Pulpwood Fiction gets started today with a conversation with North Carolina writer and filmmaker Eryk Pruitt. His debut novel, Dirtbags, went on sale this month. Read our review here.
Eryk is many things: storyteller, filmmaker, reverend. He’s also irreverent, doesn’t care for snakes and sometimes uses really bad language. His short fiction has been featured in ThugLit, the Avalon Literary Review and several other publications. His short film, Foodie, won awards at film festivals across the country, and he was named a finalist for a Best Short Fiction Award in Short Story America. He was patient enough to sit for an interview …
DIRTBAGS is on sale now. A title that strong may give your casual book browser something of a preconception as to its nature. How did the story come about?
I would like to think the strong title gives readers a good idea what they are going to find inside the book. We all know dirtbags, we all hate dirtbags … now let’s watch them in action. It allows the reader the freedom to hate the characters if they want, while still offering them the challenge to root for them. The story came about with a simple premise: What if a man wanted someone killed quietly, but he hired a brand-forward, aspiring serial killer to do the job. What kind of hilarity would ensue?
There are some laugh-out-loud moments in DIRTBAGS. That’s part of what makes this story work – you want to shake your head at Calvin and Phillip and Tom London. They’re wretches, but you can’t help but laugh at them. I mean, those of us who grew up in the South know more than one Calvin or Tom London.What is it about the South that makes it seem so rich in these stories that are often called gothic or noir?
I think the South is so rich in stories because it is occupied territory. Long ago, the South fought a war and lost. Sure, the cause was wrong and corrupt, but still they lost and the anger and resentment became generational. However, during times of absolute poverty, folks had nowhere to go but stories and that tradition of storytelling has evolved from tales over a campfire to Flannery O’Connor to Cormac McCarthy to Daniel Woodrell and beyond. To grow up in the South means you are exposed to many different dark and grotesque influences, from hate to racism to religion and all that darkness, whether overcome or not, can be beautiful. All of our stories come from overcoming or succumbing to that darkness.
Besides, with Spanish moss clinging to the low-country trees and God knows what lurking in those gas-lit streets of New Orleans and secrets being whispered in the big thicket of East Texas and then Nashville of all places, and who can forget what horrors lurk inside the peninsula of Florida … dude, how does anyone write stories elsewhere in the world?
In your mind, what are the key elements to a noir story?
Violence. Darkness. Conflicted characters that have no moral compunction about crossing lines. Most noir traditionally is urban, but I prefer mine rural because I grew up having to watch for snakes and that shit is scary.
Do you have a specific writing style or methodology?
I like to write like I am telling the story in a bar. Sometimes, I like to write like it’s my dad telling the story in the bar. That’s what takes the most effort because my dad would neither tell a story or go into a bar. So it flexes my creative muscle.
Who do you consider to be influences?
No one has influenced me more than Flannery O’Connor. Her brief body of work left such an impact on me and millions of other Southerners … But William Gay, Clay Reynolds, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy and Jim Thompson have left their mark on me big time.
O’Connor is one of a kind. Wise Blood still fascinates me. She once said that “violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace.” That blew me away, and it’s something I am still exploring as a writer. Is that the case in your work, or does the violence serve another purpose?
For me, it was The Violent Bear It All Away. When I finished that book, it was one in the morning and I was lying in bed. I switched off the light and thought about what I had just read. Within ten minutes, I flipped on the light again and opened the book back up to page one. That’s the only time that’s ever happened.
To me, violence represents how random things are in life. All could be going great, you’re on a hot date, just ate a great meal and BAM some asshole hits you with his car or starts a fight in a bar or comes along and mugs you. Your life is derailed because of the choice someone else makes. That’s true horror to me. I swear, I don’t know how some people leave the house. That’s why traditional horror will never give me the willies because when I go to the bank or to the grocery store or to the post office, it’s not the sparkly vampire or the studly werewolf that has me looking over my shoulder. It’s the disgruntled postal worker or the kid who played too many video games jacked up on Zoloft or the homeless war vet with nothing left to lose … It’s the fact that when some guy comes and wipes out twenty people in the restaurant where I’m eating or flies the plane I’m on into the side of the White House, I become one face of many while that guy … that guy gets to tell his story and the rest of us are silent. I’m fucking afraid of that, so if I want to scare the hell out of people, that’s what I want to communicate. Sparkly vampires and haunted houses are only entertainment.
