March 10, 2010

Kevin Sampsell & the book of his life


Kevin Sampsell at Powell's

Kevin Sampsell at Powell's

Kevin Sampsell has become something of a legend in US publishing circles. By day he’s a bookseller at one of our leading indies — Powell’s, in Portland, Oregon — but in his spare time he’s an avant-garde writer and one of he country’s most cutting edge micro-publishers. His Future Tense books started with stapled-together poetry chapbooks and still does tiny print runs of 200-500 books, but it has busted out numerous writers who’ve gone on to greater fame.

Now, he’s published a book of his own — the memoir A Common Pornography, and the Portland Oregonian has an in-depth profile by books editor Jeff Baker talking about what led up to the book:

In August of 2008, a few months after his father died, Sampsell had a panic attack in the middle of the night. He ran naked from his Portland apartment and drove around town before winding up at a friend’s house, where he sat in the bathtub, crying and screaming. He was working on two books at the time, “A Common Pornography” and “Portland Noir,” an anthology of mystery and crime fiction. The memoir started as a series of memory experiments, short bursts of prose about his childhood that he hoped to turn into a short story. He found the exercise helpful in the way many writers use prompts to unlock their creativity, and published an early version of “A Common Pornography” in 2002.

The UK webmag 3AM also published early extracts from the book; word continued to get around and the project eventually landed at Harper Perennial. Signs so far are it’s a success — Sampsell has been touring for it for over a month (more details on his blog).

And Sampsell’s book has led to an even happier ending than you might think, judging by the anecdote above. As the Oregonian report notes,

Kevin Sampsell wrote the story of his life and is making sure it has a happy ending.

Books with the hero on bended knee, asking his true love to marry him in front of a cheering audience, aren’t the kind Sampsell writes or publishes, but there he was in Powell’s City of Books earlier this month, looking up at his girlfriend, Frayn Masters, with tears in his eyes.

He’d just finished a reading and slide show from his new memoir “A Common Pornography” in a room where he’d worked hundreds of author events as a Powell’s employee, and now he put an exclamation point on the evening with a surprise marriage proposal.

She said yes, by the way.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives