Taylor Koekkoek, THRILLVILLE, USA: Stories

Taylor Koekkoek, THRILLVILLE, USA: Stories

Zibby interviews debut author Taylor Koekkoek (along with his wife and upcoming Zibby Books author Joselyn Takacs!) about Thrillville, USA, a raw and remarkable story collection about Americans living on the margins of society, seeking solace in drugs, booze, and self-destructive relationships. Taylor describes his sources of inspiration (like dangerous, ramshackle amusement parks and his friends’ unfortunate life experiences) and reveals his ultimate goal: writing about people who are struggling with the utmost generosity. Then, he shares how he met Joselyn and how he became a writer–the stories go hand in hand. Finally, Joselyn gives us a sneak peek of her own novel Pearce Oysters (Zibby Books, 2024).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Taylor. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Thrillville, USA: Stories.

Taylor Koekkoek: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Taylor, I have to say, I heard about you through your wife, who’s sitting next to you, Joselyn, whose book, as you all know, we’re publishing with Zibby Books, Pearce Oysters. So exciting. It’s really nice to be doing a double-whammy episode today. Thank you both for coming.

Joselyn Takacs: It’s such a pleasure to be here.

Taylor: It’s very fun to be here together too.

Zibby: Yay. Soon, we’ll do Joselyn’s before you know it. We’ll be like, remember when we did that other one and it felt like a long time away? Here we are.

Taylor: I get to come onto that one too.

Zibby: Totally. We’ll just keep this going. Then you’ll write your next book. We’ll just flip-flop over.

Joselyn: Taylor did a reading at Powell’s. I got to ask him questions afterwards. They kindly said that we could do a couple’s show next time comes out.

Taylor: Now it’s the only way we’re doing it.

Zibby: Seriously. You should interview. I could just watch. This is great. We’ll both interview Taylor. This is fun. Taylor, Thrillville, USA, tell us about your short story collection. You’re such a good writer. These stories are great, dark, great, really emotional. Your writing is so awesome, so vibrant, and at times, creepy. It just made me feel so much, which is what good writing does.

Taylor: Thanks for that, Zibby. Thrillville, USA, it’s a short story collection. Most of the stories happen in Oregon or at least pretty close to the neighborhood. The title, Thrillville, USA, there used to be a dangerous, ramshackle theme park, little amusement park off of I-5 in Oregon which was called Thrillville, USA, and where the titular story came from. Although, I invented everything else that you’ll see in there. What else should I say about it?

Joselyn: Are the stories connected?

Taylor: That’s a good question. A little bit. There’s a few characters who appear in one story and reemerge elsewhere. There’s some locations that might be revisited twice or more. Mostly, I think the strongest connection is just that they all happen in the same neighborhood, more or less. I use that figuratively. Across Oregon, a little Seattle, but Pacific Northwest.

Joselyn: The collection is bookended, too, with the same protagonist. The main character in Thrillville —

Taylor: — starts us and ends us.

Zibby: Which is very clever. Love that. I particularly loved “The Drowned Woman” story. In “The Drowned Woman,” there’s a body found floating. There’s a vagrant man on the sidelines with his friend. Not sidelines. The shore. I’m going to too many kids’ sporting events. On the shore. When they realize it’s a woman and they see the car seat, there’s a line where they’re like, wait, moms would never do that. The other character is like, moms can do that. I just related. I related to that, and then the man with his son coming. The way you describe the setting, I literally felt like I was sitting on the banks of that lake with the guy’s smelly foot and god knows what else and wanting to get out of there. For example, tell me about that story. When did you come up with it? How did you think of these tales and come up with the people? Just tell me the whole backstory.

Taylor: Zibby, that one is autobiographical, purely. Not really. That was not autobiographical. Now I see that is the creepiest story in the book. That’s my mom’s least-favorite story.

Zibby: Oh, really?

Taylor: That story is also, actually, one of the oldest stories in the book. I wrote that when I was in Baltimore. You’d since moved on to LA. Really, I think the only place that I found that story in real life — there’s no body in the reservoir, but the old, abandoned turbine shack where these two men are shacked up for a while is a place in Oregon called White River Falls that I used to go to as a kid. It’s just this beautiful ruined old turbine shack for a dam that’s been decommissioned. Actually, you and I went there once when we were driving to Bend. I’d thought about it ever since I was a kid. I thought it was such a pretty place. Then I go on to make a fairly grotesque story with a place that I found so pretty when I was a child.

