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Original Essays

Bookseller by Day, Editor and Writer by Night

by Kevin Sampsell
  1. The Insomniac Reader: Stories of the Night
    $9.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist
    From prostitution and adultery to emergency rooms and suicide, this anthology features some of the best writers in the country shining their flashlights into a world that begins around the time when most people are asleep.
  2. Beautiful Blemish
    $9.95 New Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Beautiful Blemish

    Kevin Sampsell
    [C]harmed, painful, hilarious and beautiful. [Sampsell's] ability to find magic, humor, and heartbreak where anyone of less talent would see only vacant landscapes leaves you reconsidering every place you've ever been." Dan Kennedy
  3. Invisible Radios -- Re-Mixes, Statistics, Jokes, Etc. "If Andy Kaufman had devoted his life to poetry instead of comedy, the result would closely resemble the twists and surprises of Kevin Sampsell's writing." John L. Clark, pLopLop magazine
  4. The Patricia Letters
    $3.50 Used Pamphlet add to wishlist

    The Patricia Letters

    Kevin Sampsell
    "The Patricia Letters is a mind theater of true American voices ? sincere, subtle, taut, a rarity in the smaller presses these days." Michael Hemmingson
I may look like your normal bookstore employee — facial stubble, nerd glasses, untucked shirt, jeans, scuffed shoes, the little red sticker that says "INFO" on it — but I do much more than serve customers and shelve books here at Powell's. I get to meet famous writer types like Salman Rushdie, Al Franken, Alice Walker, and David Sedaris. I'm like a Powell's ambassador to visiting authors. On the side I write and publish stories about sex, relationships, and disturbed people. It's a sort of double life.

This way of life gives me connections. Some would say it's an unfair advantage for someone trying to break into the book world, being able to meet numerous authors, editors, publishers, and publicists. Working at The City of Books has given me as much of an education in writing and publishing as any college could. I've learned to use these connections.

A couple of years ago I came up with an idea to put together an anthology about what happens at night. Why people get in trouble more at night, why some lose control of their emotions and desires at night, why some things just take on a whole new life when it gets dark. I'm fascinated by the Jekyll and Hyde of day and night. I initially thought I'd put out the collection myself but after thinking about all the authors I knew, I realized I could probably have a bigger press do it.

The first thing I did was compile a list of e-mail addresses. I had about forty to start. These included Jonathan Ames and Dan Kennedy — people I knew from hosting their readings at the store — as well as Michelle Tea and Monica Drake, writers I knew on a more personal level. Some of the writers who ended up in the book were friends of someone in the original forty. Some writers I nabbed by boldly asking them face-to-face. Rick Moody and Aimee Bender were two of those. There were others I wanted to ask but after meeting them I frankly didn't feel comfortable asking. I tried not to be pushy. Sometimes, while helping an author sign stock, I'd start by asking if they wrote short stories. If they said yes, I'd follow up awkwardly with something like:

Do you have any stories that take place at night or have something to do with night because I'm putting together an anthology and it would be great to get something from you and I could probably pay you eventually but it has to be something that hasn't been published in a book yet... can you help a poor bookseller out?
Well, it was a little slicker than that.

A friend that I worked with made fun of me for being a schmoozer. But I felt like I wasn't schmoozing for the sake of schmooze. I only schmoozed the ones I admired, the ones I thought I could work with as an editor. Sometimes there's an automatic connection. When Steve Almond came into the store to sign copies of his first book in 2002 he was such a likeable and energetic guy (a schmoozer?) that we hit it off, exchanged e-mails, and have been pals since. David Henry Sterry, Heidi Julavits, and Davy Rothbart were all the same way — real sweethearts. Almond and Sterry had stories in a more inflated, early version of The Insomniac Reader until I had to cut a bunch of stuff out to make it a more manageable size. (I hope they forgive me.)

That was the tricky part: the cutting and rejecting. I'd taken on so much in the early stages that the manuscript was much too large. My plan of reprinting stories by some of my favorite people such as Susan Orlean, Larry Brown, and even Raymond Carver were halted when I realized that whole process would complicate matters too much. The agent I was working with said it would be better if the stories were as new as possible. Even after hours of scanning and formatting these stories from their original books and getting permissions, I had to learn to let go.

For so long I didn't even have a title for the collection. I thought about "Now It's Dark" — a phrase that Dennis Hopper ominously repeats in Blue Velvet. But it seemed a little forced or hokey. Yet Blue Velvet is a good example of what I wanted the collection to feel like. I wanted it to be disturbing and magical and oddly funny. Maybe a little sexy. What that movie does for uncovering the underbelly of small town America I wanted to do for those hours when most people are sleeping. I wanted to shine a light on how things aren't as normal as they seem. In the introduction to the book (which assumed the rejected title, "Now It's Dark") I write about the way evening seemed to me as a kid — like an unexplored foreign land. I mention staying up all night and walking around neighborhoods, spying on people in their homes, lonely folks driving on empty roads, men and women working the graveyard shift.

For some reason it seems easier to read a person's emotional state at night, like their feelings come up to the surface and make their face flush, their eyes water. I want these stories to be flashlights, passports, and lie detector machines.

The process of putting the book together lasted nearly two years. There were times when I felt myself losing focus on the theme. It's supposed to be about the night time. I found myself revisiting a couple of the stories and telling the writers to "night it up" a little more, a slightly anal request on my part but one that the writers in question expertly met. Other editing suggestions were approached just as carefully. I had to cut chunks out of stories that were too long or tell certain award-winning authors that a sentence here or a paragraph there was a little sloppy, not tight enough. Here I was, a bookstore employee with no college degree or money for coffee, telling them this. But thankfully, they trusted me and even agreed in most cases with my suggestions. I must have really picked a sweet batch of scribes.

Once it was polished and ready to shop around, I started to feel like some sort of pimp or party host. You have all these great authors in some room and there's a publisher coming over to look at them. Are everyone's ties straight? Hair neat? Shoes shined? Johnson, switch places with Tate. Pruzan, stay away from the punch bowl!

Manic D Press in San Francisco came through with more enthusiasm for the book than any of the New York houses. And because I already knew the publisher, Jennifer Joseph, and the great books she's produced over the years, it was an easy decision to go with them.

Of course I'm not going to get rich and famous by editing an anthology, and even though I have a book of my own stories that also just came out (Beautiful Blemish), I imagine I'll be a bookseller for a while and there's nothing wrong with that. Being surrounded by books and meeting writers every day is a pretty great and inspiring existence. spacer

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