Monday, June 29, 2015

Outgrowing Childish Things

Joe Clifford came to my attention at Bouchercon Long Beach, and hooked me good with Junkie Love. (His new book is Lamentation.) His blog is now among my can’t miss reads. Last week he posted the following in Facebook:

Today's motivator for getting the kid ready for school...
Me: OK. If you want to see pictures of Daddy's broken back, get ready for school!
(Last week, Holden asked why back always hurts, which led to pictures from my motorcycle accident. Far from explanation or inviting empathy [or deterrent from riding bikes], they have turned into a great form of amusement for the boy [and a bargaining chip for Dad]...

This is a cute and funny story any parent can relate to. What struck me a moment later was a spin-off from Joe’s “empathy” comment. A four-year-old doesn’t understand the seriousness of a broken back, so the picture and story are funny in a Three Stooges kind if way: there are no consequences the child is aware of.

The rest of us have no excuse.

Yes, I’m old, and, yes, I’m whining (again), but I am more disturbed all the time by the amount of humor derived from violence, pain, suffering, and death by neo-noir books and action movies. I’m sure I’m missing the true origin, but, to me, it stems from the flippant lines that became so common when Arnold Schwarzenegger killed someone. (“Stick around” from Predator comes to mind. To be fair, Predator is one of my favorite Arnold flicks; just not that line. “You are one ugly motherfucker” is genuinely funny, in context.) Quentin Tarantino is another prime offender.

Humor is appropriate in any context; that’s why the Irish invented wakes. Humor that shows the protagonist is a callous bastard is fine when the point is to show he’s a callous bastard; not for a laugh. As Raymond Chandler wrote in his essay, “The Simple Art of Murder:”

It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization.

“What we call civilization” becomes less civil all the time. I’m not an advocate of political correctness, but there is substantial room for compromise between being PC and walking around armed all the time. Libertarianism has many virtues; the too-frequently adopted attitude of “I get to do whatever I want and to hell with everyone else” is not among them.

I do not blame gun violence, drug abuse, poverty, child abuse, pollution, climate change, political corruption, or [insert favorite society destroyer here] on books or movies or television. I do not advocate returning to the days of the Hayes Office, where stories were too often morality plays. I don’t need art to tell me what to think. What I need—what we all need—is art that lays things out for us in a manner where we can draw our own conclusions, and not leave us with the idea that it’s humorous when evil is done, or that collateral damage means nothing so long as the bad guy gets his. There needs to be some nuance between those extremes, too.

Without placing too harsh a burden on culture, or ascribing too much influence to it, we’re all better off leaving a movie talking about character motivations, or wondering what happens next than we are debating whether Fury Road has better effects than Furious 7. Maybe not every time—fun’s fun—but not never, either.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Drop

The current state of popular culture has me bummed, and not above whining about it. Imagine my elation when I finally got around to watching The Drop last week, a film that combines 21st Century production values with 70s movie sensibilities.

Anything Dennis Lehane is associated with gets my attention, and I’d been aware of The Drop since the book released last fall. (An unorthodox road led to Lehane being asked to write a screenplay based on his short story, “Animal Rescue,” which he concurrently turned into a short novel to be released around the time of the movie’s premiere.) The book went with me to NoirCon and almost led me to miss a night at the bar. A great place to start for someone who is not yet a Lehane initiate. (Though why anyone is not yet a Lehane initiate is beyond me, unless they read Moonlight Mile first.)

The movie captures the feel of the book perfectly. This may not be too much of a surprise,
as the novel is, essentially, the screenplay, but we’ve all seen directors who get on the set and find their Muse has spent too much time in the sun, or got hold of some bad acid and bollocksed it altogether. It’s moody without laying it on, as director MichaĆ«l R. Roskam steps back and lets his actors and material rule the day, to great effect. (Though why they moved the story from Boston to New York is beyond me.)

The casting is perfect. Tom Hardy is the Liam Neeson of his generation, playing Bob as someone easy to underestimate. (Is he slow, or playing at it?) James Gandolfini’s Cousin Marv is where Tony Soprano could easily have wound up without some luck and smarts. Noomi Rapace is attractive in a damaged, girl you might see in a working-class bar way, not at all like a movie star. Matthias Schoenaerts plays Eric Deeds as a psycho who exhibits his imbalance through understated menace.