Joselyn: I don’t know if I’d call it grotesque. You’re being a little hard on it.

Taylor: The book generally isn’t all that grotesque, but that one story is.

Zibby: Particularly, having the man — is his name Sam? I’m really bad with names. Sam? Sam is cuddling up with the dead body at the end. Whatever. I’m reading. I’m like, where is it coming from? I know it’s hard to even answer questions about fiction writing because it all comes from the subconscious in some way, shape, or form and then just spews out, and you’re like, I don’t even know, but if you had any idea where things like that come from. I feel like you’re capturing the underbelly, the seediness, and the desperation, almost, of characters in hard places.

Taylor: I think that’s something that happens throughout the book. Although, there are other stories that I might steal more anecdotes from my personal life. This story, “The Drowned Woman,” is the furthest removed from autobiography, obviously. I think all of the stories have characters pitted in desperate situations. “Dirtnap,” there’s a stolen van. That one actually happened to us in real life.

Zibby: No way.

Taylor: I should rephrase. In the story, the character hands the van over in a bumbling way to a stranger who’s going to help park it, and then he drives off. In real life, we forgot to put a steering club onto a van that did vanish the next morning.

Joselyn: Because this van had been stolen before, you could use anything to start it. You didn’t need a key. It was quite easy to steal.

Taylor: The steering club was a big oversight.

Joselyn: My roommate at the time was very understanding. She was away on a vacation and came back to no van.

Taylor: She was very nice. There’s some stories where it’s easier for me to see where the desperate situations come from because I have stolen anecdotes from my life or my family’s lives and my friends’ lives and repurposed them heavily. “Thrillville,” the same way, the titular story. For “The Drowned Woman,” I don’t remember where that business came from. That was so long ago.

Zibby: We can talk about “Thrillville” too. The end of the “Thrillville” story — is it giving spoilers when you talk about the end of a story? Can you not do that? I don’t know.

Taylor: A short story collection, you’re not really hanging on it moment to moment for the plot. It doesn’t spoil the book. It’s like saying what happens in a chapter.

Zibby: You think we’re okay. Anyway, the drug use part that happens at the end with opening up the patches and the mad binge of drugs that ends up not in a good way, that also speaks to this attempt to escape or something. I guess I’m wondering where all of this is coming — have you analyzed yourself? Let’s just go there. Where is all this coming from you? Why do you like to write this type of story about this type of thing? Do you have any idea? If not, we’ll just move on. Joselyn, weigh in if you’d like to be our armchair psychologist.

Taylor: You’re the closest thing I got to a therapist.

Joselyn: Taylor, he has a dark sense of humor. He delights in seeing the best in people. I think Taylor’s writing is a distillation of who he is at his best. He’s so funny. He’s so insightful. He’s so generous in his perceptions of people. He writes about people who are in hard spots in their lives. They’re struggling with drug addiction. They’re struggling with housing. They’re in failing relationships. They’re trying to sell their book. He looks at people who are behaving badly, and he’s honest about what’s really happening with them. You never turn against his characters because they’re portrayed with so much generosity.

Taylor: I second that. I think that is the instinct. That’s where the stories come from, trying to see a little generosity into people’s weaker moments. It’s just what affects me about storytelling. Those are the stories that move me and what I’m drawn to.

Zibby: Tell me about starting writing and why short stories and when you were drawn to those in general and your whole life up until now. Where’d you come from? Where’d you grow up? You’re from Oregon, right?

Taylor: I’m from Oregon. Actually, now we live about maybe a mile from my childhood home. My parents have since moved out of it. We ended up surprisingly close to where I “started” started. The hospital where I was born is down the street. Then eventually, I went to a creative writing MFA program in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University, which is where Joselyn and I met. Although, we didn’t start dating there at the time. She was introduced to me as one my good friend’s girlfriends, actually, but a lot of time comes in between. Nothing salacious. Me and this good friend are still good friends. That’s an important through line, though. That’s where that story starts. Started writing short fiction at the MFA and a little bit towards the end of college. Short stories, I did those over novels because they’re easier. Now I have to do the novel too. Joselyn’s going to tell me how to do that one. She obviously is a novelist. Although, she writes and publishes short stories too that are brilliant. Then I graduated MFA, wandered around with a whole lot of direction, lived in Central Oregon for a while with my twin brother. He was a flight instructor at the time. Sort of experimented with writing there. Had my share of failures. Then Joselyn and I reconvened at a writers’ conference in Tampa. Then we just hit it off. We started long-distance dating.

