Eryk Pruitt is one of the growing number of writers who are helping to make 280 Steps an ever more prominent force in the crime fiction community. Eryk is a screenwriter, author, and filmmaker who, in 2011, wrote and produced the short film Foodie, which won eight top awards at over sixteen film festivals. His more recent films (Keepsake and Liyana, On Command) will screen at film festivals in 2015.
Eryk’s short fiction has appeared in The Avalon Literary Review, Thuglit, Pulp Modern, and Zymbol, among others. In 2014, his fiction was twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and he was a finalist for a Derringer Award. His debut novel was Dirtbags, but he’s here today to discuss his newest, Hashtag, currently available in Kindle and paperback.
Eryl Pruitt lives in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and their cat, Busey.
One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Hashtag.
Eryk Pruitt: Hashtag is told in three sections, each with its own "protagonist." The first story deals with Odie Shanks, a small-town boy with big-time dreams. He gets mixed up with Jake Armstrong, a career criminal, who helps him rob stations en route to Hollywood. The second part deals with Deputy Roy Rains, the hick cop assigned to cover up Odie's criminal debut, and the third stars "Sweet" Melinda Kendall, a tweaker coming down from a killer high and making all the wrong decisions.
OBAAT: Where did you get this idea, and what made it worth developing for you? (Notice I didn’t ask “Where do you get your ideas?” I was careful to ask where you got this idea.)
EP: I got the idea for Hashtag one day when my car broke down and I had to wait out a ride at a twenty-four hour diner. At that point, I would have done just about anything to get out of the current situation I was in, and that includes robbing gas stations.
OBAAT: How long did it take to write Hashtag, start to finish?
EP: It took a long time. While I'm not sure about the specific amount of time it has taken to write it, I know there's been at least seven rewrites. It took a lot of massaging to get it exactly where I wanted it.
OBAAT: Hashtag weaves three stories together in such a manner that there’s no single “protagonist;” Odie Shanks, Deputy Roy Rains and Sweet Melinda Kendall all help to carry the stories along. Are they similar to yourself, people you know, or made up completely from your imagination?
EP: They are made up, definitely. For all I know, they represent different versions of myself. Someone who makes bad decisions, one after the other (Melinda), or the guy who will go to great lengths to preserve a lazy way of life (Rains)... The Odie Shanks is kind of similar to how I acted when I was younger, but as of late, I'd identify most with Jake Armstrong.
OBAAT: In what time and place is Hashtag set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?
EP: Funny story: The first version was set back in 1996. The late nineties are a fascinating time to me because think of all that's changed since then. The nineties are before cellphones, social media, cameras in gas stations, 9/11, PED testing in baseball, Bush II and Obama... But I became fascinated with the idea of a guy who missed all that because he was in prison. How charmed it would be to have a character who thought the late 90s were boss (like me) and then coming out of a long sleep and having to adapt to this world. Oh, and give him a score to settle.
As far as place: I'm in love with the American South, so this is my love letter. There is no place, in my mind, more beautifully twisted than this. And specifically, it takes place in Lake Castor, Virginia, which falls victim to a lot of the ugly things about the South, same as everywhere else. It's a town that lost 60% of its population when the mill jobs moved overseas, and they haven't properly dealt with that yet. It's also the setting for my first novel, Dirtbags.
OBAAT: How did Hashtag come to be published?
EP: The good folk at 280 Steps reached out to me and asked if I'd be interested. I'm extremely impressed with what they've done in such a short time, so it was a no-brainer. I've been very privileged to work with them.
OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
EP: I like gritty stories. Southern fiction, if at all possible. I love William Gay, Daniel Woodrell, Jim Thompson, Mark Twain, Cormac McCarthy, Clay Reynolds, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Price, Pete Dexter...
OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
EP: It's my dream come true. When I was a kid, I wanted to tell stories. I grew up and went to bars, where you have to compete with limited attention spans. All the ladies and music and close-captioned SportsCenter... No, if I wanted to tell a story from beginning, middle, and end, I would need to buck up and start writing.