Tell me you haven’t walked the streets of Mobile or Savannah or even Jackson after dark and not felt what I’m talking about. That’s the South, man. That anger is lurking out there and any day we can fall prey to it. If I can communicate one scintilla of that fear, then I’ve done my job.
Are you a plot writer or a character writer?
Both. I find both to be very important and, depending on the work, one will lead the other. Sometimes I have the plot and insert a character I’ve been trying to find a home for, and other times I have the character and follow him around a while to see just what he’ll get his fingers into.
You also write for the screen and the stage. Is that a difficult transition for you – going from writing fiction to writing screenplays, which is a totally different form of storytelling?
I don’t think it’s difficult. A screenplay is easy for me. I like dialogue, and I use the same method to put dialogue on the screen or on the page. I enjoy fiction more because I get more opportunities to experiment with structure, and I get more security that a larger percentage of what I create will remain in the work. A director could turn any masterpiece I write into an all-female version of this or that and I know when I write a script there’s a good chance it will be altered.
One of William Faulkner’s better-known short stories, “Barn Burning,” was adapted a few years back into a short film, with Tommy Lee Jones. Talk about the difference between a short story of about 4,000 words or so and a short film of 40 minutes.
I don’t think short media have many differences. Both need to engage, both need a beginning, middle and end, but require smaller units of time to tell it. I have found that short films are perfect adaptations to my style of short fiction and I nearly prefer them to features, because there’s less filler. The content is more economical in short fiction.
How does your screenwriting inform your fiction writing and vice versa?
Screenwriting helps my dialogue. I’m always complimented on my dialogue and I think this comes from a love of writing and watching film. Also, I like my reader to do a little of the work themselves, so my goal is to access their visual powers as much as possible, and I’ve found that putting too many words on the page impedes that. No, let them form a picture in their head and do as little as possible to get in the way of that.
You mention dialogue and I immediately think of Elmore Leonard. To me, he was the undisputed master of dialogue – and I’m including Tarantino in that bunch.
The dialogue in Justified (inspired by Elmore Leonard) is awesome. I like old Tarantino dialogue. What’s odd is that Cormac McCarthy is the master of fiction dialogue (in my opinion) but he failed miserably with his screenplay to The Counselor. I also believe (right now) that the best dialogue on film happens when you don’t think about it. I don’t want anyone to get halfway through a movie I wrote and say “Wow this is good dialogue” because that removes them from falling headlong into the product. I’d rather them think about it after.
Since we’re talking about films, Foodie is an indy short. I know a lot of fiction writers have reached that point where they’ve written the thing and they can see it in their mind’s eye, but they’re staring at a wall thinking, “Well, now what?” How did Foodie come about?
With Foodie, I ran into two guys at a bar who did some documentary work who said they wish they could find a script to shoot cheap. Like you, I had written a bunch of things and had FOODIE in a file cabinet drawer. I ran home, got it, and pitched it to them. I pitched a Kickstarter campaign which raised $3,000 for production. I went to the local small theatre and asked the owner to help me cast the 10 roles. We auditioned and got 10 top actors with top talent. Then the two assholes quit the project because it was too hard. But there was no time to turn back. On the strength of the ten actors, the budget – which I raised – and the script – which everyone loved – and locations, the only thing we were missing was a director. At this point, the main actor (Nick Karner) set up meetings with me and local directors and I could choose the one I wanted. Then the film was made and we won lots of awards.
The short answer is that you got to make it yourself. You have a script, now go put the package together. Get some actors, get some locations, get some money, and then things start to fall into place. It takes a long time and it’s much, much easier if someone else was doing that shit for you but it may or may not happen.
Where can people buy DIRTBAGS?
DIRTBAGS is available right now on Amazon, both in print and e-formats, and on the Nook. We’re working with other formats that take a little longer, and I’m pounding the pavement to get it put into bookstores. Honestly, if I have to sell it out on the street I will do it, because wouldn’t that be appropriate?