It has been a while since I’ve conducted one of my offshoot interviews of the Girl on Girl series, the Dirty Talk series. I am honored to bring it back with one of Portland’s most beloved writers, Kevin Sampsell. Kevin is one of the kindest writers/publishers/Powell’s employees I know.
During my two-year tenure as a grad student in Portland, I met Kevin at Wordstock, then we shared a stage while reading pieces of ours published in Portland Review, and then we continued to bump into each at literary happenings around town. He was so obliging to me that he even helped me write my final grad school paper on the role of the acquisitions editor. But the real cherry on top of my time getting to know Kevin Sampsell, funny and insightful and always willing to help, was when I was an intern in the books division at Tin House and his manuscript This is Between Us came in. I ecstatically tore through the manuscript, about a relationship between two middle-aged divorcees, and now that it’s out this month, I like to be able to say I read it first.
Here’s to great success for Kevin’s debut novel (he also has short story collections and a memoir worth checking out), and a big thank you for him taking time out of his busy schedule promoting the new book to talk about sex.
What does it take to write sex well?
Real life experience with really sexy people. And/or a good imagination. I was influenced by weird performance artist types like Karen Finley and Lydia Lunch, and I didn’t write my first sex scene until I was about 22. In the story, a young woman cuts her little finger off to seduce a guy. I look back on it now and think she could have taken a different route.
Since then, I’ve written a lot of sex scenes in stories–memoir and fiction–and I think you just get better the more you write and the more you read. You develop a sense of when to push boundaries and when to let readers use their imaginations.
What do you think is the sexiest word in the English language?
Yes. Or maybe panties. Or harder.
What do you think is the dirtiest?
Also, the word butthole is gross but also makes me laugh. Finger + butthole together is just too much dirty for my taste.
Your previous book, A Common Pornography, is a memoir, while your latest, This is Between Us, is a novel. How does it differ (in your approach, the story’s form, etc.) to write about sex in fiction as opposed to in nonfiction?
I’m not sure if they’re that different. In some fiction, you might do something a little outrageous sometimes, but for this particular book, I did want it to feel real. I like blurring those lines. I’m not really too concerned if someone is uneasy about my real life sneaking into my fiction. I like that kind of ambiguity in fiction and that’s something that makes the genre so wide open–the mix of reality and fantasy. It keeps people thinking, guessing, wondering.
When you’ve drawn on your real life sex for fiction, have you ever been caught (as in the person who shared the sexual encounter with you realized you were writing about them)?
Yes. But I’ve usually told people when I’m writing about them and mostly they’re okay with it as long as I don’t use their name. Other writers probably deal with this more than I do. If you get involved with a writer, you’ll likely become immortalized in some way.
What about writing that feels personal but isn’t actually true? Have you ever had someone misread your fiction and think it was nonfiction? If so, what was your response to that?
That’s something that does happen and it could be my fault since I alternate between the two genres. The most recent time this occurred was when a couple came up to me and my wife at a party and drunkenly said they had read This Is Between Us, and then said, “So you guys both have kids?” And Frayn (my wife) said, “No, I don’t have kids. The book is fiction.” And then they pressed on and asked if we “really did all the (sexual) stuff in the book.” It was pretty funny, but they were so drunk that it was a little uncomfortable too.
This is Between Us is a very intimate book. The reader really sees every detail of the central couple’s relationship. We feel like we know them by the end of the book in an almost voyeuristic way–we see them so up close. What did you do to make it so intimate? Why was it important to bring the reader so close to the main characters? Do you have any tips for how to achieve that intimate quality in one’s writing?
Both of these characters are flawed and insecure, just like real human beings. I think sometimes in fiction, people who are supposed to be sexy characters are glamorized too much, made too shiny and one-dimensional. I tried to show a lot of sides in these characters and I’ve found that readers tend to like characters more when they are a little messed up. But these characters are also really passionate and they’re wildly turned on by each other, even with the rest of real life (kids, jobs, money problems) happening around them. I tried to make a true and honest story out of their life and that meant going into their thoughts and insecurities. I feel like this man and woman could be relatable to so many people because they’re just trying to have a happy life, like everyone’s trying to do.
What’s the sexiest book you’ve ever read?
Tough question. I don’t read many books that are primarily known for sex, but I prefer sexual stories when they’re steeped in some kind of darkness or humor, like The End of Alice by A.M. Homes, The Fermata by Nicholson Baker, or Blue Movie by Terry Southern. I remember liking Story of the Eye by Georges Battaile.
Do you think men and women write about sex differently?
I think men probably have a more braggy style about it. Women can be that way too, but not as often. It also depends on what genre you’re talking about. For literary fiction, it’s easy to make fun of dudes trying to write about sex. Most of the old guard were stuck in a cultural vacuum where women were supposed to be and act like the weaker sex. I think younger writers are giving women more power and more respect when it comes to sex. I hope so anyway. As far as women writers go, I feel like they write about sex more impressively sometimes because their language is so charged when they do. Sometimes it’s like men are about the action and women are about the language of it. I love the way someone like Lindsey Hunter can write about sex, or Alissa Nutting, or the poet Ariana Reines. It’s kind of gnarly and powerful. The language sometimes oozes, sometimes slaps you in the face.
What does sex add to a story?
I think it creates an instant sort of intimacy with a character. It makes the reader feel like they know a secret. I used to have a friend who had sex with a lot of her friends because she said it made her feel less guarded with them, closer and intimate. In a weird hippie-ish free love kind of way, I can see where she’s coming from. Sex is an ice-breaker in real life and in books. I mean, how many people have you known who have picked up a book and just skimmed the pages until they found a sex scene? And it’s funny–just like in real life, bad sex in a book is still, at the very least, not boring.
What advice do you have for writers who want to incorporate sex into their short story/novel/essay?
Don’t be shy and don’t be afraid to show some of the weirdness or ugliness of sex, but don’t be too gross. Don’t be cliched. Embrace some bluntness sometimes. Don’t misspell anything!
To read more about Kevin, visit kevinsampsell.com. To learn about his press, Future Tense Books, visit futuretensebooks.com.