Eryk Pruitt is a screen writer and film maker. His first novel is called Dirtbags. Set in a recession hit Southern town, its central character dreams of becoming a serial killer and is asked to carry out a hit. Eryk met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about justice and the frontier.
Tell us about Dirtbags.
DIRTBAGS tells the story of Calvin Cantrell, a guy with a dim future, living in the dying Southern mill town of Lake Castor. When local sleazy restaurateur Tom London approaches Calvin to murder his ex-wife, Calvin sees an opportunity to kick start a career as a murderer-for-hire. Along the way, we find out more about London, as well as Rhonda Cantrell, the poor thing married to Calvin.
Calvin is a man with a lot of hate inside him, but he hopes it’s something he can use to make a little bit of money and improve his station in life. He’s watched plenty others make their mark, and standing in the shadow of the mill that shuttered and moved jobs to China or wherever, he knows he’s got to act soon. How he goes about it is funny, gruesome, clever and shocking.
I packed it chock full of twists and turns and hopefully a couple surprises. This story is my love letter to classic crime stories, as well as to the American South, which I love. I have called it a “chicken-fried episode of Dateline NBC,” one I reckon will have to do until we get our own CSI franchise down here…
My chief influences behind the writing of this novel are Jim Thompson, Daniel Woodrell, Clay Reynolds, William Gay, and Flannery O’Connor. I read everything I could get my fingers on and made sure to write down what bubbled forth. This is my first novel, although I have written several scripts for production and over thirty short stories for publication.
I am also including the description I used in queries:
The blame for a county-wide murder spree lies at the feet of three people broken by a dying mill town: Calvin, a killer; London, a cook; and Rhonda, the woman who loves them both. Neither they, nor the reader, see the storm brewing until it’s too late in this Southern Gothic noir that adds a transgressive, chicken-fried twist to a story ripped straight from the pages of a true crime novel or an episode of Dateline NBC.
Calvin Cantrell searches for meaning in life and believes he stumbled across it when approached by Tom London to murder his meddling ex-wife. However, Calvin discovers things about both himself and Corrina London during his trip to Dallas to do the deed – things that have horrible repercussions to himself and the small town from which he hails. Meanwhile, Tom London feels the noose tighten as both the local Sheriff and his current wife begin putting together puzzle pieces after Corrina’s horrific murder. And could Rhonda Cantrell’s disastrous luck with men do more damage to the community than her serial killer husband or philandering lover?
Every so often, literature offers us a glimpse of where humanity succeeds.
This is not that story.
How central is the idea of justice to the novel?
Justice is important in DIRTBAGS, both in the serving it and the not having it delivered. I think sometimes there is a more powerful story given when proper justice is not meted and doled.
For instance, I grew up watching old westerns on TV with my dad, shows like The Lone Ranger and Rifleman. In each of those shows, the good guy wins and the criminal gets caught. If someone does wrong, they are taught a lesson. Fast forward to now and my reality says something starkly different. The good guy does not always win. The villain is not always a bad guy. The smug and self-centered are often rewarded. It’s frustrating and terrifying and often makes me want to throw a shitty book or DVD against the wall, but that’s a feeling and one I hope I am effectively able to communicate with my stories.
I also believe that justice is subjective. In regards to DIRTBAGS, one of the main characters is a young man named Phillip Krandall, who joins Calvin Cantrell on his murder-for-hire scheme. Phillip is a failed school shooter, a man who never went through with his plans on a warm Spring day back in high school. He was bullied and sullen and weird, and if you were to ask Phillip about justice, he’d say it was never served because all those mean and vicious people were allowed to grow up and get married and have children while getting fat, never once thinking of him and what effect they had on him. Had he gone through with it, we would be talking about a different sort of justice. But he didn’t, and that misappropriation of justice fuels Phillip’s actions during the first third of the book.
Another character, Judge Grimm Menkin, has a more grounded view of justice. He is “eye for an eye” and all that. When he sniffs out wrongdoing on his re-election campaign, he cuts it out, plain and simple. It’s all black and white for Judge Menkin, with very little grey. Justice served… but the man who was fired doesn’t think so, and he must now seek his own justice.
