Between Two Countries: An Interview with Rob Spillman

Article by annalia

Let’s do some math. If Tin House editor and co-founder Rob Spillman receives twenty thousand submissions per year, and his goal is to “try to feature at least one fiction writer and one poet, an essay and a nonfiction person who haven’t been published before” per issue, what is the probability that I will be chosen? Not a lot. Yet, for this website, someone will give me Spillman’s email, I can call him on his cell phone, and I can ask him anything. Life continues to be strange.

Strangeness underpins Spillman’s life, too, it turns out. “I only took one literature course in my entire life,” he tells me. His education? The hours spent in a used bookstore “run by these ex-Hopkins literature professors who kept pushing things on me,” things like “Bohemian hotspots or golden eras—Berlin and Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, or New York in the 1950s, Paris in the 70s.” Berlin is something Spillman knows well. In his new memoir, ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES, he remembers the hyper-real train rides to West Germany with his pianist father for performances—peeking out the windows, terrified of the East German soldiers. “Still, every few months, an East German would make a suicidal break for the West,” Spillman writes. “As I clung to my father, I wondered what it must be like to feel that desperate.”

In his twenties, though, Spillman seemed starved for something that he could not name. Recalling the version of New York in the books he’d read, he moved there in the mid-1980s. “I was looking for [an artistic home] that already existed that I could plug myself into,” Spillman says. But, as he discovered, that’s not how homes get made. Living in New York on the Lower East Side, “I had this sort of romantic ideal about Berlin, that it was like my ‘true home.’” On paper, Spillman was living the dream: working in New York, doing what he wanted to do, enjoying married life with fellow writer and editor Elissa Schappell, spending time with good friends.

When the wall came down, Spillman moved back to Berlin with Schappell. They lived in what he calls a “power vacuum,” an anarchist block in an illegal place. With “skinheads [trying] to bomb us,” it was a different Berlin from the one of his youth. Born in 1964 (“the year of Dr. Strangelove!” he is quick to say), Spillman and his parents lived two hundred miles inside of communist territory. A neutral city then, mandatory military conscription was not required. “Exciting and liberal” but also “kind of cheap and scary, not easy to get to,” his parents (both musicians, both ex-pats) were not alone in their attraction to the city.

“I grew up backstage at the Berlin opera, in a sort of very queer multi-culi world,” Spillman says. At the beginning of his new memoir, ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES, Spillman confesses that “my first clear memory is of my father being booed.” He describes his father on stage in all black, smoking a cigarette, “which I found funny because he never smoked. Nor, for that matter, did he ever wear a beret or black sweater.” It was 1969, and Spillman’s father was performing a piece by John Cage that employs prepared piano. This was home to Spillman, joining his father backstage while he “[jokes] and [drinks] beer with the other musicians.”

“[My father] also explained that the audience wasn’t booing him,” Spillman writes. “German audiences care deeply for music, so they were ‘booing the pretentious piece of you-know-what.’” Uninterested in the more theatrical avant-garde, Spillman reports his father saying, “If I was out there, I would have booed it myself.”

When Spillman sees Berlin again—as an adult, with a curious though somewhat apprehensive Schappell beside him—they are on their way to a rave. It is midnight, they don’t know where they’re headed except that it’s somewhere illegal, and Schappell does not speak German. “Of course I’m going to jump into the abyss,” Spillman writes. “That’s what I do—throw myself into the unknown.”

However, he makes it clear that it is an “I” and not a “we.” Schappell, after all, is the one that, during the move, questioned whether it was a good decision. (What if it didn’t work out? What if they couldn’t get jobs when they returned to the states? Was it necessary to actually pick up and move instead of take a vacation?) Spillman, though, does not blame her. Instead, clinging to the back of a German man he does not know, he watches his wife on the other bike, wondering if he has made a mistake by putting her at risk.

At their final destination, “people are dancing everywhere—on piles of paving stones and railroad tiles, and in the long trench that runs through the center of the space.” The music is “loud, steady, bass-heavy electronic music, something that sounds like Kraftwerk crossed with Donna Summer.” He asks one of their escorts where they have come to be. “Under the Wall,” the guide says, an “old subway station, from before the war, closed off for forty years.”

It’s a metaphor Spillman can appreciate. “Between two countries, under two countries...I can feel the beat of my heart aligning with the beat of the music,” he writes. “I am nowhere. I am home.” Music is featured not only throughout the book—each chapter has its own song, with a corresponding playlist available via Spotify—it is part of the way Spillman understands the world, engages with his need to be both present and absent. He doesn’t need to say it: whether it’s John Cage, Jimi Hendrix, or Sonic Youth, music frees him.

All told, Spillman and Schappell were in Berlin for four months. “We figured out together that our true home was back in New York in the end,” Spillman says. Like a very slow game of tag, ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES, then, follows Spillman back and forth across the world, between Berlin and New York, and inside himself, between his need for stability and fascination with extremes.

Whatever fascination he had, it was one less destructive than it would have been without Schappell beside him. During our interview, I am amazed at his complete openness about his family. As an aside, he says he feels “very lucky” that he and Schappell remain partners in crime. “We got married when were twenty-three and totally clueless about the world,” he says. Their daughter now is twenty-four, getting her double major in government and sociology at Wesleyan. I ask if he knows what she wants to do, the same I might as any dad who comes into the bookstore, and he says she probably wants to be involved with women’s rights.

Any musical talent he did not inherit from his performer parents went straight to his daughter. “All through her teens, she was in a punk feminist band that did really well,” he says. They toured nationally, including Lollapallooza, Letterman, “and a whole bunch of festivals. She’s a drummer.” When I ask if she has been to Berlin, he says she was just there for winter break, though her Berlin is opposite of the two of his. The area where he and Schappell used to live—dangerous though enchanting—is “super bougie now,” he says. “Cafés, lots of strollers. It’s like the Park Slope of Berlin.”

Thinking still about Spillman’s international quest for “true home,” I ask if it was intentional that his daughter was far more rooted than he ever was, and he says yes. “She’s had a very different childhood than I did, purposefully,” he says. “We’ve been in the same house for eighteen years, in Brooklyn.” When I ask him if he’s excited for his book tour, to be the center of attention and living the nomad life again instead of being a Brooklyn barnacle, he says “it’s a little weird” but mostly, “it’s such an honor and privilege to have someone take your book seriously.” It endears me that he truly knows how encouraging it can be when he tells a new writer “I hear you.” He shares warm words with me about seeing Jeremy Ellis at Winter Institute. “Booksellers are the best readers possible,” he says.

Here’s some more bookseller math: How many phone calls with Rob Spillman does it take to know my work is valued? One. The answer is one.

Rob Spillman presents ALL TOMORROW'S PARTIES at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, April 26 at 7pm. Reserve your book to be signed below!

All Tomorrow's Parties: A Memoir By Rob Spillman Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802124838
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Grove Press - April 5th, 2016

Annalia Luna is currently the marketing assistant at Brazos Bookstore in Houston, TX. She earned her B.A. in Literature and Music from Butler University. Her work has been published at The Rumpus and Ploughshares.

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