Eryk's been running N@B in Durham for a couple years now and is even hosting an event in Dallas next week with David Hale Smith that I'll be excited to be a part of alongside Harry Hunsicker, Joe R. Lansdale, Clay Reynolds, Max Booth III, Rod Davis, Scott Montgomery and Opalina Salas. So I'd have the chance to chat with some of the other participants I decided I ought to get another chat with Eryk out of the way. He didn't know I was transcribing our talk though. Shhh - don't tell him. What follows is an interview of sorts with an author whose work you ought to be making yourself familiar with, but has the added bonus of being a self-congratulatory fluff piece about me published on my own platform.
Jedidiah Ayres: So let's talk. I told you that I had a pre-conceived notion of what I'd be getting from a read of Dirtbags and that Dirtbags delivered the kind mordantly funny, violent piece irreverent pulp fiction I was expecting... what I didn't expect was the seriousness of the writer, and the empathy for the characters that couldn't be covered up by the gore and the squalor. Not to mention the structure of the novel. You've got chops, man. More intriguingly you've got heart and guts - why are you attracted to such low characters and circumstance?
Or not. I'm not sure, but I would call Dirtbags my attempt at trying to explain or understand people's shitty behavior towards each other.
Did you ever suss out what makes you a "dirtbag?" Or, more to the point, what is the real sin of the book?
JA: Lack of ambition?
Every character is disloyal. They are traitors. Every one except the ex-wife Corrina London and the bouncer Big Jack. We can forgive those with no ambition. We can't all be Steve Jobs. Someone's got to clean the iPod factories, and that's not what makes them a bad person. But what makes a person a true dirtbag is stabbing someone else in the back.
I tried to get all literary smart by quoting Dante in the epigraph. Dante put the worst sinners in his ninth level. The punishment was not fire, but ice, and the greatest sinners were the traitors. Brutus. Judas Iscariot. Cassius and Cain. Plus, I thought it sounded cool: "Watch which way you turn:/ take care you do not trample on the heads/of the forworn and miserable brethren." That's such a great story because Dante is actually calling out the dirtbags of his day, but in his case he was actually dropping names.
JA: Dropping names - do you feel good about the feel-good vibe of our corner of the crime-lit community or do you think authors should be calling each other out more publicly?
EP: I think folks can do what they want, but I'm not into calling people out publicly. There's plenty other people in the world who can call out historical mistakes, misplaced commas, and plot holes. Good lord I'm just as guilty of it myself. There's plenty folks on Twitter who get off on pointing fingers at people for social mistakes, of which I'm also culpable. I'd prefer not to be the one who calls folks out. I'd rather swap positive reviews on Amazon or Goodreads or WhatHaveYou.
Is that a conscious decision you made? To not trash other people's work, like so many other reviewers do? Do you really seek out the positive each time?
JA: Definitely. Plus I made a transition from being the guy who talks about books and films to the guy whose books (and hopefully some more) films get talked about occasionally -and more importantly- the guy who would really like you to be talking about his work on your own site. So it would be just wrong to suggest that there's not politics involved in what does or does not get discussed or reviewed at HBW and the handling those things that do get talked about are given.
|Blackhat received a...mixed review at HBW|
It could also mean that you're just wrong or have failed... and that I'm an asshole.
EP: I have always said that fiction is my first love, but that don't mean I won't get caught on a Friday night in a motel room with film.
I'm a storyteller, through and through. I've tried to write fiction since I was a kid, but ended up finding other ways to tell them. Rambling on and on to drunks at bars worked for a while, but you have to compete for attention with too many things. I'm fortunate to live in an area where a large percentage of the filmmaking population appreciates taking risks. But sometimes, there's only one way a story can be told, so I consider myself fortunate to have my fingers in a couple pots. For example, my first film Foodie was a failed short story. I couldn't make the story work any other way, so I wrote it as a screenplay and I'm glad I did.
