Eryk Pruitt on truth and storytelling, reading bad books and the appeal of writing short stories

“The title story in TOWNIES takes place in a honkytonk just outside of an unnamed East Texas town. When a series of accidents cause the bar staff to systematically die off, one-by-one, it’s up to Darcy, the new manager, to determine the cause.”

“I have been kicked out of a bar, a school, a church, and a country.”

 

SR: You’ve released a short story collection. Tell give us a teaser for the oldest story in your collection.

Townies-Cover-DesaturatedEP: The oldest story is probably “An Afternoon with the Parkinson’s,” which was published in the literary journal where I went to college. I fixed it up and had it republished by The Avalon Literary Journal in 2012.

SR: Where did the title come from?

EP: I once worked a summer with a man who had late-stage Parkinson’s disease. This was my attempt to get inside his head.

SR: Tell us about one of your favorite stories that’s included in your collection.

EP: Out of the Gutter’s Flash Fiction Offensive published my short story “Knockout” in 2015. It was a revenge tale about a victim of The Knockout Game, a fad where kids posted videos to YouTube of knocking out strangers with one punch. When I traveled to Detroit that summer, I was terrified of getting hit by some kid, so it manifested into a story. I was super stoked later that year when it was named a finalist for the Derringer Award.

SR: What is it about writing short stories that appeals to you?

EP: It lets me suss out a plot or character without having to commit to a full novel. Every short story I’ve written was a novel I didn’t have time to write. So that’s forty-plus novels I can come back to when the well runs dry!

SR: How do you think short story writing has strengthened you as a writer overall?

EP: It’s helped me make things lean and mean. The first time I wrote a 5000 word story and had to edit it for a 3000 word market was brutal. So brutal. But every one of those cuts made the story stronger, and I learned from it. Even now, I trim my chapters in a novel to 3000 words before I send it to the betas.

SR: Do you have any recurring characters you feature in more than one short story? If so, what is it about the short story format that suits those characters?

EP: I have a character named Deacon Easter who pops in and out of stories. He’s a fuck-up who ends up in bad situations. I actually snipped a couple of the Deacon Easter stories out of TOWNIES, so only two survived the cut. But the most recurring character isn’t a person, but a locale. The setting of my novels—Lake Castor, the fictional Virginia mill town—makes several appearances throughout the book. There’s even a glimpse of Lake Castor in the 80s with the story “It’s Morning Again in Lake Castor.”

SR: Which story in the collection is the most personal story for you? Why?

EP: I wrote a story titled “The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised” for inclusion to an outlaw country anthology published by Down & Out Books. It tells the story of the black sheep of a family who comes home to see his mother before she dies from disease. Between the second and third drafts, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. The fourth draft took on a new trajectory.

SR: Is there something you hope the reader carries away with them after they’re done reading? An insight or philosophy that you wanted to come through in your work?

EP: I want folks to have a good time, have some laughs, and hopefully get a little weirded out. As for philosophy: I hope they see dark fiction from the South in a slightly different light. But most of all, I hope they want to see some of these stories on the big screen and help us get them made.

SR: When you looked at your stories as a collection did you notice anything about your writing or themes that hadn’t really stood out to you before?

EP: Said once or twice while choosing these stories: “Dang, I used to be a lot angrier than I am now.”

SR: What was the first short story that you had published? Tell us a little about it and how it got published. How did that experience impact you as a writer?

EP: Outside of the lit journals in college, my first published short story was “Coda,” published by MAD SCIENTIST JOURNAL. It was (and still is) a paying online market that requires you to fashion your story after a journal entry written by a “mad scientist.” At the time, I had a story about two mismatched lovers with a penchant for violence, but I couldn’t think of an interesting enough way to frame it. When I saw the MSJ challenge, a light clicked on in my head, and I jumped at the chance. They accepted it and suddenly I had something to put in my bio. I really think that helped, having publications listed in a bio, because it convinced other markets that I was worth taking  a chance on. At any rate, I revisited that couple several other times in fiction, ultimately later including the two starcrossed lovers—”Sweet” Melinda Kendall and Sam Tuley—in the final third of my second novel HASHTAG. So often, people want to know what happened next for Sweet Melinda after the final pages of HASHTAG…I’d recommend they hunt up “Coda.”

