The "rural noir" writer talks filmmaking, the South, and What We Reckon.
As is often the case, I'd read Eryk Pruitt's work before I met him in person. Actually, allow me to amend that statement — I met Eryk because I'd read his work, and it haunted me relentlessly. The influential crime-fiction site Detectives Beyond Borders had glowingly written about his novel Dirtbags, and then named it the best book of 2015.
I read the book for myself and wholeheartedly agreed. Pruitt's mix of destitute tragedy will resonate with readers familiar with Faulkner or O'Connor's southern gothic touch, along with a humor and unexpectedness that contemporary audiences will savor.
I met Eryk when he drove up from Durham, NC, to read at a DC Noir at the Bar in 2016. We tend to get good readers at these Noirs at the Bar, but it's a hard trick to keep an audience entertained. Pruitt's story stunned the audience. No one knew what to expect and, in the course of his story ("Knacker," described below), the audience simply stopped caring and joyously went along for the ride. I've since seen Pruitt at other readings, and that wasn't an isolated experience.
Simply put, he's one of the most compelling new voices in fiction. His new novel, What We Reckon, is coming out from Polis Books on October 10th. I recently spoke with him about the new book, writing in general, and his other artistic interests.
What was the genesis of What We Reckon?
Like all my other work, I woke up one morning after having a couple drinks, only to discover I'd written in ink across a cocktail napkin, "Wouldn't it be funny if..." Drugs, cults, delusional paranoid townies. They say, "Write what you know." I keep my eyes open and my pen handy.
I wanted to explore a relationship between two people that deteriorates at the same rate as their sanity. Jack and Summer have been telling lies to everyone and anyone and, eventually, that catches up to them. But just as they are two sides of the same coin, I wanted to drop them into two different situations that were the mirror opposite of each other and find out if they could maneuver through them.
In your writing, you often explore the concept of partnership, both in regard to loyalty and betrayal. Is that a fair statement to make and, if so, where does it come from?
Thank you for pointing that out. As you can tell, it's a deep-seated issue I have yet to work out with the head shrinker. According to Dante, the traitors are the worst of the worst. I get my kicks thinking of that chilly Ninth Level peopled with Iscariot, Brutus, and the ex-girlfriend who cheated on me with an English professor. I think all relationships are built on a personal social contract and, while some of those contracts may be unconventional, they are expected to be honored. I like to read/watch/write stories about people who challenge the interpretations of those contracts and whether or not they get their comeuppance.
I don't stray too far from that formula with What We Reckon. Jack and Summer have been at it awhile. They try to figure out which of them can deliver the deepest cut, all to what I hope are hilarious and dark consequences.
You're often regarded as a Southern writer operating in "rural noir." Does that categorization bother you? And is it a category you're likely to stay in?
The categorization does not bother me in the slightest. In fact, I'd be honored to fit alongside some of the heavyweights I've grown up idolizing in that sub-genre. I'm profoundly influenced by Daniel Woodrell, Larry Brown, Clay Reynolds, Joe Lansdale, Benjamin Whitmer, Donald Ray Pollock, Steve Weddle, and Harry Crews. I hang on every word of new guys like Greg Barth, Marietta Miles, and S.A. Cosby. I grew up in a small town, so I know what to be scared of and to what to get turned on by. I know to watch for snakes.
However, I think the word "Southern" has become a pejorative of late, due to deplorable actions from a few bad apples. I prefer the concept of a New South, or a pot that actually melts. Being from Texas, I can appreciate the influence cultures have on each other, so I hope instead of a Southern tradition consisting of Rebel-flag-waving peckerwoods, I can be part of a South with traditions like blues music, bourbon, BBQ, yaka mein, tacos, Tejano, Hank Sr., zydeco, old-time, and fresh tomato sandwiches. The South is a beautiful place where the haunted and the hallowed stand side by side. I don't want a bunch of salty crackers to give us a bad rap.
When did you start working in film?
I started writing screenplays fresh out of high school. I wrote every day, read all the books, took classes, got an agent, submitted, and sold. I earned a little bit of scratch early on, but the only thing that ever got produced were empty promises. Whatever; the check cashed, and I went to college.
I kept writing, but after a while, it became more for practice.
In 2011, I served drinks to a pair of filmmakers in a bar who said, "If we could only find a short script worth filming..." I got a barback to cover my shift, ran home, pulled "Foodie" out of the file cabinet, and there you have it. I had to finance that one (via Kickstarter), but I learned right away that I'd much rather have something get produced than get money for nothing. Some of you may think that's silly talk, but I reckon a few of you will know what I'm talking about. I've learned to balance between the two worlds, but I'm more proud of "Foodie" than I am any of the scripts I've been paid for but were never made.
What can you tell us about your current projects?
The Long Dance podcast is the culmination of a year's worth of deep investigation into a 46-year-old double homicide right here in Durham, NC, where I live. Two young lovers left a Valentine's dance in 1971, only to vanish and later be found strangled, tortured, and tied to a tree. Their killer has never been caught, and the number-one suspect still walks among us. For the past year, my partner, Drew Adamek, and I have collected audio interviews from one end of the state to the other. We've worked closely with law enforcement to craft an eight-part, true-crime podcast packed full of information you can literally get nowhere else. I would expect that to hit iTunes and other podcast sites by the end of the year.
“Going Down Slow” is a short Southern-noir film about a married couple at a crossroads in their relationship who must put aside their differences so they can bury a hobo. I was extremely fortunate to work with two of the most compelling actors, Meredith Sause and Michael Howard, who brought two complicated characters to life. I think their performances in this thing will blow folks away and I can't wait to show it off to everyone. That should be ready by the spring of 2018.
What mediums/platforms would you eventually like to work in?
I am jealous of the work folks get to do on television shows like “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead,” early seasons of “Justified,” and most Netflix programming. I studied television-writing for a long time, but if I wanted to pursue it seriously, I'd have to live in Los Angeles. Since I'm not willing to do that, I have to put that dream aside. What We Reckon is my compromise. I structured that novel as if it were a TV show, with an A, B, C, and D plot and the arcs those plots would require for two full seasons. It was fun to scratch that itch, and hopefully an audience responds to it.
[Editor’s note: You can see Eryk Pruitt, along with a terrific lineup of other writers, at D.C.'s next Noir at the Bar on Oct. 10th, at 7 p.m., at the Wonderland Ballroom. Click here for details.]
E.A. Aymar’s latest novel is You’re As Good As Dead. He is involved in a collaboration with DJ Alkimist, a NY- and DC-based DJ, where his stories are set to her music. For more information about that project, visit www.eaalkimist.com.