Jamie Iredell: You work as an editor, at a bookstore, and as a writer. When do you start getting sick of books?
Kevin Sampsell: The problem isn’t getting sick of books, it’s not having enough time to read all the books that surround me every day. So it’s more like being frustrated. Writers: Stop making so many cool books! My to-read stack is pretty high. But if I ever do get tired of books, I can always kill some time watching basketball or catching up on whatever TV show everyone’s talking about (lately it’s the show, I Just Want My Pants Back, which sounds dumb but is actually pretty snappy and funny). Or I can just fall into some weird Youtube wormhole. I find myself trying to convince my teenage son that the 90s were the best decade for music.
JI: Now that you’re putting the finishing touches on a novel, how has the transition from A Common Pornography to the novel as a form gone? I know that you’ve been writing fiction for years, but the novel’s a different thing altogether.
KS: The novel I’m finishing is kind of weird in form. I think when it’s done there might be some debate about whether it’s a proper novel or not. What I mean is it’s pretty fragmented. It’s almost like a bunch of short stories. But with the same characters exploring their lives and their insecurities. I don’t know if I can convince you that it totally gels as a novel yet. But in a lot of ways, I don’t want it to gel too much. I want it to be loose and surprising. I’m not really answering your question, am I? Okay. How about I just say that I want the story to seem as real as possible, like a memoir. So I’m taking parts of the memoir’s style and elements (short chapters, dirty secrets, nakedly honest thoughts) and using them in a framework that will, at the end of this process, be labeled “fiction.” Even if some of it is real. Sorry about the confusing answer. I’m not trying to be cagey. My brain is still trying to sort this whole novel thing out.
JI: My sister was reading A Common Pornography on a plane once, and when she fell asleep, the guy she sat next to slipped inside the pages a card that depicted Jesus and some “You can still be saved” kind of rhetoric. How does that make you feel?
KS: I think it’s funny. But it’s also kind of sad how often people mistake the contents of a book by its title or what’s on its cover. Especially ignorant people.
JI: So, your novel-in-progress feels in places like it’s a memoir, and some of the details come from real life. What are your thoughts on John D’Agata and The Lifespan of a Fact and About a Mountain? Does it matter to you as a writer whether or not you’re writing “fiction” or “nonfiction”?
KS: I like John D’Agata. I really liked Halls of Fame but I haven’t read About a Mountain. I think it’s okay to put real life/nonfiction into a book of fiction. I don’t think it works the other way around as well. At least for me, when I’m writing nonfiction, I never want to feel like I’m trying to trick the reader. Maybe that’s one of the advantages that fiction has over nonfiction—it’s elasticity. The possibility for the author to transform things at their will.
Funny thing about that Lifespan of a Fact book: John actually sent me that essay several years ago when I was putting together The Insomniac Reader anthology. I really liked it and almost put it in the book but I felt like it didn’t fit the night-time theme of the book enough. It was obvious that John was very passionate about the piece though and it’s really interesting to see all this stuff now about how it was so dissected.
JI: You’ve been involved in independent publishing for many years. How would you characterize the ways that the indie lit world has changed?
KS: The Indie lit scene is so healthy right now. I mean, for what it does—gives new and/or unusual writers a place to play and experiment and get noticed; gives adventurous readers more and more options of stuff to read—it’s a great time to take advantage of how much disarray the rest of the publishing industry is in. More and more big presses are taking less chances on ambitious writing. They look for more formula, more trends, and we—the little guys, the underground, the ones who couldn’t give a shit about the bestseller lists—put out the stuff that shakes things up and sometimes can’t be categorized. When I started Future Tense the internet was barely there. I was writing letters to other small presses and publishers, like actual mail! I think the internet has leveled the playing field a little and made small press books more accessible. You don’t have to write checks and send them in the mail anymore. When people read reviews of stuff I’ve published like Chelsea Martin’s book or Shane Allison’s or Chloe Caldwell’s book, they don’t check to make sure it’s published by a New York corporation. They just buy it because it sounds good, because the reviewers like it.
JI: Tell Atticus Review readers about the literary community in Portland, specifically, and in the Pacific Northwest generally. What’s it like? How comfortable/weird is it? Who are some of the regional champions to champion, besides yourself, of course?
KS: I don’t think I’m being too incestuous when I say this: Portland has the best shit going right now. We have big authors who have broken out (Cheryl Strayed, Jon Raymond, Lidia Yuknavitch), are breaking out (Colin Meloy, Monica Drake, Zachary Schomburg, Willy Vlautin), or are gonna break out real soon-like (Leni Zumas, James Bernard Frost, Pauls Toutonghi), not to mention legendary classics (Katherine Dunn, Richard Meltzer, Ursula Le Guin) and authors moving here or living here part-time (Chloe Caldwell, Diana Salier, Charles D’Ambrosio). There are all sorts of reading series which are always crowded and fun (Smalldoggies, Bad Blood, The Switch, Loggernaut). There are cool presses (Hawthorne, Tin House) and a lot of writing programs and writing centers (The Independent Publishing Resource Center, Crow Arts Manor, The Attic). And hey, we have Powell’s—that’s reason enough to crown us literary champs of the US.
Plus, you know what? Portland has an extremely supportive community. Writers hang out with other writers and go to each other’s readings. Even people from differing genres know each other. Someone from Lazy Fascist Press might be having a drink with a kids book author or someone who writes a mystery series. It’s pretty fantastic and refreshing to be here. There’s a lot of special stuff happening here all the time.
The rest of the Northwest? It’s nice. Seattle’s a decent town too.
JI: What, besides the novel, are you working on? What else should readers expect from Kevin Sampsell in the future?
KS: I’m gonna try to finish this pesky novel (This Is Between Us) and sell it before the end of the year, so I guess people might see it in 2020 or something. Ha!
But I already have the beginning of a new novel after that. I think it could be a beautiful and strange thing. The narrator is a baby. It stems from a short story I wrote last year and read at the Hugo House in Seattle. I read with Sherman Alexie that night and he said—from the stage!—that he was jealous of my story. So that was really special to hear.
Besides that, I have a couple of essays floating around out there, a book of newspaper headline collages that I’ve been working on for Spork Press for forever now, and I’ve even been writing poems for the first time in years.
Plus, Future Tense always has some really cool stuff planned. That’s my extended family right there. I will live and die Future Tense.
Photo Source: LitPark
Of course, when I was talking about the great local writers here, I left a few biggies out. Obviously there’s Chuck Palahniuk. And there is my pal, Patrick deWitt too. Not to mention all the great poets here like the Dickman brothers, Emily Kendal Frey, and Floyd Skloot.