Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Eryk Pruitt and The Long Dance

Eryk Pruitt is an impressive fellow. He’s rapidly gaining acclaim as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, does voice work for television and movies, and has won so much cutlery at DC-area Noirs at the Bar that Ka-Bar calls him when they’re short of inventory. I don’t spend a lot of time in the car, and I prefer to read things rather than listen to them, but hearing Eryk had a true crime podcast piqued my interest, especially after The Beloved Spouse™--a/k/a Eryk’s beloved Aunt Corky—heard a couple of episodes and suggested I make some time for it.

Well, now.

It was not what I expected at all. I ran some sections through again to make sure I heard that right. Eryk and Drew Adamek hit the right tone and the right medium; The Long Dance wouldn’t have been as good as either a documentary or a true crime book. I thought of writing a review but knew I didn’t have the chops to express what I thought of it, not knowing enough about the inner workings of podcasts, so I got Eryk to sit for an interview.

One Bite at a Time: Let me start with how impressed and moved I was by The Long Dance. I kept jotting down questions and I can’t decide which to ask first. When in doubt it’s always good to start at the beginning, so I’ll try that. You’re a Texas native—Dallas area, I think—now living in Durham, NC. When did you leave Texas and what was about Durham that got you to settle there?
Eryk Pruitt: After college, I moved around a bit (New Orleans, Ireland, etc) and discovered that not everybody in the world suffered Texas summers, so I found myself a bit spoiled. I moved to North Carolina in 2007 where I’ve since enjoyed four seasons per year and I don’t think I could handle anything else. I love the American South, and we discovered Durham by happy accident. It’s close enough to New York City, DC, and Atlanta that I can drive there if I’m needed, but far enough away that I don’t have to deal with any of their riff-raff.

OBAAT: How did you hear about the Mann/McBane murders? You weren’t in the Durham area when they took place—hell, you weren’t born yet—and you’re not native to the area. What brought this case to your attention and what drew you in to spend so much time and energy on it?
EP: We bought a house smack dab between the landmarks of that case. I can’t drive to town without passing where Pat and Jesse were abducted, nor can I go to the grocery store without passing by where their bodies were found. We’re out in the woods, so more “town” than Duke’s “gown,” and everyone can still remember this ghost story from their childhood. It’s almost become urban legend, because it faded so far into obscurity. But still, everybody had questions. I could hardly believe that something so tragic had happened and then disappeared from the collective consciousness with no answers. In the beginning, that was the question I wanted to answer: why was no one talking about it? It developed into much, much more.

OBAAT: You have a lot of irons in the fire and are constantly on the move. How long did it take to put The Long Dance together and how did you find the time?
EP: Two years and counting. Due to recent developments in the case as a result of our podcast, we are still working on it. But the initial eight episodes took two years to research, write, and produce. I did all this in my spare time because I was also writing a novel (What We Reckon), producing a short film (Going Down Slow), and managing a bar.

OBAAT: What were some of the logistics involved in getting the interviews? Things like setting them up, locations, getting there, how the recordings were done. Stuff like that.
EP: The hardest part was getting people to trust us enough to open up to us. It took six months to convince Captain Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office that we were serious about the case. Then we needed to talk to the family members and friends of Pat and Jesse. Each interview subject needed their own reassurances, but once we got there, the process took off. I never knew what to expect. No matter how much research I did, we always learned something new. We recorded off a Zoom recorder with a shotgun microphone. I would man the equipment and take notes while Drew Adamek would interview the subject. Once it was finished, I would transcribe the interviews and file those away for construction of the episodes.

