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.
÷ ÷ ÷
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...
I sort of like the idea of writing things that are shorter, that sort of imply other things happening. I think I was able to do that, and I think that, when people read it, they get that there are things that aren't completely filled in. And I think that that style, of leaving some details off or not filling things in, is partly a weakness on my memory or writing skill. But I think, at the same time, readers might like that. Just from the people who have read it so far — and the people who read the early version of the book — that was the reaction I got a lot. People saying, "Oh, I remember something like that." Or, "I remember something like that happening to me, but we went here instead of there."
Sheila: In writing, we're usually taught to be as specific as possible — to really get your intention and meaning across to the reader. But in your case, you've kind of left it open and let somebody else glom onto it a little bit with their own experience.
Sampsell: I think there are certain times when there are really exact things mentioned. You know, like, exact places or exact names of these pop songs I wrote when I was a kid, or whatever. So that's stuff that... it's funny...I think the reason that I wasn't really exact, and it wasn't engorged with details in a lot of chapters is because I forgot the details. [Laughter]
Sheila: You're not supposed to admit that. You're supposed to say it was a stylistic choice, not a lapse of memory. [Laughter]
Sampsell: It's all accidental.
Sheila: You and your honesty.
Sampsell: Yeah, I don't know. It is sort of an accidental style, I think. And I've done that a lot, so I think that was something that I didn't necessarily expect. I thought people would complain because there wasn't a lot of specific details about things. But instead, people seem to fill in the blanks or... people seem to latch onto maybe the emotional tone of the pieces. So I think sometimes, like in certain chapters, if I'm writing about something that's really sad, somehow I was able to convey that without having a lot of details.
Sheila: One thing that seems to be conspicuously missing from A Common Pornography is your reaction at the moment of your mom's confession, when you're at Sonic and she's telling you about your dad. It's so reserved for what I'm sure must have been an intense, world-shattering moment. What's up with your reserve in writing that particular moment?
Sampsell: I don't think I necessarily felt like it was my place to write about how I was feeling about it; it was her moment to tell me these things, and I didn't really have any place — it wasn't my job to be angry or judgmental or to do anything at that point. Because, for one thing, he's dead, so there isn't really anything for me to be angry about. I tried to console my mom as much as I could in that moment.
I talk a little bit [in A Common Pornography] about how those stories illuminated things for me. I don't necessarily talk about how she told me these things and my heart fell, like... I don't know... I feel like in some ways that's too obvious.People know that it's probably hurtful for me; I don't necessarily have to tell them. I don't have to paint the picture for them. I mean, I talked — I can't remember if it's in that chapter or a different chapter — where I say, "I realized that's why there wasn't a lot of affection in the family." She told me these stories and it illuminated a lot of things. It's like, oh, that's why they didn't sleep in the same bed; that's why there wasn't any affection; that's why... That darkness and that pain that was around them turned into a bigger cloud, where none of us could really feel super-close to each other or say "I love you." Nobody ever said "I love you" in our family. So I think there are other parts of the book where I do talk about how that affected me, but in the context of that chapter I was really careful not to talk about how this was a crushing thing to me.
Sheila: Hearing you talk about it now, to me it comes off as respectful — giving her the moment.
Sheila: Like, it's your memoir, but you just kind of back out of that moment and let her have it.
Sampsell: Yeah. Well, one of the things I thought was interesting, too, is that seeing some of the early reviews of the book — and sometimes it's hard for me to see these things from my perspective as the writer — but, my girlfriend, after the first few reviews, she said, "You know what's great about the reviews you're getting is that people aren't just talking about the writing style and how great it is, but the reviewers are talking about how the writing made them feel."
Sampsell: And I didn't necessarily catch that.
Sheila: Yeah, I was reading one today, about some guy who was some sort of insomniac and he was up late reading A Common Pornography —
Sampsell: Oh, uh...
Sheila: The Rumpus?
Sampsell: There was a guy who wrote a thing about it on The Rumpus, yeah. And that was kind of a weird review. Like, he reviewed the book a little bit, but it was more about him being sad about his girlfriend, or something. [Laughter] It was really funny.
Sheila: Yeah. I was reading along, going, "When is the review going to start?" Then it was like, "Oh, okay, the article's over." There was no review. But, still, I think it's cool that you were a part of — anonymously, really — a part of that guy's moment. Like, wow, your book floated off into the world and was found by someone at exactly the time he needed it.
