Relationships are private things. They comprise moments shared between two people—conversations, physical interactions, and unspoken communication that exist on a plane somewhere in the middle. At times, we are at our best; at times, we look at how we’ve acted, and can’t believe certain behaviors could have ever originated from us. (Or, perhaps, we’re not so surprised.) There is a certain safety, though, knowing that whichever end of the spectrum on which our actions fall, there’s only one other person who knows the truth of the encounter.
In This Is Between Us, Kevin Sampsell’s debut novel, that safety is breached. We get an intimate look into a relationship to which we shouldn’t have access—it’s a place we don’t belong. Told entirely in short vignettes, the novel chronicles five years of a relationship, narrated between “you” and “I.” Sampsell opens up to the reader all the intimate details that are usually kept only between two people, and opens the door unapologetically to love, sex, fights, parenting, doubt, and nearly every other emotional thread that makes someone definitively human.
This Is Between Us is full of what Sampsell himself calls “holy shit moments”—places in the text that resonate with their honesty, and dig in with their claws. Not someone who annotates much in books, I found myself picking up my pen and underlining all over his pages. I’d never before seen beauty—and the ugliness—spelled out in the mundane, or the power in the nuances the way Sampsell seemed to effortlessly pin them down.
Sampsell is also the author of a memoir, A Common Pornography (written in a format much like that of This Is Between Us), as well the short story collection Creamy Bullets, and the editor of the anthology Portland Noir. A few more things on his résumé: he’s the publisher of micro-press Future Tense Books, and if you’ve spent time in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, you may have spotted him around the famed Powell’s Books, where he runs the small press section.
When Sampsell and I sat down to talk in a Cobble Hill Starbucks next to Brooklyn’s BookCourt, where he’d just finished his first New York reading for This Is Between Us, soul music pumped from the overhead speakers. He placed his suitcase next to his chair—he’d come straight Portland to the bookstore—and leaned in close to me, resting on his elbows for a second. Sampsell speaks quietly, with an intensity one might not expect from the guy in the flannel shirt—but one that, once he starts speaking, matches his prose unequivocally.
The Rumpus: I want to start with the reading experience of this book. Architecturally, it’s obviously a consciously crafted thing. Was this format always glaringly obvious to you? Could the story have been told any other way?
Kevin Sampsell: I wanted to explore as many facets of a relationship as possible. I felt like it was easier to explore different kinds of moods and different types of awkward situations in that kind of short form. Early on, it did start off as a kind of fragmented short story that I was just going to write and I wrote like ten of those little paragraph-sized ones, and it was just so fun to write those—it was just like, I want to keep doing these. So I just started writing more. They got to be a little longer, but I did consciously make myself not have anything over two pages. Even if I had a certain story that I wanted to explore, if it got to two pages, I’d have to find a way to wrap it up or make it even shorter, and I think it worked well because when I put that pressure on myself to do that, it makes those chapters more punchy. You don’t really have room for fat or extra footnotes or side notes. It’s all a very direct kind of thing.
Rumpus: Do you think the relationship would have morphed into a different type of relationship, or that you would have learned different things about the characters, had you told it in a straightforward novel format?
Sampsell: I think if I were to have made the chapters longer and tried to make it more linear without some of the flashbacks and stuff like that, I feel like it would have diluted some of the essence of the book. I wanted to have as many moments that stabbed you as a reader—even if it’s just a short little thing, and sometimes those short little things don’t have a really hard hook or a killer ending or anything. But that was okay, too, because I think some of those are subtle, little pilings, and having a bunch of those scattered throughout the book—they kind of accumulate, and I was trying to do the same thing, where I was trying to have a cumulative effect with the reading experience.
Rumpus: Do you think writers always have a responsibility to present a very clear-cut path that moves readers through a narrative?
Sampsell: No, I don’t think so. I think you have to respect the reader’s intelligence. You have to respect that readers will embrace something that’s a little different or more difficult, and that they will be thrilled by something that’s a little more unusual than what they usually read. When I was writing [the book]…there were a few books that I read, relationship books—one of them would be by Ariana Reines, Coeur de Lion; some of the Gregory Sherl poetry; Donald Ray Pollock short stories, even though his style of story is very different from my book. There are a lot of writers that I really admire that are so blunt about things and not super-delicate, and you read them and you’re like, Oh, holy shit, I can’t believe this person just said that to me. And as a writer, you have to have that trust in your reader that your reader can take that. Like, I’m going to be a little rough here, and this is going to get a little dark here, but I trust that the reader will get charged up about it.
When I was reading these other books, I would read these lines or these sentences, these brutal things that would just come out—I like to call them the “holy shit moments,” you know—and you read a Donald Ray Pollack story, and every other paragraph you shake your head and go, Holy shit, it’s so intense. I was trying to get a good number of “holy shit moments” into the book as I was writing it. I wanted to be subtle to a certain extent, but I also wanted it to be blunt, and I think sometimes people are shocked by bluntness. It’s not that I’m trying to be shocking or anything—
Rumpus: —but you’re just very cognizant of the reader experience.
Sampsell: Yeah. If you’re going to be really blunt about something, or really upfront about something, it might make some people uncomfortable.
Rumpus: Were you ever afraid of crafting something that felt too methodical or sculpted because you were so conscious of the reader experience?
Sampsell: Yeah, a little bit. There were a couple of parts in the book when I was working, about two-thirds of the way through, I started to feel like, Oh, what am I doing? Do I need to put more plot? Do I need to have a hook going into this? And for a while there, I had written a couple of subplot things to the book, besides the relationship stuff… As I started writing those, it just wasn’t as fun for me to be like, This is the tricky plot thing going on. It didn’t seem exciting for me to write that and shoehorn that into the book, so I just ended up taking those parts out and I just had to get to a point that I had to embrace that it was fragmented and that’s what would make the book interesting to people—or that’s what makes the book work.