Also, I don’t feel justice is “central” to the novel, because the characters who spark the action are not the types to stick with any one thing. Their motivations are more fluid and pliable. Just as Phillip Krandall aborted his day of vengeance at the literal last minute, so go several other plans in the book. More so than justice, I would say the central theme of the novel is “loyalty,” or more appropriately, “disloyalty,” as evidenced in my epigraph. Had Krandall stayed loyal to his true vision, things would have turned out different. Had any one character stayed loyal, it would have been a vastly different year for the citizens of Lake Castor. But disloyalty moves them and sometimes, for that, there is no justice.
How do you see the social dialogue between law and religion operating in the US today?
I see folks using religion to enforce the laws they want. Not even the laws, really, but to justify their own bad behavior. I hope I am able to tap into that effectively with DIRTBAGS, as more than one character can quote the Bible.
I am for gay marriage, and I think if we removed antiquated religious values from the equation, it would be perfectly legal for two people in love to celebrate a union. I am pro-choice, for the legalization of marijuana, and think it should be a felony to beat your spouse. I also prefer to trust men of science when it comes to climate control initiatives. However, most opponents of these views retreat behind a Bible or scripture or religious beliefs when it comes to addressing these issues.
I grew up in a Catholic household and attended Catholic school, so I was ingrained with the belief that, no matter how horrible my sin, I could start all over after confessing it to the priest on Saturday. Imagine that! All the impure thoughts and fights and curse words and crimes, and after a series of prayers in a pew — fingers dancing over rosary beads — and tabula rasa! I am free to receive sacrament and run forth to sin again. When I see a man (like Tom London in DIRTBAGS) hide behind religion or family in order to hurt another person, it justifies my views of religion.
I think a lot of people will stop at nothing to get what they want, and if they can find a Bible verse or a congregation or hell, even a religion that will back them and help them get it, then they will do it. But over here in the US, I’d say the Jesus freaks are damning our people and our planet straight to hell, one prayer at a time, and the sooner we set fire to all the Bibles and Torahs and Korans, the sooner we can start living a civilized and peaceable life.
Because the current kind of social order isn’t order at all.
What do you make of the gun culture in the US?
That’s a tough one. I am more exposed to the anti-gun culture than the gun culture, ever since I moved to the East Coast. I grew up in Texas, so I’ve never known anything but guns. My grandfather taught me to shoot by killing wolves on his cattle farm, then we’d take the wolf carcass and hang it on the fence as warning to other predators. First thing I ever killed was a crane poaching bass from his pond, and I immediately felt horrible about it. I still see it today: a pristine white bird with a solitary kiss of blood on its slender, limp neck.
I do not think criminalizing guns will curb violence. If you want to do somebody harm, you’ll figure out a way to do it. Americans (and mankind) are inventive. I think most of the mass murders and school shootings happen because people are crazy, not solely because they are armed. If you want to do something about people shooting up schools or movie theaters or post offices, a better tactic would be to do something about the American pharmaceutical companies or mental health reforms or even disciplining kids better. I’m dead serious about that last part; my tendencies went a bit dark when I was younger, but my dad spanked the weird out of me pretty quick. I find several correlations between the rapid rise of mass shootings by young people and the decline of corporal punishment. Tie in the rise of medications and you have a winner.
But America has always had guns. To be honest, I’m thankful for it. I look back at every favorite movie and every favorite book of mine and deconstruct the plot and action and find the story is impossible without a gun. Imagine Reservoir Dogs without a gun. It sounds entirely cold and selfish, but as a crime writer and reader, guns are an important element in my life. Besides, when it comes time to rob a bank, what are we going to use — a knife?
Do you think the frontier is still a key part of the American psyche?
This is a great question. The answer is “yes.” Like I said, I grew up on old TV Westerns which were chock full of frontier. And just as much as “Manifest Destiny” ruled our forefathers, it still works out here. While there may be fewer physical frontiers, there still exists the search for them. I’m not talking about the clichéd “final frontier” in outer space, although that’s extensively mined for material, but everyday frontiers. Which is why the internet is so popular, in my opinion. It’s a whole new world we can explore and create new options, until folks figure out how to regulate it and make money and soon it’s a norm of society just like anything else.
Even in publishing there are new frontiers. Most the old ways have gone out the window, but that’s only opened the door for new rules. Self-publishing, eBooks, etc etc etc. It’s an interesting time to live in because old mainstays are constantly being taken down in favor of new ones.
