Kevin Sampsell is a writer, a publisher, and an “ambassador to visiting authors” at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, where he lives. Last year saw the publication of his new short story collection, Beautiful Blemish, and an anthology of stories he edited about nighttime, The Insomniac Reader: Stories of the Night. In 2002, Sampsell self-published A Common Pornography, a flash fiction collection from his independent press, Future Tense Books. The authors he has published include Zoe Trope—whose Future Tense chapbook, Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, was published in hardback by HarperCollins, as well as Mike Topp, Dayvid Figler, and Magdalen Powers. His day job is working with visiting authors who come to read at Powell’s, including Salman Rushdie, Alice Walker, and David Sedaris. Today, he is working with Manic D Press to expand his publishing empire and on a forthcoming book by Eric Spitznagel called Fast Forward. Of Beautiful Blemish, Publishers Weekly wrote: “For readers with tastes that range outside the mainstream, this is a gem of warmhearted idiosyncrasy and oddball observation.”
Susannah Breslin: Why did you choose Beautiful Blemish as the book’s title? It seems to capture one of the preoccupations in the stories—a fascination with bodies, moments, people, and places that are beautiful due to their imperfections. The title made me think of the Japanese term wabi-sabi, which describes something beautiful but impermanent.
Kevin Sampsell: I am indeed attracted to the imperfections of people, both real and fictional. It makes for better stories. That's something I always point out to writers that I work with—the more flawed a character is, I think the reader likes them more. I mean that in many ways: spiritually, morally, mentally, and physically. And in those flaws or blemishes, moments of grace or beauty surprise us even more. Like when you meet someone that's really mean and then you're shocked when they do something nice. The contrast of what you expect and what you get can be jarring to the senses, but it's good for us. It's educational.
So, in a way I hope I'm presenting something authentic and true. There are trends happening that try to cover up blemishes in today's society, especially on TV. You got all these makeover shows or people telling you what NOT to wear, and you also have "Extreme Home Makeover" and "Pimp My Ride" and shows like that. I often watch these shows—especially the people makeovers—and think to myself: That person looked much better in the before shot. I liked her big nose or her dirty jeans.
SB: Reading this book, I wondered if certain things had actually happen. "Locker Room" is a story in which the narrator is in a locker room with his son, another boy starts snapping his towel at the narrator's son, and the towel snapping boy looks at the narrator and says to the narrator's son, "My dad's penis is bigger than yours is." How much of the book is fiction, how much is true, and how much is between the two?
KS: That's the trick. I hope that my fiction seems real or rings true. Of course, I tell people that much of it is true but maybe not in a first-person sense. In “Locker Room,” it's simply a case of me exaggerating certain parts. The kid didn't say that line but maybe I thought his expression did. And the locker room was noisy but I thought it would be funny to play that up more in the story, so in that way, as a writer, you can fuck around with details. If it was a short film, I would have had the ambient sound turned way the hell up. Sometimes I crack myself up with stuff like that. That whole fiction/real life thing is oddly more apparent to me these days. I think it's because I wrote A Common Pornography and decided to call it a memoir. Up to that point, and even when I was writing parts of A Common Pornography, I just figured it was all fiction. But it wasn't really.
I have to face up to non-fiction creeping into my work now. I mean I can't use that as a crutch. It's a great place to start, but I want to launch stories from that real or real-seeming place and make them go somewhere unexpected. Along the way I might sprinkle some really naked or embarrassing things about myself in there, but those parts are surrounded by fiction so people won't find out it is actually me. I'm not really ashamed of much though. And I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that most of the middle stories in Beautiful Blemish are very true.
SB: You also offer an unusual peek into masculinity in your work. You play with the stereotypes of being male. There's a fair amount of homoeroticism in your work. There's a certain uneasiness between men in your stories, a sense of unique intimacy between them. These sorts of nuances are mostly absent in popular culture representations of men. The men in your fiction are "unsteady," in their masculinity. Is that something you're aware of or what you intend?
KS: I don't think I do it enough, actually. Unless you're seeing it in stories that I'm not. There are times, of course, when I am aware of doing it, a story like “I Heart Frankenstein” or parts of A Common Pornography. I probably write more assuredly about younger characters, drawing from my own experiences and sexual confusion—so again, I think awkwardness has a lot to do with it. There were times when I was younger when I was very obsessed with sex and the way it makes you closer to people. Sex came before people in most of those cases. I was close to some gay friends and I have a lot of gay friends now, and though I don't pester them about their sex lives, I am always intrigued by their exploits and fantasies. Two of the writers I've published on my press, Carl Miller Daniels and Shane Allison, are both extremely generous with all their dirty little sexual details and I think that's what attracted me to their work.