OBAAT: Not to minimize the horrific nature of the murders, but what struck me most about The Long Dance was the lack of communication and coordination between the police departments. It was almost as if some of them didn’t want to see the case solved if they weren’t going to be the ones who solved it. What are your thoughts on that, and what was your biggest takeaway from spending so much time immersed in the project?
EP: It's very hard to measure law enforcement standards of 1971 against the standards of today. It's difficult to remember that communication was not as easy back then as it is today. I was told one story by Major Horne about Chapel Hill's "Coke bottle dispatch" system. Since CHPD didn't have radios yet, they would require all units to drive past the station every 30 minutes and if the window was propped open by a Coca Cola bottle, the responder was required to run inside the station and find out where they needed to go. That was in the late sixties. These days, as you can imagine, it's completely different. While I'd be on a ride with Horne, he'd field texts and phone calls from agencies across the state. A homicide investigator in Durham would ask him a question about a suspect who lived in Horne's jurisdiction, or a detective in Onslow County might need some further information about a case out there. Back in 1971, yes, there were a lot of communication and competition issues. Horne was the first to combine all the information from the six (six!) different LEOs who investigated the case, and only then did a complete answer present itself. Unfortunately, that was forty years after the murders. These days, I strongly believe the killer would have been caught much quicker. But like (former journalist) Cornelia Olive said in Episode Two: in 1971, everyone wanted to be the one to solve it, so they kept a lot of information to themselves. It would never have happened today.

OBAAT: I’ve read your stuff and heard you read at Noirs at the Bar. You’re the goods. What led you to decide to create The Long Dance as a podcast instead of writing a non-fiction book? This in no way disparages the podcast—more on that later—but I’m a printed word guy and I’m curious.
EP: After our first interviews with the friends and families of Pat and Jesse, I knew that I would never possess the vocabulary to articulate the pain and heartbreak I heard in their voices when they spoke of the tragedy that befell them in 1971. The fear when the nurses knew that one of their own was missing and they wondered if they might be next. How many times would I be able to describe a person breaking down into tears at a forty-seven year old memory? I am not the smartest man in the world, but I’m smart enough to delegate when a task gets to be too Sisyphean, like this one was. I decided to let the voices do the heavy lifting.

Lucky for me, I had Serial to lean on. The twelve-part investigative series from This American Life was a huge influence on me. I’d be hard pressed to think of a greater storytelling feat in our century. I always wanted to tackle something with the depth and narrative power that Serial had, but never thought I’d find a story worthy of it. Then along came the North Carolina Valentine’s Murders of 1971…

OBAAT: As I mentioned above, I’m a printed word guy. I’d almost always rather read transcripts of interviews because…well, because I’m busy and I read faster than I listen and can skip over things that don’t interest me. That said, The Long Dance had me riveted from early in the first episode. Your voice and skill as narrator was compelling and using clips from the actual interviews demanded my full attention in ways I hadn’t expected. What were some of the considerations that went into the editing and pacing?
EP: I knew Drew Adamek had to lead. He had a journalism background and no accent, so it’d be best to have him do most of the intro. We could lean on my Southern drawl for history and “color commenting.” It was my opinion that too much Southern would make it difficult for the LA and NYC types to comprehend. (I was shocked to find that my voice is what’s earned me the most money from the project, as I’ve gone on to be hired to narrate a documentary—Trouble Will Cause by Wreak Havoc Productions—and a voice role in an NBC sitcom, Trial & Error, as well as other roles.) We structured the episodes into eight subjects and we followed the typical rising and falling action arc, and tried to let each episode unfold, then wrap up into a cliffhanger at the end. We were lucky to have Piper Kessler of Velasquez Digital Media edit our sound and make us sound pretty, as well as Michael Rollin who developed our creepy score.

OBAAT: Have you heard from Dr. Britt since the podcast came out? For that matter, have you received feedback from any of the principals who listened to it?
EP: I have not heard from The Good Doctor. He does not return any of my letters or phone calls. I am anxious to hear what he thinks.

However, I remain close with some of the family members, who have given me a seal of approval. That was very, very important to me because a large part of what I wanted to do was tell the story of Pat and Jesse, because they cannot speak for themselves. What happened to them was so horrible and, behind all the sensationalist trappings that true crime offers the audience, I wanted that to remain at the forefront.