SR: What’s the first book you remember reading that had a huge impact on you? How did that story affect you? How do you think it shaped your desire to be a writer?

EP: AGATITE, by Clay Reynolds. I had taken a bunch of lit classes and reading started to get on my nerves. Mr Reynolds made reading fun all over again, and set the book in rural Texas, which was an area I knew all to well.

SR: What do you think the hardest emotion to elicit from a reader is? Why?

EP: Humor. Laughter. It’s hard to suss out a laugh because my sensibilities are so dark, it’s not always going to strike a chord. What one person might find funny, another will find offensive. So it’s a fine line and a huge challenge, but that doesn’t keep me from trying. The biggest compliment I’m ever given is when somebody tells me they laughed throughout my books. There will always be a warm place in my heart for the dearly departed reviewer William E Wallace for calling DIRTBAGS “the funniest serial killer novel ever written.” Thanks, Bill.

SR:  What’s the best thing about writing?

EP: Exorcising demons. It gives me the opportunity to zig when I could have zagged, or to take the road less traveled.

SR:  What’s the worst thing about writing?

EP: Doubt. Usually during rewrites.

SR: What detail in your writing do you obsess over the most? Character names? Locations? Description? Dialogue? Research?

EP: Tone. I waste a lot of drafts trying to get the tone I want.

SR: What was your journey to publication like? What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome?

EP: I queried agents and editors every day when I was shopping DIRTBAGS. If there wasn’t a rejection letter in my Inbox when I woke up each day, that meant I wasn’t trying hard enough. Six months of that and when I finally got the acceptance, I stared at it for an hour.

SR: Are you drawn to things that are really popular or wary of them? Do you find it helps you to market your work if you’re familiar with what’s currently selling or do you ignore all of that and focus on what you’re interested in?

EP: I rarely stand things that are popular. Every once in a while, I get surprised. For example, I expected to hate Gillian Flynn, but man was I wrong. If I see everybody going one way, my natural inclination is to try something from a different way or POV or genre. It’s not me trying to be contrary, but I find little reason in chasing something.

SR: Do you relate more to Sherlock Holmes or Professor Moriarty? Why?

EP: Moriarty. I like to break things.

SR: What’s your personal life motto?

EP: Never let the truth ruin a good story.

SR: Tacos or Burritos?

EP: Tacos

SR: Chinese or Italian?

EP: I like to cook for myself so Italian

SR: How long will you survive in the zombie apocalypse? How long will your protagonist survive? Why?

EP: I’ve been waiting my whole life for the zombie apocalypse. When I die, the credits roll. I make it to the end.

SR: What movie world do you wish you could live in? Why?

EP: More of a TV show. I’m a WALKING DEAD guy. I’m tired of the way things are. I’d like to hit the reset button and have a chance to shape how things will be from now on. A good old fashioned zombie apocalypse might be what we need to get that started.

SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?

EP: I have a vegetable garden and I’m pretty obsessive about it. I also live near a river and a state park, so I’m a hiker.

SR: You strike it rich. What charity are you going to create or support?

EP: I’ll do something for the arts. Not like an arts council, which is basically worthless. Maybe I’ll do something that makes arts councils obsolete.

SR: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

EP: You learn more from reading bad books and watching bad movies than you do from good ones.

Eryk Pruitt is a screenwriter, author and filmmaker living in Durham, NC with his wife Lana and cat Busey.  His short films FOODIE and LIYANA, ON COMMAND have won several awards at film festivals across the US. His third novel What We Reckon can be found on bookshelves across the country. Be on the lookout for his first short story collection Townies and Other Stories of Southern Mischief, due from Polis Books this October. He is the host of the Noir at the Bar series in Durham. A full list of credits can be found at erykpruitt.com.

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Online Issue 15

 

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Darrin Doyle’s short story collection, Scoundrels Among Us, hit shelves this week and Darrin is here to talk about the common thread that ties these stories together. “A lot of fiction contains somebody doing something bad or wrong, but often they’re making bad decisions for themselves (or to themselves). My collection features many folks (mostly men) behaving in creepy, questionable, violent, or otherwise unseemly ways.”

