Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Peckerwood and a Dirtbag Walk Into a Bar

I had the pleasure of spending a few days with Eryk Pruitt and Lana Pierce in Durham, NC a couple weeks ago and many opportunities to talk on subjects of shared interest. Having read Eryk's book, Dirtbags, and having seen some of his films (hey - The Hoodoo of Sweet Mama Rosa is just out on DVD) I understood I was going to be meeting someone whose work I enjoyed and took seriously.

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?

Eryk Pruitt: Thank you very much for that. What I wanted to do and hoped to be successful in doing was to demonstrate how far some people will go to find meaning in their life. No matter where we think we are on the social stratum, there will always be someone above us and below us, and nine times out of ten, we aren't positioned quite where we think we should be. If there's one universal thing I believe unites us in a world of many races, creed, religions, political affiliations, and educational backgrounds, it's that we all want desperately for our lives to matter, whether we know it or not. How there are some jerk-offs out there that will cut someone off in traffic or stiff a waitress or do any number of shitty things to someone, and perhaps that's simply an extension of their efficacy, or lack thereof, and what might happen if you amplified that tendency in a man.

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?

EP: Disloyalty.

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.

However, I'm an admirer of your work with Hardboiled Wonderland, which can be called a review site. I'm a fan of the insight you provide, and it's often very spot on. What I don't see on there is you slamming somebody's work. I've noticed that if you don't like a book, you simply don't talk about it. Or if you don't enjoy a movie, you will focus instead on the more positive points about it, sometimes hilariously so.

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
For that reason I have to distance myself from doing proper reviews over there. My integrity as a critic is awfully compromised. If I do say something critical about your work on my site it probably indicates that I don't consider us peers or consider you someone I could potentially consider a peer someday. That could mean you're dead and gone, you're too big to be bothered or have your reputation hurt by somebody as small time as me, or that the work you do seems to me to be diametrically opposed to my own and I'm using that criticism to better define my own ideals and or vision.

It could also mean that you're just wrong or have failed... and that I'm an asshole.

I'm much more likely to be critical of a film than a book at this point because nobody knows me as a film maker. You on the other hand - do you consider yourself a film maker more than an author or playwright?

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?

JA: My screenwriting partner, Scott Phillips, and I have a few screenplays that I still think might get made. One in particular that I'm proud of. It's inspired by some stranger than fiction true crime stuff from Missouri that we just had to write about. The true story made us laugh it was so bleakly funny and the lazy way to write the thing would've made an easy fit for a Will Ferrell movie, but we worked hard to make it tragic and I think we nailed our tone. We took a few meetings with that one and people seemed very interested, but backed off because there was already Breaking Bad and Justified on TV and apparently there's a law that says you can't have more than one rural crime drama or one that says the word 'meth' in any of the scripts on the boob tube at the same time. Both those shows are over, so maybe somebody'll bite - but the one that is most heartbreaking?

Probably the adaptation we wrote for William Gay's The Long Home. The producer hired us based in part on a recommendation from another writer I greatly admire, and we wrote a script that I was proud of. At the time That Evening Sun was about to hit the festival circuit, Provinces of Night was in production and Twilight was supposedly in pre-production somewhere (not sure what happened with that one) and we were sure ours would be next, but... the deal never closed, the producer eventually lost the option and now James Franco has gone and made it without our script. Worst of all, William isn't with us any more. Scott and I were going to go to Nashville to meet him a few years ago, but he had to cancel his event for health reasons. Next thing we knew, he had died. Before he died though I did get one cool note from another writer I love - he told me he'd been at William's home and seen "my" screenplay sitting on the man's coffee table. "Did he read it?" I asked. The fella told me, "I can almost guarantee that he did not." And I think I'm happiest with that response.

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?'

EP: I thought about this question while I was outside, clearing blackberry bramble from a row along my back fence and remembering how sweet those berries tasted this summer and how they will taste next summer, but also remembering that, deep inside that bramble, there usually can be found the meanest of all black snakes. They are territorial, and very aggressive. Most of my neighbors tell me it's fortunate that we live in an area filled with aggressive, biting snakes -- although nonvenomous -- because they will keep the copperheads and rattlers and cottonmouths at bay. Check that: Mine is a nice neighborhood because the biting snakes are not poisonous.

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.