I teased it earlier, but there have been new developments, which could result in more than a follow-up episode, but hopefully an arrest. That would be the greatest success that anyone could possibly ask for.

Also, other people have reached out to me about cold cases in the Carolinas. I am anxious to discover where any of this might lead The Long Dance!

*  *  *

Hopefully this interview leads you to The Long Dance. It’s available at all the better podcast services and at its own site here. You won’t be sorry and it will haunt you, maybe forever.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Movies Since Last Time

Following up on clearing out the backlog of movies I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

The Constant Gardener (2005) I forget why this was on the Netflix queue but I’m glad it was. Ralph Fiennes was outstanding (as always) in this adaptation of a John leCarré novel on the effects of Big Pharma in the developing world. A seamless blending of love story and political statement, director Fernando Meirelles weaves the flashbacks in Jeffrey Caine’s script in such a manner that interest is heightened with no added confusion. Fiennes and Rachel Weisz have an odd chemistry that suits the two main characters perfectly. A film that deserves more attention than it receives.

Seven Days in May (1964) A good old-fashioned John Frankenheimer political thriller based on the blockbuster novel by Charles W. Bailey and Fletcher Knebel III as adapted by Rod Serling. An A-List cast including Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Frederic March, Edmund O’Brien, Ava Gardner, and Martin Balsam give this oldie but goodie impact 54 years after its premier and is still a timely reminder of how fragile democracy can be.

Silent Movie (1976) Mel Brooks is a national treasure. Here he revisits every sight gag from the golden age of silent comedies and invents a few of his own. Brooks plays director Mel Funn, who drank his way out of the movie business. With his two goofy “associates” (Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman), Funn proposes an idea to save the studio to magnate Sid Caesar: a silent movie with the world’s biggest stars. In 1976 there were no bigger gets than Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Liza Minelli, Anne Bancroft, or Paul Newman, and that’s who Brooks got. (Bancroft was easy. She and Brooks were married.) Famed mime Marcel Marceau makes a cameo and has a nifty surprise. If you haven’t seen this one you should, even if you’re too young to remember what a big deal all these actors were.

The Nice Guys (2016) I don’t care if it died at the box office; I like this movie. A lot. Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have a chemistry that’s right for their roles even if most critics didn’t think so. They’re supposed to have rough edges that bump up against each other. A Shane Black film worthy of the name, and keep an eye open for young Australian actor Angourie Rice.

Ocean’s 8 (2017) So long as one doesn’t try to make too much of them, the Ocean movies are fun and this is no exception. The all-woman crew led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchette has a ball and the gags all work, so long as one isn’t dissecting them. (Which one can never do in any caper movie.) And it’s only fair after women got to see George and Brad that we men get to spend some quality time with Sandra and Cate.

The Hunt for Red October (1990) There’s something about submarine movies and this is a good one. Alec Baldwin plays Jack Ryan the way Tom Clancy wrote him, as a young man in over his head making do with smarts and balls. Sean Connery conveys all the gravitas the Russian commander needs, and the supporting cast of Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Stellan Skaarsgard, Jeffrey Jones, Fred Dalton Thompson, and others plays off each other with aplomb. It’s a shame John McTiernan is such a shitgibbon because no one made better action movies (Die Hard and Predator come to mind right away).

Becket (1964) Edward Anhalt’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh and Lucienne Hill’s play of the political and personal drama between English King Henry II (Peter O’Toole) and his best friend turned antagonist Thomas Becket (Richard Burton.) Two magnificent actors given a worthy script that resulted in Oscar nominations for both actors (plus a supporting nod for John Gielgud as the king of France) and an Oscar win for screenwriter Anhalt. Factually flawed, the film still captures the gist of the history and well within the confines of having only 2:28 in which to tell the story. Two hours 28 minutes may seem like a long movie when all that happens is talking, but Becket shows how propulsive “just talking” can be when done at this level. Highest marks.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Beau Johnson, Author of The Big Machine Eats

Beau Johnson is carving out a sweet niche for himself in a sometimes forgotten area of crime fiction: short stories. Crime fiction grew from short stories and just because I can’t write them worth a shit doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them. Beau was here last year to talk about his first collection, A Better Kind of Hate, so I looked forward to continuing the conversation as his new collection drops November 26.