It's very primal and completely blunt, and in a way I think that makes the work very funny as well. People read those books and say, Oh my God!, and they laugh. Sorry if I got off track there. But let me mention a couple of other writers. When I first read Gary Lutz and Benjamin Weissman, I was intrigued by the fact that I didn't know anything about those guys—if they were gay or straight or young or old—their stories went all over the place and from various perspectives. I was really won over by that. I want to do that too—write about old people and young people, gay or straight, or write from a female voice, or a child's voice. I don't really want people to know what to expect. I wrote a story earlier this year that is in the new Daphne Gottlieb anthology, Homewrecker, and it has a straight couple speculating about the neighbors being lesbians. I really enjoyed writing that. It was like a funny mix of both lifestyles, and at the end it gets pretty surreal.
Maybe I'm not able to answer this in a simple way. Maybe these details are important: I'm a pretty macho guy—I like football, eating meat, "The Shield," and slapping my girlfriend's ass. But I also like hugging my friends, slow quiet movies, nice clothes, and Belle & Sebastian.
SB: Awhile back, you wrote an essay, "Bookseller by Day, Editor and Writer by Night," in which you talk about your work as a publisher with Future Tense and your day job as an "ambassador to visiting authors" at Powell’s Books. How did your experiences publishing lesser known writers and meeting big name writers shape your own writing career?
KS: That's a really good question. I guess I am really lucky in this strange way, being a writer and publisher and working at a bookstore. I see the book world from all sides. And meeting authors who are more established is inspiring. It's easy to hear their stories and think, I could have a story like that someday. George Saunders had some funny stories about writing and publishing and his early failures. James Lee Burke said his first book was rejected by more than 20 publishers or something like that. People in the audience always ask the writers about how their book got published. There aren't many writers who haven't struggled at one time. One big lesson of course is to be patient. Writing and publishing take a long time. Being realistic is just as important as patience. When I publish newer writers I always hope they're going to go on to bigger and better things. I truly want to be their stepping stone. So many writers work in a vacuum and by getting their work out there, even if it's just a chapbook with a few hundred copies in print—it excites them, and hopefully gives them a small taste of accomplishment. As a writer you have to strive for accomplishment, for completion. You can't expect to have readers if you have a bunch of half-finished books in your sock drawer.
As far as my writing goes, like I said, I can see things from many points of view, from newer writer to famous writer. I don't get jealous or resent other writers and I don't compare my writing career to others.
SB: What are you working on these days at Future Tense? I believe you've got a book in the pipeline by Eric Spitznagel. From what I've heard, it has something to do with pornography. Is the mission of Future Tense to continue to publish smaller books by outre writers who may not necessarily be published by more mainstream publishers or is Future Tense something you would like to see grow bigger?
KS: Eric's book is a memoir about how, when he was trying to break into screenwriting, he reluctantly took work writing porn scripts. It's called Fast Forward. It's hilarious and there are some parts that are pure genius. It's part of the series that I'm publishing through Manic D Press, which allows me to publish longer books with better distribution. As far as the Future Tense mission goes, I think continuing to do one or two books a year through Manic D will really help get the word out about all the titles I publish. How other people see the press is out of my control, though. I started doing this in 1990. Then I moved to Portland in 1992. When the Zoe Trope chapbook came out in 2001, the exposure of the press kind of exploded. It was nice. I'd like Future Tense to have a very large audience but that wouldn't stop me from publishing what you might call outre writers. Overall though, I like where I am, doing little books with my stapler and also doing some bigger things through Manic D.
SB: You're a publisher, a father, a boyfriend to another writer, and your writing can be rather out there. By way of example, in Beautiful Blemish, the story "Blowjob" begins: "She said she was going to give me the blowjob from Hell. So we found a place to park on the way home. It was a cemetery." I'm wondering how all these facets of you cohere. That is, for you, is the act of writing an escape from reality, an ongoing personal vivisection leading to exorcism, or the real truth of who you are underneath it all?
