On Kevin Sampsell's "This Is Between Us"

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Written by The Austin Review Staff

Sometimes I feel like I’m reading in fiberglass. Restless itching and sick of everything. But I love this book like a school girl loves a fresh-faced Math teacher. Blindly.

It’s hard to know what to call Kevin Sampsell; a novelist? Memoirist, editor, curator of books, reader? He is all of these things. And perhaps this is why it’s hard to know what to call his new book, This is Between Us. A novel, sure, but the story is built from individual moments like bricks, like flash, like poetry, and calling the book fiction feels like a cop-out. There’s something too nervously real about the beautifully complex five years of relationship Sampsell’s characters are mired in to give it such an easy label.

Sampsell’s phrasing and imagery never fall short of wonderfully surprising or equally heartbreaking. When asked about the influences for his poetic writing in This is Between Us, Sampsell said, “I like poetry that is emotionally jarring. I think Ghost Machine by Ben Mirov was one of the first in a newer wave of poetry books that I loved in the past few years. There was also Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, which felt eviscerating to me. Discovering Sharon Olds was a beautiful and important moment as well. There was also Dan Magers, Emily Kendal Frey, Dorothea Lasky, Gregory Sherl, Diana Salier, and most recently, James Gendron. I love how these poets craft lines that whisper and sting and bloom, all at the same time. I love how poetry, more than prose, uses unconventional language and imagery to create a mood that was not there just a few words before.”

This is Between Us is littered with such unconventional imagery and shifts in mood. Each vignette is made of moments that waffle between tense and cathartic, sad and romantic--like this passage from early in the book, in Year One of our narrator’s messy relationship, when he goes to the bathroom of the hotel where he works, aroused by a call from his lover:

I took off my shirt and snapped a picture of my left breast, where my heart lives. I looked at the photo and realized that my nipple looked disgusting. It didn’t look round to me. It looked like a flat tire, deserted in a bed of black weeds.

I took another photo and it was blurry, which made it worse. I found a red marker and drew a heart shape around my nipple. I colored it in, then took another picture. I felt like a tart. I felt like a clown.

Ten minutes later you sent me one like it but much better. It wasn’t even lunchtime yet. How could I work under those circumstances?

Sampsell has suggested it was fun to get started on this book, that writing each piece of the larger puzzle was playful--but not without labor. “I wanted to make sure that I pushed myself into writing about difficult things. If I didn't approach the darker aspects of a relationship, it wouldn't be realistic. With that in mind, I think the darker I got, the more comfortable I would be with the end result. When writing about love, I don't really think you can go too far.

“I approached it by using the same method I used with A Common Pornography. I wrote a bunch of the parts and then, when I was about 75% done, I put them in an order that felt logical and then figured out what parts needed fleshing out. I guess that could be risky but it felt more interesting, more surprising, to do it that way. The challenge was figuring out what needed to be taken out, and also just trusting that the whole thing meshed. And people tell me that it does, so I guess that's the part that worked out better than I expected--all the funny parts, sexy parts, parenting parts, and intense emotional parts blending together somehow.”

This book feels uncomfortably true in the best way. But this comes as little surprise; Samspell has written multiple books and works wonderfully in the convincing truth of details. When asked about the way his history of writing nonfiction has influenced his work he said, “I think it definitely has, and I would say more fiction writers should write memoir or at least some kind of creative nonfiction. I think you find certain rhythms and beats when you write nonfiction and if you can find those rhythms in your fiction, it might make the writing feel more honest. I don't know if I like the word ‘confessional’ in terms of this book. It implies that things are hidden. I like the words: candid, personal, or intimate. I also like the word nonbullshitty. It's a constant battle in fiction not to be bullshitty.”

And “bullshitty” is the last adjective that comes to mind when reading through the five tumultuous years of relationship the book covers. Each moment recalled by the narrator feels specific and true:

We watched an old TV show from the nineties and chuckled at the jokes we’d heard before, but underneath our familiar laugh track there was an unsettling deja vu. I used to watch this show with my ex-wife and you used to watch it with your ex-husband. This kind of unintentional nostalgia started to poison the air around us by the third commercial break. We couldn’t figure out why we felt like shit when we got in bed.

It would be an error to discuss the book’s achievement while ignoring Sampsell’s background in literature. He came to this book with a lot of experience, as a publisher, published author, and as a curator of small press books at Powell’s. Yet Sampsell has been able to turn off the noise of being a professional reader, ignoring the elements of stories he has been moved or unmoved by as he approaches his own work:

“I don't write something because it's a popular thing to write about or because I see another author having success with something. I can only write about something that interests or entertains me at this stage in my life. Who knows what I'll be writing in ten years. Maybe I'll become a paranormal romance writer. But I doubt it. As far as having pet peeves or hating things that other writers do, I don't do that at all. I might do that as a reader, but as a writer, you should not do that. It's not artful to compare yourself and measure yourself against another writer. It kills creativity. You have to live inside your own writing and tend to that. You're not tending to how reviewers are going to talk about your book or who they want to compare you to.”

The relief, or horror, of releasing a book is that the work is never done. On the tails of his brilliant novel Sampsell is still keeping busy: “I'm working on some upcoming Future Tense releases, and the beginning of my next novel, some essay ideas, and some poems. And pretty soon I'll start organizing the 2014 LitHop, which is a big night of literary bar hopping that I started with my friends Jeff Alessandrelli and Bryan Coffelt last year.”

It’s reassuring as a reader to have new work to look forward to, though like a lover I am still drifting in and out of snippets of experiences from This is Between Us as if they’re my own:

I went to bed a few minutes before you one night and decided to lie the opposite direction in bed, so my head was where my feet usually were. My feet were sticking out and resting on the pillow like a weird joke. I heard you getting out of the bath and then brushing your teeth. I readied myself anxiously but quietly in this new position. This probably wasn’t quite what you had in mind when you said you wanted to try some new things in the bedroom. You crawled into bed and hugged my legs against your chest. At first you froze, but then you started kissing my ticklish ankles. Your toes brushed my cheeks. The night seemed upside down.

And

An hour later, we were out of bed, putting on our shoes. We walked around our neighborhood, then the next one, and then the one after that. We looked through people’s windows to see what they were watching. We searched the sky for UFOs or comets. We started jogging and then cutting through yards, stealing flowers. We sprinted down the middle of the streets. We wanted to sweat this out.

And

We were good at pretending to be one strong couple, not a combination of two weak ones. But I do remember that time at the dessert shop when you pointed at something excitedly and accidentally called me by your husband’s name. You didn’t notice your mistake, and I just rolled with it, like nothing happened.

And

As we walked back to the car, we started howling at the moon, louder and louder. We gulped the cold fog. We scared the darkness. We laughed.

And . . . .