Interview: Kevin Sampsell’s Past Tense

Kevin Sampsell is not only the god of indie book publishing, he’s also a damn good writer. jmww editor Jen Michalski talks with the Future Tense publisher about his memoir, A COMMON PORNOGRAPHY (Harper Perennial 2010). Described by Publishers Weekly as “a memoir in collage form,” PORNOGRAPHY delves into family dysfunction, religion, teenage angst in the Pacific Northwest, and, of course, an awesome collection of pornography.

Jen Michalski: This book lives in another form, a slightly shorter version, at Future Tense. Can you describe the differences for those unfamiliar with the Future Tense version? Like, for instance, the Future Tense version has collages, yes?

Kevin Sampsell: That first version was self-published on my press, Future Tense. I must admit that I felt almost sheepish about doing it myself but I really had no idea if people would like it or not. To me, it seemed like a curiosity piece. I had my friend Mike Daily write footnotes to some of the chapters–kind of like pseudo behind the scenes stuff–and my artist friend Melody Owen made some collages for a few of the chapters. It was a pretty cool little thing but it was only 60 pages and there were about 600 printed. The new version is a much deeper story (and about 240 pages). It’s almost like a giant remix with some dark notes creeping up underneath.

JM: What was it like writing the memoir then versus writing the expanded version? Did your writing approach/style change, or your insight?

KS: I was much more confident while writing the longer version because the short version was almost like a test version. It was important to me that people connected to the story or enjoyed it in some way that was different from my fiction. I think my memoir writing is usually more minimal than my fiction so I just had to make sure I kept that minimal tone. I didn’t want to be all over the place too much.

JM: I love the little vignettes, and they work so strongly on a singular level that I almost didn’t need to read them together–I would have happily read them sprinkled throughout literary journals for the next 5 years! But I was always greedy and wound up reading too many at a time, feeling a little sick. Did you have the same problems with writing them, or did you write one a week, a few days?

KS: I wrote most of the book, or about 4/5 of it in about a four-month period after doing some research and interviews. I’m not an everyday writer but I had a few days each week–sometimes just two, sometimes five–and I’d try to write anywhere from a couple hundred words to over a thousand on each of those days. Some, as you might imagine, were pretty hard to write. It was sometimes emotionally grueling. Sometimes I’d write three chapters/vignettes in one day and then remember other things to write about and write a note for myself for the next day.

JM: I could never imagine doing something like this because, beyond that brutalness of exposing yourself, there’s also an honesty that potentially could be hurtful to others, to parents, siblings, old lovers. We always want to believe that people, ultimately, think mostly good of us. Or, at the very least, we want them to lie if they can’t say anything nice. Have you spoken to anyone in the book after the fact, now that it’s out? Has there been any weirdness?

KS: There’s not much weirdness…yet. I’m still waiting for my mom to give me her thoughts. But my personal feelings on it is that most of these things happened twenty years or more ago. People forgive or forget in that time span, I hope. I got a couple of messages from old girlfriends about the book. Erin, who I wrote about in a couple of chapters, said: “I don’t remember doing some of those awful things, but they sound true. I was 19 after all.” To be fair, I tried to own up to my own dumb behavior more than anyone else. I think that’s really the way to do a memoir. You can’t make yourself the victim and you can’t pretend to be a hero.

JM: There are one or two homosexual activities (yours) in the book that you sort of report but don’t really delve into your thinking about them. Struggling with my sexuality for so long, I felt a little cheated. Was there a larger scene of bisexuality going on in Washington State at the time that you felt the reader didn’t need any more context? It just struck me odd that for a memoir that can be honest about so many things that sexuality might be a sacred cow.

KS: I’m glad you’re asking about the sexuality because it’s something that a lot of reviewers or interviewers haven’t focused on yet. The experiences I had with other men are not that unusual. I think many people experiment with or have strong bisexual feelings, growing up or even later on in life. Maybe I’m wrong. But no, I didn’t feel the need for context. Every state, every day, has boys and girls kissing each other. I was very ambiguous sexually when I was younger and sex-starved! I think there’s a lot of sexual themes throughout the book and I don’t think I treated those scenes like they were sacred or secret. But I also didn’t want the book to morph into full-blown erotica. I’ve written some fiction that’s much more explicit and homo-charged than that. Order a copy of Creamy Bullets or Beautiful Blemish if you want more of that.

