An Interview with Kevin Sampsell
At 10 a.m. on Friday, May 13 -- Kevin Sampsell’s day off -- he picks me up at my Portland home. After a quick drop by his P.O. box to check the Future Tense mail, we’re off to Sampsell’s favorite greasy spoon: Bertie Lou’s.
Kevin Sampsell is the publisher of Future Tense Books (company motto: “where the stapling never ends”) and just saw the release of The Insomniac Reader (Manic D Press, 2005) a themed anthology of fiction that he edited (contributors included Aimee Bender, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, T. Cooper, and Michelle Tea, among others). His latest fiction collection, Beautiful Blemish, was recently published by Word Riot Press. The title story was nominated for a Nerve.com Henry Miller Award. (Full disclosure: some advertising for Beautiful Blemish has appeared on Bookslut.)
Bertie Lou’s is in Sellwood, a working class town attached to Portland; the kind of town you could easily mistake for a neighborhood. The only people in the place, we sit down at a large table near the back. The waitress asks if we mind sitting at a small table for two. They could get busy anytime now, she says. Sampsell recommends the biscuits and gravy. Instead I order the American Special, a standard bacon-eggs-hash browns deal. Sampsell orders the biscuits and gravy.
My meal is decent, regular breakfast fare; the bacon alone stands out as some of the best I’ve ever had. “You’ve got to at least try this,” Sampsell says. I reach across the table and fork off a chunk of gravy-smothered biscuit. Damn. The quality of my bacon notwithstanding, this is really what I should have ordered.
My little digital recorder is standing upright, nestled against the ketchup bottle and the pot of jam. Sampsell is a quiet guy, even when he’s speaking, but the recorder should be able to pick him up all right, especially given that the Velvet Underground album playing on the restaurant stereo is pretty quiet, itself barely background noise. At some point, I remember to turn the recorder on.
I want to ask you about how you about being a micro-press publisher, but first I’d like to know how you got to this point. The historical perspective.
Well I wasn’t a very good reader when I was a kid. I really didn’t like reading, and I was never urged to read. I didn’t become a serious reader till I was in my 20s.
Then what happened?
I was going out with this girl and she always made fun of me for not reading. So after we broke up I started reading. I’m not sure exactly why it happened that way, if I was trying to prove her wrong or get revenge or whatever. But that’s what happened.
I got really into Brautigan, Vonnegut, anybody doing weird, funny stuff. Mark Leyner, I was really into him. Steven Jesse Bernstein, who was a Seattle poet and performance kind of guy. He was great. There were a couple of tapes of his that I used to listen to, and I was inspired by his reading style and by his weird surrealism and abstract images. William Burroughs, the cutup stuff, was another influence. Later on, stuff like Gordon Lish. I started to find all these authors that I really liked that were doing things pretty different from my work. It was serious work but it had this kind of crazy element to it, and a weird humor, and a minimalism to it. I was starting to write more fiction around that time too.
What’s your favorite Brautigan?
I haven’t read all of him. I really liked The Abortion a lot; I think that was the first one I read. But my favorite one isn’t really well-known: Willard and His Bowling Trophies. I think the subtitle is “a perverse mystery.” It has really short chapters and it’s this totally perverse story; one of the subplots is about this couple having problems with their sex life. He makes it really funny and explicit.
Who else’s work do you really enjoy?
Barry Yourgrau, who writes a lot of flash fiction. I love that whole genre of short short stories. I think it’s a really great way of writing stories with an intention more like writing poetry, but still writing a story. Sam Lipsyte, who is another (sort of) Lish protégé. Amy Hempel, Diane Williams. Gary Lutz is my absolute favorite writer. His book Stories in the Worst Way is probably the only book that I continually pick up and re-read stuff from.
I’ll say that I favor American writers. I think they just have a style that I relate to more, and I like books that are about people and characters. I don’t like a lot of florid language. I want it to be about the characters and the way they’re feeling. I don’t really want to read a lot about the setting or what the weather’s like. I think that’s one reason why I like the Gary Lutz stuff a lot. His language is so focused on the people in the stories, what they’re saying, what they’re doing to each other. It goes right to the bone.
Any books you just hate?
I’m actually really good at finding books I enjoy. It’s not too often that I pick up a book and start reading it and just really dislike it. There are a few of course. I remember reading Generation X and really disliking it. I don’t know why. Douglas Coupland’s an interesting guy… I’ve hosted him a couple of times at the store [Powell’s City of Books].
How long have you been working at Powell’s?
Eight years in November.
And you curate the small press section… that must be convenient.
It gives me an inside advantage. That section is where a lot of the books that I publish go. I can track what’s selling, keep everything in stock. Powells.com and Amazon.com are both easy options for people to buy books from. Even if I don’t have a lot of distribution for a book, those two options are really vital. Especially if you’re a small press or you’re publishing your own books.
So how did Future Tense come into being?
It started in 1990 when I was living in Spokane and doing readings there. I just started doing it to put out my own stuff. I didn’t really mean it to be a publishing company, or whatever. A couple years later I wound up in Portland and started meeting other people that I really liked, writing-wise. This was something I hadn’t experienced in other cities I’d lived in. So I started publishing other people’s stuff and that’s how Future Tense became a little bit more serious. I loved working with other people and realizing I could do something that was valuable to other writers, even if it was something very small. I think it’s really exciting to do it, even if we only print like 200 copies of a chapbook, or whatever. It’s a good launching pad for writers to go on to other stuff.
