Founder of Future Tense Books, Kevin Sampsell has helped a multitude of writers get their start and has become an influential literary personality in his own right. Hobart caught up with Sampsell to get a glimpse of his own creative credo, his future goals -- both personal and press-related -- and the innovative fiction that has placed him at the forefront of the small press scene.
Savannah Guz: What prompted you to launch Future Tense Books and when did the idea to begin a publishing entity first strike you? You mention that the press began in the 1990s. What is Future Tense's back-story?
Kevin Sampsell: I started Future Tense in 1990. I was living in Spokane, Washington at the time, and I was restless. Mainly, I wanted to put my work in a format that I could sell at the open mic readings and give to friends. It was started purely for selfish reasons and I was very naive. But you gotta start somewhere. After a short stint in Arkansas in 1991, I moved to Portland and started meeting a lot of great writers. The environment here led me to get more serious about what I was doing. Portland's a very literary town.
SG: What spurred your interest in literature? Is literature something you've been interested in since early adulthood or did you come into literary culture later?
KS: I was a late bloomer, relatively speaking. I mean, I never liked to read books when I was young, and I was never read to as far as I know. I started reading when I was 22. I just got into the habit of reading somehow. Before books, I did read magazines a lot. Maybe that was my training ground. Haha. My favorite writers before I fell in love with books were British music writers, the ones who wrote for Melody Maker or NME.
I eventually read the same authors that I imagine many people start with: Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan. I was writing poetry at that time though and my main influences were more performance types, like Karen Finley, Steven Bernstein, William Burroughs.
SG: What is your personal creative philosophy?
KS: I'm not sure if it's really clear to me to tell you the truth. I write funny stories sometimes. Essays and book reviews. Sometimes my work is more serious or refined. Sometimes it's vulgar. I try to keep people guessing. To surprise is my mission.
SG: What is your background, scholastic/academic, geographic, professional?
KS: I was born and grew up in Kennewick, Washington. I was the youngest of six children. I was a shy awkward kid, and I was afraid of girls. I hated school and never really knew what I wanted to do. I didn't go to college. I'm self-taught as a writer really. I went to broadcasting school, and I worked as a DJ for a couple of years before moving to Portland. But my main reason for being in radio was because I wanted to be a program director, and I wanted to play the music I loved. I found out that music was pretty secondary in the radio business, and I lost my enthusiasm for it. When I moved to Portland, I ran an espresso cart business with the woman, who is the mother of my son. We did that for five years. Then I started working at Powell's. I've learned more about books, writing, and even publishing from working at Powell's than any other experience I've had. In the last couple years, I've also written articles and reviews for several magazines, and I've started writing book-related articles for Associated Press.
SG: What are some of the more unusual projects you have worked on so far?
KS: One thing I've been doing the past couple of years is this performance group called Haiku Inferno. It's myself, my girlfriend, and two of our friends. We do these short performances that are like very straight-faced comedy. Mostly topical or politically-inspired haiku. Very untraditional and sometimes coarse. We've written hundreds of haiku for the shows we do. I also put out a chapbook called Children's Book about ten years ago. It was made from newspaper headlines and collage. I'm working on the follow-up to that book this year. It's pretty abstract.
SG: What prompted the collaboration with Manic D Press and what is the nature of the collaboration -- that is, what role does Future Tense play in book production and what role does Manic D play?
KS: The Future Tense series came about because I have known Jen Joseph for several years and we've always been very supportive of each other, very admiring. She wanted to publish the anthology that I edited, The Insomniac Reader, but she wanted to do more. A yearly thing. So, she lets me find and edit a book by someone, and she publishes it for me -- does the printing, design, distribution, everything. It's great for me because I usually just do chapbooks. I can't afford to print bigger books. This gives me the chance to publish something longer each year if I really love it. And I really do have to love every book I publish. I don't just put a book out to see how it will sell. The book we did last year was a very funny memoir called Fast Forward: Memoirs of a Porn Screenwriter by Eric Spitznagel. The one that comes out this spring is an awesome novella and story collection called Dahlia Season by a new writer named Myriam Gurba.
