Kevin Sampsell lives, writes and works (at Powell's bookstore!) in Portland, OR. In addition to his recent memoir, A Common Pornography, Kevin is also the author of two short story collections: Creamy Bullets and Beautiful Blemish. He edited Portland Noir and runs Future Tense Books, a small press that specializes in publishing literary fiction. Check out his website for more information or follow him on Twitter.
Kevin graciously answered some questions for me about writing memoir. Read on and enjoy!
Why write a memoir?
This book (A Common Pornography) actually started when I wrote a short story that was basically a list of odd childhood memories. I was going to put that initial story into a book of my short fiction but it seemed out of place and I realized it was because it was non-fiction. I wasn't really sure if it was as engaging as my fiction but a lot of people who read these first little stories really liked it, so I kept writing them, all the while trying to stick with that same tone and the same kind of straight-ahead style.
After my dad passed away in early 2008, I decided I'd really try to incorporate stories from other people in my family too. Sort of widen the scope.
In a lot of ways, it was easier to write this book than to write fiction because I didn't have to make stuff up and I didn't really have to do much research.
What are a 3-5 of your favorite memoirs that you might recommend to someone who isn't familiar with the genre?
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Stop Time, Things the Grandchildren Should Know, Happy, and Rent Girl.
What is something people sometimes misunderstand about memoirs?
I think people these days expect memoirs to contain a certain amount of exaggeration or suffocating drama. Some of the best memoirs don't include either of those things.
What is your favorite part about writing a memoir?
My favorite part is probably telling stories from my perspective. Maybe making something funny that people didn't expect to be funny.
What is the hardest part?
The hardest part is sometimes knowing if people will lose interest in your details. There's a thin line between sharing a common story with the reader and giving them a fresh way to look at it and telling a cliched story that doesn't have a new angle working in it. With some of the chapters in A Common Pornography I had to ask my editor or a friend: Do you think people will really care about this part or is it just kind of dumb?
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, what would it be?
Surround yourself with what you want to do. Read a lot. Go out and meet writers. Go to readings. Shop at bookstores. Start a book group or a writing group. Write a lot and send your writing out to get published. Don't aim big right away. Send some stories to small magazines or websites. Write some book reviews or interview authors. Do as much as you can to learn more about writing and how to tell stories. That can also include going out to movies. I watch a lot of movies and the main thing I focus on is how they tell a story. Movies can inspire me just as much as books.