I had a couple films made, but those stories go through a process of changes. The director wants this changed or the limits of our resources dictate that be changed. After a couple films, I decided I wanted to write something that would not be changed due to someone else's opinion, so I knew I had to write fiction. Fiction is my first love, but that doesn't mean I won't spend the night in a motel with Film on occasion.
OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
EP: I've found myself in enough sticky situations over the years to have plenty of material to borrow from. I also find they are still in no short supply. Perhaps the less I say about that, the better.
OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
EP: Being able to exorcize demons. I snatched a degree in Literature a while back when I went to college, so it sucks to walk through life and recognize theme and symbolism in everything and not be able to do anything about it. I can't pass a graveyard or penitentiary without thinking "ooh, foreshadowing." At least when I'm writing, I can take control of the situation and zig when I otherwise might have zagged.
OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
EP: Writers: Jim Thompson, Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, Richard Price, Kurt Vonnegut. I think the best stories are told on TV right now and can't escape the influence of The Sopranos, The Wire, The Walking Dead, and old school 21 Jump Street. I have a healthy respect for Stanley Kubrick and Quentin Tarantino. I'm influenced in the everyday by my professional peers, such as Meredith Sause, Tracey Coppedge, Jeffrey Moore, and Nick Karner.
OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
EP: I wear pants because I have a cat who hasn't been declawed. I write until I know what I'm doing, then adapt an outline. About halfway through, the outline goes into the trash as better ideas work their way in there. But I'm a nerd for structure. Ask anyone...
OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?
EP: I read about these guys who write and revise as they go. That kills me. I do my best writing when I'm away from the computer, taking notes like mad on little scraps of paper, then compiling those notes into something legible. I spend all day with my characters sometimes, which makes me something of a bore when I go out to socialize. I put as much of the story as possible into the first draft, and yes... revision is a mountain.
OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?
EP: I listen obsessively to music. I usually have a playlist rolling for a particular work. For Hashtag, I had three; one for each character. When I wrote for Odie Shanks, I listened to a lot of fast-paced music, a lot of Highway 61 Revisited. Roy Rains got a lot of Texas swing, that old Milton Brown, Bob Wills and Shelley Lee Alley. With Sweet Melinda, it was a lot of Skynyrd, Allmann Brothers and Stevie Ray Vaughn.
OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
EP: Don't check your email or look at social media while you are writing. Save that shit for later. Plan to exercise. Schedule trips out of the computer chair.
OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
EP: Submit. Submit. Submit. There are a million people out there who will tell you to it's not any good. Keep looking for the person who sees the diamond in the doodoo and will help get you to the next step.
OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?
EP: I can't rank any one above another. I am fascinated with the sociology of a place... so I find setting just as important as any character or plot. I want the reader to keep turning pages, so story is important. I like the tri-fold storytelling approach I took in Dirtbags and Hashtag because it shows that a story is sometimes more than one POV. And I will sometimes get halfway through a work before I settle good and tight on the tone, which means I have to go back to the beginning and make adjustments. But I can't say any one component is more important than the other.
OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?
EP: Gone Girl. That thing is so deliciously twisted. It reels you in on Page One and doesn't let go and there are too many twists and turns. Every moment of it was gripping and I found the back pages getting thinner and thinner which means the book is ending and I never wanted it to end. That woman has the same sense of humor and depravity as myself and I found myself immediately jealous.
OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
EP: I like working on film crews. After spending all day writing, it's a real treat to take part in the creative process with other people. Especially if they are nice people.
OBAAT: What are you working on now?
EP: I am finishing the last touches on my short film "The HooDoo of Sweet Mama Rosa," which is based on a short story I wrote for Zymbol magazine. We filmed it last summer and it should be ready in June. It stars J.W. Smith, Logan Harrison, Rita Gonzales, Tracey Coppege, Jeffrey Moore, and Meredith Sause. The story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is one of my favorite pieces. I am also working on another novel.