Kevin Sampsell read from his new novel This Is Between Us (October 2013) at BookCourt (He reads at WORD on Friday, December 6th in an event hosted by Vol 1. Brooklyn). He is also the author of the memoir A Common Pornography (2010) and Creamy Bullets (2008), a story collection.
Ordinarily he reads from the novel with a bell, he explains, to indicate the quick jumps between scenes. The novel is actually composed of dozens of a tiny vignettes stitched together. But he’s left the bell in Portland and tonight the audience makes do with brief pauses as he flips the pages.
This Is Between Us is focused on the love and conflicts that arise between two people, both divorced, and both with children. The narrator speaks directly to his lover and the audience, meaning the novel is partly in a second person voice although the novel is framed in the close first person. Each scene is composed in a way to be self-sustaining.
The sections Sampsell reads are funny. There are moments of dialogue between the narrator and his lover as he trims her pubic hair, or a flashback as the narrator recalls walking in on his parents copulating. Nobody misses the bell.
In places, usually in moments where the narrator is alone with his lover, the text is dialogue heavy, with little emphasis on the setting. “I like writing dialogue,” Sampsell says, explaining that relying on dialogue is a way to cut to the emotional meat of the story. Setting and scenery doesn’t really interest him and by jumping right to the dialogue, he is better able to focus on the actions between his characters.
Though the vignettes lack setting in some instances, there are plenty of moments where the interiority of the character emerges and the narrator’s inner monologue intrudes into the narrative voice. It supercedes the dialogue. His choice to shift away from the characters’ spoken voices is an intentional way of reducing the burden of dialogue. “Sometimes its just easier…” Sampsell says, “sometimes I think you can have too much dialogue.”
With relationships, Sampsell says, there are a lot of questions that characters want to eventually ask but can’t. Switching between dialogue an internal monologue allows for the character to fully develop these moments.
When he switches between first and second person, he explains that it all felt natural to make the jump. “It didn’t feel tricky,” he says. His background as a poet helps. “Poetry uses that ‘you’ and ‘I’ so much,” he says, but it breaks down the barriers between characters.
The short form and fragmented narrative is largely an intentional quirk of Sampsell’s writing style. He primarily writes in short form and even began by writing poetry. He explains that even his stories are not particularly long.
Sampsell began as a poet. He’s fully self-taught as a writer having eschewed formal university training. He calls himself “undisciplined,” but found form through writing poetry. “Writing poetry is really good for writers,” he says, “it helps you use language in really short fragments.”
Sampsell wrote both his memoir and This Is Between Us is very short fragments that he later stitched together. He ordered the pieces together after the fact.
This Is Between Us began as a dozen or so very short snippets. The pieces captured moments and moods, the essence of what it meant to be in a relationship. He found writing the stories enjoyable, and suddenly had two or three dozen of them. He decided to turn the into a novel, but continued writing them in short fragments. He is currently writing a new novel chronologically. Still, he says, that will be equally weird–its narrated by a baby.