I also think this explains the big rise in apocalyptic fiction lately. When I was younger, I loved zombie films and stories, but as I grew up, I realized it wasn’t the undead that drew me to those kinds of stories, but rather the post-apocalyptic nature. The downfall of society and what emerges after. When the world as we know it is forced to begin again and new hierarchies are created… I think audiences respond to that in a big way because the “frontier” is so ingrained in our psyche that we constantly wish to recreate the need for one, physical or otherwise.
What do you make of the E Book revolution?
It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but like a Baz Luhrmann movie, “if it gets people to read…” I mean, I doubt my book would have been read by a fraction of the amount of the people who read it were it not for the Kindle. Now people swallow eBooks whole with their fingers and palms and maybe those same people wouldn’t have sneezed at a book otherwise. That being said, my first demand from the publishers of DIRTBAGS was there be a presence in print. I don’t believe it is a real book until it has pages that can be turned. I may be old fashioned (as discussed in earlier questions) but I constantly recall the scene in The Twilight Zone when Burgess Meredith’s character, who loves to read, is put in a post-apocalyptic situation where he has all the time in the world to read… then breaks his glasses. Horrifying. I’ve already exposed my predilection for post-apocalyptic scenarios (bring it on!) and one of the first things to go will be our electronic devices. They are not built to last. They are a machine, an Etch-A-Sketch with a limited lifespan. I have three towering bookshelves in my office, cram-packed with some of the greatest books ever and am already preparing for a fourth (don’t tell my wife). That’s how I feel about it, short answer.
Longer answer, is that it’s a revolution. Not one I’m excited about, but a revolution all the same. There are downsides, besides those mentioned, like it has cheapened the product that I make. You have folks that won’t spend more than ninety-nine cents on an eBook and who can blame them? It’s ones and zeros. My book is sold at $2.99 in electronic formats, which damns me to another year of a day job. But I hear from people who ask who I think I am, pricing it so high. Seriously. But this is the price we pay for the revolution.
The upside is a widening of the playing field. No longer is New York City the arbiter or gatekeeper of what makes its way into the literary community. The eBook field creates all these side doors and loopholes and secret passageways to get our stuff out there and work on getting noticed. It allows smaller publishers to exist and once they get their toehold, they can move up or down a ladder or two and help get more of my stuff out there. I’ve been inundated with great books by indie publishers lately and this is all thanks to the ebook revolution, the first domino.
Myself, though, I won’t read an eBook. I spend too much time looking at a screen and consider a book to be a break from work. I don’t like publishing online exclusively and can’t stand contributor e-copies. I like turning pages. I’m old school, I guess, but I know where my bread is buttered.
Do you think we live in an age of surveillance?
Absolutely. I can remember doing bad things when I was a kid and it was like the Wild West, man. You could toilet paper the school or maybe shoplift some candy bars and get away with it. These days… They installed one of those red light cameras up the street. That’s juking the game. The entire half of cops and robbers is getting away with it. You can’t even steal third base these days without folks huddling around a monitor to see if you were got away with it or not.
It’s mortifying, especially as a guy who loves to read and write crime. Remember Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple or any number of fictional detectives who, after a systematic deduction of motives, alibis, and clues, could determine the guilty party and expose them all before a jury of their peers? No more, man. That house is wired for sound. There are eyes in the walls. How anticlimactic would it be now for the detective to show up on the scene and all he has to do is rewind the tape to catch the killer? No, we’ve been gypped.
I watch the news at noon every day and it’s not footage shot by cameramen anymore. Just today, I watched a replay of TMZ’s released footage of Ray Rice’s assault on his wife in the elevator, security footage of a man known to be the last person to see a missing girl alive and is now the lead suspect, and video clips of a road rage incident gone wild. Used to, I would fantasize about getting away with the perfect crime and, even if you were to outsmart the DNA, you’d still have to wait for a massive power outage before you could do anything without fear of being caught. Now you can’t even flip off another driver without running the risk of being uploaded onto YouTube and shamed.
Does it make us better people? Being forced to behave? I guess that’s a question for another day.
Yes, they’re watching us. The only mystery is who “they” are.
Graham Greene wrote, ‘There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.’ What do you make of his observation?