KS: I don't want to sound like a cop-out but it's all those things. It's a mix of all that: an escape, a personal vivisection, the real truth—usually in the same story. I think what you're asking is if I worry about my son or my girlfriend reading one of my stories and freaking out about it. My son is 11 and he knows I'm a writer, but he isn't interested in knowing what it's about. Not yet anyhow. My girlfriend writes under the name Frayn Masters and she's great. Her stories are wild, hyper, and funny. And she sees and helps me edit all my stories these days. But I can't lie to you—in the past I was worried that she would be bothered by some stories. Maybe she'd see a detail from our life and then see something that I threw in as fiction and take it personally. But she hasn't done that. She read a story of mine recently that mentioned something very personal—something we fought about once—and she didn't even raise an eyebrow. She read the story straight through and told me what she thought it was about. And what she said was both totally accurate and something I hadn't even noticed.
SB: Your book's title story is about an older married couple. They talk dirty, they use a lot of rubbing oil, and the man draws a map across the woman's nude body. I don't think I've ever ready anything quite like it. I wonder if you think of your audience when you write and if there is a desired emotional effect you're after? That story conjures up feelings of wanting to run in horror and not being able to stop reading.
KS: One thing that I try to do—and sometimes I just accidentally do it—is write a story or a scene in a story that hits more than one emotional button. I want to write something that is funny but I want it to be a little shocking or depressing too. Or I want something to be gritty and realistic but I want it to be fucked up and funny as well. I'm not really trying to shock people. I want the shock to resonate more than usual. People do and think about strange things all the time. There's no limits to how high or low people will go.
SB: Generally speaking, it's not clear where things are in terms of literature these days—possibly stuck somewhere between the desire to generate the kind of neo-experimental writing Ben Marcus invites writers to pursue in "Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It" and the lingering appeal of what Franzen did in The Corrections, which was make mainstream audiences feel like they were being spoonfed what approximated postmodern fiction. You are someone who writes and works on the "frontlines of fiction.” Where are we now and where are we going? Some are wondering how long writers are going to cling desperately to realism.
KS: I hear people criticize contemporary literature too often. I would bet that the past several decades have had their literary doubters as well. It's hard to live in an era and predict how people will see it ten or twenty years from now. Did people in the beat era really know that Kerouac, Burroughs, etc. were going to all become legends? I loved Ben Marcus's argument in Harper's. It's a valid discussion. But I don't have to love all experimental writing and I don't have to dislike more traditional writing. People may like to complain about Dave Eggers and how precious he might seem, but I think he will be admired and respected for a long time. The least that he and McSweeney's has done is inspire and influence countless people. He's just as DIY as anyone but he's become really successful. That's no crime.
The other thing people worry about is the supposed lack of readers, and I have harped about this at times too. But I do think it's not as bad as people think. There are probably way more readers and writers now than ever. The main problem, you could argue, is that there are too many books put out every year. You can't find the gems when there are lots of polished turds around them. The print-on-demand companies are the main culprits. They're the bane of publishing.
SB: You write what one might call postmodern fiction with a heart. At the same time, your fiction includes a lot of sex. Why do you think some writers use sex as a way of getting at matters of the heart?
KS: I'm glad you see a heart in my work. I can't speak for others, but I use sex in my work because it's one of the most interesting and secret parts of every individual's life. When people say, “What turns you on?”, the key words there are You and On. People are like machines in that way. We have these switches inside, deep inside, our very core. That's a big part of who you are, or maybe who you aren't...but want to be.
SB: You are a writer of flash fictions. Would you be willing to give a sample?
Your main character is sitting at a window. He is a writer. He is trying to concoct a theory of his own identity.
You have 250 words.
KS: Okay. This is fun. I've taught workshops before and I always give students about ten minutes to write something, so I guess this is payback.
I always wonder who can see me through the window. I never look out myself. I just sit here and stare at the computer screen. Sometimes I sit here in my underwear and socks while my girlfriend sits on the couch reading or doing Sudoku in her pajamas. She calls them her "night uniform." When the time comes, I will take off the rest of my clothes. I usually sleep naked. This is what I call my night uniform. I make sure the window blinds are closed but I still wonder—can people see me in my night uniform? I can't write. I'm tired. I wonder if I accomplished anything today. I procrastinate by checking the basketball scores online. I don't know why I get so invested, sometimes so upset, by the performance of my favorite basketball team. How did these emotions, this strange sort of sports loyalty become ingrained in me? Can I really brag to anyone if a group of total strangers puts a ball in a hoop more than another team? Total strangers that make more in a year than I'll make in my life. I look at the blinded window and see a glimpse of my eyes reflecting back through a slit. I grab some yogurt from the fridge and return to stare at the screen some more. I pour a handful of peanut butter M&Ms in the yogurt. I'm confident that the screen will turn into something. A field of words. Words that mean more than words.