Kevin Sampsell is known around Portland as a big fish in the small-press pond. He's been publishing rad, racy, experimental authors under his publishing company, Future Tense Books, for almost two decades, and has had a few books under his belt from independent publishers, both as a writer (Creamy Bullets) and an editor (Portland Noir).
Sampsell's latest, a memoir titled A Common Pornography, was originally self-published in 2003, and later picked up (in expanded form) by Harper Perennial. But you know what they say: you can take the boy out of the small press, but you can't take the small press out of the boy. Sampsell's latest offering is sure to please his legion of fans and earn him much-deserved new ones.
A Common Pornography is a collection of vignettes that bounces back and forth between "weird things that happened when [Sampsell] was a kid" and the more-recent fallout from his father's death in 2008. It's both a heartbreaking story of a family wracked by dysfunction and a hilarious, cringe-inducing story of half-remembered childhood moments and the humiliations of adolescence.
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Sheila Ashdown: The genesis of A Common Pornography was — correct me if I'm wrong — that your father passed away, and your mother came to you and your siblings with revelations about the true nature of your family dysfunction, including your father's sexual and emotional abuse. Is that right?
Kevin Sampsell: The initial genesis of the book, really, was me just trying to remember stories from my childhood. Just, like, weird things that happened when I was a kid. The foreword talks about how there was an earlier version of the book — I self-published a 60-page little version of some of those stories in 2003 or something like that.
Sheila: Was that early version mainly the weird stuff that happened to you as a kid?
Sampsell: Yeah, mostly stuff like that. And so that was really the genesis of it, the idea to write about odd things that happened when I was young.
Sheila: As I was reading it, I was trying to find some sort of organizing principle.
Sheila: And, like, "weird things that happened when I was young" really kind of captures it all. [Laughter]
Sampsell: It's still sort of hard for me to figure out if there's a super-strong thread to the book or not. I was a little worried about that, and I think my agent was a little worried, too. But I think, with some readers, that's why they like it, maybe, is that there isn't this really heavy thing going through the entire book. I mean, there's some heavy stuff in it, but there's heavy stuff mixed in with these funny, nostalgic stories. So, in a way, it's sort of an accidental collage of different experiences.
Sheila: Collage, that's a good word. What made you use the term "memory experiment" to describe what it is that you're doing? Do you think about it as a genre that you're pioneering?
Sampsell: [Laughter] Maybe it could be, I don't know. When I was first writing parts of the book a long time ago, and put it into the early 2003 version, I sort of saw it as a memory experiment because I was just trying to think of odd memories, and I think a lot of memories you have when you're a kid aren't filled out completely. They're sort of like fragments. They almost take on a dream-like quality. And the older you get, it's harder to remember stuff from your childhood. When I wrote the first version of the book, I was in my early 30s, and it was probably easier for me to remember things that happened when I was 15 or 18 or whatever. And some of the stuff from the book that's from even before I was a teenager is even more spare. And you remember certain moments – like, I'll always remember that moment of driving home on the bus after the field trip and seeing our house on fire. I remember little details like wanting to get off the bus right away, but they couldn't allow me to get off the bus, so we drove up to the school and my friend's parents drove me home. Little details like that.
But I'm sure there was a lot that I didn't quite remember from around that time. I think the word "experiment," like when I say memory experiment, is basically trying to just remember all that I can without really pushing it. I didn't want to push my brain into thinking it remembered something and write that stuff...