I dig it, although I’d bet I have more than a splinter. I discovered early on that I have an unusual method of processing tragedy. I suppose my earliest recollection was the Challenger explosion. I was home sick from school when that happened and I couldn’t put it together in my head. Astronauts weren’t supposed to die and yet I’d seen it on TV with my own two eyes. Then my dad comes home with a joke (“What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts”) and I lost my mind laughing. For the next week I did all I could to collect Challenger jokes and eventually was sent home from school for retelling them.
I don’t use laughter to process tragedy anymore, but I am still breath-taken by the reaction. When I was on the fourth rewrite of DIRTBAGS, I felt something was missing, something felt hollow. I tried to communicate a small town’s fear of this impending dread at their doorstep, the murderous Calvin Cantrell out there, somewhere in the woods stalking them and it felt like a ghost story. I’d long given up being afraid of ghost stories, so I felt no connection. I kept writing words on the screen and then magic happened. This last day of rewrites was the day Boston went on lockdown in search of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon Bomber. Man, I was glued to the TV set, running back and forth from wall-to-wall coverage and my computer screen. I rewrote with a frenzy because imagine that happening in my small fictional town of Lake Castor. Suddenly, the search for Calvin was alive and that fear and unknowing and uncertainty could fill my pages and give my story scope. I felt horrible for all the people touched by that tragedy, but like I said, I ain’t afraid of ghost stories. Not when there’s all that tragedy out there for us to cower from.
There are images I will never be able to unsee. ATF agents climbing into the windows of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, and crawling back out shot to hell. People jumping to their deaths from the World Trade Center. The resolute calm in a man I’d just watched have two fingers chewed off by an injured dog. I am shocked by these things, sure. But I think if I’m fortunate enough to establish a connection between what a reader experienced and what I have written, then I think I have done a good job.
My goal with DIRTBAGS was to offer a flip side of the coin. We’ve all been horrified at true crime stories, especially those on DATELINE NBC or 20/20. You know, murder-for-hire, or serial killers or school shooters or predatory strip club owners and asshole restaurateurs and the like. I wanted to take all of those stories and bring them down to our level. Bring them down to the level of folks we see every day. Make people see the extra stuff behind these tabloid types. These days, when you watch the retrospectives of 9/11, they cut away before the people jump from the buildings. They cut away before the journalist is beheaded. They won’t show us the final moments before the shooting instructor is cut down by his own UZI. I remember, when those people jumped, I didn’t look away. I think, in the end, our readers will thank us for not looking away. And yes, that takes more than a splinter.
Either that, or we’re all sociopaths.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve got a couple things. I wrote and directed two short films over the summer that are both in the editing phase. The first one, “Liyana, On Command” is 11 minutes long and we are finalizing the sound and it should be entered in the first of its film festivals. This is my 5th film to see produced, although my first to direct. The second is “The HooDoo of Sweet Mama Rosa” and it’s about 25 minutes long and we’re just beginning the editing process. It’s scary, and perhaps convinced me that my strengths remain in writing and not so much in the other.
My second novel HASHTAG will be released by 280 Steps in the Spring of 2015, and I am awaiting edits from them.
My current WIP, which I am working on between these questions (and for the next month) has the working title THE JACK OFF. It’s the first rewrite, so it’s rolling kind of slow. It’s a story of identity and drugs as an industry. It makes me laugh out loud in places, which is either a good or bad sign.
THE JACK OFF takes approximately 90% of my brain power. I think it will resonate with people who appreciated DIRTBAGS.
What advice would you give to yourself as a young man?
1. Take notes. I can’t tell you how many good ideas have gone down the drain because I didn’t figure out how to keep a piece of paper in my back pocket until a couple years ago. TAKE NOTES.
2. All adults are full of shit. If I could go back, I’d award myself with the revelation that my parents, teachers, priests, cops, ALL ADULTS were full of shit and just out for themselves and until I would meet the woman I eventually married (my wife Lana), we are all alone in this thing and nothing they say can be taken at face value. Especially now that I am an adult, I see how easy it is to be full of shit and how necessary it sometimes seems. But as a young man, I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
Thank you Eryk for a perceptive and informative interview.
‘Dirtbags’ is available at Amazon US and UK and these fine booksellers:
The Regulator – Durham, NC
The Purple Crow – Hillsborough, NC
The Blue Phoenix – Alpena, MI
Atomic Books – Baltimore, MD
Carmichael’s Bookstore – Louisville, KY
Follow Eryk on Twitter