Josh’s newest book is Taco Jehovah (Dig That Book, 2015). He’s also the author of the novella Ambient Florida Position and several ebooks that can be found at www.joshspilker.com. He currently works in marketing for a healthcare IT company and lives with his wife and daughter in Nashville, TN. I talked to Josh over email about his interest in Americana, Twitter existences and thinking outside the box when it comes to getting his work out there.
You write a lot about everyday no-frills existence and all its brands and staples. I’ve mostly read about the Tennessee stuff. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and then I moved before high school to Tampa Bay in Florida.
I like how you’ve written about the ordinary and made it something larger. Tell me about how you came to write about K-Mart.
I am fascinated by Americana and American brands, and more specifically failing American brands. I like how a store or a business can define an era and then fade away so epically. I remembered going to the Kmart in my town growing up and going there more than Wal-Mart, for instance. But in this shopping center, there were several stores that we used to go to all the time, when I was like 7, 8, and 9 that started to fade away just a few years later. A Chuck E. Cheese. A place called Service Merchandise which was like a higher-end general store, I’m not sure. Then the Western Sizzlin, which was like the steak place with a buffet and my uncle would pile crawfish on the tray. The Kmart was in that shopping center and then it moved across the street and you had this huge, empty shopping center.
Then like ten years later or whatever, Target started on the scene and just took whatever market share Kmart and Sears had, and then I was reading all these articles about what Kmart should do next. Then you realize that there’s this rich histor of brands failing like that, like Woolworth’s or another one called TG&Y. I think I mentioned some of this in the ebook or whatever.
But another reason I like it is that it’s never tried to be ‘cool’ or ‘trendy’ so to speak. It’s just existed with the most basic stuff. And no one is a huge fan of Kmart, except for me, maybe. I just love the forgotten, normal, “working-class” places that aren’t celebrated for being high-culture or recognized as low-culture but are there and populate our lives.
Where I grew up in New Jersey, we had a Caldor that closed and reopened as a Kohls, and across the highway we had a Bradleys that has since been torn down and become a massive Shoprite supermarket. As kids we used to go the Bradleys and eat. There was a luncheonette inside, and I can remember eating about a hundred grilled cheese sandwiches in there. Drinking about a hundred coca-colas. What’s up with all the vanished eateries inside stores? I can’t think of many anymore. Stores used to have arcades too. There used to be so many reasons to go there besides just to buy things.
I have never heard of Caldor or Bradleys. I just searched for it and found that it was a regional store, which is sort of like the ones I described. All of these regional chains have closed because of Wal-Mart or Target or Kmart, which is because we’re all connected, etc. etc. This is interesting to me as this keeps happening, and it’s a weird dimension between “local” and “chain stores” which are often mutually exclusive, except for the “regional” aspect. So like if you’re in the Northeast and you get gas at WaWa, are you shopping “local”? In a way, I think you are because you’re helping your regional economy and promoting common experiences maybe.
Anyway, I think people are losing their regional identities because of stuff like this, I’m not saying it’s bad or good, it’s just happening. Probably some of them should be lost and some of them shouldn’t be, but are anyway.
But eateries in stores: When I go to Kmart or Target, they have eateries inside. Usually Kmart has a Little Caesar’s or its own brand, and Target has a Starbucks and its own brand. Maybe the stores aren’t as big where you are. A Nordstrom’s opened in the mall near me, and I noticed they have their own cafe, which I have never been too.
I do eat at Costco sometimes, because I like their weird smoothie drinks which the other places don’t seem to have. Eating where you shop has a very kid-like quality to it, because our parents probably bought us food to distract us for awhile and to divert us from possibly more expensive consumer requests.
The eateries that are gone though had waitresses and a counter to sit at and tables. It’s probably not very important for society to be able to sit down and have a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon, plus an orange soda and a side salad, inside a Kohls or inside a Big Lots, it’s just something that remember that’s gone now. I guess that’s life.
Yes, there’s a grocery store near me (KROGER) that has like a weird deli in the middle with just a bunch of chairs and tables. It’s not closed off or anything. And no one sits there. I feel like I’m stealing if I just start eating my sushi there. But at Whole Foods for instance, nobody has a problem eating there. Obviously there’s a different cultural status of shopping at Whole Foods vs. Kroger, but the eating in Whole Foods, I don’t get. Is it the buffet?