I'd love to crack Hollywood, but I'm quite content in the indie world. You, on the other hand, take some mighty big swings. I've heard a few funny stories from you about films or TV shows that you've written or pitched. Which one was the biggest heartbreaker?
When I was staying at your place I read Tom Franklin's introduction to Little Sister Death and it gave me a strong case of the feels. I know his stuff is important to you too. When I appeared on your podcast I was hoping to hear a little more from you about other specifically 'Southern' writers whose work spoke to you. 'The South' and literature I know are two subjects of importance to you. What do you love and what do you hate about 'Southern writing?'
And if the black snake isn't around in the summer, I've got to be on my toes because of the ground-nesting yellow jackets, also territorial. Or fire ants. Or the old neighbor lady on the other side of the fence with a yesteryear's world view I often wish would go extinct. Or the thorns from the blackberry bush. Or the triple-degree heat for how many days now? Or, is that fox yonder supposed to be out in the daytime and moving toward me, as opposed to away?
No other place in America gives me the sweats quite like the South. There's so much to be afraid of down here. For a person who is naturally drawn to darker imaginations it is pure pornography. I stiffen at the sight of a rotten barn at the foot of a tobacco field. A Civil War battlefield has me standing at attention. And finding the local grotesque often drops me into explosive spasms of joy.
Also, I'm not big on the over-reliance of poverty porn. Like the only stories that could possibly happen in the South need to happen in a trailer home. Or all characters must chop wood and eat squirrels. The South is being killed by two things: Kudzu and suburban sprawl. Kudos to Grant Jerkins for nailing that in his books, by the way.
JA: Honestly I don't feel qualified to answer that. I'm not very well-read. For me around here I've got Mark Twain and the river and Daniel Woodrell and the Ozarks as looming literary landmarks, plus plenty of rich and violent history from the Lemps and Egan's Rats, the James and Youngers, Stag Lee and Billy Lyons to Quantrill and John Brown at the Western edge to draw inspiration from for the kind of fiction I am generally interested in writing. I know it's well-tilled ground too and that could make you feel a little hemmed in if you were wanting to address the region in a bold new way.
EP: I don't know if I've figured out a "thing," and I don't think I want to. Because I'm such a self-saboteur that the instant I realized what my "thing" was, my inner demon would say "oh yeah, that's what you think" and then I'd go about lousing it up.
I know what I would like to try and do, if I could. I'd like to try and make people think different about things after they've read my book. The greatest compliment I ever got was from my sister, who said "After I read Dirtbags, I couldn't go to the gas station or grocery store without thinking somebody out there wants to kill me." I floated a good three feet above the ground for days, man. If I could get that reaction from somebody every now and again, then I'd be ecstatic. Foodies quit talking to me about food after they watched Foodie, but I know they thought about me more than once when their waiters babbled on about sous vide this or that. Falling short of that, I'll settle for fetching a laugh out of someone. So if folks don't laugh a little on the inside when they read my business, then I feel like a big fat failure.
What kind of audience do you imagine reading your books when you write them. And don't tell me you don't imagine anyone reading your books. That's poppycock.
JA: Actually "Poppycock" was my nickname in high school. I won't go into why. The audience I imagine reading my stuff? What's that Finley Peter Dunne line about newspapers? Something about their job being to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? I like to think that's my loftiest goal. I hope that in my portrayals people who identify with the wretches my characters tend to be find the possibility of grace and readers who start out imagining themselves to be decent people will doubt it by story's end.
I understand not wanting your left hand to know what your right is doing in the creative process, as it can cause awful second-guessing and or terribly heavy-handed art. So I won't press you further on your 'thing', but have you come across examples now and again of authors nailing some unspoken or unrealized goal of your own?
EP: And if I were to have an audience in mind when I write, it's all the girls who ever broke it off with me, all the bosses that ever fired me, all the guys who ever picked a fight with me... Because I don't give a fuck what they think. If I thought of people I liked when I wrote, I might give a fuck too much which could monkey with the machinery.
