I first met Kevin Sampsell back in 1994. I doubt he remembers the day, but for me it was significant. I was standing at the counter of Conant and Conant booksellers, a now defunct independent bookstore in Portland and scene of my first post-collegiate job, and a guy walked in holding a stack of shiny black paperback books. I want to say he was wearing a dark trench coat and wingtips, maybe even an old felt fedora, but that might be mere imagination on my part. In any case, he said he was the author of the books, and he wanted to sell them at the store. We took a pile and he walked out and I remember spotting those books—How To Lose Your Mind With The Lights On, by Kevin Sampsell—all around town for the next year or so at least. It was Kevin’s first book, self-published, and to my mind it made him a famous local author and role model. As someone who harbored ambitions to write books, too, I was blown away: here was this guy, doing it!
I know I’m not the only one Kevin has inspired over the years. Kevin stands now, as he always did, as a great leader in Portland’s literary community, an indispensable publisher, cheerleader, bookseller, reviewer, publicist, and most of all, author. His work is consistently funny, sexy, brave, vulnerable, and disarming, and his newest offering, This Is Between Us, brings all those qualities into ripe, rueful middle age. I had the chance to ask him a few questions about it on the eve of its release… —Jon Raymond
JR: You write about sex with real gusto, and often with a great comic flair. In this book, and also in Creamy Bullets, people treat each others’ bodies as playgrounds, and the eroticism is often funny and imaginative. I wonder if you have any thoughts about how sex is generally depicted in contemporary fiction? Are there writers you admire on the topic of sex? Are there writers you loathe? What do you think is the general state of sex in contemporary fiction?
KS: I think it’s a very sensitive subject to write about. As a writer, you can paint yourself into a corner. If you’re too graphic, people think you’re like an erotica writer, and if you shy away too much, you’re being too prudish. I think I used to be more graphic about sex in my fiction to the point of being gratuitous. I’ve learned in recent years that I can be a little more subtle. If graphic and gnarly is a ten on the sex writing scale and artfully subtle is a five, I’d say I’m around an eight now. Ha ha ha. I try to be pretty direct about it sometimes and I think, or hope, that people appreciate that. I’m talking to the reader like an adult who can take it. As a reader, I certainly appreciate when authors can be direct or blunt–or yes, even graphic–when it comes to sex or love. It’s nice to be shocked a little by how naked someone can write about sex, even if they’re adding humor to it, like Sam Lipsyte, Alissa Nutting, or Nicholson Baker. A lot of poets are great at that too, like Dan Magers or Sharon Olds sometimes. I call those the “Holy shit! moments.” When you have to stop reading and just take the impact, let yourself be jostled. But I think some writers are nervous or self-conscious about writing about sex because it’s such an easy thing for critics to make fun of.
JR: This Is Between Us is largely a portrait of a romantic relationship, but it’s also a portrait of a blended family. I wonder how this came about? Were you always going to write about romance in a family setting?
KS: The characters are in their mid-30s and that’s an interesting age for people because you don’t really feel “young” like you did in your 20s, even though you obviously still are (young) and people tend to really shift into a more responsible adult mode in their 30s. Having kids comes with that sometimes. My son was born when I was 27 (I’m 46 now) and I spent all my 30s really focused on the tricky art of parenting a young person. I love talking to people about their kids and how much of a struggle parenting can be. You become a parent and it’s like you’re in a new club. It’s an experience that is totally fraught with emotions and insecurity and second-guessing–the same things that a love affair is full of. One of my goals for the book was to try to explore the countless gradations of what we all feel and how we all think when we’re part of a unit. I did not get the experience of raising a daughter in real life so that was a new thing for me to explore. I can totally picture these kids, Vince and Maxine, in my head and I love them so much I could cry like they were real. Ultimately, I wanted to write about the man and woman with their kids because it expanded the dynamic so much. It made it feel more universal to me, and more real.
JR: The book is structured as a collection of vignettes, brief images or events stacking into a multi-year story. I wonder how this structure came to you?
KS: I started writing the book thinking it would just be a short story, a fragmented kind of story. But the first ten pages were so fun that I just kept going. I would sit down and write a couple of chapters at a time. When I say “chapters” I mean each little scene in those five sections. I had so many ideas. There turned out to be over 200 “chapters” and they were not in any order. So I would lay them out in five piles–like scenes that would happen in the couple’s first year, and scenes that would happen in their third year when they break up for a while, etc. It was like putting a puzzle together. And then I wrote some more chapters to smooth out some transitions and make it gel more. I did the same thing with my memoir–just wrote things as they came to me–and then I had to arrange it in the best order. I’ve sworn to myself that the next book I write will be written in its actual intended order!
JR: Are you working on another book now? And if so, can you say anything about it?
KS: I am. I don’t want to say too much about it. But it will be pretty different and the narrator is a baby. I’m also writing some poems and essays here and there.
JR: You are a writer, but you are also an editor, publisher, and general amazing citizen of the writing community. I wonder if you want to plug any of the books you have coming out on Future Tense, your publishing house?
KS: Thanks! I love publishing other people’s work. There’s a new Future Tense book that came out on the same day as my book (11/12/13). It’s a collection of essays by Atlanta’s Jamie Iredell called I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac. As you can tell by the title, there is probably something for everyone in it. Haha. We’re going to announce our next Scout Book chapbooks soon too, and next summer we have a really amazing memoir called Excavation by Los Angeleno Wendy C. Ortiz.
JR: How important was it to set the novel in Portland?
KS: I’m not usually a big stickler about describing a setting or mentioning the names of places in my fiction, but I think I learned an appreciation for it while editing the Portland Noir anthology a couple of years ago. I had to find stories that took place in different parts of Portland and it was fun to see how a different neighborhood became like a new character and colored the various moods in those stories. I had a lot of fun using Portland in this book as the setting. I love Portland so much and I think it has a lot of amazing elements to it, good and bad and so much in between. It sort of feels to me like a classic American city and I can imagine these characters from my novel living here. Someone just told me the other day that she could picture the book happening in her neighborhood, around NE 28th, close to Lloyd Center Mall and that Pepsi plant and down the street from Holman’s. Having Portland as the backdrop felt really important and made the book feel all the more real to me.
KS: I’ve been thinking about that actually. The first one was so fun and it was one of the most successful sales-wise in that Noir series (from Akashic). I had a lot of great local writers in that first one (Monica Drake, Karen Karbo, Justin Hocking, and Dan DeWeese to name a few) but there were a lot of other writers that I didn’t get to see work from, for one reason or another. I’d love to get some noir from you, Jon. Not to mention some of my other local favorites like Lidia Yuknavitch, Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain, Sara Jaffe, Arthur Bradford, and maybe even some former Portlanders like Blake Nelson and Mitchell Jackson. Portland is so packed with talent the anthology nearly builds itself.
Jon Raymond is the author of the novels Rain Dragon and The Half-Life, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2004, and the short story collection Livability, winner of the 2009 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. He is the writer of several films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, and cowriter of the Emmy-nominated screenplay for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Raymond’s writing has appeared in Bookforum, Artforum, Tin House, the Village Voice, and other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family.