Thursday, January 27, 2022

A Conversation With Eryk Pruitt

 Knowing Eryk Pruitt is a treat. Having him as a friend is the whole goddamn cake. Writer, filmmaker, bartender, business owner, podcaster, and raconteur extraordinaire, Eryk is one of those people I’d buy drinks for just to listen to him tell stories to other people. It’s been a while since he’s been here, a fact that came to mind when I attended the horror-themed Noir at the Bar he held at his bar, Yonder, the week before Halloween. Since then he has some big news, so the timing couldn’t be better, though there’s never a bad time to hear from Eryk.


One Bite at a Time: We talked about doing this interview when I was at Yonder in October. I managed to dick around long enough for us to discuss recent good news: Your novel, Long Winter’s Wake, has been picked up by Thomas and Mercer. How did this come to be?


Eryk Pruitt: Thank you for having me, Dana. It’s always great to talk to you. I had been writing this story for quite a while and my agent, Josh Getzler, told me it was finally ready for submission. We had it in the hands of several different editors just before the Christmas break and things moved crazy fast. When we finally came up for air, I was signing a contract with Thomas & Mercer and I couldn’t be more pleased. Since things shut down for the holidays, we had to sit on the news for a few weeks which was incredibly frustrating. I’m super stoked to be able to talk about it now!


OBAAT: Tell us a little about the story of Long Winter’s Wake.


EP: Long Winter’s Wake tells two stories: one of a detective in the 70s who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the same time he catches a sensational murder case, and has to keep his condition a secret from his family and everyone else. The second storyline deals with his granddaughter who tries to revive her forgotten journalism career by producing a true crime podcast about the unsolved murder investigation that was her grandfather’s last case.


OBAAT: I was never a podcast guy until I listened to the one you put out a few years ago, “The Long Dance.” Did the research and creation of “The Long Dance” have anything to do with Long Winter’s Wake?


EP:  Thank you and yes sir. Previous to working on that podcast, a lot of my stories dealt with the criminal element. However, since I was fortunate enough to be allowed to work so close with law enforcement on an actual unsolved murder investigation, I could use my experiences to tell the story of Long Winter’s Wake.


OBAAT: I enjoyed your short film “Going Down Slow.” What’s going on with your film work lately?


EP: Nothing new, unfortunately. However, I’ve been slowly writing a script based on my first novel Dirtbags which has been a lot of fun. We read a scene at one of Yonder’s Noir at the Bar events where Rob Hart, Todd Robinson, and the inimitable DJ Bost played roles and absolutely killed. The audience responded exactly the way a writer would want them to!!


OBAAT: Your bar in Hillsborough NC, Yonder, has developed a cult following among crime writers, as well as being a favored meeting place for locals. How did you get into the bar business?


EP: I earned degrees in Literature and in History which all but damned me to a life in the service industry. I started bartending in college and have almost always had a gig somewhere, even if it was just to fill in here or there. I’ve worked at great bars and not-so-great bars, and all the time had ideas on what we could do to make it better. I never in a million years dreamed that one day the opportunity would fall into my lap to run my own place (with my wife Lana and co-worker Alexis) and put all these ideas to the test. We’re very lucky to be HQ’ed in a community like Hillsborough, NC, which has been so receptive to what we’re trying to do. The whole COVID thing has been a challenge and a half, but it’s given me a shit ton of stories to tell so there’s that.


OBAAT: With so many irons in the fire, how do you decide what gets priority?


EP: The good news about having a full time gig that pays (Yonder) is that I don’t have to be influenced by money anymore. So I get to follow my heart. I’m currently writing a novel that is taking a while and I have no idea how marketable it will be, but it’s one I’ve wanted to tell for a long, long time. Hopefully I am able to do it justice and Josh is able to find it a home.


OBAAT: Who would you say are your strongest influences?


EP: That is a difficult question, to be honest. There are writers who I love to read, but would not exactly call them an influence. I pre-order everything written by Tana French, Megan Abbott, Daniel Woodrell, and Chris Offutt. I re-read books by Donald Ray Pollock, Lisa Taddeo, and Flannery O’Connor all the time. I’m fortunate to be friends with great writers such as S.A. Cosby, Jordan Harper, and Rob Hart, who for some reason, keep taking my phone calls. However, I would feel weird saying they “influence” me. I guess I would credit that more with who do I read to learn from, or steal from. In that case, I study more from Jim Thompson, Elmore Leonard, and Clay Reynolds.