Rumpus: Did the narrative at any point get too close to life for you where you had to step back and reprocess, or breathe a little?
Sampsell: There are a few little parallels that are close to my real life, and there are times when I’d write a chapter when I’d think, Oh, if the person this is about ever sees this, they’d be kind of mad. But when you’re writing fiction, or something that’s called fiction, you can feel a little more comfortable. I feel a lot more comfortable doing it because I feel like I have that label to fall back on or to point at if someone ever says, This is all real!
Rumpus: One of the things I’m really interested in is articulating the distinction between “love” and “in love” and saying “I hate you” and “I don’t love you,” which you kind of get at in your pages.
Sampsell: There’s a particular chapter where I say, “Sometimes I just want to lash out and tell you to fuck off” or whatever. It’s a tough thing to explore. I’ve felt like that in real life, and a lot of people have felt like that. They’re in a relationship, and it gets to that point where the other person’s just pushing your buttons, and you do just want to say, “I know what you’re doing—fuck off.” It’s kind of a hard thing to write about, even in the context of fiction, with these characters who are really passionate about each other… Those are really, really hard things for people in real life to face. When you’re in love with someone, you want that love to be there, always. Even in that chapter when that character says, “Love is fluid,” even when you’re with somebody, love gets buried inside of you and it can come back out later—those are hard things to deal with as a human being. I think those are real things that people have to deal with in their emotional state, and that’s why some people are more forgiving and other people are just like, “It’s over, I’m never talking to you again.”
Rumpus: Have you been in situations when you’ve viewed your relationship much differently than the other person?
Sampsell: Yeah, I think I have in the past. I’ve had relationships where I’ve felt like the other person wasn’t as warm or as kind or whatever. That’s kind of an asshole thing to say, but in some situations, I’ve felt like that, and I’m sure I’ve been in a relationship where the other person has felt the same about me—that I’m not always open or communicative or whatever. That’s a good question.
Rumpus: Which emotion stretched you most to write?
Sampsell: When you’re talking about parenting stuff. I have a son who’s nineteen, so I have a lot of experience with the parenting stuff that’s in the book, and some of it is based on real experience and conversations I’ve had with my son. But that stuff is really hard to write about sometimes, emotionally. I’m sure other writers who are parents feel the same way, because as parents, you’re always sort of second-guessing yourself and you’re not really sure if you’re doing a good job. Your kids never really tell you, “You’re great!” So, writing about some of the parenting stuff in the book was a little heart-tuggy.
It was fun to write about that stuff. There’s some cute moments. Even the scene toward the end of the book, where the narrator is riding the bike around with the daughter, looking for a slushie—it’s such a small moment, but for some reason that part kind of sticks with me after writing the book. Something happened. Even though I probably just wrote it in a day, there’s something about that scene that lingered with me.
Rumpus: The concept that stuck with me was the idea of a person’s past history and how it influences the trajectory of a relationship—your history with a partner, and alone, as well, but mostly this idea of what people know about you that a new lover has to catch up to.
Sampsell: Yeah. The characters are in their thirties, but even people in their twenties have to deal with that—you have a relationship, and you have to figure out what’s happened in the past and what’s affected them and what they love for or about. So when you’re getting to know someone, it’s definitely this kind of funny feeling out process and it often happens really fast because you’re eager to find out all this stuff, and that’s why there’s a lot of that conversational stuff at the beginning of the book where they’re having the drug talk, or they’re asking, “Do you still love your old girlfriends?” or something like that.
Rumpus: It’s almost something you can relate to as a writer, because they’re talking about a kind of cumulative experience of love, and you have a similarly cumulative experience with writing, as well.
Sampsell: Yeah—and being a writer, you’re kind of in a relationship with the people who are reading your work. So if you have fans of your work, or a kind of readership or following, that’s just as interesting as being in a relationship as someone, but obviously it’s a lot more one-sided, because the person who’s the writer can reveal as much as they want and they don’t get to hear from the audience.
Rumpus: Right, but the reader has the power to make his own judgments without the writer’s elucidations on his end.
Sampsell: I haven’t had to deal with that a whole bunch, but my body of work is still fairly small in a way.
Rumpus: So, you’re working on something right now that’s—in theory—a little more straightforward in a way, but also not.
Sampsell: Well, it’s just that I’m writing it in order, in that I have a chapter one, and I’ve started chapter two, and the first chapter is like, fourteen pages or something. It won’t go back and forth as much, but it will be strange, because the narrator is a baby.
Rumpus: Do you like the idea of being kind of “defiant” in your prose, in a way?
Sampsell: I don’t know. It depends what you mean by “defiant.” A lot of people think relationships in fiction are too flowery or too romantic or too soft-focus, so I guess trying to write about relationships in a really honest, gritty way might be seen as “defiant,” because you’re not really addressing it in a not-really-romantic way. Saying, This is the way it really is.
I think sometimes when I would read fiction and it would have these shocking parts, I would really like that stuff, too. I think if you’re using the word “defiant” in those terms, too, there’s something about saying something people are afraid to say. Or even doing readings, when you have parts in readings where you’re just like, “This might make people uncomfortable; I’m going to read this scene where the guy is imagining his girlfriend having sex with somebody else,” there is a thrill to that, even, in a live bookstore setting. I think I do like making people a little uncomfortable. I think in the end, it makes you better for having presented it, and it makes them better for having processed those weird, blunt statements.
Featured image © by Andrew Monko.