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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
This is Between Us: An Interview with Kevin Sampsell
Arthur Bradford: Hey Kevin, I like your new book (This is Between Us)! It’s a very sincere and raw look at a relationship, and love. Did you have any kind of statement in mind when you set out to write this, like were you trying to show some aspect of love and relationships that might not be portrayed often in literature? I guess I’m asking that because I think that’s what you did, but I’d like to hear you explain your intent a little.
Kevin Sampsell: One of the things I figured out early on, because there was going to be so many short chapters, is that I wanted each moment to somehow explore a different nuance, a different mood, or a different kind of thought process. The myriad feelings and thoughts that we all have while falling in love are seemingly endless. I thought this novel would be a good way to really dig down into all of those things. I’m interested in how people work and how love and other matters of the heart change them. If that kind of digging isn’t portrayed in a book about relationships or love, I feel like it’s just skimming the surface or playing it safe. It was my intent to not play it safe. If I could risk feeling unsafe I could truly break through some barriers or make something taboo seem less scary.
AB: You tell this story in lots of very short chapters, sometimes just a paragraph long. What about this structure appealed to you? Did you create a set of “rules” for yourself in writing this, or did this structure just become a natural fit for the story?
KS: I did tell myself that I wanted every chapter to be no more than two pages. I think that structure appeals to me because it’s a different way to build a story. It’s not for everybody, I know—though in a way I really feel like it could be for everybody! Maybe it’s the kind of no-nonsense feel of it that I like. I wanted this book to be very direct, but also playful at times, and funny. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry the past three years and I was influenced by the great emotion and sly humor that many poets are able to create in a short space. I saw some of the chapters as almost being like prose poems. I want people to read chapters out loud to each other.
AB: There’s some very funny, wry, humor in here. I often feel like the narrator is poking fun at himself, or at time maybe isn’t aware of the funny situation he is describing. Can you talk about humor in love, and how it plays out in This is Between Us?
KS: I have always loved putting characters in awkward situations. I find those kind of uncomfortable moods to be great opportunities to show how a character really feels, and more importantly—how characters see themselves. Just like in real life, when you’re in a situation that YOU make funny, it’s simply a good time, but if you’re in a situation that becomes funny because of something outside of your power, it can make you feel self-conscious and maybe a little odd.
As far as humor in love—oh, man. It’s so important to have a sense of humor about it, or else you’re just going to feel crappy half the time. The times I’ve had girlfriends who didn’t know how to laugh, it was dire. I also think humor is an element of forgiveness. Forgiveness is made possible by knowing you’re imperfect and being able to accept that in others.
AB: I kept thinking about your title as I was reading this. This is Between Us. It’s funny, because since it’s a book and we are all reading it, it’s actually the opposite of that. But the appeal of this narrative is that it feels like some kind of intimate confession. Did you choose that title to remind yourself that this was what the book should appear to be? Or, well, why did you choose this title?
KS: Ultimately, a reading experience is always one-on-one. And you have to think of it that way as the writer. I don’t think of an “audience,” per se, when I’m writing. Only when I’m done with something, do I think, who should publish this? Who will present it best to the kind of reader that appreciates it? The title was kind of a stroke of luck. It’s one of those statements that can mean a variety of things. Every word could mean something different depending on how you say it. And I like it when words or sentences can do that same trick in the context of a story. It’s a sneaky way to give readers choices in how they analyze a piece of work. I think a little ambiguity can give readers a chance to fill in some blanks for themselves, and that can make them feel closer to you as the writer.
AB: Tell me about how you put these chapters together chronologically. The book is divided into years 1 through 5. Did you just write the scenes as they presented themselves and then put together a big puzzle in the end?
KS: Yeah, I don’t think I could have attempted to write this chronologically. I just wrote chapters as ideas and stories came to me. It took me about two years to write the book and the first year was really productive and quick. Then I started to slow down and started worrying about some of the structural stuff. I tried to wedge a couple of subplots into it and it didn’t work, so I pulled all those parts out. I felt unsure about the book as a whole because I thought it was sort of plotless, as in: there is no big traditional literary moment like a death, a double-cross, a road trip, a life-threatening illness, or a lingering whodunit. But I thought about it for a while and realized that real life is often absent of huge plots too. Life is more like a bunch of little plots–breakups, kids having problems with their friends, reminiscing about your parents’ affairs, going out to pumpkin patches. Those are moments and I like moments more than plots. Most plots bore me. So I’m embracing the concept of a bunch of moments making a whole life. I tried to think of it as something new. A new kind of novel.
When I was done with most of the writing, I made five stacks and figured out what chapters would happen in which year. Like the first two years can be pretty sexy, and then there’s a time when there’s a break-up or a re-evaluation of the relationship, and hopefully the years after that are moving forward in whatever way you can. After making each year’s pile, I read through it, shuffled things around more, wrote some connective kind of chapters, and came up with what it is now. Five years of emotions and moments. I’ve had two previous relationships last five years, so I felt like I was experienced and this was a good chunk of time to delve into. Luckily, my current relationship is going strong at about eleven years now.
AB: You work at the famous Powell’s bookstore. Did you write any of this while on the job?
KS: I don’t think I did. Haha. I probably got some good ideas while on the clock though. Whenever I do, I usually write something down on a scrap of paper. I wrote a lot of things on scraps of papers for this book. I should have saved them all!
AB: You wrote a memoir before this, A Common Pornography, and have published a lot of non-fiction writing, including a great essay selected for The Best American anthology this year, so I feel like you have a firm root in non-fiction writing. And this novel feels very real to me, so I feel like I have to ask this question, even though you will likely be tired of it as you continue to promote this book: how much, like what rough percentage of this book, is actual experience? You don’t have to tell me which parts. I just want to know a percentage, and also would like to hear your thoughts on mixing memoir and fiction.
KS: I’ve only been asked this once so far and I think I said 60% is true. Maybe it’s closer to 65%. Perhaps in a couple of months, I’ll be saying 90%. It’ll just keep going up! That’s the beauty (and mystery) of writing memoir and fiction. Leonard Michaels is one of my favorite writers I discovered in the past two years, and he was great at creating beautiful stories both fiction and non-fiction. I like how some of his fiction was inspired by real life and I think it’s funny how he caught flack for that sometimes. I aspire to be like Lenny in that way. You can’t really mix in fiction to your non-fiction though. Unless you’re Truman Capote or something.
Arthur Bradford is an O Henry Award winning writer and Emmy-nominated filmmaker. His writing has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, Vice, Men’s Journal, and many other publications. His first book, Dogwalker, was published by Knopf and Vintage paperback in 2002, and has been translated into ten languages. His latest book, Benny’s Brigade, is a children’s book, published by McSweeney’s in Sept. 2012.
Kevin Sampsell is the author of the memoir A Common Pornography (2010 Harper Perennial) and the short story collection Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus) and the editor of the anthology Portland Noir (Akashic). Sampsell is the publisher of the micropress Future Tense Books, which he started in 1990. He has worked at Powell’s Books as an events coordinator and the head of the small press section for fifteen years. His essays have appeared recently in Salon, the Faster Times, Jewcy, and the Good Men Project. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s, Nerve, Hobart, and in several anthologies. He lives in Portland, OR, with his wife and son.