Sampsell: I'm really not sure how that kind of thing happens. I'm not trying to write something specifically designed to, you know, affect people in that way. But it seems like it has. Some of the reviews I've read and some of the people I've talked to...people seem to have a really, really personal reaction to the book.
Sheila: I guess it would be hard not to have a personal reaction to the book, since you reveal so many personal things. As I was reading, I kept thinking, oh my God, a lot of this stuff is so... embarrassing! And you just let it hang out there. How do you get the nerve or courage to write about things that are so seemingly taboo or embarrassing?
Sampsell: A lot of the stuff in the book happened 20 years or more ago. So I feel like I don't really have to worry about people judging me on a lot of the foolish things I did as a young person. There was a lot of ways in which I was a late bloomer. As a person, I felt like I didn't really know who I was — or I didn't have any confidence in myself as a person, is what I should say — until I was out of high school. I know that may not seem that uncommon, but when I was in high school, it seemed like everyone else around me had confidence and knew what they were doing.
Also, as a writer and as a reader, I didn't start really reading seriously until I was in my 20s. So I feel like I sort of took this weird, solitary path with a lot of my life, and maybe that comes out in the book a little. I'm sort of learning things in a very naive way, you know: "I'll do this and see what happens." I think you do that a lot when you're younger. Especially when you're in your twenties, there's a lot of, "Oh, I'll just do it and see what happens." Or, "I'll be with this person and see what happens." Or, "I'll break up with this person and see what happens." Or, "I'll move to this city and see what happens." You know?
Sheila: This is a digression, but what was it that got you interested in reading, finally? When it did happen?
Sampsell: Mmm. Well, it's kind of a funny story.
Sheila: That does not surprise me.
Sampsell: A girl, who's in the book, named Erin and I started going out in Seattle, and she was kind of like my first real serious girlfriend, because we lived together. She used to make fun of me because I didn't read books... I used to read music magazines a lot. So I'd always be reading music magazines and stuff, and she'd always sort of scold me for not reading a real book or whatever. And I was writing poems and stuff at that time, so I was trying to write, but at the same time I wasn't necessarily feeding my brain through reading.
Sheila: Did you read poems at all? Besides the ones that you wrote?
Sampsell: No, I don't think I did. I think I was probably just a big asshole. [Laughter] I eventually did, after I got into reading more. So anyway, after we broke up — which is documented in the book — I think at some point, like, within the next year, I just started reading, and I think it was just something that became a habit. So I don't know if it was necessarily because of her, you know; it may have happened anyway.
Sheila: You may have just finally gotten taunted enough that you decided —
Sampsell: Yeah, I like to give her credit for that because it's kind of a funny story to tell. But I started reading probably when I was... I met her when I was 22, so I probably didn't start reading seriously until I was 23 or so. At first it was just true crime and really cheesy stuff like that. Somehow along the line, I don't know how I got steered into this other stuff, but I did eventually start reading Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and even Tom Robbins, and people like that. And then I got into all the stuff that was banned, like Burroughs and Henry Miller, Terry Southern, stuff like that.
Sheila: A definite step up from reading true crime and music magazines.
Sampsell: Yeah. [Laughter] And then I think when I started publishing my own poems -- which was actually probably really close to the time when I started reading more -- I started publishing more poems, and then I was getting poems published in little magazines, and I started reading other people's stuff that was also in the magazines, so I became more familiar with the small-press poets and people like that. Even people like Bukowski. Also people like John M. Bennett, Lyn Lifshin, Ron Androla, these people that would publish a lot in little, tiny things in the '90s.
Sheila: It seems funny to me that you came to reading and then almost immediately you were like, "Maybe I'll try to publish this stuff I'm writing." [Laughter]
Sampsell: That's true, it was almost the same year.
Sheila: My own experience with reading is that, as a kid, I loved it so much; I thought of books as such a magical thing, and I almost had too much reverence, where it stymied my —
Sampsell: Your writing?
Sheila: Yeah. Oh geez, I felt that if I were ever going to get published, it had better be, like, the awesomest thing ever. It had better be just as magical as all these books I read.
Sampsell: Oh yeah.
Sheila: Whereas, it sounds like, for you, it was like, "Reading? Publishing? Well, shoot, I'll give it a whirl." [Laughter]
Sampsell: Yeah, my experience was probably a little different, because I probably felt like... I think I probably just felt like, "Oh, I'll just publish some stuff, start publishing some of my own books, or whatever..."
