I received Kevin Keck's book, Oedipus Wrecked, about five months ago. It had just been published by Cleis, a press that specializes in erotica and gay & lesbian books. Now, I like dirty books as much as the next guy, but I prefer smut with a sheen of literary resonance — like Jonathan Ames (I've called him "gentlemanly perverse" before) or Steve Almond. Finally, I took Keck's little collection home and promptly, to my surprise, fell in love with it. Keck does something that I really admire in this book — he reveals the strangest and most embarrassing details about his life. From his early days as a horny, confused teen into an adulthood that found him saddled with huge phone sex bills, Keck combines his lurid secrets with a surprisingly poetic flair. Each story (they're technically essays but I can't help but call them stories) starts with a rush, grabbing you by the belt in less than a minute. I found myself laughing out loud and shaking my head in astonishment throughout this wonderful and alarming book. Though it came out in fall of 2005, I'm calling Oedipus Wrecked my "Sleeper Hit of 2006."
I conducted this email interview with Kevin Keck over 4th of July weekend. — KS
What gives you the guts to write about sex in such a frank (and sometimes embarrassing) way?
I don't know that I have anything resembling "guts" — I just have a different understanding for what other people might consider intimate information. Also, I think I was reading some crucial writers at a key time in my life that were very honest, very free with their vulnerabilities, or at least their perceived vulnerabilities. Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes — his whole trilogy really — just changed the way I approached writing. He was so unabashed about his failures.
But that's a pretentious answer. Rather bullshittish. I was looking for freelance writing work, I'd told a few funny stories about some failed sexual experiences to some writer friends while drinking one night, and my friend Parker encouraged me to write one down and send it out. I got a bite on the story "Hard Evidence" (which appeared in a much shorter version originally) in 1998, but most of the stories were written between 2001 and 2003, and all of them because I needed the money. I'd like for you to believe that I wrote them out of a commitment to art. (Well, I think some of the essays are quite artful in the ways they discuss sexuality...) Writing for me is a process of understanding the world — that's what I'm interested in as a writer. The reality of the world is that I need to eat, and so sometimes my artistic pursuits have to be linked inevitably to the purchase of beans and Spam.
Who were the other authors you were reading besides Exley?
Around the same time I was reading Exley I was also getting into Philip Roth, Milan Kundera, Charles Bukowski... I was interested in reading people who seemed to display fearlessness in their narratives. I was also reading a lot of poetry then as well — Larry Levis and Stephen Dobyns and Sharon Olds, really great narrative poets. None of this language poetry that's making the rounds today. No wonder contemporary readers have abandoned poetry with the likes of Ron Silliman making the rounds. It's a testament to his mediocrity as a poet that he hasn't had the guts to kill himself. Well, that's unfair of me to pick on Silliman because I have an aesthetic disagreement with him; I'm with him politically. He's been around as long as the poets I've already mentioned; he represents the poetry equivalent of a Peter Gabriel-centric Genesis, and I just happen to prefer that Phil Collins rockin' pop.
Have you ever gone to any treatment centers or a psychologist for sex addiction?
For sex addiction? Are you insane? If I was addicted I'd be getting too much, and I'm not. If anything I feel I should go to a treatment center for the sexually deprived, or a brothel, as the good people of Nevada call them.
Have your parents read your work? Do you ever wonder if you should hold things back sometimes?
My dad has read my book twice. It created an uncomfortable situation where he began to tell me of his own sexual awakening in the 1950s. Usually my dad is so private, and suddenly he was being very candid about things that I'd rather not imagine.
My mom is a fan of Sidney Sheldon and Danielle Steel, so she won't be reading my work. The stories aren't interesting enough for her. No lovers betrayed, no family fortune squandered over booze and gambling, no espionage...
Do you ever feel like you're going too far, like you might be hurting someone's feelings or revealing too much?
Well, you know, in my day-to-day life I'm always concerned with people's feelings, but in the realm of art I feel I am beholden to no one. And that's really the way it has to be if you're trying to write the story that's most true.