SG: You've given authors, like Zoe Trope and Sarah Grace McCandless, a foothold in the literary world by exposing their creative productions to a wider audience. Is this one of the press's principal missions -- that is, do you strive to help writers get discovered (or just read more widely) or is this a serendipitous by-product of the attempt to find writing that defines Future Tense?
KS: I love the fact that I can help a writer move on to a bigger press or just get a few more readers. I don't have huge game plans for each thing I publish. I don't say, this will only be a success if I sell 800 copies. Zoe and Sarah are both great writers who fit into what I wanted to present. I couldn't have guessed that they'd make it to that next level, but I am very glad they did. When Zoe's chapbook came out, she was just fifteen. She had a book deal when she was sixteen. That was such a fun thing to be a part of. But I'm just as happy to be the first press to publish a book by Shane Allison or Elizabeth Ellen, both of whom I was shocked to hear that they had no other books when I wanted to publish them.
SG: Is there a specific Future Tense style? Or are the literary aesthetics and voices of chosen writers more diverse?
KS: There is no specific style. Like I've said, I like to surprise people, keep giving people something a little different with each thing. But the consistent thing, I hope, is that all the books are really strong and they follow each other in some logical but unpredictable way. It'll go from a book about traveling in Brazil to a book of smutty gay poetry to a book of surreal short fiction to a book of humorous flash fiction.
SG: What are your current projects, both your own and those you are working on through Future Tense?
KS: The Elizabeth Ellen chapbook, Before You She Was a Pit Bull, is the newest release and it's doing really well. The Myriam Gurba book is next through Manic D, and I think that will make quite a splash. In the summer, I'm publishing a chapbook by my favorite short story writer, Gary Lutz. That'll be like a dream come true. As far as my own work goes, I'm working on a collection of some of my non-fiction writing, mostly personal essays, that is coming out later in 2007 from another Portland press, Chiasmus Press.
SG: What are some of the problems you face as an independent publisher?
KS: Well, for what I do, truthfully the main problem is cash flow. Even though I'm producing small books, it can be a struggle to make ends meet. I've had to sell books off my bookshelf, sell CDs, or borrow from friends to finish some projects, or just to mail review copies.
There are other problems of course, like distribution, but I think it's not so bad. Even if there are only a handful of stores in the country that carry chapbooks, the Internet has made it easier to connect these special literary creations to readers.
SG: Have you been able to tap government funding or foundation grants for your projects or is your operating budget based solely on a combination of your own funds and private donations? Are there really any substantial grants or government allocations that independent presses can compete for or are indie presses and their founders largely on their own, as the name suggests?
KS: There are grants all over the place, but it's hard to find ones that fit for micro-presses and it's time-consuming. The only one I've ever attempted to get is the one from Oregon Literary Arts, Inc. I've been awarded two previous grants from them. The thing I like about them is that their application is very easy. Some grant applications are so long, they seem to encourage people into shamelessly bullshitting and begging.
SG: Do you feel there is a hierarchy in the indie publishing world? And if so, what do you interpret the hierarchy to be?
KS: When you say Indie publishing I'm guessing you mean all small presses. There is a hierarchy, not that it's a bad thing. It's natural. I'm not terribly concerned with it really. I might be if I HAD to make money from Future Tense, but I don't really. It's micro and that makes it more manageable. There are bigger small presses, small presses distributed and promoted by bigger presses, university presses, presses run by one person, others run by ten people.
SG: What are your long-range goals for Future Tense?
KS: I'd like to keep doing Future Tense for as long as I can. Maybe as long as I live.
SG: What are your own long-term artistic aspirations?
KS: I'd like to someday finish my novel but to tell you the truth, my heart is in short fiction. I want to keep writing my own short stories and getting them out for people to read. I'll probably work at Powell's for a long time. I love it there. But I want to be appreciated for my writing also. I wouldn't mind getting a book or two published by a big press. That would be thrilling, and I wouldn't feel at all funny about it. But I won't be heartbroken if I don't. I feel driven to just keep doing what I'm doing.