Author Mark Sampson
Like, “If I won the lottery or when I retire, then I will sit down and write my ‘greatest life’s work’.”
It’s clear with genuine writers that lack of time is merely an excuse. Instead the story is and must be written now. PEI native, Mark Sampson is such an example. He routinely wakes up early to write for hours before going to his day job. He returns to his writing projects during evenings and weekends.
It is not just dedication. Sampson’s literary offerings have been and continue to be valued by industry professionals and readers alike. The award-winning writer has had short stories and poems published in numerous literary magazines, and in the Spring of 2015 his anthology, The Secrets Men Keep, will be released by Now or Never Publishing. This fall, Sampson’s second novel, Sad Peninsula, will be released by Dundurn Press. This ambitious piece of fiction intertwines the history of comfort women exploited by Japanese soldiers during WWII with Sampson’s own personal experiences observing modern day ex-pats in South Korea parading their sexual conquests.
AE recently caught up with Sampson via e-mail and received a treasure trove of responses to our questions:
What is your first vivid memory of writing or storytelling?
MS: Growing up I was a fairly creative child, with - to put it in polite terms - an “overactive imagination.” I was always writing and putting on skits in my parents' basement, conscripting various cousins and neighbourhood kids to be my actors and forcing my parents and whatever other adults were around to be in the audience. I also spent a lot of time by myself as a kid, living inside my own imaginary worlds and such. (I still do.) But I didn't start writing seriously until I was about 15. At the time I was very interested in genre fiction, and unlike a lot of authors I didn't start out small with short stories or whatever - I leaped right into novels. I wrote about seven or eight of them - a couple of romances, a couple of horror novels, a couple of fantasy epics - between the ages of 15 and 23. But starting in my early twenties, I had a huge shift in my interests and began to see that my future lay in more literary fiction, and I haven't looked back in the 15 years since.
You grew up in PEI, lived in Halifax and now live in Toronto...have these places contributed to your creative writing process?
MS: I have to say that place is not always a thematic preoccupation in my work, but it is there and influences some of what I do. I have, for example, a short story forthcoming later this year in the literary journal Front & Centre where one character's dialogue is phonetically rendered entirely in a western PEI accent. That was loads of fun to write. Toronto has been my home for about six or seven years now and it's definitely beginning to crop up more as a locale in my fiction. But Halifax remains a huge focus, if place is in fact a focus in my work. About a third of my first novel, Off Book, is set there and one of the two protagonists in Sad Peninsula was born and raised there. And I know I have a few other books in me where Halifax will be the setting. Despite having lived in that city for just seven years, I often feel like it's more where I'm “from” than anywhere else.
“I was always writing and putting on skits in my parents' basement, conscripting various cousins and neighbourhood kids to be my actors and forcing my parents and whatever other adults were around to be in the audience.”
How did it feel when you finished writing Off Book and then found out it would be published?
MS: I was actually living in Seoul, South Korea when I finished Off Book, and I was immensely relieved when I did: the novel had consumed about seven years of my life. I was even more relieved when it got accepted for publication: by then, I had been living in Australia for about a year after moving there for a personal relationship. But the relationship disintegrated and I was in rough straits, to say the least. Fittingly enough, one week to the day before I was slated to fly home to Canada with my tail between my legs, the acceptance letter for Off Book arrived in my email. It felt like fate.
What has the response been like to Off Book since it was released to the world?
MS: Off Book came out with a small press in Halifax that was, I think, already in the process of going out of business when it published me. In fact, mine was the last book it released before closing up shop in 2008. Having said that, we did relatively well considering the circumstances: there were a handful of reviews, mostly positive, and the book sold okay. I still get the occasional note about it from readers, and hand-sell a few copies myself every year.
Your forthcoming novel Sad Peninsula seems to be a completely different plot than your first novel...what inspired this story?
MS: Yes, Sad Peninsula is far more ambitious. It’s set in South Korea and has two threads: One involving an ESL teacher in Seoul from Canada who gets roped into the seedier, sexualized underbelly of Seoul’s nightlife; and one involving the history of Korea’s “comfort women,” a euphemism for the girls and young women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese during World War II.