Zibby: Wait — not that this is any of my business. Had Joselyn broken up with the boyfriend?

Taylor: Oh, yeah, long ago. Long ago. In fact, there was a boyfriend in between that one already, so it was old news.

Joselyn: Years went by. We ran into each other at this conference. It just made sense. We embarked on this long-distance relationship without a plan for how it would work out. We dated long distance for a year and a half. I think us being both fiction writers was really why our relationship worked out. I think it was kind of a part of our courtship, actually.

Taylor: We were trading writing back and forth, shooting each other pictures of passages we were reading. We did that for quite a while.

Zibby: What are some of the books that you excerpted for each other? Do you remember? Were they poems or stories or what?

Taylor: There might have been a few poems from you, but it was mostly fiction. There’s a passage getting towards the end of George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. There’s this really stunning beauty of a passage that we probably sent back and forth a couple of times.

Joselyn: He would take pictures of the book in his hands with a pencil mark by the beginning of where I should read and then the end of where I should read. It would be three images. It’s a really nice text to receive at night.

Taylor: Do you remember any that you sent me?

Joselyn: I was probably reading The Moviegoer at the time, and Richard Ford’s stories, Rock Springs. Taylor turned me on to Marilynne Robinson’s work. Also, dating another writer, we become closer to one another in sensibilities because we’re kind of this feedback loop all the time of what we’re reading and what we like about what we’re reading. We’re talking about that all the time.

Taylor: We’re slowly becoming the same person.

Zibby: Earlier today, I interviewed Jane Delury about Hedge, which is coming out this month from Zibby Books. She’s also married to a writer. Have you talked to her about this? You should all four have a double date or something. She was saying she offered recently to put him on retainer because she was always asking him to read stuff and edit stuff and all of that.

Taylor: Joselyn’s always been my first reader and editor. She’s had a big hand in my work. My book would look really different if I weren’t with Joselyn.

Joselyn: I would be absolutely bankrupt if I had to pay him for the amount of hours he spends.

Taylor: Maybe it washes, cancels out.

Joselyn: Jane’s in Baltimore. She also went to Hopkins.

Zibby: Yes, she did.

Joselyn: We’ll meet her probably in the fall.

Taylor: Cool.

Joselyn: We’re going, I hope, to give a reading if we’re still invited.

Taylor: At Hopkins?

Joselyn: Yeah.

Taylor: Oh, yeah, they’ll have us.

Zibby: That’s fun. Very cool.

Taylor: When’s your book coming out?

Joselyn: Me? Zibby?

Zibby: Isn’t it in June?

Joselyn: Yeah, June.

Zibby: The first Tuesday in June, whenever that is.

Joselyn: My preordered copy hasn’t arrived yet.

Zibby: Probably, June 4th. Yeah, June 4th, 2024. 6/4/24, that sounds good. Doesn’t it?

Joselyn: A plug for Jane’s book, everyone should read Hedge.

Taylor: It’s a good title. What were we talking about? Oh, writerly life. How did we get here? We covered that, right?

Joselyn: I feel like we covered our relationship.

Taylor: Writerly life sort of blurs into the romantic life for us. Similar story.

Zibby: You were talking about your beautiful epistolary courtship, which actually made me remember that at the very beginning, Kyle used to send me songs. Now I don’t think he’s sent me a song since 2008 or something. I’m like, whatever happened to the songs? I’m going to ask him after this.

Taylor: You used to send me a lot of songs too. Although, in the courtship, it’s different. You don’t spend as much time with each other. There’s more time .

Zibby: That’s true.

Taylor: Now you just listen to music together, maybe.

Joselyn: I’m kind of curious, Zibby, what songs Kyle sent.

Zibby: He sent me a song called “The Famous Flower of Manhattan” by The Avett Brothers.