Understated. That’s the key work that sums up why The Drop is so good. No explosions. No chases. Just a story about people in difficult situations not always of their choosing, making borderline—and sometimes bad—decisions. Nothing in it feels made up, and everything in it makes perfect sense in retrospect. Everything you need to know to figure the final twist is there. Americans seems to make fewer of this kind of movie every year. (Of course, director Roskam is Belgian.) Let’s hope The Drop isn’t too much of an isolated incident.

Monday, June 22, 2015

In Support of Simon Pegg

I’m a Simon Pegg fan, more for his comedies (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, End of the World) than his other work. (No offense to his other work, which I’ve heard is excellent. I just haven’t seen the movies, except for the Star Trek reboot, where he threatened to steal every time he was in.) Mr. Pegg recently found himself in the midst of a kerfuffle when he was quoted as saying:

“Obviously, I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science-fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. We’re essentially all consuming very childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!

“It is a kind of dumbing down because it’s taking our focus away from real-world issues. Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys. Now we’re really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk just had a fight with a robot.”

This rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, notably those who take comic book- and superhero-based movies seriously. Pegg made an effort to clarify and expand upon his remarks:
Simon Pegg, at his audition for the
role of Dennis Lehane.

“Before Star Wars, the big Hollywood studios were making art movies, with morally ambiguous characters, that were thematically troubling and often dark (Travis Bickle dark, as opposed to Bruce Wayne dark). This was probably due in large part to the Vietnam War and the fact that a large portion of America’s young men were being forced to grow up very quickly. Images beamed back home from the conflict, were troubling and a growing protest movement forced the nation to question the action abroad. Elsewhere, feminism was still dismissed as a lunatic fringe by the patriarchal old guard, as mainstream culture actively perpetuated traditional gender roles. Star Wars was very much an antidote to the moral confusion of the war, solving the conundrum of who was good and who was evil. At the heart of the story was an ass kicking princess who must surely have empowered an entire generation of girls. It was a balm for a nation in crisis in a number of ways and such was that nation’s influence, the film became a global phenomenon.

“Recent developments in popular culture were arguably predicted by the French philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard in his book, ‘America’, in which he talks about the infantilzation of society. Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in, inequality, corruption, economic injustice etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth? A time when we were shielded from painful truths by our recreational passions, the toys we played with, the games we played, the comics we read. There was probably more discussion on Twitter about the The Force Awakens and the Batman vs Superman trailers than there was about the Nepalese earthquake or the British general election.”
I’ve allowed Mr. Pegg to write most of this post because I agree with him almost completely. (Thank you, sir. Should we meet, the drinks are on me.) I can understand why the Nepalese earthquake didn’t get as much run as Batman vs Superman, if only because how can one be for earthquakes? Americans seem to be far more interested in Ant Man and Iron Man and Superman and Batman and (you get the point) than they are in important policy matters relevant to the 2016 elections.   Most Americans content themselves with looking for candidates’
“gotcha” moments. (Certainly the media do.)

Don’t misunderstand me: I love mindless entertainment. In its place. I can recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, Get Shorty, The Big Lebowski…) right along with the films, and miss few chances to drop lines into daily life. A cards-and-dice baseball game is among my preferred forms of recreation. The difference is I’m not going to argue about their cultural significance because there shouldn’t be any.

Too closely embracing cartoonish visions of crime and corruption and violence trivializes them, thus making it more difficult to take the real thing seriously. Everyone needs their escapism from time to time, and—oh, hell, yes—we need it badly now. (Though I could live without some of the fascist elements of the “Protect us at all costs” school.) Let’s just not forget that shit needs to get real, too, and it’s not doing that nearly often enough in popular culture, nor in the discussion of that culture. Leisure time and recreation are great; I’m as lazy as the next guy. What’s disturbing is how much effort and how many limited resources are expended on them, to the detriment of more important things.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Twenty Questions With Joe Ricker

Joe Ricker is another of the burgeoning stable of writers at 280 Steps who are ready to assert themselves in the crime fiction realm. Joe grew up in Sanford, Maine, attended Marion Military Institute, then the University of Mississippi. He went on to earn an MFA from Goddard College, after which he lectured in the writing department at Ithaca College. In between all of the above he has been a cab driver, acquisitions expert, farmhand, lumberjack, innkeeper, at-risk youth counselor, construction worker, and bartender at the City Grocery in Oxford, MS, where his clientele included Southern literary legends Larry Brown and Barry Hannah. His short fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Rose & Thorn Journal, and The Hangover.

