Of Freshers and Men: An Interview with Kevin Sampson
by anna battista
"I should've gone for all or nothing. This belated change of heart has not so much backfired as left me beached. I'm on a bed, in a small room, in a vast hall of residence, totally alone. I have no notion at all of what I will do next. I can't even say I'm unhappy. I'm just numb, empty, flat. If I feel anything it's the desperate gnawing dread of loneliness. For the first time in my life I feel utterly alone and rudderless. My life choices at this exact point in time consist of unpacking or not unpacking. I truly do not know which way to turn, so I just lie here and wait for something to happen." Kevin Sampson, Freshers
Different people react to different situations. There are those who go to university and perfectly mingle with the rest of the crowd, joining and enjoying the union; then there are others who just can't face it and hate the whole affair. I personally was amongst the ones who hated everything and possibly everyone, secretly wishing the university building would suddenly vanish during the night as if erased by a magic rubber from the face of the earth. But this is another story. Going to uni, meeting new friends and eventually growing up are part of everyone's life and they are also the main themes of Kevin Sampson's new novel, Freshers (Jonathan Cape, 2003). Kit Hannah, its protagonist, is at his first year at Sheffield University and he simply can't stand the whole thing, though in the end he manages to fit in more than he could have ever expected.
"Of all the fiction I've written, this is the most autobiographical," Sampson states, "In many ways, I have nothing at all in common with Kit Hannah as a person. Yet his experiences, his slightly world-weary take on people, his humour and his insecurities all echo strongly with me. I was desperately unhappy in my first few weeks at university, I ran away several times - to Brighton, to London, to Aberdeen, of all places... but I always came back. I had a compulsion that I had to 'stick it out' - just like Kit, really. I just found the entire experience of going to university a roller-coaster ride of mood swings and experiences. I'd be elated one day and quite literally on the floor, crushed, empty of spirit and motivation the next day. My dad died not long before I went away - then my big brother, who'd only gone to University the year before me, died in his second term there. So I was in a bit of delicate state, emotionally, and really anything could send me under. It's quite strange for me to talk about this, because anyone who knows me - either from then, from university days, or right now would describe me, I'm sure, as funny, gregarious, happy, always happy. But I'm not. I'm often very sad. It took me about one year to write Freshers. But it's not quite as straightforward as that: you're always working on a book until it finally appears in the shops. The idea for the book first came to me about 10 years ago. It was called 'Iggy' then, short for Ignacius Loyola Halls of Residence, where the story was going to be set. I've been refining that original story in my mind ever since, so to that extent it took me 10 years to write!"
"I let myself into my cell, happy that I hadn't been waylaid or quizzed by obliging fellow residents, yet drenched with a dull despair that now, truly, I am on my own. Out there, beyond that door, young people are living their lives. They're doing it, doing all the things they longed to do when they came away to 'uni'. I, Kit Hannah, am hiding from it all." Kevin Sampson, Freshers.
In Sampson's novel, Kit is the prototype of a young man who hates the world, is introvert and shy, yet he is surrounded by many friends. "Kit is any smarter-than-average kid whose wit and cynicism mask deep-set insecurities, deep within themselves.," Sampson explains, "All my book titles seem snappy and simplistic, but they hide many meanings. Powder does not refer to cocaine - it's to do with the ephemeral, insubstantial nature of celebrity. And Freshers is not all about first-year freshman students: it alludes to kids like Kit, works in progress, people who are not yet ripe. That's the model for Kit - any unmade teenager... " One of Kit's first friends in the book is Jinty, a mature student, six-year older than him. Jinty is beautiful, as tall as a giant, wiser than the other students and so irresistible than it is inevitable for Kit to fall in love with her. "My favourite character in the novel is definitely Jinty," Sampson reveals, "I have an abiding weakness for long-legged women anyway, but throw in humour, intelligence, insight, humanity, forgiveness, intuition, a love of beer and a voracious sexual appetite and, well...that's Jinty. Just her."