Sheila: And see what happens?
Sampsell: And see if people like them. The first couple of years I was doing it, out of Spokane before I made it to Portland, which I think is like 1993... seems like I did a lot of writing in that time frame. Just a lot of bad stuff. I still put it out there because I didn't know any better.
Sheila: You have to get through that inevitable part. It's very rare for somebody to come out and have their first thing out of the gate be some kind of masterpiece. You have to write and send out stuff that's shitty, but you don't realize yet that it's shitty. [Laughter] Only later does it show its true colors.
Sampsell: I never felt like I had to write a certain way.Even when I was writing stuff that I now say was crappy, I was still amused and entertained by my own writing then. There's a certain naiveté that you have to have when you're beginning to write. And maybe it's also just your personality, or my personality, but I just felt like I didn't really care that much if it wasn't right or appropriate or stylistically correct, or whatever. I was just kind of goofing off a lot the first couple of years that I was writing. And I think, in a way, even those early years of goofing off kind of bled into my later work, and even into my current work. There's still a sense of goofing off, I think. [Laughter]
Sheila: It seems like it's an attitude that has served you pretty well. I was talking to [Powell's Book News blogger] Chris Bolton today, and he and I were trying to think of a situation that you would consider too embarrassing to write about. [Laughter] We wracked our brains and couldn't think of anything in the world that you would not write about. I thought... maybe if you killed a man, you maybe wouldn't want to write anything incriminating about yourself. [Laughter] But is there anything that was up for debate for putting in the book? That you were like, "Aw no, I can't go there"?
Sampsell: Well... I think I get too much credit for writing things that are embarrassing. [Laughter] The thing is, a lot of this stuff happened a long time ago. If I was going to write about stuff in the last 10 years or whatever, it would probably be a little different. It would probably be a little harder for me to reveal certain things.
Sampsell: Then I can say, "Oh, that happened a long time ago!" And it almost seems like it doesn't mattered that I slept with a prostitute when I was 17, or whatever it was. Now it doesn't even seem like that big of a deal. Because I wouldn't do it now.
Sheila: So, 15 years from now, we should expect to see another memoir, full of all the embarrassing stuff that's been happening to you now?
Sampsell: Yeah, maybe. One of the things you'll notice in the book, which was a conscious decision of mine, was, after Zach was born, there's a big time jump. And it basically goes 14 years later to the death of my dad. It picks up from there and talks about the funeral. But all that stuff from the birth of Zach to the death of my dad, none of that is covered. And I could've probably plopped in a few chapters about stuff during that timeframe, but I felt like those years were a pretty different chapter for me. The pre-fatherhood years and the post-fatherhood years.I've done some bad things in the past 15 years — there's a lot of stuff in that timeframe that I wouldn't want to talk about yet. So I think if there's a closeness to the timeframe, that makes it harder for me to write about. Then I do get embarrassed, or I do get concerned about things. One of the things about not writing about that time period was that, because Zach is in high school now, I didn't want to put out anything that would talk about stuff that affected him, or things that he would have to read right now. I think he could handle that stuff maybe in a few years, but he doesn't need to hear any of these other stories. His mom and I aren't together anymore, and there's stories surrounding that situation that I don't feel like... it's not that I'm uncomfortable writing about it, but I feel like it wouldn't be fair to write about it out of respect for him.
Sheila: So maybe in the future, when Zach's grown up...
Sampsell: Yeah, maybe. [Laughter] His mom won't get mad at me.
Sheila: Has anyone in your family read the book?
Sampsell: My brother, I think, is reading it right now.
Sheila: Which one?
Sampsell: My brother Matt, who's in there. He's my closest brother, he's the sportscaster, half-black. He was down in Houston, and I saw on his status update that he's reading it, because I sent him a copy last week. [Laughter] He and I are really close. We share the same kind of humor and we have the same kind of perspective on our family. So I think he'll like it. I'm not necessarily worried about his reaction. My mom hasn't read it yet. I actually talked to her on the phone today and I was like, "Oh, you should just go to the library and get it there."
Sheila: Does she want to?
Sampsell: I don't know. I'm not really sure. I sent her a copy of Portland Noir, and even that was just a little too hip for her, or something. And she reads mysteries. But I sent it to her and she said, "Oh yeah, I don't know... it's not really my kind of book," or something like that.
Sheila: But you haven't been disowned by them?