I found the collection to be a celebration of the absurd and highly entertaining. Darrin also shares what’s on his TBR pile – including works such as Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, Christine Schutt’s All Souls, Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men and Katie Chase’s Man & Wife.

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Hunter Shea admits his love for Real Housewives and talks about the scariest night of his life and inspiration for Creature. Hunter also talks about his cats, Iris and Salem, in this author assistant feature.

Judy Penz Sheluk talks about her writing companion, a pup named for a character from NCIS: Gibbs

James Oswald talks about writing from the female perspective, insights from social media and claims to be “rubbish” at performing one specific author task.

Reviews:

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse reviewed by Sandra Ruttan

Scoundrels Among Us by Darrin Doyle reviewed by Sandra Ruttan

Solemn Graves: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery by James R. Benn reviewed by Theodore Feit

The Sinners by Ace Atkins reviewed by Theodore Feit

A Book To Look Up

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What is ‘voice’ anyway?

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Thoughts on Horror

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I suspect there could be as many conversations about what horror is as there are about what noir is. Laura Lauro’s tweets pointed me to the Aeon.co article by M.M. Owen, which is well worth a look.

“Horror is what anthropologists call biocultural. It is about fears we carry because we are primates with a certain evolved biology: the corruption of the flesh, the loss of our offspring. It is also about fears unique to our sociocultural moment: the potential danger of genetically modifying plants. The first type of fear is universal; the second is more flexible and contextual. Their cold currents meet where all great art does its work, down among the bottomless caves on the seabed of consciousness. Lurking here, a vision of myself paralysed in the dirt, invisible to those I love.”

 

“Read. Write. Persist.” Darrin Doyle talks about his short story collection, Scoundrels Among Us, his inspirations, hobbies and writing themes

SR: Where did the title come from?

coverDD: Scoundrels Among Us is a story in the collection, and I named the book after it. Once I assembled the stories and read them together, I realized how many were about people doing bad things to each other. Obviously a lot of fiction contains somebody doing something bad or wrong, but often they’re making bad decisions for themselves (or to themselves). My collection features many folks (mostly men) behaving in creepy, questionable, violent, or otherwise unseemly ways – which seems to mirror our own culture at the moment, I might add. Plus, I like the word “scoundrels.” It’s cool and old-fashioned and should be brought back into our lexicon.

SR: Tell us about one of your favorite stories that’s included in your collection.

DD: I’m pleased with the story “Second Home.” It’s sci-fi, for starters, and I don’t usually write in that genre. I should say that it’s sci-fi light in that regard, but it’s modeled on classic writers like Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, and Kurt Vonnegut. There’s not really hard science, but there’s a futuristic atmosphere and a utopian (or is it dystopian?) society and a moral/ethical question underlying the plot. I actually wrote it based on a prompt. A former graduate student of mine said he wanted to solicit sci-fi stories based on space jobs. Jobs in the distant future! That sounded interesting to me, so I took a stab at it.

My first thought was to have a dentist, probably because dentists and doctors give me anxiety. The story focuses on a patient at the dentist. The society in “Second Home” is entirely geared around keeping people alive for as long as possible with minimal stress. To that end, the main industry is body revitalization. People occupy their entire lives visiting robot doctors (called Mandroids) who replace and upgrade their body parts. Disease, aging, and sickness are things of the past. The robots do all the work, so people don’t even have jobs. Humans routinely live more than 200 years.

When our hero visits the dentist, he has a panic attack. He’s never felt this way before, and he’s confused about such a scary experience. It’s the first time he’s experienced a taste of mortality. The story becomes a meditation on death (and life), and the idea that if we take away death and physical imperfection and discomfort, what remains? If we are only living to remain alive, then what’s the point? If we never have to fear death or sickness or disease, what emotions remain? Is it possible to be truly happy if we never experience adversity?

The guy also finds out that they’re replacing all of his teeth with virtual teeth. Full extraction. This raises other questions about the physical self vs. the metaphysical, spiritual self.

