April 22, 2016
The Life of the Party: In conversation with Tin House’s Rob Spillman on his new memoir All Tomorrow’s Parties
Interview by Glynn Pogue
Rob Spillman’s forthcoming memoir is a badass piece of literature. A frank and vivid escapade spanning from the Eastern Bloc to Baltimore's inner city, All Tomorrow’s Parties charts Spillman’s colorful coming-of-age.
When we meet him at age 25, he’s desperately jonesing for the raffish bohemia of Berlin. The longing comes as no surprise. Germany’s capital city is where Spillman spent much of his early childhood, living with his classical musician, ex-pat parents, who introduced him to a free-spirited lifestyle filled with passion within a West Berlin community of creative types wearing tight, black turtlenecks. Young, wide-eyed Spillman devoured it all, and readers of his first memoir will too.
It’s pure thrill and romance sinking into scenes of Spillman sneaking over to Cold War-era East Berlin with his father for steaks and sheet music. But right as he approaches adolescence, the curious non-conformist gets sent to The States to live with his mother, who has left his father for reasons he won’t discover until many years later.
Suddenly Spillman is an American. And with that come issues he never considered—complicated race relations, class divide, gentrification—none of which sit well with him. Desperate to find meaning beyond his superficial prep school surroundings, Spillman is restless, ready to run, wanting to feel something, anything. He’s on a search for authenticity, a hunt that remains paramount for the co-founding editor of Tin House magazine, the prominent literary journal where he reaches beyond borders searching for fresh perspectives.
In a carefully structured work marked by song titles of the time and shifting between childhood, adolescence and young-adulthood, readers are in the thick of Spillman’s rebellion and discovery: extravagant summers in Aspen, mosh pits during Baltimore’s punk scene, near-fatal car crashes that never hit quite hard enough for him, and, finally, the ultimate—a trip back to his beloved Berlin.
1. I get the youthful search. A few weeks after college graduation, I packed up everything I could carry on my back and moved to Cambodia with the Peace Corps. I think this type of search is the crux of All Tomorrow´s Parties. How do you explain this common, young-adult, urge?
RS: I think the search for one’s own space is universal. Even if the space is within one’s family home. My own longing was driven by rootlessness. While I grew up in Berlin, after the age of nine I had no family there. I was also searching for an artistic home. When I was a teenager I read about great artists finding their tribes in Berlin, Paris, New York, San Francisco, and I wanted this as well, to find my artistic tribe.
2. You pinned a lot of hopes and dreams on Berlin, reminding me of the Portuguese word, saudade, the elusive word that speaks to intense longing and nostalgia felt for a memory. What did your early memories of Berlin really represent for you?
RS: Freedom. While it was 200 miles inside of Communist territory, it was also an artistic Mecca, with creative people from all over the world flocking there. I don’t remember ever feeling scared. It was a place where everyone looked out for each other.
3. I was struck by your determination to live in truth. What does it really mean to live an authentic life?
RS: For me it is all about engagement—engaging with the place, the people, their history. Also about being honest with oneself, being fully present as oneself, not as an actor, someone playing the role of an artist. As Faulkner said, “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”
4. In the book, you worried East Berlin would meet a similar fate as New York’s East Village, where artists were displaced and neighborhoods changed forever. But you also concluded New York would always have “blighted spaces.” With New York City institutions closing on the regular, what are your thoughts on the city’s current wave of gentrification, and where can one find the last bits of New York’s authenticity?
RS: Every generation bemoans the death of New York City authenticity. When I moved here in 1986, people in the East Village said, “It is SO over and dead. You should’ve been here in the 70’s.” I’m more positive. There are always new places, new possibilities. There are always cheap ways to live. What worries me is more systemic—income inequality and the insane prices for commercial real estate. The class divide is increasing, and with it commercial spaces are now, out of necessity, catering to the affluent. I worry that Manhattan and Brooklyn are becoming malls for the rich.
5. You share class and race disparities in your book, ranging from you riding the bus up to your prep school as Black maids got off for work along the way to the Black kids on their way “to their metal detector schools,” who thought it was funny to pick on you, to the tricky politics of meeting your black girlfriend’s family. Can you say more on what was it like having to confront your white privilege now that you were living as a middle-class white American?
RS: Berlin was very multicultural. In my circles I was oblivious to racism. I hung out with Turkish kids, but didn’t see the discrimination their parents faced. I also didn’t have access to American TV, so was missing out on what was happening in the culture. When I moved to the U.S. the racism was immediately apparent and omnipresent. Baltimore was incredibly segregated. My white classmates seemed to accept this as normal. I was horrified. I am still horrified.
6. I was intrigued by your relationship with your parents. Your father embodied the freedom you longed for; your mother, a more rigid stability you feared but ultimately found value in. Now as a 51-year-old, what characteristics have you adopted from each of them? Have you found a happy medium?
RS: I hope so. I still battle my restless impulses and chafe at stability, but I am much more balanced than I was when I was 25.
7. The songs and quotes marking each chapter fantastically map time, place and mood. What was your process for the selections?
RS: I was trying to match the feeling of the songs and quotes to the action, but not always directly, more of an echo or comment on, making them their own shadow narratives. I continually tinkered with them up until publication.
8. Your wife Elissa’s love ultimately became your safe haven. How have you found a home in the literary world?
RS: I think it is by being open to possibilities, by risking failure, and by championing the writers I believe in. The literary world is an ecosystem and I sincerely believe you can only get out of it what you put in. You have to support the other creatures by whatever means you have, and the more opportunities I have, the more I champion other writers, editors, and publishers.