Part of the growth process of Future Tense came from being naïve when I started out. I think a lot of times there’s something to be said about approaching something naively. It can really work out well when you do, because you don’t really know what the rules are. Sometimes you do things that you wouldn’t normally do if you were fully aware of how things are supposed to operate. There are good things and bad things about that, of course.
I’ve also always liked the idea of independently doing your own thing. When I was starting Future Tense I was really inspired by other people who were doing that kind of stuff. I was inspired especially by music labels around that time -- K Records, Sub Pop, and others like that. They were these small companies just doing whatever the hell they wanted to do without considering whether it was going to be talked about in all the big magazines. I’d say I modeled Future Tense after K Records, especially.
And I’ve been lucky to have had a couple of writers who started out on Future Tense and went on to bigger presses. That’s great. I’m proud that I was able to give those people their start.
Zoe Trope, for example.
Well she was the first one and that was a pretty big deal, probably the most exciting thing that I’ve been a part of at Future Tense. Putting out Please Don’t Kill the Freshman, which was so unique in what it was about and the fact that it was written by someone so young.
How old was she?
She wrote most of the book when she was 14 and 15. I mean the book came out when she was 15, I think. So it was wild and fun. She’s a super, great person. It was really fun to do all that stuff, and that actually helped Future Tense become a lot more noticeable too.
That must have been a great feeling, like finally…
People want to do something and immediately get it out there on a big level -- get their first book published by a major press or, you know, have their first album put out by a major label or whatever. I can respect that. But I also think that if you’re a beginning artist in a genre you need to start off doing it yourself. I think it’s important for artists, whether it be music or film or literature or whatever, to try to establish what they’re doing and have people come to them. They need to really believe in what they’re doing, and if it’s good then people will come around.
Is that what you went through with Future Tense, or for that matter, with your own writing?
As far as my own writing goes, in the early or mid-90s, there was a point where I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be: a funny writer or an intense, serious writer, or whatever. I’m not sure if I ever resolved that problem. I just kind of moved on, and I’m happy with the way it’s worked out. I think I’m able to write serious stuff that can be funny, too. I think that back in the early/mid 90s, I was doing stuff I was really happy with but I wasn’t sure if there was really much of an audience for it, which was okay for me.
But then I discovered McSweeney’s. This was right before Dave Eggers’s first book came out, I think issue #3 or #4 was the first one I bought, and I thought: this stuff is really funny, and artistically interesting. Some of its pretty serious but there’s this whole other element with all these rules being shattered.
Since then I’ve had stuff published on their website a bunch of times and in The Believer, but in that initial rush of discovering them and then -- especially after Dave’s book came out and all of a sudden it was McSweeney’s this and McSweeney’s that and everyone was really excited -- I felt like: wow, this is the group of people I fit in with. These funny, experimental-type people. It was all of a sudden uncovered for me, that there were the people I could show my stuff to and they’d really like it.
What’s on the Future Tense horizon?
The newest thing we just put out is Grope, a chapbook by Dayvid Figler. He’s one of the funniest guys I know, and he’s a really great performer. He started off in the poetry slam scene, and I was part of that too though I’m sort of ashamed to admit it now. We met at the National Poetry Slam in 1994. I’ve wanted to do something with him for years, but Future Tense was moving away from poetry and more toward fiction. I wanted him to write fiction, and he has been. He’s been writing essays and fiction and he does some NPR stuff too. But this was a short story he wrote and I really liked it. It’s out now as a chapbook. The cover is done up like the kind of handbill you find on the street in Vegas and there’s a number on there and it says CALL NOW. If you actually call the number, it’s a Vegas number, there’s a Grope hotline. It’s a number he actually has.
There’s a book of flash fiction coming out by Magdalen Powers. Hopefully that will come out this summer or fall. I can also say I’m working with Tao Lin. He’s been published all over. I’m gonna do something with him at some point. My girlfriend, Frayn Masters, and I also perform in a group called Haiku Inferno; we might work on something for that.
And you’re still working with Manic D Press, right?
They put out The Insomniac Reader a couple months ago. My agreement with them is that I’d act as a sort of imprint or talent scout. They’ll put out a book each year that will be part of this Future Tense series. It was exciting to arrange that. Most of what I do is chapbooks so it’s great to have someone pay to put out a paperback once a year. I’ve got a couple other things in the works.
So to summarize, you’re working full-time, publishing Future Tense, scouting for Manic D Press, working on your own fiction...
I have a son.
You have a son...
He’s ten. He’ll be eleven this summer. He’s from the girlfriend I had when I first moved to Portland; somebody I’d met while living briefly in Arkansas in 1991. We were together for five and a half years. We ran an espresso cart business together, and had Zach. We split up when he was about three.
Jesus, when do you breathe?
One of the skills you acquire when you become a parent is that you really learn to figure out how to prioritize your time and activities into little time chunks. I try to stay ahead of things. It’s a little hard but it’s also good that I work at a bookstore. I think that actually helps a lot. I can think about a lot of things when I’m working. But yeah, it’s pretty hectic.
Does your son read a lot?
He reads a fair amount. He’s mostly into stuff like Yu-gi-oh, and those Japanese comics you have to read backwards. And he likes Harry Potter. I’m trying to get him to read more, and get him into the habit. We read every day. He said when he grows up he wants to either be a writer or a video game designer.
Justin Taylor is a freelance writer who just left Oregon for sunny Tennessee, to be followed this fall by New York City. Keep up with his movement and writing at http://www.justindtaylor.net/