An interview with David Carkeet

Read more about Campus Sexpot

Q: Campus Sexpot won the AWP Creative Nonfiction Award. Define “creative nonfiction.”

A: The best definition I’ve read describes it as nonfiction that borrows heavily from the methods of fiction: suspense, dialogue, flashback, and the like. “Creative” does not mean wildly experimental. Nor does it mean false. This is very important. A memoir or personal essay carries a requirement of truth, and I say this as a passionate reader of the genre. The pleasure I derive from a memoir is rooted in an assumption that I am getting the truth.

Q: You incorporate many different literary styles into the book. It is first and foremost a humorous memoir—your coming-of-age story. But you also include a more subdued, touching portrait of your father. You use literary criticism to explore the successes, and more often the failures, of Dale Koby’s writing in the original 1961 Campus Sexpot. Your investigation into what happened to Koby even injects the book with elements of suspense found in detective stories. How did you arrive at the structure of this book?

A: With much gnashing of teeth. The book begins as a mocking exegesis of a very clumsy novel, the original Campus Sexpot. That exercise, while rollicking good fun in its own way, is ultimately limited for both author and reader, so I move on to broader issues—teenage sexuality, small-town culture, the repression of the fifties and early sixties, and definitions of manhood and fatherhood. My main “rule”—and every book has rules that the writer imposes on it—was that I could talk about an event from my past only if it plausibly sprung from some reference in the original Campus Sexpot. It’s a rule that I grew to curse, owing to the impoverishment of Koby’s book, and my frustration gets vented in the chapter that opens with the refrain, “There is no _______ in Campus Sexpot”—no music, no popular culture, no sports, etc. Still, by stretching the rule a bit, I covered most areas of my boyhood that I would have covered in a conventional memoir.

Q: At what point did you realize that your interest in Dale Koby might become part of the book?

A: Koby’s book is partly about his life, and that raises the question about what kind of life it was. That in turn provided the foundation for the final chapter about my father, whose life stands in clear contrast to Koby’s, a noble life against an ignoble one. As I neared the end of my memoir, that concluding chapter felt as inevitable as the word “or” after the word “either.”

Q: At one point in the book you say that Dale Koby intrigues you as one “who seems willfully to have chosen the dark path.” There even seem to be some interesting parallels between your life and Koby’s, almost as if he were your evil doppelganger.

A: Koby was an outsider in my small mountain town. I felt like an outsider growing up there, even though I was a complete insider, a paragon of citizenship enjoying all the benefits of that status. I sense in Koby a shared habit of observation and evaluation, the writer’s essential temperament (though certainly not unique to writers), and I identify with him in that way.

Q: The original Campus Sexpot was published as part of a very specific genre: the smut novel. Can you talk more about this genre in its historical context?

A: Not really, and here’s why. As I worked on the book, at one point I thought I would devote an entire chapter to this very subject, and I read background material and researched court cases. But I was standing behind my chair whipping myself, making myself do it. The subject doesn’t interest me, and, more important, it’s not part of the story of my boyhood. It was a relief to dump it.

Q: Campus Sexpot is your first work of nonfiction after five novels. Was writing this book different from writing fiction?

A: When you’re writing a memoir, all these memories flood over you, and you’ve got to decide which ones to use and how to present them. You do the same thing with plot ideas when you’re writing fiction. What raw material will best serve the book? I see all books as having an almost predestined shape, dimly glimpsed by the writer at the outset and dictating all subsequent decisions. Beyond that, though, there is this difference: it is easier to remember than to invent, so memoirs are easier than fiction. Of course, trauma in one’s past can make memory harrowing, but that’s a different kind of difficulty.

Q: You make reference to a number of famous writers in the book such as J. D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Who are some writers who have influenced your work, or who have simply inspired you as a writer?

A: I admired Kingsley Amis for a time, and I’ve also enjoyed and profited from other British writers in the same vein, like David Lodge and William Boyd. J. F. Powers is an American writer who feels like a kindred spirit. In nonfiction, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life gripped my heart, as did that other contemporary classic of American boyhood, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time. I love how good personal nonfiction takes us not only into the author’s life but into our own as well. It’s mysterious how it works, but it’s what I hope will happen to readers of Campus Sexpot. I want them to re-engage with their own history as they engage with mine.

Q: In Campus Sexpot you tell part of the story of how you tracked down a copy of the original Campus Sexpot. Can you tell the rest of it?

A: On a summer visit to my hometown a few years ago, I took my youngest daughter on a tour around my old grammar school, a turn-of-the-century domed edifice atop one of the town’s many hills, and as I looked down the long flight of concrete steps that I used to struggle to climb every day, I saw an old friend walking by with his wife. I called to him and we chatted. I hadn’t seen him in 30 years. At one point, I brought up Koby’s Campus Sexpot, and we chuckled like two conspirators. (Sorry, this answer is turning into another memoir.) I mentioned that I was thinking of writing something about it but lacked a copy, and he said he might have one in his basement. That night, unannounced, he showed up at my mother’s house with a complete photocopy of the book. I don’t know when I would have gotten started on the project if he hadn’t done that. It was the nicest thing in the world.