Wednesday, May 11, 2011

NOÖ Knows Stories #7: Kevin Sampsell on "What I Did" by Rebecca Brown

"Rebecca Brown is a fantastic writer of risky, dark fiction as well as some nakedly heartfelt nonfiction and works in other mediums. She lives in Seattle, Washington but her work is underappreciated in America (though apparently she is big in Japan), with the exception of gay readers and authors, who see her as a lasting influence. 

In 1992, City Lights released her story collection, The Terrible Girls. This was right when I moved to Portland, Oregon. I bought this collection without knowing anything about the author. I simply loved the title and that cool cover design. I was still fairly new to book-reading and my early, impressionable interests were stories and novels that challenged censorship and had been banned—works by William Burroughs, Terry Southern, Karen Finley, Henry Miller, and folks like that.

Rebecca Brown fit perfectly into this misfit canon. One story in particular, 'What I Did,' shows up 2nd to last in this book and it's the one that felt transformative to me. It's a detailed story about a woman carrying some sort of duffel bag through a dark, desolate land. It's so dark that the woman can't even see the bag. She can't tell what it's made of and she feels no seams or weaves in its construction. She does not say what's in the bag (you learn that in the next story, 'The Ruined City'). She is only trying to get a place where she can bury it. It's a 10-page sensory sensation. There is nothing in the story except the woman and the bag and the action between them and the reader feels everything, in the dark, with her fingers and her sore, thirsty body.

I remember being so impressed with the story that I tried to write something similar (I vaguely recall something dangerously plagiaristic, like about a man carrying a box through a tunnel or something like that), but my story failed. I had nowhere near the talent of Rebecca Brown.

Rebecca Brown, author of "What I Did"
Two years later (1994), I had my first published story in an anthology called Good To Go: Short Stories West Coast Style (published by a small press called Zero Hour). Rebecca Brown was also in it. I went up to Seattle for the book release party and nervously eyed Miss Brown from across the room. I was pretty young and self-conscious and had a weird feeling that lesbian writers disliked me.

While I waited for a chance to say hello to RB, I met Stacey Levine, whose book, My Horse and Other Stories, remains one of my all-time favorite collections. Finally, I worked up the nerve to talk to Rebecca, and wouldn't you know it: she was super nice. Not like a "Terrible Girl" at all. Meeting her was one of my first lessons in the fact that authors, even if they write creepy, mentally tormenting tales, can be completely warm and normal and approachable. Rebecca and I became fast friends. She's been totally encouraging to me and my writing (and publishing) ever since. 

Her own work has continued to be awesome (though I feel that it's still not as talked-about as it should be), from Dogs: A Bestiary to her recent essay collection, American Romances. For short story fans who haven't read her work, I say start out with The Terrible Girls or her 2006 collection, The Last Time I Saw You." — Kevin Sampsell, author of A Common Pornography and publisher of Future Tense Books

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