His new book is Walkin’ After Midnight, which has received praise from heavyweights such as Ace Atkins (“Ricker is a hard-boiled poet in the tradition of Charles Bukowski… These shorts are served straight up with no chaser… Highly recommended.”) and Tom Franklin (“Tough yet lyrical, bristling with hard-won wisdom… these stories beat their fists like drums.”)  Joe and I discussed Walkin’ After Midnight at length, along with several other writing- and Ricker-related topics.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Walkin’ After Midnight.

Joe Ricker: Walkin’ After Midnight is a collection of stories that skirts along the dark edges of morality. It’s a collection that examines how dangerous anyone could be.

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.)
JR: The idea that I had for the stories in Walkin’ After Midnight all came from my struggle to understand violence and the primal motivations for it. There’s a very dark perspective in these stories, and I think most of them have come out of my own darkness and things I was trying to process.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write Walkin’ After Midnight, start to finish?
JR: I wrote the stories for Walkin’ After Midnight over the past six years. The first story I published was “Ice Shack” back in 2008, which was also my first fiction publication. I wrote several more (probably half) between then and 2010. I didn’t work on short stories again until 2012 when I wrote the title story. The last five stories I wrote over the better part of 2014.

OBAAT: Do you draw upon your own personality and experiences when building protagonists, or make them up of whole cloth? Amalgams of people you know?
JR: I think it’s hard for any author not to draw on their own personality in their characters, especially the protagonist. Even if the author doesn’t seem to have anything in common with the protagonist, something about the author compelled them to venture into that world, and the protagonist is simply the character they put in charge. With this collection, the protagonists just seemed to emerge from the back of my mind, so I think a lot of them were drawn from my own experiences.

OBAAT: In what time and place is Walkin’ After Midnight set? How important is the setting to the book as a whole?

JR: The stories are set in New England, most of them Maine, and most of them during the winter. The setting was important more for me because I grew up in Maine, so there was that connection to my writing. I wrote a lot of these stories to push through some aspect of my life that I was struggling with and struggle is what I remember of home, of Maine, those winters I spent hitch-hiking from Kennebunkport back to Sanford in the cold; the conditions I grew up in. It felt that I was conquering those things on some level by setting the stories there.

OBAAT: How did Walkin’ After Midnight come to be published?
JR: I’d spent a lot of time querying agents, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. It was frustrating. After about fifty rejected agent queries, I decided to focus my time on submitting manuscripts to publishers. It was a really, really quick process. I think they read and accepted the collection in two days. I was really impressed with that, and grateful.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?
JR: I want to feel like I’ve been abducted on some level, that finishing the story is now a matter of survival and the only way to escape. I can’t say that I have a favorite author. That’s always changing for me. I like Steinbeck, Bradbury and O’Connor and obviously, Jim Thompson. Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger both have writing styles that I feel really drawn to. Breece D’J Pancake was incredibly inspiring to me. And then there are the people I met while I tended bar in Oxford, Mississippi, who I became enormous fans of: Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay and George Singleton. Tom Franklin was my mentor.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?
JR: I was a really small kid. My freshman year of high school I was 4’ 10” and I weighed 98 pounds. I spent most of my childhood getting picked on and bullied. I even got beat up by girls at the bus stop. I hung out at the library as much as possible. That place was a refuge for me, practically a second home. So, I read a lot as a kid, but I always wanted more from the stories I read, especially about the bad guys. I was really adamant about getting the antagonist’s perspective in stories, especially Pinocchio and Rumplestiltskin, and those were the first things I ever wrote about. But, I think the biggest step that I took toward really wanting to be an author was March 6, 2001 right before I turned 21. I was living in a rural town in Maine in an apartment that was once a doctor’s office. There was no shower. I ended up living with this guy who was hiding out, apparently from some problems back in Detroit. He was also a drunk and addicted to oxy, like most of my neighbors. I had three warrants out in various counties in Maine. I was doing a lot of reckless shit until I hit bottom. I got out of there, eventually, and hid in a basement for a month trying to figure out what I wanted and needed to do with my life. That’s where I was for my 21st birthday. Sober and in a basement. I started writing again, just journaling, basically. A whole lot of self pity shit. There was a lot of really bad poetry, years of it, actually. Then I started writing fiction when I was about 24. I needed a purpose, to understand all the shit going on in my head. Basically, life made me want to be a writer.