One Bite at a Time: Before we even get to talking about the stories involved, where did you
get the title The Big Machine Eats and why can’t I think of titles like that?
Beau Johnson: Ha! Yup, soon as I wrote that line it stuck with me. It’s from a story in A Better Kind of Hate called Bobby Charles. In that story an eighteen-wheeler hits and obliterates another vehicle, and as it goes: the big machine did eat. The line stayed with me for quite some time too but morphed as this new collection came together. On one hand I see the title as a reference to life, as it is always hungry, starving in fact, and if we aren’t as careful as maybe we should be it can swallow us whole. On the flipside is Bishop Rider, and yup, he is just as hungry.

OBAAT: Tell us a little about the stories in The Big Machine Eats. (Man I love that title. I even like saying it. ”The Big Machine Eats.”)
BJ: Hmmm…let’s see. I wouldn’t want to give too much away so let’s maybe go with a cannibal or two. Add a couple of direct sequels to stories in A Better Kind of Hate and then perhaps we’ll finish with the continuing struggle of Bishop Rider and friends. Hell, there may even be cake!

OBAAT: Bishop Rider is back. Tell us a little about him and why you like to return to him in your stories.
BJ: Funny thing, that. I never thought he’d be back. Thought I was done with him in fact. Wasn’t until I broke a collarbone and my butt got put in a chair for roughly eight weeks that he returned. It’s nice he came back, even nicer he has remained, but man, I really hope to never go through that again.

OBAAT: You’ve established yourself as a short story writer. What is it about them that keeps bringing you back? Any plans to write a novel? I don’t say that to in any way give short stories short shrift. To me writing a good short story is the hardest things to do as a writer.
BJ: Great question, Dana. Excitement. That’s what it comes down to for me. I get such a rush when the idea I have comes together and gels on the page. As for a novel, I will never say never, but no, I still seem unable to crack that particular code. I am what I am: a short story writer.

OBAAT: When you were here last we took a brief digression into the inherent good of cheese. Knowing what a cheese aficionado you are, does it bother you when people use the term “cheesy” as a put-down?
BJ: I can’t say that it does. And hey, sometimes a little cheesy is good!

Beau Johnson, author, cheese aficionado, and Mark Harmon impersonator
OBAAT: Sharp cheddar, mild cheddar, or Colby Longhorn?
BJ: Havarti, m’man. The King of cheeses!

OBAAT: Does cheese figure strongly into your stories? If not, why not?
BJ: As of yet, no. And yes, I will admit that is weird. Lemme see what I can do.

OBAAT: Okay, enough about cheese. I hate it when interviewers ask me to “Pick your favorite” or “What are your top three” of anything, so here goes: Pick your favorite short story, with the understanding that by asking for one I know and fully accept that I’m going to get at least three. What is it about it (them) that resonates with you so strongly?
BJ: “Survivor Type” by Stephen King blew my mind when I read it all those years ago. First, it’s just f’in bonkers that someone could even think of something like that. Second, that the man could pull it off and ground it. Third, lady fingers! They taste just like lady fingers! In my best Chandler Bing voice: could there be a better last line? Anyway, I could go on and bore you with my love for Mr. King as well, but I believe that’s old hat by now. As for stories 2 and 3? Let’s go with “The Raft” by King as well and end things with “Tell Her” by Marietta Miles. She might not want to admit it, but that short piece of flash is a how-to of emotion. Everyone should give it a read.

OBAAT: What’s next, now that The Big Machine Eats is out there? (See how I found an excuse to use that title again?)
BJ: Ha! I’m working on a few things. Rider is involved in a couple of them and there are also a few stories slated for publication over at Story and Grit. Besides that, I live until the next idea hits. Ah, the life of a panster!

Friday, November 9, 2018

Tom Pitts, Author of 101

Tom Pitts became one of my favorite writes by stealth. He’s a nice guy, there was a download available of Knuckleball, I need something to read on a train ride back from Connecticut, what the hell. The end result was I was disappointed it didn’t last longer. Hustle was completely different yet just as good. Now 101 touches a whole nuther aspect of criminal activity and nails it.

It’s also always fun to have Tom on the blog. He’s an entertaining and thoughtful guy who always leaves me with something to think about.

One Bite at a Time: You sustain action through multiple POVs as well as anyone I’ve read. Do you plot it out first of just write from the perspective that seizes you at the moment?
Tom Pitts: I go by feel, scene by scene. I know the chapters are going to be eight to twelve pages, but beyond that, I just have to hope I’m getting a balance. I think that’s what I’m shooting for, a balance in the story. I’ve always liked that “meanwhile back at the ranch” portion of a novel. I feel like I have to remind the reader of what’s happening with the other plot threads so it’ll make sense when they tie together. With 101 it was a conscious decision to push the multi-POV as far as I could, so the effect would be cinematic, cutting from storyline to storyline.

OBAAT: I see from the acknowledgements you did quite a bit of research. How much of that was to make sure you got the things you wanted to do right, and how much of it was to help you decide what it was you were going to do?
TP: Mostly it was for details. Quite literally the flora and fauna. I’ve never been good at naming trees and plant life and that was one of the bigger challenges. I went up North a few times and got my hands dirty, but it was for the setting more than the plot. I needed the physical place firm in my mind. The cabin, the generators, the weird open-ended greenhouses they call hoopers, I had to see that stuff firsthand to really get it down.

OBAAT: What are the chances we see Vic in another book? The hook is set for a sequel but he also has the look of a character who can series on his own.
TP: Not very good because I wasn’t super happy with his name. I often come up with names phonetically, trying to give a tone for the kind of character I’m writing. Ollie, Ripper, those were names that were birthed with the character. With Vic I was a bit stuck. I wrote the first part of the novel with the name Victor, and it really wasn’t working for me. When I shortened it to Vic, I got back in the groove. Sounds silly, but the name means a lot. There’s a character in my next book, Coldwater, named Calper Dennings. I thought about writing another book featuring him just ‘cause I liked the name so damn much.

OBAAT: You wrote the story to take place specifically a couple of years ago when California was on the cusp of legalizing marijuana, which plays into the story. Was that the plan all along, or were you part way into writing the book and realized, “Oh, shit! They’re about to legalize the relevance right out of my story!”
TP: True, my present-day piece turned into a period piece right as I was wrapping it up. I was pretty sure it was coming, but not 100% positive. There were a lot of people you’d think would’ve voted yes, but were adamantly against it. Of course everyone in the outlaw weed business was voting against it. I’m sure if you broke it down, a lot of the northern counties went against legalization across the board. They knew they’d have the cash cow yanked from their hands. It’s now morphing into something no one saw coming. People thought it’d be big tobacco coming in and taking over, but it’s just big money. Tech money too. It takes a lot of capitol to stay in the game now. They’re making laws every day that’re designed to cut out the little guy. Who knows, if it keeps going this way, maybe the black market will open back up. It’s easy to grow good weed. It’ll be like bathtub gin. It’s tough to put that genie back in the bottle.

OBAAT: Barbara and Ghia are both thrust into impossible situations and handle them very well, though neither has a history of this kind of action the way the male characters clearly do. (Not that Barbara’s a virgin in this regard.) How they’re able to rise to the occasion without becoming stereotypical badasses is a key element of what makes the book work so well, its credibility. How much work was it to strike such an outstanding balance with them?
TP: Ghia’s character is based on a few women I’ve met. The “old hippie” type who has still got a bit of that frontier woman thing going. Tough as nails, but still a smartass. It’s not an easy life out there in the bush. There’s a lot of isolation and a lot of hard work to be done. Barbara on the other hand is a mother, and that’s what drives her. It makes her tough in some ways and blind in others. Barbra and Vic have a sort of PTSD from what they shared in their past and it’s calloused them both. Both women are decidedly independent, and I think that’s at the core of why they’re relatable.