OBAAT: Long Winter’s Wake won’t release until winter of 2023. What do you have going on in the meantime?


EP: I write every day on the WIP then head Yonder at 3 to make some dranks and throw parties.


Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Voices in My Head

 I’ve known Charlie Stella for over ten years, and I’m lucky to be able to call him a friend. He was largely responsible for my first publishing contract, and has been a tireless supporter of my writing, and of me, for years. He and his lovely wife, Ann Marie, drove overnight from Fords NJ to Oakmont PA to attend the launch of Grind Joint. (He did forget the cannoli, though. I was a big enough man to forgive him.) Charlie is a force of nature with a heart as big as Yellowstone. 


I thought I knew him pretty well until I read his new book, The Voices in My Head: A Fictional Memoir. I knew he’d been working on it for quite a while, so I figured there was some serious introspection and unpacking going on, but I had no idea how much, or of what. 


Let me start by saying The Voices in My Head is an accomplishment. I could never have written anything like this, and not just because my upbringing was so much more tranquil. Leaving himself out there as he has, with no apologies nor justifications, took balls I can’t imagine. He pulls no punches about his affection for his late mother, nor the unconditional love she had for him. His father, not so much.


What struck me more than anything were the similarities he and I share, such as loves for music and baseball. More specifically, we shared a love of Mahler’s First Symphony when we met; I like to think it was I who introduced him to Mahler 2, which Charlie quotes beautifully, poignantly, and effectively in Voices.  


We also share general insecurities that display themselves in what is probably Imposter’s Syndrome. All of that and more gave me a natural empathy for the main character. Knowing it was Charlie, and seeing the painful ways in which our lives diverged from our commonalities, made this a hard book to read at times.  


Writers often talk about the courage it took to write something when they really mean they’re going to say something that will make people uncomfortable, and may not be a popular opinion. This book took actual courage. As memoirs go, there’s no titillation nor dishing. Except for his father, everyone else comes off Sympathetically, the author accepting responsibility for past differences or hurts. I came away wishing young Charlie could have read it as he was going through the events described, to caution him as to where his decisions would lead. Too late for that, there are still a lot of people who will benefit from exactly such a reading.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

American Rust

 American Rust is a Showtime series set in Western Pennsylvania. Being a Western Pennsylvania native myself, I thought I’d take a look. The series starts slow, but it can’t keep that up long; things go downhill from there.


First, the good. They filmed the series in Western Pennsylvania, and it shows. All the exteriors look authentic, including the weather. (Assuming this takes place in late fall. They never really say. The only hint is one scene of a football practice. More on that later.)


The acting is solid, let by Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney. I might have more to say about that, too, if the actors had more to work with. (More on that below, too.) For now suffice to say the more streaming shows and movies I watch, the more I’m impressed by the depth and breadth of acting talent available. There’s no excuse for miscasting a role anymore.


There’s a standard complaint: people do too many things any rational person would know not to do. These are decisions calculated to complicate the plot or increase personal conflict, imposed on characters regardless of whether they make sense. It’s always better to think of characters as real people, not widgets used to complicate the plot.


The economy is shitty; we get that. The show does a nice job of depicting it. Things have been that way since I grew up there. (Actually, I grew up about an hour from where the show takes place, in Westmoreland County. The only major difference is Westmoreland isn’t adjacent to West Virginia.) I stay in touch with the area, having made three trips there last year, after years of returning to visit my parents. The people know how to have fun. They know how to take a break from whatever shitty thing is going on in their lives. They’re not defeated, though virtually everyone in American Rust is. There are so few smiles they’re not worth mentioning. Conversation ranges from “I’m sad” to “I’m so sad.”


I’m assuming the show takes place in the fall, as everyone wears jackets and there’s a high school football practice. This was a golden opportunity to show the local culture is not entirely downtrodden: set a scene at a high school football game. Half the town will be there. You can set up any interactions you want.