And in defense of James Frey I'd just like to say: shame on you, America, for not being well-educated readers with a complicated view of truth and an understanding of the murky waters that constitute memoir. I don't know what drove that witch-hunt. Why aren't people angry at "reality" television shows that manipulate the truth in much more egregious ways? Or the government? It really baffles me. I'd also like to say I couldn't get through A Million Little Pieces. Maybe if I had I'd be angry too.
When you're writing these stories, about things that happened to you when you were younger, do you ever think, "I can't write about that because not enough time has passed"? Do you feel like you've changed enough to write from a clearer perspective?
Well, it all depends on the story, of course. Usually when I'm writing material that's largely autobiographical I like for some amount of time to pass, but how much is very relative. Your thinking changes about anything over time, but yeah, if I'm still too close to an event emotionally I really don't have the distance to scrutinize my own behavior in the way a writer should in those situations.
Have you seen these TV shows that trap pedophiles who meet up with "kids" they meet in chat rooms? What do you think about this kind of sexual vigilante thing?
I have an ex-girlfriend who loved watching those shows, so I've seen my fair share. Typically I find that these shows are more "idiot traps" than pedophile busts. What kind of dumb ass thinks that a 14 year-old girl in a swanky neighborhood is going to invite some frumpy middle-aged dude over for sex? I mean, seriously. If this country would become sane about sexuality and allow for legalized, well-regulated prostitution, and the widespread distribution of effective birth control, I promise that you would eliminate innumerable sex crimes in this country.
But there's another issue here about the rights of minors and their bodies. I understand we have an interest as a society to protect our children from foolish decisions, but it is an absolutely fucked-up society that has the type of laws that we do regarding age. You can't legally make the decision at 15 to fuck a 25 year-old, but by God we'll let you have a baby and raise it. You can't have a beer, or drive a car by yourself, but certainly raising a child is not nearly as difficult as drinking a beer. And at the age of 18, then you can decide to make porn where some classy gentleman with a moustache will film you getting banged by 100 men simultaneously, or we can give you a gun and allow you to go and kill the children of strangers in a far away land, or you can vote. But you still can't have a beer.
So what do I think about those TV shows? I think everyone should blow up his or her television post haste, because if that's the kind of "news" our networks feel is worthy, then we're all doomed. Four thousand women are assaulted every day in South Africa. Genocide is being committed in Darfur. Where are the soldiers from this supposed Christian land who could stop the suffering? Fuck if I know, kids. It's hard to hear the wail of the truly needy over the din of desire.
Do you have a day job?
I've been teaching part-time for several years, but I don't know how much longer I can continue to do it if I want to write the best possible work. The people I've known who were good in the classroom were typically mediocre writers, and the best writers were either incompetent or fascists when it came to their pedagogy. Something about the process of teaching and writing, at least for me, draws on the same energy.
However, I would just like to point out that I do not teach in a graduate creative writing program. I teach at an urban community college. I teach 13 classes a year, typically 25 students to a class, which is considered part-time by the state of North Carolina. I don't want a fucking medal, I just don't want anyone to have any bourgeois illusions about me passing the time in a cushy office in some ivy coated Tower of Babel. I teach composition and literature; I rarely teach an introductory creative writing class.
I have a fairly low opinion of creative writing programs and people who teach in them, and many of those people are my friends. It's an unethical, shady practice to get people to shell out their hard-earned cash for a degree in creative writing. And I have one, but it was paid for entirely by Syracuse University, whom I humbly thank for the three years that they allowed for me to write. But that's the only circumstance under which anyone should attend a creative writing program: if the institution pays for it. If you want to fork over $40,000 to learn how to write, just send me a check for $1,000 and I'll tell you everything there is to know. Ah, fuck it, I'll tell you now for free: read the kind of stuff you want to write; know the difference between literature which is intended as art and that which is intended as entertainment; avoid books that claim to instruct you how to write — the only one that'll do you any good is The Elements of Style; and finally, if you read all of Shakespeare, the Bible, and Plato's Republic you'll not only be a better writer but more highly educated than 98% of the citizens of the United States.
But the short answer is: yes, I have a day job.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel that's a sprawling family epic. I really admire what John Irving can do with a big canvas, you know? I'm curious to know if I have that range.
However, people like the funny penis stories, and as long as they keep paying, I'll keep whoring myself. I'm no Conan Doyle when it comes to the popularity of my work.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir