How to Live Life on the Road

Rob Spillman, the co-founding editor of Tin House magazine, lived in more cities as a child than most people have in their entire lives. The son of two musicians, he grew up in West Berlin, then spent several years shuttling between Rochester, New York; Aspen; Lynchburg, Virginia; and Baltimore. He later returned to Berlin as an adult, just months after the city was reunited, with his wife, the writer Elissa Schappell. In his new memoir, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Spillman recalls his roving childhood and adulthood, and shares what he learned from a life on the road. 

You start off the book talking about Sehnsucht. Can you explain what that means to readers who might not be familiar with the term?
Well, it’s basically a nostalgia for something that doesn’t exist yet. It's a word that doesn't exist in the English language. But I think it captures the feel of the book, sort of this missing something that isn't actually there to begin with.

And it seems like a different concept than wanderlust, which is another word I thought of when I was reading the book. Is that fair to say?
Wanderlust is sort of a general restlessness, whereas Sehnsucht, or saudade in Portuguese, is maybe more quixotic, a fixation on something that doesn't exist.

Do you still feel either of those things?
I think I still fight the urge to be someplace else, but I've gotten much better. I've definitely gotten over the fixation on Berlin, of a single place containing everything. When I was younger, I was kind of besotted with romantic notions of the Beats, and Paris in the '20s and '30s. And what I failed to realize is that all of my heroes didn't walk into an existing scene; they created a scene with them and their friends.

Since you've lived so many places, does that help when you're on a tour, like you are now?
It's all surreal. I'm doing 30 straight days, and it's a lot. But I enjoy talking to people about writing, and I'm trying to see as many old friends as possible on the road. I did an event last night with Dorothy Allison, and I'm doing one tonight in San Francisco with Glen David Gold. So I've kind of been mixing it up a little bit.

Obviously you moved around a lot as a child. Do you think you would have traveled so extensively as a young man if you didn't have that kind of peripatetic upbringing?
Probably not. Who knows? I guess I was used to traveling a lot, and thought it was totally normal to pick up and go. And my parents, particularly my father, lived for art, and he went wherever the art was. I kind of bought into that romantic notion.

And it seems like the places you lived were so different, like Berlin and Rochester and Aspen and Lynchburg. Was there a lot of culture shock? It seems like you adapted pretty quickly.
I'm very good at blending in. I got used to that kind of passing wherever I was dropped down into. The problem with that is that you sort of remain at surface level, and don't go too deep. I always felt that I was temporarily inhabiting whatever space I was in.

Do your kids have the same interest in travel that you did as a young adult?
Yeah, I travel a lot with them, I drag them along to literary festivals around the world. I have a 17-year-old son, I took him to look at colleges. They love it as well, but they also have a place they can always return to. It's a very different experience.

Do you consider New York home now?
Definitely New York is my home. Berlin was more of an idea of home. Once my parents left, I had no family there, and very few people I knew from my childhood are still there.

Do you ever go back to Berlin?
Not too often. My daughter was just there over winter break. She kind of retraced my steps, went to [my former neighborhood]. She was like, "Are you sure you were writing about this place?" Now it's like Park Slope, full of double-wide strollers and chic coffee bars. No traces of bullet holes anywhere.

Do you think the romantic appeal of seeing the world isn't what it used to be when you were younger?
I think it's a generational thing. People always whine, "In my day...," and I think that's crap. When I moved to New York [for the first time], I was in the East Village, and all the old-timers were like, "Ah, you should've been here in the '60s and '70s. Now it's totally dead." I've traveled a bunch to places like Africa — Lagos and Nairobi, and there's an incredible amount of interesting cultural stuff going on there. There's people moving to the big cities from the countryside, so there's this really interesting mix of cultures happening, and just a lot of energy. Who knows where culture's going to pop up next? And there's always ways to engage.

The Internet, in a way, kind of connects everybody, it helps people be able to hear first-hand from people from other countries, and I wonder if that’s causing young people to want to travel more.
It's interesting, because when I was in East Berlin, I was kind of cut off. And I also purposefully didn't want to write about it when I was there at the time, because I didn't want people to know about it. Now it's kind of impossible to have that kind of experience, because you're wired anywhere, and any place cool, people find out about. But that just means you work a little harder. Last year, I went to this eco-research station in the Peruvian Amazon. To get there, you had to [take] an internal flight, and then an eight-hour canoe ride up an Amazon tributary, and it was five hours from the nearest village. They had emergency generator power, and that was it. And it was incredibly quiet, ambient light, no anything. And I was like "OK, it's still possible. You can do it. It just takes a little effort."