Note: My wife says Whole Foods has a really nice buffet plus a pizza counter plus a nicer sandwich counter. So I guess it’s all that combined that make people want to eat there.
Why do you call your site I Can’t Stop Thinking About Diet Coke?
I don’t know, I wanted to start a new literary site or something and asked Steven Ye who was on Facebook at the time, what I should name it and he said that. And that fits my aesthetic–of what I described above and generally the branded pop culture. So that’s what it’s called, even though I haven’t found as much stuff to publish over there lately. I tried doing some ‘challenges’ or writing prompts and a few people sent stuff in, but people are busy and I’m busy and this stuff is just…yeah.
That’s a pretty great aesthetic. The just–whatever. It’s one of the reasons why internet weird culture is so interesting to me. Anything goes … What were some of the challenges for writers you had at Diet Coke? And do you have any new ones?
One challenge was that I asked people to write about doughnuts and that was pretty successful, that’s another Americana thing I like. And another one about pop music. My most recent one was about summer movies but no one submitted anything.
I like stuff about brands and food and cars and video games and people can submit their tweets about weird observations. A lot of the stuff I get is about sex or drug-oriented, which I’m not as interested in publishing.
It seems like the sex and drugs don’t evolve much. You won’t be able to tell much about how a society was by the fact that they liked to get high or they liked to get fucked. That’s been going on since day 12 probably. But you can tell a lot about a people as a whole by those current Americana tidbits. Pop culture as it edges towards nostalgia and eventually gets rebooted.
Yes, I’m really interested in the point where stuff becomes nostalgic, like obviously the 90s has moved in that. Like 10 years ago, I remember people writing about the 80s, but I couldn’t relate as much to the 80s as 90s, but now people my age are the ones writing about their childhood and people 10 years younger than me, like in their early 20s don’t get anything from the 90s.
You’ve written a bunch about your town, Nashville and specifically your neighborhood, Woodbine. What’s your experience of writing about where you live/lived?
Woodbine is actually just a neighborhood in Nashville, TN. It’s just an older neighborhood, but not old enough to have beautiful architecture and stuff. So it’s not in a crazy rebuilding boom and this is not the cool neighborhood where people think of “Nashville” and there are a lot of immigrants that live near here. I think the local high school said that there were 60 different languages spoken there. It was one of the first suburb rings in the 1940s and 1950s with just small houses for factory people, I guess. My neighbor has lived here 30 years and he said he was the youngest person when he moved in.
So my experience is funny, because a lot of people in Nashville don’t even know this part of town exists or they’re like what? when you bring it up to them. Writing about Woodbine was really the first time I wrote about place for myself, even though I realize now it’s always been a topic I’ve been interested in, I think all Southerners are like that though.
I know a lot of Northerners like that too. People who are very ‘sucked in’ to where they are living and write about it a ton. What’s the draw to writing about places for you specifically?
Things have to be set somewhere and I guess traditionally that has been physical places, but I guess the Internet can be a setting now. I’m not sure how to answer this question because I have a hard time writing about places, like what is enough detail and what is not. I think you should write more about setting and place if you feel like the setting is a character in some regard, I’m thinking of ‘gothic’ novels or ‘horror’ novels where the place controls the narrative so much. That was the case for the Woodbine ebook, but I don’t think so much for my other writing. For my next novel, I told someone my next novel is ‘vaguely Atlanta’ because I have a few Atlanta references in there, but really it’s any place with outer ring suburbs.
The new novel is Taco Jehovah or are you talking about something different?
Yeah, Taco Jehovah is ‘vaguely Atlanta,’ sorry. The novel I’m working on now after Taco Jehovah is really meta and is semi-autobiographical about a trip I took to NYC last summer and about minor Internet celebrities (I’m not the Internet celebrity, btw).
What’s Taco Jehovah about?
Well, it’s about a guy who believes God is telling him to open a taco truck. It’s supposed to sound ridiculous and plausible at the same time. I’m a Christian and I think the concept of God telling someone to open a taco truck isn’t any different than someone saying like “yeah, I’m supposed to be a musician” or “God wants me to be a school teacher” or something like that, people just don’t ever say that about service-industry jobs usually, because they don’t think it’s a “calling” or whatever.
But it’s funny. Or it’s supposed to be. The book is slightly off and humorous, hopefully causing the reader to ask how much they should trust this character and therefore, how much should they trust somebody like God, even in these small, random things like creating a food truck.