JM: Can I come to Richland, Washington and still get taternuts? I’m so enthralled with the idea of planning a trip around this.

KS: Yes, you can! But for legal reasons, in the book we had to change the name of the place. It’s actually called The Spudnut Shop. It’s the same owners and everything, so if you go in there, don’t say a thing about my book!

JM: How did you get an agent?

KS: This is going to sound funny, but it was kind of an accident. His name is Michael Murphy and he first contacted me at Powell’s because he wanted to send me some books by his clients. that’s the kind of agent he is–above and beyond! So we started emailing about writers we liked and books we were reading. I didn’t want to come right out and tell him I was a writer but he found out and read some of my stuff. I didn’t really have anything for him to shop around but he really liked my writing and we kept talking. A couple of months later was when I decided to expand the memoir and dig into these weird family stories that I learned after my dad’s death.

JM: How did Harper approach you about the book? It’s fascinating, because I always feel like there’s a x+y=z formula about publishing a book, ie, have a short collection published by an independent press or a university, then try and sell your novel to an agent. I’ve never considered that an agent would want someone without a novel! At least, nobody wants me.

KS: Well, remember that I’d been writing and publishing for about eighteen years before this deal happened. I’m no overnight sensation. I’ve had a couple of story collections come out and I know quite a few people from doing my press and working at Powell’s. Those things help, for sure. But let me say this: The people at Harper Perennial are a different breed. They’ve been actively finding and attracting great writers from smaller presses or underground presses, or whatever you want to call them, for a couple of years now. They knew who I was already! When I first started talking to my agent about book ideas, we both had them at the top of our list. We were going to try to pitch a story collection to them but then my dad died and I had all these stories just kind of land in my lap. And I knew that I had to write about these things and that they would be part of this kind of memoir puzzle. We showed them 10,000 words and a letter talking about what else I was going to be writing about. They sent us an offer and we took it. I guess that makes it sound easy, but please remember those eighteen years.

JM: Has your publishing with Harper changed anything about the way you approach FutureTense? Are there bigger distribution/publicity possibilities, or are you just sort of keeping the right hand away from the left?

KS: It’s really a night and day difference. I don’t think I want the pressure of making Future Tense any bigger than it is. I like publishing three books a year and not worrying about how many copies those books sell. Some may sell 200 copies. Some might say a couple thousand. And I don’t think writers are coming to Future Tense because they think they’re going to sell 100,000 copies of something. If I knew that a book was going to sell 100,000 copies, I’d probably hand them off to a bigger press. I like working with writers who have big ambitions, for sure, but mainly we’re just having fun and getting some fresh work out there. And in a way, I think that makes a lot of these future tense books very special objects.

At the same time, I love Harper Perennial. After so many years, it’s nice to have other people worry about getting your book out there and talking you up. And I have a publicist. That’s always fun to say, “Let me talk to my publicist about that.” When I’ve worked with small presses (or magazines) I’ve sometimes felt like a prostitute, hustling for attention and money. Now, at least, I have a good pimp on my side. Hahaha.

JM: What’s really exciting to you in the lit scene now?

KS: It really seems like a ton of cool small presses have popped up in the past few years. Calamari, Publishing Genius, Octopus, Dzanc, Write Bloody, Keyhole, Featherproof. I still read a lot of big press book too, of course. I loved the Wells Tower book last year and the Padgett Powell book of questions. Of course, Sam Lipsyte is back and ready to rule another year. All the upcoming stuff I’m putting out on Future Tense is particularly awesome as well: Zachary Schomburg/Emily Kendal Frey poetry collaborations, Prathna Lor flash fictions, and Jamie Iredell’s weird and hilarious Book of Freaks.

JM: How did Portland Noir come about?
KS: I think it’s just because Akashic’s publisher, Johnny Temple, didn’t know anyone else who lives here. Hahaha. He actually called me and asked if I’d be into doing it. My first thought was that I didn’t know enough about crime fiction or noir. But I’m really glad I did it. It was a really successful book in their Noir series and the events we had were all spectacular. Portlanders especially love reading about their city, so it’s been a bestseller at Powell’s for several months running now. It’s kind of crazy.

One response to “Interview: Kevin Sampsell’s Past Tense

  1. Pingback: Random Stuff on a Friday Night « Kevin Sampsell·

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