’m excited about the possibilities.
Q. Some have called this book a love letter to your wife, the writer Elissa Schappell. How did you negotiate the territory of writing about her and your relationship? Do you read each other’s work in general, and at what point? Did she vet the book?
A. We are each other’s first readers, as we write very differently. I tend to be logical while she is more emotional, me more concerned with structure, her language. When I first showed her a draft, she encouraged me but also said my rendition of her was incredibly boring. I was protecting her (and myself), so she gave me permission to really be true to both of us.
Q. Female memoirists always get asked this question, so I’d hate to leave you out. Did your kids read the book? Will they? What about your parents?
A. My daughter has read it, and she was recently in Berlin, where she retraced my steps and couldn’t believe it was the same place. “There are double-wide strollers and coffee bars everywhere, no signs of bullet holes.” Dorothy Allison told me that you have to be able to sit in the same room as the people you are writing about, so I did also show it to my parents. My father was very encouraging, had some questions and corrections, and my mother was much more surprised. Apparently I was a good actor and was able to hide things from her. We had a long overdue conversation, which led to me deepening some scenes in the book.
Q. What music are you listening to today?
A. A real mix. I still like to be surprised. Newer releases include Courtney Barnett, Chastity Belt, and Fuzz.
Susanna Donato’s work has appeared recently in Electric Literature’s Okey-Panky and Blue Earth Review and is forthcoming in Entropy. She is writing a music-driven memoir about coming of age as a gothy, red-headed minister’s daughter in Denver and New York City in the 1980s and ‘90s. She’s a graduate of the Lighthouse Book Project. Follow her on Twitter @susannadonato.