A scene that sticks in my mind (and craw) is a wedding reception. It’s a good opportunity to show various groups of people together, and to set up some conflicts and explain other dynamics. What bothered me about it was the venue. Whatever the purpose of the building when not hosting a function, it lacked indoor facilities; portable toilets were in the parking lot.


Honest to God? Things are so bad in Buell Township people can’t afford to send their daughters into married life without the spectacle of the bride going into a Port-a-John? I found it insulting as a Western Pennsylvania native, not to mention this was the perfect place to use a football game. All the same things could have been accomplished, and the viewers would have seen one of the things that still ties such communities together. Not to mention no one would think twice about using a portable toilet at a football game. (Though every town I can think of actually has real toilets at the football stadium. We have priorities, you know.)


This next may seem trivial, but it’s not, at least not if one is trying to convey a sense of community. At no time did I see any gear for any of the Pittsburgh sports teams. I forgive not mentioning of the Pirates. They stink and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Where are the Steelers jerseys or tee shirts or ball caps? There are no Steelers bumper stickers, no Terrible Towels, no posters in houses nor flags outside. I had my issues with Mare of Easttown, but at least they acknowledged their proximity to Philadelphia with background references to the Phillies, Eagles, and Flyers.


Two reasons for these omissions come to mind. Either the producers just didn’t think about them – which is bad enough – or deliberately omitted them so as not to interfere with the intended narrative, which is these people have no light in their lives, and no hope of getting any. It’s unfair to the people who live there, and is a facile way to “honor” their suffering by minimizing their efforts and accomplishments. I keep up with local events in the towns that make up Penns River and, while I don’t agree with everything they do, they have not given up. They still work hard to make things better, and if a plan falls through, as many do, they lick their wounds and start over. I wonder how many improvement plans fail because too many people with the money and juice to make them work view the locals as the producers of American Rust seem to, as schlubs born to fuck up their lives and opportunities.


Do some give up? Sure. Just as some rich people never work a day in their lives and whine about how hard they have it. Is it fair to portray some characters in that manner? Absolutely. Accuracy is always a defense. Context matters, too.


American Rust’s tries to evoke empathy by taking the viewer on a journey as drab and joyless as the lives lived by the people the characters represent. It’s not effective because it’s not true. The audience will feel more for well-rounded characters, not a cast of whipping boys.



Friday, January 7, 2022

1,000, 1K, M, or a Grand Post


This is the one thousandth post to One Bite at a Time; the first was August 17, 2008. The blog has gone through many changes, both in topic and frequency. It has wavered on the brink of extinction a few times, and at times been something I couldn’t wait to get to.

 The original plan was for it to serve as what marketing people call a platform, a social media presence so readers and potential readers could see how my mind worked. As most of us have learned since, blogs aren’t so hot for marketing unless you’re already at least reasonably successful, or willing to work 23 hours a day at promotion in general. That knowledge almost killed it until I realized how much good I’d done by providing myself a place to work out my thoughts, knowing I’d apply a higher standard to those I made public than I would to things that just kept floating around in my head.

 Where did the name “One Bite at a Time” come from? As I described in Post 1:

 One day a few years ago, The Spousal Equivalent (Editor’s Note: She has since been promoted to The Beloved Spouse™) caught me whining about how discouraging it was to know I had probably fifty thousand words left to write on the current project. The thirty thousand I already had on disk were of no consequence. As a writer, I'm not one of those "glass is half empty" guys; my glass is broken and the water is running onto valuable things that will be irretrievably damaged by the contact.

 She recommended for me to stop looking at the enormity of the total task, and to "eat the elephant one bite at a time. Now there's rarely any more on my plate than I can accomplish in a day, or some other easily digested period of time, and I never have those slumps where I can't bear to sit down and write because I can only accomplish an infinitesimal amount of the work before me.

 Sometimes coming up with a post a week is work. It’s never a chore. I have posts planned out for the rest of this month already, as well as some interview questions I need to get to that will carry things into February. As little Roseanne Roseannadanna’s father used to say, “It’s always something.”

 Thanks to everyone who has followed me these years, as well as to those who only occasionally stop by. Special thanks to those who comment. All writers understand the feeling of sending words into the void. It’s always nice to get feedback, even if in disagreement. Sometimes especially disagreements, as they provide food for thought. I’m always looking for good reasons to change my mind.