I thought it might be a bit disingenuous for me to review Eryk Pruitt’s latest, “Townies: and Other Stories of Southern Mischief”. To give you a gauge of how much I liked the book, even with me in possession of the printed ARC, I ordered a copy that the great unwashed get to buy. But I also like drinking bourbon and eating barbecue with Eryk. Decisions had to be made. So instead of a review of a collection of short stories, Eryk was gracious enough to talk about short stories
David: Do you remember where the idea came from for “Knockout” or how you came to write the story? (Readers, you can read “Knockout” for free at Out of the Gutter.)
Eryk: In 2014, I took a trip which involved stops in Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. Before leaving, I caught wind of the Knockout Game, which involved folks in these Rust Belt inner-cities who recorded themselves punching unsuspecting victims in the face, and the lives this damaged. When I write a story, I usually look for the opportunity to learn about something that I can’t fully comprehend, then effectively “teach” that lesson in a fictive sense. This game fit that bill.
David: “Knockout” is told in the second person. Several of your stories in short story collection, “Townies and Other Tales of Southern Mischief” are told in the second person. And even if they aren’t told in the second person, there is a style of the author unmistakably telling the reader a story. Can you talk a bit about this style of the writer being ever present in the story telling?
Eryk: A majority of my later fiction was written to be read aloud at Noir at the Bar events. I’ve always felt that a successful public reading makes great use of the intimate relationship between the reader and his/her audience. The use of second person is a helpful device to facilitate that intimacy. Also, nearly everything I’ve written in one tense was probably written in a different tense in an earlier draft. I’ll try out a few different things until I feel it’s got the sound I’m looking for.
David: Let’s chat about the importance of first lines. There are jarring ones in “Townies” like “The blood puddled beneath her husband, then slithered between the kitchen floor tiles she had only last week re-grouted.” (The Joe Flacco Defense) and “Horace Moncrief had mown clear up one end of his yard and down the other, then was ready to go after the patch on the side when he saw the dog get hit by the car.” (Town and Gown). But then you have these other first lines that deceptively plain like “Some things you can’t never get used to.” (Knacker) and “You always loved her arms.” (Sixteenths). These are similar to the first line of “Knockout” which is this: “A person’s phone tells you a lot about them.” Let’s talk a moment about the difficulty of the first line. The first lines I mention above grab the readers in different ways and set different moods. Thoughts about the importance of first lines and the work to get them just right?
Eryk: I wish I had magic powers like Donald Ray Pollock and could nail an exciting first line every time out. That guy has sick skills. However, a lot of the times, the function of my first line is to set up the second line, and then the third and so on and so forth. In the instances you list above, I tried to add an extra relevance to the “deceptively plain” first lines which becomes more apparent once the reader finishes the story. However, I distinctly remember that with “Knacker,” I cut about 5000 words that preceded “Some things you can’t never get used to.” I didn’t realize until I’d been writing that story for two weeks that everything I’d done to that point was mere backstory notes. The action didn’t kickstart until that line.
David: Flash fiction in crime fiction usually has a twist that other flash fiction tends to shy away from. Throughout the “Knockout” the reader is expecting they’re traveling down one path and then you say, “Fuck that, this is what’s going on.” This almost goes back to the first question, but how have you seen your stories change from inception to their final draft as you try to get the true gotcha moment?
Eryk: I am a huge fan of the way Stanley Kubrick told stories. Look back over his varied career and you’ll find a very simple, but elegant, structure. Almost all his stories begin on one track, and then the second half of the movie turns the story on its head and sends the characters he’s established into a different direction. It’s a brilliant way to tell two stories at once and maneuver an established cast of characters through a landmine of plot and I don’t mind stealing the technique from him.
David: “Townies” is not all flash fiction; you have stories from less than 700 words to one that checks I at over 22, 000 and everywhere in between. Can you talk about the sweet spot of matching the story to the appropriate story length?
Eryk: A lot of time, the story will dictate the length. I have a tendency to overwrite, so in the editing process I can come back and reframe the narrative to fit a particular word count. Most markets I found go for that 3000-5000 word range, and, when left to my own devices, my short fiction tends to adapt to those restrictions. Flash fiction (less than 1000 words) is very hard, but no crime writer’s career is complete until they’ve been accepted into Out of the Gutter or Shotgun Honey, so I accepted the challenge.
The title story, “Townies,” was a new piece, written specifically for the collection. There have been a couple of times that I’ve let a story air out and ended up with something in the 12-20K word range which, in this industry, can be a death knell. Nobody wants something that size. However, I was fortunate to have the guiding hand of Jason Pinter at Polis Books to help me shape Townies. I had a couple of disastrous ideas for how I wanted my first short story collection to look and he took the time to help steer me through these rocky waters. One of his many valued suggestions was to create something with weight that could anchor the collection, regardless of word count. Not only was I super grateful for his publishing expertise, but I jumped at the chance to operate without a leash.
David: You read at quite a few Noir at the Bars and I noticed several of the stories collected in “Townies” were ones that I heard you read. Are you planning on writing some new stories?
Eryk: For the past decade, I’ve kept scraps of paper with unused story ideas in my desk’s “Later Drawer.” I could write every day until I’m called home to Glory and not use all the paper in that drawer. I count myself lucky. So yes, I’ll write more stories for Noir at the Bar and I have a couple stories recently published that aren’t collected in Townies. I pay homage to a Dallas wrestling dynasty with my short story “The Last of the High Flying Van Alstynes” in Adam Howe’s “Wrestle Maniacs”. I also wrote for two memorial collections, each benefitting charities on behalf of two fallen comrades in the crime fiction community. I wrote “I’ll Be Your Mirror” for the Lou Reed inspired fiction antho “Dirty Boulevard”, which honored Jonathan Ashley. You’ll also find my tribute to early life in Durham, North Carolina, titled “Pin Hooked” in “Deadlines: A Tribute to William E. Wallace”.