It’s also about trends and trendsetting, and kind of like I see in Woodbine, a lot of food trucks that aren’t “cool” food trucks and are separate than like the food truck festivals and stuff, which the injustice and hypocrisy and the different economies, all that I’m interested in. Then it’s stuffed with dead malls, mini golf, a trip to Panama City Beach–those are the things that I will always write about, probably.
What are some ways you’ve marketed it? I’ve seen a lot of interesting things happening online with it from you.
I really haven’t marketed it yet, per se. I’m still working out some stuff with the publisher, and then I started writing a new book, too. I put together this whole list of different things for marketing, so it’ll be a slow burn and I’m also blogging a lot. I’ll do some stuff on Tumblr, Facebook and postcards/stickers. If it goes well, I might take out some paid ads just to see what happens.
I work in marketing, but sometimes it’s hard to remember to do my own stuff when I’d rather write and create. But if anyone wants an early look at Taco Jehovah, they can sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send one of the first chapters to them.
That list is a gold mine of tips for writers who have no idea about marketing. I don’t think a lot of writers have it in them to market their work. They get embarrassed of doing that. Of looking like a used car salesman. But I don’t feel that way. What have been your experiences of getting your work out there through your own promotion and how to do it better?
I’ve really struggled with how to develop and promote my writing online, mainly because I didn’t want it to be a hindrance to me getting a “real” job or something. I think that is no longer really a societal fear, that your employer knows about how much you like videogames or something before you go into an interview. So I think I’m more open about my creative writing than I used to be.
I wanted to be a journalist during college, but didn’t quite realize it until a year or so after. At the time, I wanted to work at an alt-weekly, so I tried hard for those but couldn’t get an internship anywhere, then I moved a lot and wrote for zine-like local publications.
I was a business journalist for awhile while getting a Master’s in English and that was my first “real” writing job, I guess. That was okay and I did it for about 2.5 years, though I think I’m better suited to do it now than I was then. I had to meet with a lot of CEOs and bank presidents and didn’t know how the world worked, so that was an education in and of itself. The pay wasn’t great and I decided instead of bouncing around a bunch of local papers and one day hoping to get a break in New York or something, that we’d live where we wanted to and I’d try my hand in copywriting and marketing.
When I was a journalist, I had to watch how much my “hobby” writing and “real” writing connected, because I was more public, I think and my creative writing and paid journalist writing didn’t crossover, not like if I worked at Vice or something and there might be more crossover to my creative writing.
Um, what was the question? Yeah, promotion. I’m really into Internet marketing or at least reading about Internet marketing and how I can connect those things to my own promotion. Some of it I’ve tried to apply but it hasn’t worked. Like doing a bunch of listicles w/ how-to information isn’t the type of writer I want to be, though I have tried that. That just attracts a different type of reader. But I’ve also had a harder time being an “artistic” personality online, that doesn’t feel like me all the time either. That’s why I have two Twitter accounts: @joshspilker and @joshspilkerplus. If someone thinks I’m funny on @joshspilkerplus, they’ll think I’m the most boring person with @joshspilker, because I post stuff about NBA and local Nashville things and spirituality.
I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me, I have a newsletter like I mentioned, but I’ve never done like a lot of readings or anything, I’m pretty bad at networking really, and I’ve tried to get around that, but for this book I’ll pick and choose from that list.
Oh that’s great, down the road make a parody account of your own twitter. @therealjoshspilkersuperplus
Somebody started a parody account of me @jspilkerminus, and I’m not sure who it is, but I have a pretty good idea. I confronted one person about it and they were like “no” so I don’t know who it is.
What other jobs did you have before you went to college for writing?
I went to college right after high school, but during high school I worked at Burger King and then I worked at A&W Hot Dogs for awhile in a mall. During college, I worked on campus but on summer I worked at a factory doing overnight work, a grocery store and then my I worked two summers a camp counselor. After college, I worked for AmeriCorps then I was a teacher for awhile, then I did a lot of temp work and then I got an editing job and finally I got the journalism job. In college, I studied American Studies/Political Communication and English, and then later, I got a Master’s in English
What is Pls Advise?
I randomly just threw together a small book of tweets from @joshspilkerplus, because it was a challenge from this company Gumroad to do so. But I like doing small quick projects like that. The goal was to put out a book in 10 days, so I went through my tweets and chose a few and then found some images that I thought were funny and stuck those in there.