Having lived in Seoul for two and a half years, I saw first-hand some of the more brazen sexual behaviour by young men who were over there teaching English – sexual behaviour that they may not have engaged in had they been living in their home countries. I knew more than one guy over there who claimed to achieve about a hundred new sexual partners a year – all young Korean women – from his time in the sleazy dance clubs of the foreign quarter. These encounters were, I suppose, technically consensual, but there was something culturally unsettling about these young men’s attitude toward their conquests. And then I learned about the history of comfort women, this breathtakingly violent legacy of Japan’s imperial domination over Korea through rape. When I did, I began to see thematic connections I could draw between the cultural seduction I witnessed in those Seoul nightclubs in 2003-2005 and that history of sexual coercion from the Japanese colonial period during the war. I was inspired to lace these two notions together into a novel that really examines the gray area between seduction and coercion – both between individuals and, I think, whole cultures.
How was your approach/process to Sad Peninsula different from Off Book?
MS: Sad Peninsula was a much more research-intensive project, no doubt. This is because half the novel is told from the perspective of a fictitious comfort woman, whom I’ve named Eun-young. She is about as far from my own experience as you can get: she’s Korean, female, and born in 1928. She also spent two and a half years in a “comfort” station in China during World War II, being systematically raped up to 35 times a day by Japanese soldiers. To write about her experiences and their aftermath required a level of research and character sketching that took me months. A very challenging endeavour – both intellectually and emotionally.
“For the inspiration to Sad Peninsula, I liken it to being trapped in a car that’s sinking.”
You have a short story collection forthcoming and have also had numerous published. How do you know whether an idea or story is better for a short story versus a novel?
MS: Fantastic question. For me, I never have access to the “full” story when an idea occurs to me; there is always a lot of material that exists around the periphery of whatever it is I’m thinking about that I just can’t reach. If the idea is very piecemeal or elliptical, I tend to see it as a poem, and write it as such. If I have some but not very much access to the material – in other words, just one idea or the flash of a singular moment – chances are it’s a short story. For novels, though, there is always way too much access to the idea to be contained in a short story. Indeed, most novels are never just one idea, and the various threads and notions and thematic concatenations all come pouring in over a lengthy period of creative gestation. It can be pretty overwhelming. For the inspiration to Sad Peninsula, I liken it to being trapped in a car that’s sinking.
Is it hard to be disciplined with writing ... do you have any rituals?
MS: I work a 9 to 5 day job – I’m answering these questions on my lunch hour – so discipline is incredibly important to me. I write early in the mornings, starting around 4:30 a.m., five days a week. With this regimen, I’m usually able to get in about two and half or three hours of writing before I have to get ready for work. I also try to squeeze in time for blogging, freelancing, book reviewing and other assorted writing assignments in the evenings and on the weekends, when I can. That may sound a bit daunting, but I’m not really a writer who fetishizes or romanticizes the creative process too much. I’ve been writing this way since high school, and I just get up every day and do it.
You're obviously an avid reader/reviewer as demonstrated by your Free Range Reading blog...What makes a good story/book?
MS: I write Free Range Reading with the idea that you may find it hard to peg my tastes, but I certainly have ideas around what I consider to be a well-executed story. I tend to like books that focus on the aesthetics of language rather than overtly political ax-grinding. I tend to prefer nuance over didacticism. I lean towards more character-driven lyrical realism and less towards the surreal or fragmented. I’m gradually losing my patience with nationalism, regionalism and similar preoccupations in Canadian literature that I consider to be, frankly, adolescent. I like novels that have a coherent thematic vision but still leave lots of wiggle room for my imagination to do some work.
“I’ve also invented a drink: The Joey Smallwood, a concoction consisting of, among other things, Newfoundland Screech and vermouth.”
If you were not writing, what would you be doing?
MS: Can I say “mixologist”? My in-laws gave me a martini set for my birthday last September and it’s become a rather all-consuming hobby now – much to the chagrin of my doctor. (I recently went for a physical. Don’t ask.) But I’ve mastered a number of cocktails over the last six months: the Moscow Mule, the Silent Third, the Chelsea Sidecar, several variants on the Manhattan, and the transcendental Gin Sour. I’ve also invented a drink: The Joey Smallwood, a concoction consisting of, among other things, Newfoundland Screech and vermouth. Readers interested in the recipe should contact me directly.
For more information on author Mark Sampson, visit:freerangereading.blogspot.ca