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Seersucker Live: Editor and author Rob Spillman on authenticity, learning by doing, and rock ‘n’ roll 

Seersucker Live has been bringing literary greats to the Lowcountry for the past six years. Blending the casual elegance of a cocktail party with the off-the-cuff whimsy of a talk show, the organization has crafted a unique culture for sociable bookworms to enjoy the words of critically-acclaimed writers.

As its founders have exhibited a love of puns in the past, it’s safe to say Seersucker’s next episode will be one for the books. The Tin Curtain Episode features a diverse group of writers from across the U.S.

Savannah’s Melanie Bowden Simón just released her first book, La Americana: A Memoir. Julia Elliott, whose work has appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, and more, published her first novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, last October. Armstrong State University professor Dr. Regina N. Bradley will share words from her current project Chronicling Stankonia: OutKast and the Rise of the Hip Hop South.

Headlining the event is Tin House co-founder and editor Rob Spillman. For 16 years, Tin House has stood out as one of the nation’s leading literary magazines.

In April 2016, Spillman released a memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties. Chapters alternate between his childhood, spent in Berlin, Aspen, Baltimore, and Chautauqua, New York, and his return to post-wall Berlin as a married 20-something. As Spillman navigates his musician father’s world of opera, dances with his wife at an underground rave in East Berlin, crashes cars again and again and again, hears Talking Heads for the first time, blows deadlines, and wanders Europe, it’s impossible to not become utterly immersed in his journey toward artistic self-discovery.

As the title suggests, Spillman’s story is largely informed by his romance with rock ‘n’ roll, particularly the punk rock he experienced first-hand as a young man. As each chapter of All Tomorrow’s Parties begins with a lyrical excerpt (and, occasionally, a quote from a non-musical hero), Spillman hands the reader a soundtrack—a damn good one—to spin through his story.

Thirsty for the experience of his ex-pat artistic heroes, Spillman often makes endangering choices in the name of bohemian romance, absorbed in the idea of what it means to live an artistic life. His search for identity, home, and his inner spark will echo with anyone who’s longed to make a creative mark on the world.

How did the format of All Tomorrow’s Parties take shape?

It took me ten years to write the book. Those first seven years were a struggle, trying to find the voice and the form and wrestling with the material. It wasn't until about seven years in that I figured out the structure that it is in now. Everything after that was trial and error. It was a total struggle, in a way. I just tried that and it opened things up for me and let me manipulate time in a way that I found worked best. You'd think, as an editor, I'd be able to get there quicker, but editing other people's work and how it's done, I had to go through that seven-year struggle to figure out my own.

When you started, how did you hone the narrative?

It was initially just chronological, and no matter how many times I rewrote it, it felt like it was running out of energy. By the time I got to contemporary Berlin, I was moving things around and it injected some energy. I could play with time, drop those pieces in one section.

Did you journal a lot during your time in Berlin?

I kept a lot of journals, and so did my wife, which was really interesting. We were writing different things down. I was able to look at hers and have things that I completely missed or I wasn't focusing on, which was great to have another set of eyes having the exact same experience.

Had you looked through those journals much?

When I started writing the book. There were a lot of little details and surprising things.

Those sections are very vivid.

Most interestingly, I only have a few pictures. We didn't have a camera, so there weren't a lot of visual memories to draw on, which made me kind of work harder to remember things. If it was now, I would have my iPhone and would be taking digital files of everything all the time. But that can almost overlay a memory, or substitute.

Yeah, I couldn't help but think of that while reading. It's likely impossible to have the kind of experience you did today.

It's very different timing now. We'd be digitally connected. It'd be easy to write about the place and the time, because I'd just be posting stuff. We really were pretty isolated. We had to walk to West Berlin just to make a phone call.

The lyrics that preface each chapter—did you find certain songs just came naturally or was it a very deliberate process?

It was really deliberate, but it came out of when I found the structure. I had a lot of musical references sprinkled throughout the whole book when I came across the alternating structure. I pulled out and made a structure of each chapter so they play off each other and set the tone. One of the things the book is about is my anxiety in being overly influenced by other people's writing. I just wanted to make that explicit.

On that note of influences, All Tomorrow's Parties is so driven by the hunt for authenticity and an artistic voice. I read the book while traveling and being surrounded by so much of the readymade authenticity we're seeing in ads now. How do you recommend young writers tap into a 'true' and 'authentic' voice and tone in this setting?

It's hard when you're bombarded all the time. I teach an MFA program and I see a lot of new writers come along. People worry about making the next great American novel, but what we're after is a voice that feels true to the person and only that person could be writing that book or poem. We all know it when we see it. That's the individual who's writing that story. It can be about a really small thing, but you can make it universal.

How did your life experiences that we see in All Tomorrow's Parties inform the direction and tone of Tin House?

That's a great question. I think I'm really open to the universe, having been floating all over the place constantly looking for new voices from all over the place. Since I'm from the outside—I've taken one creative writing class in my entire life, when I was an undergraduate—I learn by doing. I think I am really open, too, and I really don't care where anybody has gone to school or anything like that. I'm more concerned with the writing. I don't care where it comes from. I'm constantly searching for things that entice me. I've traveled in Australia, Africa, to festivals. South America. Places like that.

That's interesting, your background in having only taken one class and now teaching an MFA Program. I suppose it's 'to each his own,' but with your learn-by-doing experience in that academic setting, what do you recommend to your MFA students?

You learn by doing, but I don't know if you can teach how to be authentic. You can point it out when people are not being authentic, and if they're not risking something. You can definitely teach people what they're doing wrong, and point out what they are doing right. So much of it is trusting yourself and hearing back, trying to write a beautiful sentence. 'What does it mean? 'It sounds kind of good, I think, but I have no idea what you're trying to say.' It's a lot of that. If the writer isn't risking something, you don't want to go with them.

CS

Seersucker Live: The Tin Curtain Episode

When: Wednesday, August 31, 7 p.m.

Where: Sulfur Studios

Cost: $10

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About The Author

Anna Chandler

Anna Chandler

Bio:
Connect Savannah Arts & Entertainment Editor Anna Chandler started writing about music after growing hoarse from talking about it nonstop. Born in Tennessee and raised in South Carolina, she has been a proud Savannahian for 8 years. She sings & plays guitar & accordion in COEDS and Lovely Locks.

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