Joselyn: I love that song. Yes.

Zibby: That’s basically how we got together, but story for another time. I was like, oh, my god. It’s about this flower that you leave. You love her, but you have to leave her to grow and be her — why am I even talking about this on your podcast? Anyway, that was the first song. He sent it to me. I pulled over on the side of the road. I cried for ten minutes.

Joselyn: I remember that story because it’s in Bookends.

Zibby: That’s right. Oh, my gosh, now I’m repeating myself from my book. Thank you for reading Bookends. He also sent me this great song, “Let’s Be Still.” Do you know that song? That’s probably not what it’s called. “Let’s be still.” It’s really calming. I remember I was going through all sorts of stuff soon after. Whenever I was really stressed, I remember playing it, even in a taxi, before I went into these nerve-racking meetings. I would just play this song, “Let’s Be Still.” Then I felt much better going in. I should really pull that song up right about now. It seems to have been lost. Are you working on a novel, Taylor?

Taylor: Working, I am. Depending on the day, it’s a generous word for it. I’m beating my head on the keyboard for a novel. It’ll come soon. I’m confident that something will shake loose. This is how my writing process usually goes. I have a lot of false starts, abandoned efforts. Just looking for that right angle approach that makes it feel a story is possible here. I’m circling it. I’m writing pages and throwing them out. All necessary, I told myself.

Zibby: Part of the process.

Taylor: I think this book — I won’t say too much because, superstitious and I don’t have too much on the page yet, but I think we’ll return to Oregon one more time. Then I think I should start writing about somewhere else, probably.

Zibby: Although, some authors really have their places. That’s their thing.

Taylor: It’s true.

Zibby: You’re like the Joan Didion of Oregon.

Taylor: That’s how I’m described most of the time. I hear that a lot, Zibby.

Joselyn: It’s just so hard to see Taylor throw away work. He is writing all of the time. His rough drafts are so great, but you can’t make someone else believe in a start of a story. As a writer partner, that is hard to watch.

Zibby: It would be a fun experiment if you just took all of his discarded work and threaded it into something, and then you gave it back to him later. You could cowrite your next novel.

Joselyn: I would love to hitch my wagon to that.

Zibby: Joselyn, have you worked on your pitch for Pearce Oysters yet, what it’s about?

Joselyn: I haven’t had to do this out loud in a while. I’m actually working on finishing the developmental edit for Jordan this week. It’s a big week. Pearce Oysters is a family drama that takes place in 2010 over the course of the BP oil spill. It follows a family that runs a small oyster business that has been around for ninety years. It traces their family tensions as they have to figure out how to react as the oil is encroaching on their oyster farm.

Zibby: Amazing. That was a great pitch.

Taylor: It’s a great pitch, isn’t it?

Zibby: That was a great pitch.

Taylor: To the point. It doesn’t give away too much.

Zibby: A sense of urgency. Encroaching, that’s good.

Taylor: It leaves out how beautiful and brilliant it is, though, too.

Zibby: True, yes.

Joselyn: We can workshop this later, Zibby.

Zibby: I thought that was great. I really thought that was great. You might add “and the community.” I feel like the community is also trying to figure out how to handle it.

Taylor: I might mention that we get to go to New Orleans also, from the bayou to New Orleans and back. It runs the gamut of a lot of other pressing issues. We got drug addiction and dependency on prescribed prescription drugs.

Zibby: There’s a lot.

Taylor: There’s a lot in there. She packed it all in.

Zibby: I know. It’s so good.

Taylor: It’s a serious, beautiful novel.

Zibby: It is. It’s exciting. It’s so exciting. Thank you to the two of you. Next time, I’ll bring Kyle. The four of us can hang on Zoom. Congratulations on your first — is this the first as a couple?

Taylor: Yeah, this is the first couple book. The next one’s next year for the couple books.

Zibby: First on the couple. You got to clear the bookshelf in the house. There you go. Thrillville, USA. Congratulations. Keep working your magic.

Taylor: Thank you, Zibby.

Joselyn: Thanks so much for having us on, Zibby.

Zibby: That was really fun. All right guys, have a great day.

Joselyn: You too.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Taylor Koekkoek, THRILLVILLE, USA: Stories

THRILLVILLE, USA: Stories by Taylor Koekkoek

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