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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Cup of Ambition: The Editor

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into his/her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like. (To see our previous interviewees, click here.)

Rob Spillman, Editor, Tin House. New York.

The Job
I oversee content for thirteen year-old bi-costal literary magazine. I read, solicit, go to literary festivals and readings, literary conferences, basically spend most of my time looking for great stories, poems, essays, and interviews.

Getting Started
I co-founded Tin House in 1998.

The Good
What I love most about my job is being surprised. I love being proven wrong, having my expectations subverted, and discovering new voices, or new gears by established writers.

The Bad
Rejection. I know how hard it is to write, and to make the leap of faith in sending your work out, so I really dislike rejecting anyone. I hate rejecting people I know and respect.

Surprise Me
My other job is being a roadie for my sixteen year-old daughter, who is a drummer in a punk/feminist band.

Who would make a good editor?
Start with being a voracious reader, add curiosity and openness, a willingness to be surprised. Then it is about removing your ego from the process of editing, meaning that you are there to help the writer see their vision through and your job is to help them get there. It isn't how you would revise something, but how they can do it to the best of their ability with your guidance.

How do I become you?
Read. A lot. Then work your way through the system by interning or reading for a magazine. I, like most editors I know, hire from within. All of my editors have worked their way through the system so they know it from the ground up.

Thoughts about this job for writers...
For many writers it is great for their writing. You are exposed to amazing writing all of the time, get to see the minute choices that can have a huge impact. You also get to see what doesn't work, and a lot of that. By analyzing these things on a regular basis, you can't help but get better. That said, some writers can't deal with working on other's work, with switching gears constantly. It isn't for all writers.

Rob Spillman is Editor and Co-founder of Tin House Magazine and the Executive Editor of Tin House Books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Review, Connoisseur, Details, GQ, Nerve, Rolling Stone, Spin, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, among others.

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