OBAAT: How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for writing crime fiction?
JR: I had to go to church often, and that really fucked me up, worse than anything else. The most frequent punishment I received when I was a kid was being forced to sit in my room and read the Bible. That book practically starts off with murder. There’s also a lot of moral ambiguity in the Bible. Most of my writing hinges on a moral struggle, so the constant analysis of faith versus morality is a dynamic that really shaped my writing.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?
JR: The fact that I’m always trying to get smarter, to gain new information. I’m always looking for ways to better myself, to add something positive to my life every day. Writing does that. It forces me to be disciplined. I need that. It’s also a way for me to purge the fucking craziness and darkness in my mind. I have to get that out, and with writing, the page is the best release I can find without doing something that would send me to prison.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)
JR: Poets and song writers are by far my greatest influences, especially my father who’s a poet, but there’s a scattering of people with different contributions. Ben Nichols. Charles Baudelaire. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Norah Jones. Florence Welch. PJ Harvey. David Fincher. Bonnie Rotten. Tom Waits. James Maynard Keenan.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants? Do you even wear pants when you write?
JR: I just write. I want to be surprised by where the story goes.

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?
JR: I don’t touch the story until there’s a draft complete. I take a lot of notes while I’m working on what I might want to cut or add, but sometimes that changes, and I don’t want to lose anything that’s there until I’m sure of what the finished product should look like.

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?
JR: I write in silence, but music is an essential part of my writing and the process. The music I went to most in this collection was Tool and Lucero. I feel a visceral connection to Tool. Ben Nichols of Lucero has a voice like sandpaper on bone. I wanted my stories to have that same edgy, rough sound. And Nora Jones. The woman has a voice I want to swallow whole. It just completed the process, brought me back from the darkness I was in while writing. Her album Little Broken Hearts has this sinister beauty about it that was really calming for me. I’d have to say the theme song is “Walkin’ After Midnight” by Patsy Cline. But there’s quite a mix of other songs that influenced the collection. I’m sure a Tool or Lucero fan can find the allusions.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?
JR: There’s always time to write.  

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?
JR: Write everything down. At least then you know how shitty your idea from the night before was. Knowing that is better than thinking you lost the best idea of your life.

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?
JR: Every story I write begins with a different influence. Sometimes I’m inspired by a plot, sometimes a setting, but in my drafting and revision process I work through plot, character setting and tone in that order and that’s how I get the narrative. I focus on plot first because something has to get the story going and keep it going until the end. Somebody has to be responsible for making something happen or confronting something that happens, so I focus on character next. Then setting, because something has to happen somewhere. Then, after I’ve worked through plot, character and setting, I start to set the tone. I think about what I want my reader to feel and polish accordingly.

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?
JR: Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I started it one evening when I was working third shift at the L.L. Bean warehouse and I couldn’t put it down until I went to work. All I could think about was getting back to that book. I asked my team leader or whatever useless title that person had if I could leave because I was a seasonal employee and there was nothing to do. She said, no. I quit right there. I pulled my ID tag off and handed it to another manager on my way out. I sat in the parking lot in my car and finished the book. I even made it to the bar for last call. I’d never read anything that made me laugh out loud, that kept me so rapt.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.
JR: I spend a lot of time outside. Hiking, fishing, camping and road trips. I spent three months on the road last year, 15,000 miles in a car with 250,000 miles on it. The transmission was slipping. I patched my radiator with liquid weld and zip ties 5,000 miles into the trip in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I still made it home. I think I’d like to start doing yoga now, though.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?
JR: Faking my own death.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Movies Since Last Time

Chinatown (1974). Without question one of the five greatest crime movies ever made, and
probably one of the five greatest movies, period. The casting, performances, dialog, screenplay, and direction all hit every note with the right nuance. Robert Towne’s story also presages James Ellroy by weaving his tale into LA historical fact. Watching Roman Polanski slice open Jack Nicholson’s nose is made even creepier, knowing what we now know about Polanski’s general creepiness. If you’ve never seen it, you really need to. If you haven’t seen it in a long time, you need to see it again. This is how it’s done.