Many are the adventures Kit, Jinty and the other students will live during their first year at university, from falling in love desperately with someone, to drinking themselves stupid in pubs and clubs, to more tragic events. It is natural to wonder if any of these events are taken from Sampson's student days. "Not many, to tell the truth - although I did once throw a 'whitey' when I'd had mushroom tea. I was convinced The Apocalypse had come. Roses were wilting in front of my eyes, everyone seemed to possess this understanding that I was about to die but their faces showed not sympathy, but relief that it wasn't them who had to go. I suppose that, unwittingly, I drew on that for the Bonfire Night scene where Kit goes potty on mushrooms..." Though Freshers confirms that Sampson is master in writing the dialogues between his characters, some of the best scenes of the novel are often those introspective parts in which Kit quietly walks around the town or simply sits in his room thinking and listening to his fave CDs. "Dunno really which is the best part of Freshers," Sampson claims, "I think the opening pages, where Kit finds himself all alone in his Hall of Residence 'cell' ring very true. But I like the idea of Benny Bull re-inventing himself to such an extent that he has to pay somebody to move out of their house for a weekend so he can pretend he comes from a council estate!"
"Week 0: Day 2
Every chapter in Freshers opens with three headlines: "week", "weather" and "soundtrack." The latter in particular seems to be very relevant to Kit: music is one of the few consolations in his life and disputes about who's the best musician or band often emerge in the book. "The music in the book is an indicator of Kit's frame of mind and, consequently, his emotional growth and progress," Sampson explains, "It all starts unremittingly bleak, with hardcore techno like Autechre and Black Dog. But as he softens and becomes more receptive as a person, Kit starts to appreciate mellower, more redemptive music like Sigur Ros, Low and Aim. Contrary to Kit I have only been listening to Joy Division's Closer for the past two months!"
Critics might say that Freshers is only marketable for students, but Sampson doesn't think so: "Freshers is for anyone who loves a good book. I think students may well be the last people who'd read Freshers. It might be a bit uncomfortable if you're still going through the pangs of student life. I think it works best for people in their mid-twenties who've got a little bit of critical distance from the subject matter. You need to be able to sit back and shudder with recognition. I toured quite a few universities with Freshers, but I do think it is not a University tale, it's about one kid growing up and learning to love life. I like big, universal themes - growing up, wising up, learning about yourself, learning to accept and tolerate and, finally, to love others is, ultimately, all about learning to love yourself. That's what Freshers is about."
Sampson's career as a writer started with Awaydays (1998, published by Jonathan Cape like all his books), a novel about football fans, with a main theme similar to his non-fiction book, Extra Time (1998). His second novel, Powder (1999), was about the music biz and about a band, The Grams, and their ascension to fame, themes in which Sampson was expert since he used to manage Liverpool-based band The Farm. After his third novel, Leisure (2000), about a group of young people living the craziest holiday of their lives, Sampson wrote two books, Outlaws and Clubland (Jonathan Cape, 2001 and 2002), in which he explored Liverpool's gangland. As he reassures us, Freshers is not an attempt at getting away from the gangland stories. "Subconsciously, writing is therapy for me," Sampson claims, "I tend to write two dark books followed by a lighter one. It was time for a lighter book. Not that Freshers is terrifically easy-going, it's not. But nobody gets shot in it. I honestly don't know what's next. I definitely won't write another Kit Hannah book. I think Kit should remain forever a boy in readers' hearts and minds. I'd love to return to naughty Ged Brennan and the boys for one last ride. And we'll almost certainly hear from The Grams again - although they may not be called The Grams, by then. Dunno. There are a lot of things on the boil, just now..." After he confirms that his favourite writers are John and Dan Fante, who he considers Gods of the writing business, and recommends us to keep an eye on Liverpool writer Helen Walsh, whose stunning debut novel Brass (Canongate) he has just finished reading (it is "raw, brutal, unflinching and wonderful," he reassures us), we leave Kevin Sampson to go to the Liverpool v Steaua Bucuresti match. Perhaps he will find there new inspirations for his next novel perhaps he won't. We'll patiently have to wait and see.