Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The WAR Series: Writers as Readers, with Mark Sampson

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Mark Sampson

Mark Sampson's The Secrets Men Keep (Now or Never Publishing) is a comic, sharp-eyed examination of the changing landscape of how men and women view each other and themselves, and the lies, expectations, pleasures and mishaps that litter our modern relationships.

Today we're talking to Mark as part of The WAR Series: Writers As Readers questionnaire, which gives writers an opportunity to talk about the books that shaped them, from first loves to new favourites.

While he might not tell us all his secrets, Mark does tell us some great stories about gender politics in Disney children's books, the CanLit classic that shaped him as a writer and the new novel he recommends everyone add to their summer reading lists.
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The WAR Series, Writers as Readers

The first book I remember reading on my own:

It was a Disney book, shamefully. I don’t remember the title, but it involved Goofy and a female version of Goofy (Goofina?) who were husband and wife and had a very “traditional” marriage. At the beginning of the story, the two get into a huge argument over who has the harder job — Goofy, who worked in, like, a quarry or something, or Goofina, who was a homemaker. So they decide to switch roles for a day — kind of a proto-Mr. Mom narrative — and hilarity ensues as the story focuses on all the ways Goofy goofs up at cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, etc. At one point he straps sponges to his feet to clean the floors, against the advice of his small, baffled children. Anyway, the story was probably my first exposure to feminist ideology, though there is a moment tacked on to the end where Goofina admits that — phew! — working in a quarry is pretty hard, too.

A book that made me cry:

Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer. A comic novel in many ways (especially in the first 50 pages or so) but there is a scene involving a Nazi incursion into a Jewish shtetl later in the book that just devastated me. It’s a scene about terror and murder, but also about betrayal of a friend. Anyone who has read that book knows exactly the scene I mean.

The first adult book I read:

The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King. Yes, I realize it is the second book in a seven-book series, but I had no idea. And though far from being particularly “adult” in a literary way, it was the first novel I read that confirmed I was leaving more childish reading habits behind.

A book that made me laugh out loud:

The Clockwork Testament, by Anthony Burgess. Again, I have this dreadful habit of parachuting in on a book series somewhere in the middle (this was book 3 of Burgess’s Enderby quartet), but yes, this one made me roar. The opening pages are probably the most politically incorrect writing you’ll find in 20th century fiction, but also the most comic. The satire in that book is completely off the chain, and continues to inspire me in my more satirical writing.

The book I have re-read many times:

I’m not a big re-reader, I must confess, though I’m trying to be better at that. I recently re-read Ulysses by James Joyce and Middlemarch by George Eliot — two books I read as a young(er) man and have gotten so much more out of this second time around. But there isn’t one book that I re-read over and over again. I always feel like there’s too much amazing work out there that I haven’t read even once. My reading life often feels like a constant game of catch-up.

A book I feel like I should have read, but haven't:

Don Quixote. What is wrong with me?

The book I would give my seventeen year old self, if I could:

Hmm, can I cheat and say there are books I wish I could take away from my 17-year-old self? I read way, way too much Stephen King in my teens. To be fair, I’m more interested in a game of swap-in-swap-out with my younger self. Like, instead of Stephen King, try J.G. Ballard. Instead of Tom Robbins, try Kurt Vonnegut. Instead of Danielle Steel, try Maeve Binchy. Hindsight’s a great thing, and I feel like my 39-year-old self would make a fabulous mentor to my 17-year-old self.

A book I feel strongly influenced me as a writer and why:

The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence, continues to hold a lot of sway over my influence. I haven’t gone back to it in a long time, but I feel like it was the right book by the right writer at the right time for me. Morag Gunn’s story of self-actualization just opened up so many doors in my mind about what was possible in fiction. I’m scared to go back and re-read it actually, in the event that I don’t love it the way I did when I inhaled it at age 20.

The best book I read in the past six months:

Under the Visible Life, by Kim Echlin, which I reviewed for a recent issue of Quill & Quire. Her novel just floored me. In fact, I compared it favourably to The Diviners. Everyone should do themselves a favour and read this one. It’s the best novel I’ve read in a long, long time.

The book I plan on reading next:

I’ve got the collected stories of Chekhov and the collected poems of Auden on deck. These are two writers I feel I’m not nearly as well versed in as I should be, so I’ll be spending part of the spring rectifying that.

A possible title for my autobiography:

He Did the Best He Could with What He Had


Author of Off Book and Sad Peninsula, Mark Sampson's fiction, poetry, reviews and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines. Originally from P.E.I., he now lives and writes in Toronto, Ontario.

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