OBAAT: The first book I read of yours was Knuckleball, which is pretty much a police procedural. A good procedural, but something in my reading wheelhouse. Then I read Hustle, which was anything but. 101 is something altogether different from either of them. Without asking where you get your ideas, how are you able to cultivate such a diverse range of stories? (I don’t mean to omit American Static. I just haven’t got around to reading it yet.)
TP: I know where I get that first idea. (Hustle’s impetus was a conversation between prostitutes I overheard while driving a cab. Knuckleball came from the vague wanted posters in a case where a Giants fan was assaulted. 101, oddly enough, came from a movie trailer that was about a young man visiting an old criminal—and, no, I’ve never seen the movie.) But where they go is beyond my ability to see when I start the book. I will say I try to show my own take on a subject, which is usually an attempt to add a Murphy’s Law flare. With Hustle, it was drug addiction, I wanted to show what drugs were really like, not how they’re portrayed in the movies. With 101 I wanted to show what I’d seen firsthand in the marijuana business, and I think that portion is accurate.  

Tom Pitts, looking severe
OBAAT: We got to hang out some at Bouchercon in St. Petersburg, where I learned you’re a native Canadian, yet your affinity and affection for the Bay Area comes through every book. What is it about the place that appeals to you so much?
TP: It’s just the only place I’ve known as an adult. But it’s true, over the years I’ve come to love San Francisco and I’m always learning more about its history, its people. Most every job I’ve had has been on, or dealt directly with the streets. A messenger, dispatcher, drug courier, taxi driver. I think being out the street and having your ear to the ground gives you a special appreciation for a city. Sharing donuts with cops at four AM, giving hookers rides home to Oakland, driving bookies on their rounds, delivering heroin to artist junkies—I’ve had a good view of the underbelly of San Francisco. That said, I think if I were to live in anywhere else for a year, I’d write about it. In fact, for a few years, my wife and I were splitting our time between Sacramento and San Francisco and I ended up with a book set in Sac. (It’s called Coldwater and will probably be out in 2020.)

Monday, November 5, 2018

Favorite Reads: October

Mom is nearing the end of her rehab stint (“home” to assisted living on Thursday) and work has been six different kinds of goofy so my reading time has deteriorated. The good news is that most of what I did get to read was first-rate.

Where the Bullets Fly, Terrence McCauley. Hard to believe he’s my friend. Wide as his talents range, I should hate him. He’s such a nice guy I don’t, but such a good writer I’m still tempted. As with his Prohibition-era crime stories and his University techno thrillers, McCauley makes it all look easy. This is a Western that pays homage to the glory days of the horse opera while clearly written in the revisionist period we’re in now, with awareness that was lacking in the 50s and earlier. This is harder to pull off than it looks (I should know, or my Western would have been done a couple of years ago) and McCauley does more than pull it off; he succeeds.

The Hook, Donald Westlake. Speaking of writers who seem to be able to anything they want and make it look easy, there’ Donald Westlake. Not a Richard Stark/Parker novel, and certainly not a Dortmunder, The Hook is a twist on Strangers on a Train, where a writer who’s successful but blocked hooks up with a writer who’s fertile but can’t get a contract; together they put one over on the blocked writer’s publisher. There’s a catch, though, and given my reference to SOAT you can probably guess what it is, but the complication is completely original and Westlake’s set-up is so masterfully done it doesn’t matter that you’ll see the end coming a chapter or two ahead of time. By then you’ll be wondering less “what” than “how,” and the pace at which the “how” is revealed will fill you with dread.