I like how Stanley Kubrick tells a story. He gets you all into a setting and characters, then halfway through, he flips it on you. I like the storytelling in The Walking Dead and the Game of Thrones TV shows, because as soon as you think you get a handle on the narrative, they wag a finger in your direction and say "Now, now... That's not the story we are telling. This is the story we are telling." I like how Cormac McCarthy or William Gay allows us to wallow in a particular universe for a bit before they launch us headlong into their narratives. You do that with Peckerwood. I'm a huge fan of how Jim Thompson makes us root for the bad guy.
It's very easy for me to get caught up with trying to cram enough plot in the first fifty pages or three chapters or first five pages or whatever it is that agents and publishers want you to query that I can lose sight of the larger mosaic that some of those pieces I just mentioned are able to pull off. You guys got that shit down pat.
How about you?
JA: Brother do I hear you about the plot cramming. I got that note several times in rejections of Peckerwood (by agents and publishers) - that the plot doesn't kick in soon enough. And, okay, if you're looking at it in a purely commercial sense I can understand the frustration there, but it was never going to be that book. It was not going to take place in the last 24 hours of that particular situation's running time and be reliant on flashbacks and copious exposition. I like it to be an immersive experience as well. Which isn't to say I won't try to write a kick-ass thriller sometime - it just wasn't this one.
But to your question of recognizing in other's work what I'd like to get at in mine - I am laid out by the spiritual lostness of something like Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter or Kyle Minor's short fiction, the third act of Dennis Tafoya's Dope Thief came out of nowhere to add a wholly new dimension to an already perfectly human crime thriller, Christa Faust's knack for writing pure pulp with something to actually chew on between the lines and Anthony Neil Smith's insistence on making you eat it when you revel in the sex or violence of my kind of lit. These are all elements I think - that's what I want to do - when I encounter them in the work of others.
How did you discover books or film that affected you on the level of making you need to do it yourself?
EP: I'm glad you did not listen to their advice.
But more influential than all of that (to me) has been bad fiction. I'm not lying. All the great Cormac McCarthy books can send you straight to the fetal, but only after reading The Orchard Keeper did I realize he was fallible. I got what he was trying to do there, but seeing him fall short of it helped me understand where things can go wrong in my own fiction. When some other writer creates bad characterizations, I make note of how they did it and steer clear in my own writing. Bad TV, crappy movies... What happened was my wife got tired of me sitting on the couch and bellyaching about why this horror movie was crap and how it could have been better and finally she said, "Oh yeah, then why don't you make one yourself?"
I found Agitate on my college roommate's dirty bedroom floor and I stole it. I couldn't tell you what led up to me finding William Gay's books, but I can probably tell you every moment after, that's for sure.
How quick would you be to let somebody run with Further South or Dirtbags or Hashtag? Do you even have an ideal situation for film adaptation of your work - would you want to do it yourself?
But we're lucky to live in an age where we needn't rely on Hollywood to get things made. If all other options were exhausted and I was forced to adapt them on my own, I could get it done and find some innovative folks to help me out. I said early on that I was too close to Dirtbags to be able to successfully adapt it myself, but that's straight-up balderdash these days. I've had plenty of time to think on it.
But to be honest, I really dig the adaptation process. I think it's the ultimate form of criticism. Not only have you told a story, but someone who read your story is trying to interpret it through their own mind machine. I've been fortunate to see my work adapted by two very skilled filmmakers (Christopher G. Moore and Meredith Sause) and it's the ultimate flattery. I get a nervous tic sometimes watching them go a direction that's different than my own, but when they win festival awards for our films, I forget about all that nonsense.
Come see us in Dallas next week and tell us we're wrong. Can't make it to Noir at the Bar? Then how about picking up Eryk's work Hashtag, Dirtbags or reading his story The Last Time We Saw Bears in Lake Castor in Thuglit #19?) Then drop a quick review in your favorite e-media venue.