I think there are badasses amongst who capture all of that well on film or on the (e-)page. William Gay and Steve Weddle are great and catching the poetry of despair. So does Rectify and the early seasons of Justified. Daniel Woodrell is great at it. Like everyone, I'm in love with Flannery O'Connor, but unlike most people, I'm not a fan of Faulkner. I like them both, but I think Erskine Caldwell is way funnier than Charles Portis. I can get loose with the definition and allow a New Englander like Cormac McCarthy, so long as we compromise and add Jim Thompson, an Okie. I'd be an idiot not to call out a couple newer voices, like Greg Barth (Selena) and Curtis G. (Snow on tha Bluff).

What do I hate? Dialect. I really do. Twain could get away with it, but he's Mark fucking Twain. I believe the best writing advice I ever got was from some drunk hobo that told me never to write in dialect. That makin them there good ol boys write southern as corn-swallered grits ain't how we git all-fired... You get the picture. I fucking hate that. It makes me try harder to express a lack of education or a perceived lower social status through the turn of the phrase, if I'm not relying on dropping the g and adding an apostrophe. Some people can pull it off, but it chaps my hide.

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.

Technically, Missouri is Southern, although I think a lot of folks over there enjoy the distance. (I'm Texan... I get it) However, there's a rich tradition coming out of there as well. I mentioned Twain, but I'm big-time into the work of Gillian Flynn as well. She hasn't shed her midwestern roots and I think adds to the literary landscape over there. Between your work with Noir at the Bar in that area, as well as in the upcoming Akashic's St. Louis Noir, do you think there's a literary identity to that region? Do you recognize any traditions or characteristics there that you admire, or better yet, buck?

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.
At this point I'm not concerned with doing anything original though. I'm plenty happy to be a bar band in literature. I'll play the hits and make people dance and be pleased when they do. Of course there's nothing more depressing than a party band nobody wants to listen to and wishes they would just go away - and I would like to avoid being that. So yeah, I've got poverty and meth labs and uneducated people in my stories, but to me they seem both geographically appropriate and more importantly - universal. I'm far more interested in exploring people than geography.

People paving their own roads to hell. That might be as close to summing up my 'thing' as I've ever come. Do you have an identifiable 'thing' your writing explores? Do you think it's important to?

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.

One of my favorite reads of the last few years was Johnny Shaw's Big Maria which took its damn time getting to the real action of the plot, but invested you in the lives of a trio of fairly pathetic characters before turning them into action heroes. Or how about The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips - all you know about the 'plot' of that one for the first half of the book is that Charlie is leaving town. But both books have such great characters, such wonderful humor and setting, so much perfect tone you're turning pages with ease before anything resembling a real plot kicks in - and when it does, you're invested.

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.

I have always written, I just never knew what to do with it. No sooner had I finished Clay Reynolds' Agatite (later republished as Rage) than I tried to write my own sweeping crime epic told through varying points of view. Pulp Fiction is another one that got my juices boiling. But I was young and hadn't been punched enough times in the face or had my heart broken enough, to really write something. But after a few years of watching horror movies and shoot-em-ups, I came across Tom Franklin's Hell at the Breech and the works of William Gay and Cormac McCarthy and Richard Price and Jim Thompson, and, even though my voice is nowhere near as accomplished and poetic as theirs, it help set me on the path to find the one I now have.

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.

Speaking of movies, almost every one of those writers I mentioned have had their work adapted for the screen. You and I both have, as well. What's that like for you? I know you wrote the screenplay for Mosquito Kingdom, although you may have opinions on what was on the screen, as opposed to the page. But your work has also been straight-up adapted by someone else, like with A F**kload of Scotch Tape. (A musical? Bloody brilliant!) What is that like for you? Is it a bunch of teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling, or is it more unicorns and rainbows?

JA: Unicorns and rainbows for sure. Probably the fact that A Fuckload of Scotch Tape is a musical helped with that. If it were more of a straight-forward adaptation it might be more frustrating if I don't think the tone matches up with my intent in a certain scene or with a character - Julian Grant really made that thing his own - he re-wrote the plot and of course all the Kevin Quain songs made it at least as much his film as mine. So with that one I was free to sit back and enjoy how weird and fucked up it is.

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?

EP: If someone had some money dangled before me, I'd be quicker than shit. The ideal situation would be for someone to option one or both of them, then some daring group of filmmakers pick it up and I get to take the wife on a nice, warm vacation. Or put a fence around my yard. Or add on to our kitchen.

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. 

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