Walk of Shame (2014). Got hooked into this one when it turned out to be my parents’
NetFlix selection on the weekend we were visiting. (How it came to be in their queue still amazes me.) Figured I’d endure it, and ended up liking it a lot. It’s the story of a lily-white, squeaky-clean local news anchor (Elizabeth Banks) who thinks she’s lost a chance for a national gig and goes on an uncharacteristic one-night bender and hook-up, only to find out the other candidate lost the job for moral reasons. Now it’s morning and everything imaginable goes wrong. Stupid funny in the spirit of  screwball comedies. I doubt I’d watch it again, but it was great fun once I got into the spirit of it.

Sudden Impact (1983). Dirty Harry had played out the string by this time. The original was iconic, and Magnum Force might have been an even better movie, but after that they gradually ran out of steam. A man’s got to know his limitations, Clint.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Discussed at length here.

Gone Girl (2014). Discussed at length here.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Gone Girl

I was going to announce the availability of the next Nick Forte novel today, but events intervened and it’s not ready. I’ll get to it. In the meantime, I did watch a movie...

The Beloved Spouse and I watched Gone Girl over the weekend. Based on what I’d heard, I didn’t think it was going to appeal to me much, but I had no idea how little, or what a reaction I’d have.

Full disclosure: I have not read the book; I am writing only of the film. How different they are I can’t say, but Gillian Flynn adapted the screenplay from her novel, so I’m guessing the parts she thought most important were in there.

What struck me throughout was how such a phenomenal success—both in print and on film
—broke two allegedly sacrosanct elements of a popular story. First—and the one that wore most heavily on the viewing, as it lasted forever—was the dearth of characters to give a shit about. Nick’s a douche who comes off as the warm and fuzzy member of the family, as Amy is a complete psycho evil bitch. Tyler Perry does a great job as the lawyer, but the character is a smarmy lizard. The media people—well, they were the media; ‘nuff said about that. The only two characters with appreciable screen time one could warm up to at all were Nick’s sister Margo, and the local police detective who first caught the case. Not that it had to be a morality play, but damn. Even if there’s no one to root for, give me someone to care about.

The other thing missing was an ending. (Spoiler alert.) All we’re left with is the promise of 18 more years of this sick beyond dysfunctional bullshit. Those who know me are well aware I am not an advocate of sunshine and rainbows Hollywood endings, but Jesus Chris, people. I deserved more from the two-and-a-half hours I invested than this.

What struck me most on reflection is how much the story reminded me of something that could have been inspired by Donald Maass’s book, How to Write the Breakout Novel. I read the book twice—I’m certainly not against novelists breaking out, especially me—and threw it away, as its primary focus struck me as teaching me to write books I wouldn’t read. (The book was also literally falling apart, not a tribute to its poublisher.) What I remember most is Maass’s constant reminders to “raise the stakes,” which, based on breakouts and bestsellers I’d been reading, meant beyond plausibility. Gone Girl definitely has the “beyond plausibility” aspect under control. Amy’s scheme is worthy of the most Rube Goldberg-ian “traditional mystery” plot, so much so I stopped caring halfway through and resigned myself to hoping for a clever twist at the end. Which never came. (No, it wasn’t that slick. Mostly it was a reverse Presumed Innocent.)

What Gone Girl is, essentially, is the anti-Mad Max: Fury Road. Where men’s rights activists’ heads explode over how strong the Charlize Theron character is, they must get together and jack off until their arms cramp to watch Amy, who personifies everything they’d like people to think a woman is. I’m going to say I just don’t get how Gone Girl became so popular. I have ideas, but, if I’m right, that leads me to conclusions about people I’d rather not have.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Twenty Questions With Eryk Pruitt

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.