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Tampa Bay, Obama, and Doritos: An Interview with Josh Spilker

January 31, 2012

Since Thanksgiving I feel like all I've read are high school research papers, in class writing prompts, exam essays, and high school research papers, and the only conclusion I've come to about the grading process is that teenagers write in dog years: every page read about lowering the drinking age is the equivalent of seven pages by anyone else. However, this post is not about high school papers; sometime in between grading shifts I interviewed writer Josh Spilker about his book Ambient Florida Position, which can be found here. The following are excerpts from the conversation: 

Me: What sparked the idea for the book?

Josh: I actually set out to write a story about Detroit [the book takes place in Tampa].

Me: A short story?

Josh: I don't think I had a certain length in mind--just write it to see how long it went, but it started shaping into something shorter than a novel but longer than a story.

I had never been to Detroit before, but I knew I wanted to set it kind of around the beginning of the financial crisis and knew Detroit was of course always having a hard time. I had read an article about all these of these advertising copywriters getting laid off in 2008 from some huge ad firm in the city and thought that was interesting.

The other part is that I'm interested in music and how fads/trends get started and thought that someone trying to start a band would be an unemployed person's pursuit.

Me: The allusions to pop culture and fads I thought were pretty funny. I found myself laughing out loud at how your protagonist basically existed in an 80s [2000s?] time warp, especially with what he or his family were watching on television.

Josh: Yes, that was obviously intentional. Just how the same ideas are always being recycled, then fetishized, then rebranded back to us as advertising or art. I wanted the "band" to represent Wallace--moving forward and backward at the same time. Kind of stuck in a middle place too, I guess.

Me: I thought that came through. I also thought the kind of music he was producing/writing was what a copywriter would do because it wasn't entirely original, considering he's using soundbites etc from his childhood.

Josh: Huh, never thought of it that way. To me, it seems completely plausible that a semi-creative guy could pick up a synth and put out some notes, especially with the technology, etc. If they took the time, the effort, because no one knows what is going to stick, no matter what people say. That's why you have all this "bedroom pop" coming out, or has come out. And repackaging it with the 80s, instead of coming up with your own words makes it more marketable, because of the inherent nostalgia put with it.

Me: Yeah, sorry if I made the guy with the synth not sound creative. He's definitely doing something more than guitar hero or rock band, which is where my musical talent begins and ends.

Josh: I probably should have started him there.

Me: Speaking of nostalgia, do you ever find yourself feeling nostalgic about the '80s?

Josh: Not really. I actually spent the 80s watching a lot of like Nick at Nite with my parents, which is whole other "looking back" thing. We would watch Dick Van Dyke and Mr. Ed and Patty Duke.

Me: Yeah, that's what's weird about syndicated television--we can get nostalgic for time periods we never even lived.

Josh: I liked Pee Wee's Playhouse and the Garfield cartoon and that one show with John Elway, Wayne Gretzky, and Michael Jordan.

Me: Was it with Elway or Bo Jackson?

Josh: Why'd I think Elway?

Me: I don't know. Bo would know.

Josh: Trying to find it on Wikipedia. Yeah, I remember this kid in elementary school wearing all this "Bo Knows" stuff--I was super jealous. Then these other kids wearing Hypercolor, maybe that was like 1990. [searches Wikipedia] Totally was Bo!


Josh: That's a hilarious clip. They just pulled someone out of a shark.

Me: Speaking of animals [yes, I really do make transitions like this], dogs are featured prominently in your story. Excluding whales and birds, what's the most symbolic literary animal?

Josh: Yeah, that was definitely the real slipping into the unreal. We had just gotten a dog.

I don't know, would that be like Pegasus or something? A unicorn? Horses, that would be it. You know, like Black Velvet or Black Beauty, Seabiscuit, and Warhorse.

Me: All the Pretty Horses, Mick Jagger's wild horses.

Josh: Good call.

Me: And Tolkien has a river turn into white horses, so, yeah, horses it is. Did you vote in the 2008 election?

Josh: Yes.

Me: Because one thing that I found both surprising and well done in your story was the incorporation of McCain and Obama's campaigns.

Josh: I used to be a lot more into politics than I am now. I went to college to go into that, but then stopped after I took a class on the U.S. Presidency.

To me, it fit the book, just because of Florida's recent political history; how they really go back and forth b/w Republicans and Democrats and you have a protagonist trying to make up his mind while the state is also.

Me: Yeah, a whole state in transition, a young candidate vs. an old candidate, and a protagonist in transition.

Josh: Also, part of the choice to set the book in 2008, amid the presidential election was that the Rays themselves were accomplishing quite an improbably journey that fall. In 2008, from out of nowhere, the Rays bounded to the top of the American League, based on their superb defensive effort and the unlikely emergence of James Shields and Matt Garza pitching, Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena (he's back) having all-star caliber breakout years and then a young David Price icing everyone in the playoffs.

The Phillies beat the Rays on the last legs of Jimmy Rollins, and Ryan Howard in his prime, good pitching from Cole Hamels and some lucky raindrops.

Much like Obama, the Rays were full of hope and change and Rays fans dared to dream about the impossible. Alas, due to some slippery rain delays, the impossible remains impossible. 

Me: Were you living in Florida while you wrote the book?

Josh: I wrote the whole thing in North Carolina. I only visit Florida now and haven't "lived" there for a while.

Now that you bring it up, it's kind of interesting how the Republicans are now channeling the nostalgia of Reagan.

Me: Which is the 80s.

Josh: When a lot of Reagan's appeal may have been his own nostalgia--here was a semi-famous actor who was in these old movies now running for President, recalling a "simpler" time.

Me: Which is Nick at Nite.

Josh: Yeah exactly.

Me: This conversation is now very literary in how circuitous it's become.

Josh: I think at one time Wallace says something about the "simulacrum of the simulacrum."

Me: When did you know you had the first few lines of the book right? Because "There were no more Doritos. There were no more bottles of iced mocha coffee. There were no more almonds. I got in the car. . ." is a great start for a book about not going anywhere.

Josh: Thanks. I'm not sure if I got it right, so thanks for real.


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