Just about anyone who has spoken with Rachel Kaplan, Avid Bookseller and Events Assistant, has heard her talk about Tin House. I’m not sure how many copies of Before the Feast she’s hand-sold, but I’d wager it’s quite a few. In the following interview, Rachel and I discuss her enthusiasm for this delightfully weird small press, fruit, how Tin House fits into the literary ecosystem, and desert island Tin House books.
Elizabeth Willis: When did your love affair with Tin House begin? What was that first book that kick-started it? Did you know about them before Avid or did you discover them as a bookseller?
Rachel Kaplan: To be fair I didn’t really know much about different publishing houses until I started working at Avid. Just as Avid is different from a Barnes & Noble, each publishing house has its own personality. Tin House was the first press that made me realize that. They turn out really eclectic works; that’s how I think of Tin House: a powerhouse of creativity.
It all started when I met THE Julia Elliott. I was interning for Avid, and I worked an event at this bar in downtown Athens called The Globe that The Georgia Review was hosting. When I first spotted the cover of the book, I thought it was so beautiful, and became intrigued. And then when Julia Elliott got on stage and started reading in her deliciously creepy reading voice, I was hooked. I couldn’t take my eyes off her the whole reading and immediately wanted to go home and read that book, which was The Wilds.
The cover caught my eye, the stories drew me in, but meeting Julia sealed the deal, and I wanted to know more about what this press published. And I started to realize that as I read more and got more experienced as a bookseller, most of the books that were really captivating me were Tin House books. They were these new, fresh, creative voices.
EW: What is it about Tin House’s schtick that has so delighted you?
RK: I feel like Tin House definitely takes risks; you can’t confine them to one genre. They don’t just publish one thing. Tin House is the weird artistic kid in class that’s everyone loves. It’s got this strange vision and people think it’s quirky, but it’s still approachable. I feel like the Tin House team must just love taking these risks. It works out, too; they publish new fiction, essays, short stories—
EW: Okay, yes, on the subject of genre: What do you think Tin House does best as a publisher?
RK: See, I don’t think you can pigeonhole Tin House. Maybe I need to read a wider range of genres from them; I do read mostly their fiction, but I have read an array of genres: short stories, novels, their essays. Charles D’Ambrosio is great— also another essay collection coming out is about how Americans relate to movies and media, which then makes a larger commentary on our culture, [Jim Shepard’s The Tunnel at the End of the Light]. I’m trying to think if there’s something I would want to see them do, but I think it’s a mark of how great they are that there’s not much wanting there. And you know their poetry; they publish good poetry, too.
EW: Let’s actually chat further on the subject of Tin House the magazine. I have a couple of author quotes about it. Karen Russell (I know you love Karen) has said: “Tin House magazine is a port in the storm for people who love language. It is unfailingly excellent, and committed to publishing new voices in addition to delivering freaky-fresh work from established writers.” And Jim Shepard said: “As everything goes increasingly haywire in our politics and in our world, we stand in ever-increasing need of the emotional and ethical education that great literary magazines can provide. With each issue you finish, you’re more awake, erudite, socially aware, and alert to exciting new writers. What more do you want between two covers, anyway?” Thoughts?
RK: I like Karen’s description of “freaky-fresh.” Because sometimes it is freaky how brilliant these new writers can be. Like Annie Hartnett’s debut novel Rabbit Cake is in the same caliber as someone who has been cranking out books for a while. The same, I feel, with Julia Elliott. Like The Wilds. It’s literally, I think, one of the most perfect short story collections, and that was her first short story collection. It’s like they are diviners at Tin House. They know how to source that water from the ground. They pull that brilliance—and obviously it’s the artist themselves, it’s not Tin House making them brilliant, but Tin House just has an eye for talent. And I love that. I think some of the most important work that any small press does is really placing trust in new artists. They are seeking out new talent rather than hounding already existing talent. You see that in big publishing houses; they make a lot of their money from, you know, the twelfth book from David Sedaris—*
EW: Publishing things they know people will buy—
RK: Yeah. Tin House, and other small presses, take risks and it pays off. With the magazine...we talked about genre earlier; they have it all here: poetry, snippets of fictions, short stories, essays. And I think the literary journal is a smorgasbord of everything Tin House is engaging with at the time. I think you get from it a great sampling of what Tin House has to offer.
EW: If Tin House (the press overall, not just magazine) were a type of fruit, what fruit would it be, and why?
RK: This is hard because I love fruit and I love Tin House—
EW: I know you do.
RK: —And I love all types of fruit. I feel like they are un-categorizable. My first gut reaction was to say, you know this, the dragon-fruit, because it has these brilliant colors and wild spikes on the outside, and it’s intriguing. Maybe some would be slightly off-put because you’re just not sure what you’ll get, and then you cut into it and it’s just— it’s another fruit, you know. It’s delicious and accessible and nothing too strange but—
EW: So still accessible, not necessarily so out there—
RK: At the heart of its strangeness lies universality.
RK: Second answer, any other fruit because I love fruit.
EW: Excellent. Any upcoming Tin House titles you’re incredibly excited about?
RK: I am excited for every upcoming Tin House title and I actually kind of try not to seek out their titles. Don’t laugh at me, but I let the titles come to me. Like when we were at SIBA [the bookselling conference], and I just saw Rabbit Cake on a table. It was calling to me. I feel like most of the Tin House books I’ve read and loved the most have kind of just fallen into my lap. I'm convinced Tin House books are magic.
EW: Okay, so the universe will be choosing Rachel Kaplan’s next Tin House favorite. Stay tuned.
RK: Exactly, yes, exactly.
EW: Okay, well, can’t wait to see what the universe selects for you. Keep us in the loop.
EW: Okay, I know this is going to be a hard one, but if you could share a meal with three Tin House authors, which authors would you choose, and why?
RK: Definitely Julia Elliott...Annie Hartnett and Morgan Parker. But backups would by Joy Williams, because she’s wonderful, and Saša Stanišić.
EW: So this is like if Julia’s tending to her chickens and can’t make it.
RK: Right. This is like if Morgan’s hanging out with Beyonce; and Annie’s hanging out with her dog… But my first string would be Elliott, Hartnett, and Parker.
EW: Okay, cool. Now for the tough one, and you’re only allowed to choose one. If you had to pick a favorite Tin House book, what would it be, and why?
RK: *gasp noise*
EW: You’re on a desert island and you can only have one Tin House book—
RK: NOOOOOOOO, noooo.
RK: Let the record show that I hate this question.
EW: I know.
RK: I love you, but I hate this question.
EW: I know.
RK: I’m not a big fan of this question because it really is— That’s really difficult— They’re all my favorites, but I think if I were picking a desert island book, it would be Before the Feast. There is so much to discover within its pages, even if you've read it repeatedly. It would also be a very comforting book to have while stranded on a desert island.
*No shade to David Sedaris; we love him.