I caught the sets of two Portland authors of recent acclaim at this weekend’s Wordstock 2010. Kevin Sampsell and Willy Vlautin have both been active locally since the early 1990s, their books take place in dark corners of the Pacific Northwest, and both wear almost exclusively plaid and denim.

I recently read Sampsell’s book, A Common Pornography. The author approaches awkward or disturbing subject matter with wry nuance. I’ve been a casual fan of Vlautin’s band Richmond Fontaine for years.

Sampsell dryly read from A Common Pornography, a memoir, of his adolescent and young adult years in the Tri-Cities area of Washington, and dark family secrets that are revealed upon his father’s death. Sampsell chose passages about his horny-yet-industrious younger self’s well-concealed collection of finely manicured pornography. Funny and revealing stuff, but earlier sections of the book (the dark secret stuff) are quite riveting, and would’ve better inspired the sparse 11 AM crowd to step toward the makeshift Powell’s store in the center of the auditorium. Sampsell closed out his session with bits of a new project; short chapters of Carver-esque voyeurisms of the private moments between lovers. It’ll be worth checking out when it hits the shelves.

I caught Willy Vlautin across the hall from the main stages in a small conference room dubbed the Weiden Kennedy Stage. Before cracking open his buzzed-over book, Lean on Pete, Vlautin discussed how his obsession with horse racing and regular attendance at Portland Meadows had provided the background for the book. He chose an early, defining section of the book. Vlautin’s narrative was natural, easy and personable. It would be a crime if he doesn’t narrate the audio book version of Lean on Pete. His Steinbeckian characters, as one would suspect with a low-level horse track story, are mostly down-and-out, and Vlautin affords them (aside from the innocent 15-year-old protagonist) some sympathy with forgiveness.


When Vlautin closed his copy_ Lean on Pete_, his protagonist was speeding down the highway, with no way to turn back, and his audience planning a trip across the hall to buy copies of Lean on Pete.


Two things you missed:


Despite many other authors’ struggles with finding the right agent, Willy Vlautin met his agent in a bar in London.


According to Vlautin, hangovers are for writing songs and clean living is for writing fiction.