Sampsell: No, and I'm not super-close to a lot of my family members anyway. I have older brothers who are in the book. I just don't really talk to them. They might be aware of the book, but I'm not going to go out and tell them.
Also, I think sometimes when you're dealing with relatives, you have these people who aren't big readers, and so they read something, and, if it's a true story, they're going to find things to freak out about. You sort of wonder if they understand the whole nonfiction format. They think, "Why'd you have to include these lurid stories about your dad?" Well, if I didn't, those chapters would be boring. Not that I'm looking for like, you know, dirty secrets from other family members to throw out there, but--
Sheila: You also don't want to veil the truth in your writing.
Sampsell: Yeah. So I haven't had much reaction from the family yet. You know what's interesting is that one of my cousins — or uncles, is it? I don't know, I get so mixed up about relations sometimes. My cousin Terry—
Sheila: He's the one you sit down next to at the restaurant after the funeral.
Sampsell: Yeah, and he kind of agrees with me that everyone's being kind of weird and sort of avoiding the subject.He sits down next to me and he's like, "Yeah, your dad was a bastard," or whatever. [Laughter] He was one of the few people there that was sort of talking frankly about it. So it was nice to talk to him there. And then, actually, a couple of months later, after I started working on the book, he was in town visiting and I got together with him. He knew I was writing the book, and I basically interviewed him and talked to him more about some of the things he remembered. He's the one who related to me the story about how [he and my dad] went over to his apartment once and he was freaking out about something and shooting a gun outside.
Sheila: Oh, yeah.
Sampsell: Some weird story that he related to me. But even him, he's a schoolteacher somewhere, he teaches history or something. Apparently he has a room in his house, with his wife and family, that's like a library, where he has all these books. He's a really big book collector. I was excited about him seeing the book initially because I thought he would enjoy it. But then when he came to visit and I interviewed him, he bought some books at Powell's, and he bought a copy of Creamy Bullets. And then a couple of months later, I was talking to my brother Matt, who ran into him somewhere, and Terry said to Matt, "I got one of Kevin's books, but it was just really dirty and pornographic." [Laughter] If a person in my family, who I thought would maybe be able to read it and respect it for what it is, even he had a problem with my writing. Even this collection of fictional stories, which may have a couple of dirty stories in it... I don't know, it's just so weird. [Laughter] But I haven't talked to him, so maybe I'll email him and tell him it's out and see if he responds. Maybe he'll say, "I don't want to read it because I know it's gonna be a whole bunch of dirty stuff..."
Sheila: It's got "pornography" right in the title. [Laughter] Do you have a favorite vignette?
Sampsell: A lot of the older ones I like a lot; they were in the original version. But I really like the records one, about making my own paper 45s. And I also like the one about the game we played [as kids] where we turned into spirits.
Sheila: Interesting, because those are kind of mellower.
Sampsell: Yeah. But I think those are two of the chapters where certain people really relate. "Oh, we played a game like that." And besides that, I like a lot of the newer chapters. Some of the ones I really like are church related.
Sheila: I like where you throw up on yourself a little bit in church.
Sampsell: Oh, yeah. [Laughter] And then there's the one about going to confession.
Sheila: "There's that little masturbator." [Laughter]
Sampsell: I like some of the things about the porn and the first few girlfriends. All of that stuff about the early girlfriends is really funny because everyone has had funny girlfriends or boyfriends.
Sheila: Even if they can't quite relate to your story, they've got one of their own. You can imagine people sitting in a roundtable sharing their stories.
Sampsell: And I like a lot of the post-death chapters.
Sheila: Do you like them because they seem more fresh to you than the older stuff?
Sampsell: Maybe. They might be a little sharper. And there's a couple of chapters in here that I really didn't know if I wanted to keep, that I thought were maybe a little dull. But thankfully all the chapters are really short, so even if you hit one you think is dull, it's over quickly. [Laughter]
Sheila: Okay, final question. If you had to choose one, which would you rather wrestle: Sasquatch or Nessie? And explain why.
Sampsell: Sasquatch or Nessie. Well, I'm afraid of the water. I'm an okay swimmer now, but I was frightened of the water for so long. So probably Sasquatch, although it would be really stinky. I imagine it might be kind of fun, too.
Sheila and Kevin spoke over dinner at Baja Fresh in downtown Portland on February 1, 2010. Sheila ate a quesadilla. Kevin ate tacos.
Books mentioned in this post