The first thing you need to know about Kevin Sampsell is that he is a lover of books. At Powell’s City of Books in Portland, OR, he promotes them. With Future Tense Publishing, he makes them. And be it stories, essays, memoir, or novel, he writes the hell out them.
The second thing you need to know about Kevin Sampsell is that he wants you to love books, too. With This is Between Us, his latest book and debut novel, he makes it easy. The novel chronicles 5 years in the relationship between a narrator and his beloved, whom is also the addressee—the “you”—of the book. In this way, Sampsell not only provides a narrative recollection of falling in and out of love over 5 years, but directly puts us, his readers, in the place of his narrator’s lover. It makes for a reading experience that feels both uncomfortably voyeuristic and engrossingly personal. This Is Between Us is a remarkable achievement.
The third thing you need to know about Kevin Sampsell is that he is a really, really nice guy. So nice as to answer some questions below.
Joseph Riippi: As I was going through your past books, I was surprised to remember that This Is Between Us is actually your first novel. Having written so many books already—the memoir A Common Pornography, the story collections Creamy Bullets, Beautiful Blemish, etc—is there a different sense of accomplishment with This Is Between Us as a novel?
Kevin Sampsell: There kind of is. I mean it’s something I have always wanted to do but didn’t know if I could. I wrote one novel about ten years ago and it didn’t amount to anything. But I wasn’t 100% certain that it worked anyway. I felt a lot more in control of this book. I’m working on another novel right now and it’s much more straight-ahead, at least in the way the story unfolds. This Is Between Us doesn’t feel very straight-ahead to me, but it’s not supposed to be. I hope readers will feel like it’s a different kind of novel. I think novels can sometimes feel too static. I wanted to make a novel that had energy and a new kind of approach. But it’s not easy to write any kind of novel.
Joseph Riippi: The short chapters and honest, confessional tone of A Common Pornography made it so easy to identify with and trust, which is one of the rarest and best gifts a book can give a reader, I think. And even as fiction, This Is Between Us shares all of that. Did the novel form make writing a confessional story like This Is Between Us easier than writing a memoir, because you’re not limited to “truth”? Or do the this-really-happened limits of a memoir form offer helpful guidance?
Kevin Sampsell: I feel really fortunate to have written a memoir and to write non-fiction sometimes too. I think it’s really helped the way I approach fiction and the honesty I want to evoke in fiction. There’s no reason why you can’t be as emotionally open and vulnerable with fiction as you are with memoir. Sometimes when you read fiction, you can catch yourself thinking, This is all just made up. But I like it better when you think, I wonder if this really happened. It’s like seeing a movie and suspending your disbelief. When I was writing these characters, especially the narrator, I pretended that they were real. It helped to be delusional in that regard. If I took the word fiction out of my head as I wrote, then it also stayed out of my finger, off the screen, and off the page. That may sound weird, but sometimes if I can fool myself, it makes it easier for me to give these fictional moments a sheen of realness.
Joseph Riippi: The title This Is Between Us implies that the book is a kind of secret, directed from a lover to a beloved. And the second person “you” narration lets the reader in on that, too, such that we can identify with both halves of the relationship (such is the success of the novel). With the reader let in on it, though, these moments can’t be fully secret and, especially in darker moments, they become confession. Do you see the novel as more one or the other? Or is it something else entirely?
Kevin Sampsell: I think sometimes openness gets confused with confession. The word “confess” makes it seem like it’s something hidden. I like it a lot when an author speaks to their reader like an adult speaking to an adult. That’s what I tried to do. Like: You’re an adult. I don’t have to soften or pander. You can take this!
The reader does get let in more that way, but I think there are some chapters that have a deliberate openness to them, so the reader can fill in the blank a little. Sometimes the best tool you have as a writer is the skill to imply.
Joseph Riippi: I find this moment particularly beautiful: “On Christmas morning, you opened your present from me—a new camera—and started testing it out. We figured out the timer and took photos of all of us together. We stood in front of the tree, arms around each other, like an ordinary family. I secretly thought of these photos as presents for myself.” I think because it feels so real in its happy conflict of a selfish (but not really) gift. Is there a favorite moment of your own from the book?
Kevin Sampsell: I really like the short short ones. They’re funny to me and they’re really fun to read out loud. I think the short one that mentions 9/11 is a bittersweet poem. Some people are freaked out by that one. My intention there was to cast a wishful light on that dark image. To imagine a new ending to that tragedy. Some of my other personal favorites are the ones where I could explore the characters’ insecurities and jealousy, like when they break up and he goes to spy on her in the parking lot by the library. I also have this strange lingering fondness for the chapter where the narrator goes on the bike ride with Maxine and they’re looking for a Slushee. There’s something very touching about that for me, maybe because I never had a daughter and Maxine felt like a real step-daughter to me.
Joseph Riippi: Formally, the novel is made up of short moments of remembrance, like tiny chapters. It’s not unlike A Common Pornography in that way. But the structure here is strictly chronological, separated into five parts, years one through five, and that provides a frame to memory’s collage. I wonder how much of that you feel is a literary device, and how much is actually a function of memory? Is plot something we impress upon memory in order to make sense of it?
Kevin Sampsell: I don’t think I see a literary device, per se, in this book. At least I wasn’t thinking in those terms. With the memoir, it was definitely memories. A book of memories that create a bigger view. For the novel, it’s more like a book of stories or scenes or mood pieces that create a bigger view.
As far as plot goes, I’m not terribly interested in plot when I’m writing or reading books by other writers. Sometimes a plot can be great, but I’m more interested in emotional substance. Life is usually a bunch of little plots anyway.
I want to talk about something real quick, something that is happening presently as I answer this question. I’m in a café in Portland, Oregon and the song I’m Not in Love by 10cc just came on. It’s a very unusual song. The guy claims he’s not in love and keeps trying to justify his stance. In the middle of the song, it kind of fades down and then a woman’s voice starts whispering “Big boys don’t cry, big boys don’t cry…” and it turns orchestral for a minute and then the guy returns at the end and says, “Just because I call you up, don’t think you got it made.” It’s a pretty amazing song and it doesn’t really have a plot or a traditional structure. It’s from 1975. There was a lot of cool shit in the 70s actually. They’re actually playing a whole 10cc album here and it’s really good. I’ll have to get some of this. They also sang The Things We Do For Love. I feel like I may have sidestepped that question. Sorry.
Joseph Riippi: Any tour plans for the book? Can we expect to see you in New York soon?
Kevin Sampsell: I am doing two readings in Brooklyn—one on December 3rd at BookCourt and one on December 6th at Word Bookstore with you, Mr. Riippi, as well as Julia Fierro and Chelsea Hodson. In between those I’m doing an event in Baltimore with Dorothea Lasky, one of my favorite poets, on Thursday, December 5th. I don’t get to come out to New York (or anywhere east) very often, so I’m very excited about these events.