Interview With Tin House

Logo of Tin House

Author: Emma Komlos-Hrobsky, assistant editor at Tin House magazine

Since Tin House’s founding in 1999, the magazine has gone from being a notable journal to a staple in the list of prestigious publishers.  How did this happen?  What do you feel like Tin House really did right from the start?

While I’m still a relatively recent Tin House recruit—I’ve been with the magazine since 2010—and can’t testify to the whole arc of Tin House’s trajectory, there are a couple of things I see Tin House as having been savvy about from its beginning. When Rob Spillman and Elissa Schappell worked with Win McCormack to found Tin House, their ambition was in part to create a magazine that featured the best possible poetry and prose but that also had the visual appeal of a glossy mag. Their hope was to draw an audience on beyond the typical lit mag reader, to be the sort of magazine folks on beyond the MFA crowd would want to pluck from the newsstand. Along those lines, we’ve always been particularly mindful of the magazine’s design and what it’s like to actually read and hold and look at an issue. Our look has evolved, but our commitment to aesthetics has been ever present.

More importantly, we’ve been ambitious from the start in pursuing the work of the writers we love and fighting to get it into the magazine. I’m pretty awestuck when I look at the table of contents for that very first issue, where David Foster Wallace, Ron Carlson, and and David Gates appear side by side. I chalk that kind of early lineup up to a combination of good instincts and a determination to make the magazine a home for the work that made us love writing and want to work in publishing in the first place.

And one last thought: Our editor, Rob Spillman, talks often about the idea of being a good literary citizen, of the way those of us who are part of the writing and publishing community would do well to treat the other folks in our biosphere. Rob is usually thinking about individuals when he says this, but I feel like this ethos is at the core of the way we operate as a publisher, too; we work to champion the bookstores and authors and other indie publishers that we’re glad to call our brethren and that also sustain us and are part of the bigger picture of what we like about publishing.

Tin House Magazine frequently publishes themed issues.  As an editor, do you find you have to compromise to find work that is both developed and engages the theme?  How often do you turn down a great poem that doesn’t seem as clearly connected for a good poem that might be a better fit?

Thankfully, we don’t seem to confront the first issue you mentioned here often, largely I think because our best theme issues have been responses to the work passing over our desks rather than built around constraints imposed from without. A good example of this is the Fantastic Women issue we did several years back. When our editors noticed the torrent of outstanding work coming from writers like Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, and Lydia Millet, we devoted an issue to celebrating and investigating what was happening with this writing. Even when an issue theme is built around an idea rather than a phenomenon as concrete as in the example just mentioned, it tends to be a response to something in that’s already out there in the cultural zeitgeist that’s filtering in to what we’re reading and thinking about.

It also helps that our themes tend to be relatively conceptual or abstract, so that we can fold in material that interrogates some central idea from several vantage points. For me, this is what makes working on a theme issue fun: I like the puzzle-solving sort of challenge of working around a set theme and finding work that opens up some facet of that core issue from a direction I hadn’t thought of previously. At a more practical level, we also work far enough in advance and think about multiple issues at once, such that we have a fairly large window of time to find material that moves us that also works for a given theme. Right now, we do two themed issues and two unthemed issues a year, which means that we have the space to run great work that doesn’t happen to match a thematic constraint.

Tin House has such a range of developed writers.  How do you balance new talent with established voices? 

We hope to be a cultivating ground for new writers, and this is something we pursue from the bottom of our publishing process up. This starts with the way we cull through the slush. We really do give each and every submission we get a read. In fact, most pieces are seen by several readers, giving every piece more chances to resonate with someone and get plucked from the slush. Frequently, we come across a newer writer’s story that’s still sorting itself out in some capacity but that has an authorial voice or imagination or perspective that catches us. While we may not take that particular piece as is, we ask to see more work or work with the author on revisions—sometimes extensive—to get the story to where it needs to be. We try to have at least one fiction and one poetry New Voice in every issue, along with writers who are farther down the line in their careers. To me, that combination of new energy and established powerhouses is what keeps the issues exciting to read, rather than becoming a sort of retreading of territory we’ve covered before. It’s a particular pleasure to get to publish someone who was once a New Voice several years later in their career and feel like you’ve been a part of that arc.

I often ask publishers what they look for in a manuscript.  I’m also interested in what causes editors to lose interest in a manuscript.  What causes you to put down a manuscript for the magazine? For the press?

As an editorial staff as a whole, we favor work that’s voice driven and that takes risks. We’d rather read something wild and ambitious and messy than something perfectly realized but tame. We see certain material so often—academics, affairs, academics having affairs—that pieces dealing with those subjects automatically face a steeper battle to publication. Personally, I’m a big fan of work that pushes genre and form, but only if there’s also something emotionally alive at its core. For me, if something feels like intellectual exercise and intellectual exercise alone, however smart, it’s hard for me to get excited about it. I also have a petty pet peeve about stories with titles borrowed from Neil Young songs. Unless you are going to do Shakey justice with a truly phenomenal story, I’d send that one elsewhere.

What is the next exciting thing happening at Tin House Magazine or Tin House Books?

Starting this spring, we’re collaborating with Octopus Books to publish one poetry title a year together. We’ve also got good news coming about digital issues of the magazine—we’ll be releasing more details about that on our website over the next couple of weeks. And our 2013 Summer Writer’s Workshop promises to be our best yet, with a record number of applicants and the sort of faculty you want to feature on literary trading cards. For more on any of the above, find us on online at www.tinhouse.com.