“I’ve reached this really happy place where I’m at peace with my desire to just be prolific” | Q&A with writer Mark Sampson

Mark Sampson certainly was the subject of a few conversations within my circles with his novel Sad Peninsula (Link to my review) He certainly enlightened a few people about the role of comfort women in Korea during the Second World War AND caused a few of us to look at our own interactions with different members of our own society. So it was exciting to see on his posts on Facebook recently announcing that he has a new book coming forward. And it was equally exciting for me to have him answer a few questions for my blog.
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1) So you have just released a book of poetry entitled Weathervane. Could you give a bit of an outline?
Weathervane collects the poems I’ve been writing and publishing over the last 15 years or so. The book is broken up into three main sections: the first looks at the various vicissitudes of weather and the changing seasons, and how they can be a metaphor for our relationships or emotional worlds; the second gathers poems that look at the consequences of action or inaction; and the third offers profiles of interesting people, places or things – some real, some fictional, some flattering, some critical. My poems run the gamut from formalist approaches (there is a sestina and a palinode included in the book, for example) to total free verse. A lot of it is lyrical or confessional. Some of it is funny (I hope). All of it tries to add some brief instance of illumination on an everyday moment.
2) You have written and published both fiction and poetry.  Do you enjoy writing both formats or is there one form you prefer other the other? 

Yes, I love writing in a number of forms: novels, short stories, poetry, book reviews and literary criticism. I think if I was forced to pick just one, it would have to be the novel, just because of its expansiveness, but poetry offers its own unique pleasures. I really love the concision of poetry, the way it allows you as a reader to leave gaps and breathing spaces for readers. I think a poem can be just as engrossing as a work of prose, but on its own terms.  
3) Who are you favourite writers? What are you reading right now? 

It’s so hard to pick a writer or group of writers as “favourites,” just because I try to read widely enough to expose myself to all sorts of forms, tones, voices and subject matters. But I guess I have my soft spots. Prose wise, I find myself returning over and over again to British writers Anthony Burgess, Martin Amis, Iris Murdoch, and the like. I’m really inspired by comic writing, and I try to infuse a lot of my own prose with it. As for poetry: I really love the verse of poets George Amabile, Jeffery Donaldson, Catherine Graham, and M. Travis Lane.

Right I’ve got a number of books on the go. I’ve been rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey, by Homer. I just published a review of a debut  novel, Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs, by Swedish writer Lina Wolff. And I finally got around to reading Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which cleaned up at awards season when it was published back in 2011 and has been on my radar for quite a while. The nightstand stack of books is always out of control. I’ll probably still be reading 10 years after I die. 
4) Are you planning any public readings of  Weathervane? If yes, are there any dates or events that you are excited to partake in? 

I am indeed. March 23 in Windsor, Ontario; April 5 in Toronto; and April 28 in London, Ontario. There may be other events later in the year, but they haven’t been confirmed yet. 
5) It has been a little while since  Sad Peninsula has been released. How did you find the reaction to the novel? Was there a Korean version of the book released? 

I was really pleased with the reaction to Sad Peninsula after it came out in the fall of 2014. It got several reviews, including in some high-profile publications like Publishers Weekly, and I got to do a number of readings here in Ontario and in the Maritimes. Best of all, I received a lot of encouraging notes and emails from readers after it was published. It’s funny, because not all of the feedback was positive, and I didn’t necessarily have a problem with that. The book, as you may recall, was written from two alternating points of view: the first from a Korean woman who was a sex slave (“comfort woman” was the euphemism) for the Japanese military in World War Two; and the second from a young Canadian man teaching ESL in Seoul in the early 2000s. Some reviewers and readers really loved the comfort woman sections but hated the bits about the teacher. Others really thought I nailed the ESL teaching culture but were unimpressed by my rendering of the sexual slavery and its emotional aftermath. The fact that both parts got both negative and positive comments heartened me in a weird way. I felt that Sad Peninsula was, on several levels, a very difficult book, and I was glad there was such a multitude of responses to it.

The novel has not been released in South Korea. I know my publisher, Dundurn, has been pushing for a Korean version since it accepted the manuscript. But the world of foreign rights and foreign translations is incredibly complex and competitive, so I don’t know whether we’ll ever see that happen. I’m also not certain where narratives about the comfort women legacy really stand in Korea’s literary culture right now. I wonder if the reason the book hasn’t been picked up is because there have already been so many works of fiction over there exploring that history, and the country just doesn’t need yet another one (and one written by a waegookin, no less). Or maybe the opposite is true: maybe there are very few novels written in Korean about this history, and maybe the country isn’t quite ready to explore what happened to these women through fiction yet. It’s hard to say.

 6) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share? 

Yes, indeed. I’ll be back with Dundurn for my next novel. I submitted the completed manuscript to my editor about two weeks ago and it looks like the book – which is a comic novel about a university professor whose off-colour comments during a nationally televised debate go viral on social media; a VERY different book from Sad Peninsula, let’s just say – will be out sometime next year. I’m also back to writing some new poetry after a long stretch away from it (Weathervane has been in the can for a while now) and it feels really great. I’m also hoping to start a new novel at some point later this year. So I’d say I’m fairly busy.
7) You seem to partake a bit on social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter? How do you like using those applications? Do they help you with your writing at all? 

Social media is good for staying connected with friends and colleagues in the writing community, and to help promote book launches and readings and such. And I’d definitely say the darker side of social media – the public shaming, the bun fights, the insidious attacks and trolling – certainly played a role in inspiring the new novel I just finished, mentioned above. But I think what you have to realize as a writer is that your social media audience isn’t necessarily the audience for your writing. The range of one’s social media presence is actually pretty small, even you have hundreds or even thousands of “followers.” And it’s important to remember that who you’re really trying to connect with is that individual reader standing in the bookshop or at the library, or hovering over your book’s entry on an online retailer’s website, and deciding whether to share their scarce free time with something you’ve written. Social media can only ever be an adjunct – and a very tenuous one at that – to that relationship with a reader.
8) So you have been writing for a little while now. Has your writing changed since you started out? If yes, how? 

Actually, it’s been a looooong while – 25 years as of this month. When I started out, I was halfway through Grade Ten in Charlottetown, PEI, and wanted to be Canada’s answer to Stephen King or Danielle Steel – basically a “commercial” writer. I wrote several “novels” (or, I suppose, novel-length pieces of fiction; it’s hard to call them proper novels, they were such garbage) over the next seven years, and by the late 1990s (I was in my early twenties by this point) I realized that literary fiction was where I really wanted to be. Then I went through a lengthy phase where I wanted to write big, chunky, “serious” novels that take seven years each to compose, a la John Irving or Wayne Johnston or Tom Wolfe. But in the last number of years, I’ve reached this really happy place where I’m at peace with my desire to just be prolific and write whatever the fuck I want, that I want to write a lot and in multiple genres and modes – novels and poetry, literary criticism and short stories, funny works and sad works and everything in between – and I’m just having a blast doing all that.
9) Your biographies have you listed as living in Toronto. How do you like living there? Does the city’s cultural scene give you any fuel for your writing?
Toronto’s cool. I moved here in 2007 after living abroad for a number of years and moving around in different places in Canada, and it eventually felt like home. I really do feel part of the cultural scene here. Despite what you might hear in other parts of Canada (especially back home in the Maritimes), Torontonians – or “Upper Canadians” as we call them – are actually very warm and welcoming. Toronto as a place is starting to creep its way into my fiction now, and I feel like this is the sort of city that can keep you stimulated while at the same time leave you alone, which is ideal for a writer. 
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