How novelist Mark Sampson's experience as a door-to-door salesman made him a better writer
In Mark Sampson's new novel, The Slip, a famously pugnacious professor is caught making some regrettable remarks on live television. The incident damages his reputation and drives a wedge between him and his young wife. The Slip is Sampson's third novel. His other books include Off Book and Sad Peninsula.
Below, Mark Sampson answers eight questions submitted by eight of his fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Russell Smith asks, "Have you ever stolen someone else's idea?"
Stolen? Heavens no. But the lines are very fine indeed between homage, influence, derivativeness and out-and-out plagiarism. So having said that, in high school I did write a rather lengthy horror novel (thankfully, mercifully unpublished) set in a haunted tourist town in rural P.E.I. It included a badly damaged guy returning there after many years away and a plucky adolescent who becomes his sidekick as they face the terror that infects this tiny community. Any guesses as to which 1970s vampire classic I may have unwittingly ripped off?
2. Cathy Marie Buchanan asks, "How do you know when your book is finished?"
My novels always seem to have two arcs going on simultaneously as I write them: the narrative arc and the emotional arc. It's much easier, I think, to reach the ending of a narrative arc, especially if the story is plot-driven. For example, my new book, The Slip, is set over just nine days in November of 2015, and the protagonist, Philip, keeps buying and then losing poppies because they won't stay pinned to his lapel. So it just made sense for the story to culminate on Remembrance Day. But emotional arcs are much more difficult. After putting your characters through whatever conflict they're enduring, you wonder how much of their feelings you should reveal to the reader by the end. Show too much, and the conclusion will come off as overly neat, overly pat. Show too little, and the entire emotional life of the book will feel like one giant example of Chekhov's pistol, introduced but never fired. It's a tricky balance and getting it wrong can make for a thoroughly unsatisfying ending.
3. Paul Yee asks, "Do you think it's harder to write funny stories than serious ones?"
With as much modesty as possible, I confess to having genuine, real-world experience in this regard. The Slip is intended to be a comical read and my previous novel, Sad Peninsula, which is about (among other things) the horrific sexual violence suffered by Korea's "comfort women" during World War II, is undoubtedly serious. I can say that I found funny much, much easier to write. The tone, the timing, the pressure points on the reader — they're all simpler to implement within that lighter, more satirical tone. Plus: if a joke falls flat, you can always claim it wasn't meant to be funny; but if an overly wrought, deliberately serious scene causes no stir in the reader, your book is in serious trouble. Of course, the worst-case scenario is when you write what you think is a brow-furrowing, hand-on-chest, emotionally poignant or pivotal scene, but it comes off as unintentionally funny. When that happens, brother, your book is dead.
4. Shilpi Somaya Gowda asks, "Do you ever get stuck creatively? If so, what do you do to get your creative juices flowing again?"
Not really (see my answer to question #6), but when I do, I tend to pull down from the shelf books that I've admired and read a passage or two or go listen to their preview clip on Audible.com. Just reading (or hearing) words that I know are meaningful to me, that are clever or well-written, never fails to help kick-start my own stalled project.
5. Lawrence Hill asks, "What is the worst job you ever had, and what kind of good material did it give you?"
It was the job I had during the summer of 1995 between the second and third years of my undergrad degree in journalism in Halifax. The telephone industry had recently been deregulated and I got a job with a startup provider called Unitel selling long-distance packages door-to-door on strict commission. If I knocked on your door and convinced you to switch from the incumbent provider (a Bell subsidiary called MT&T) to Unitel right there on the spot, I made $8. If I didn't, I made nothing. I was terrible at this job. In the four months between May 1 and August 31, I earned less than $3,000. I was walking several miles a day and had secretly stopped eating for one to two days during the work week so I'd have at least some food in my fridge for when my girlfriend came into the city on the weekends. I lost roughly 30 pounds (and was not a big guy to begin with) before finally moving back into residence in September with its all-you-could-eat dining hall.
What did this experience give my writing? It certainly taught me what sort of obfuscation, charm or out-and-out lies that low-level, strict-commission sales jockeys will turn to with potential clients to cinch a signature. It taught me about the dark underbelly of so-called "entrepreneurship," which I've been able to work into a few stories over the years. It taught me how to downplay a bad situation to my loved ones, which, fittingly I suppose, has worked its way into The Slip. Mostly, it just built up my tolerance for having people slam doors in my face — an apt skill for any fiction writer.
6. Caroline Pignat asks, "What scares you most about writing?"
It used to be running out of ideas. Now it's running out of time to write all the ideas I have. Again, I say this with as much modesty as possible, but I really do have a vision, a roadmap, for numerous stories and novels, their various trajectories and how they all interlock with and speak to one another, that will take me literally decades to write. This all came after what felt like a lengthy, protracted apprenticeship as a fiction writer. Now, at age 42, I am obsessed with carving out enough space in my life to get all these ideas out before I die. This causes me no end of anxiety — which is ironic, considering that anxiety is one of those things they say shortens your lifespan.
7. Michael Christie asks, "Was there a book you actually wanted to live inside as a child?"
So many! At first I wanted to be the kid in Sandy Frances Duncan's The Toothpaste Genie. Then I wanted to turn Gordan Korman's famed duo, Bruno and Boots, into a dynamic trio, especially when it came to their war with Mr. Wizzle. I wanted to visit Ray Bradbury's version of Mars in The Martian Chronicles, and I wanted to be the eighth member of the Losers' Club in Stephen King's It. So much of being a reader and a writer is about having these vicarious experiences, seeing the world through another set of eyes. This vocation reminds me of the title from a Calvin and Hobbes compendium: There's Treasure Everywhere!
8. J.J. Lee asks, "If you had to write a country song right now, what would the chorus be?"
I know this was probably meant as a joke question, but I actually have written the chorus to a country song as part of the (very early, very rough) first draft of a new novel I'm working on. I mean, I just wrote this part about a month ago. The story is a kind of parody of your standard post-apocalyptic narrative set in an alternate Toronto, in which scientists have found a way to transmogrify certain species of mammals and birds into human form to solve a nettlesome under-population problem. Each species comes with a built-in aptitude: for example, bears are musically talented, to the point where they're putting their human counterparts out of work. The following smatter of lyric is sung by an unemployed country western singer with a huge chip on her shoulder:
Kill all the bears. Kill all the bears.
Kill all them Canadian bears.
Beat 'em. Burn 'em. Throw them in the trash
For stealing our jobs and takin' our cash.
Their music sucks, and so does their smell.
I hope they all just go burn... in ... hell...
Perhaps this reads as subtle commentary on Trump's America, I don't know. Anyway, like I said, it's early days, really rough draft stuff. Perhaps it's not going to work after all. Maybe I should just stop talking about it now.