SR: What is it about writing short stories that appeals to you?

DD: I love the small canvas, the contained experience for both writer and reader. As Edgar Allan Poe said, a story should ideally be read in one sitting, and every word should be in service of a “singular effect.”

Scoundrels Among Us features not only short stories, but brief stories. That’s my term for a story that’s longer than flash and shorter than a standard short story. I’m talking about 1,000 – 2,000 words. I was intentionally writing in this range, which presents unique challenges but also has the potential for meeting Poe’s dictum: easy to read in a single sitting, and ripe for creating a singular effect.

The brevity puts pressure on every word, every sentence. It means there is little time for subplot or deep backstory. The risk is that the stories may feel “incomplete” to some readers, but I’m OK with that risk. The reward, as I said, is a more streamlined emotional impact, and I hope that I’ve achieved that.

Plus if you don’t like one story, you don’t have to wait long to get to the next one!

SR: How do you think short story writing has strengthened you as a writer overall?

DD: When I was younger I wrote poetry as well as short fiction. The processes are similar for both forms, and if I had to boil it down it would be that they both force you to write distinctive, memorable, accurate sentences. Create a memorable voice through your sentence structure, and pay attention to every word. Cut any word that isn’t adding something essential. Choose muscular verbs and descriptive, concrete nouns. Use figurative language, but not at every turn. Vary the sentence structure and length. Surprise yourself. Every word is a building block toward that singular effect – toward an emotional, intellectual, or psychological response.

As a writer I don’t even need to consciously know what the desired “effect” will be. That’s because it’s ideally not something that can be nut-shelled into a simple phrase. The effect is more complex, more ineffable than that.

As the great Flannery O’Connor says, in a short story 2 + 2 always equals more than 4. Through the accumulation of imagery, voice, character, conflict, setting, figurative language, and so on, the story becomes more than a sum of its parts. It becomes, as she says, a way to “intrude upon the timeless” – to usher us toward the mysteries that make us human.

SR: When you looked at your stories as a collection did you notice anything about your writing or themes that hadn’t really stood out to you before?

DD: I noticed that beneath the humor and absurdity there’s a persistent loneliness and melancholy. The characters have a difficult time connecting with one another. This wasn’t intentional at all! I don’t think of myself as lonely. I wrote many of these pieces (although not all) to make myself laugh. But in the process of trying to capture the “whole person” of my characters (another idea from Flannery O’Connor), the humor revealed souls who feel deeply estranged from humanity.

I’m not sure what this says about me. But I’m not sure that it matters, either. I never want to be mistaken for my characters because they aren’t me; they’re an amalgamation of observations and people I’ve known, mixed together with some of my psyche. Probably it suggests, if anything, that I’m scared of being alone (and yet I crave solitude all the time).

SR: What’s one of the first short stories that you really remember reading and how did it impact your approach to short stories or your writing style?

DD: Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” is a landmark for me. In the 7th grade, I read this and realized the power of storytelling. Up to that point, I had read a lot of Piers Anthony and Stephen King, but this story changed my entire reading trajectory. The piece is a survival tale in one sense, but it’s also a story about facing death – a microcosm of all of our experiences on this planet. We all have to face our mortality, and this story did it in such a cool way as this fellow and his dog try to survive trekking through the Arctic. For English class we had to do a “presentation,” and I read this entire story out loud. It’s a pretty long story! I’m shocked that I read the whole thing. But this is undoubtedly one of the reasons that I still like fiction that’s existential – that raises questions of our purpose and existence in this life without sacrificing entertainment value. Because in the end, nobody’s going to read your work if it isn’t entertaining.

SR: Everyone needs an outlet to help them recharge. What hobbies do you have outside of writing?

DD: I’ve played music for more than thirty years, mostly guitar but also banjo, mandolin, bass, ukulele, piano, and drums. It’s a terrific outlet. I’m part of a trio called Daryl & the Beans, which is me and poets Jeffrey Bean and Robert Fanning. Check us out on YouTube or Facebook or at https://darylandthebeans.wordpress.com/

SR: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

DD: Read. Write. Persist.

 

Check out what’s on Darrin’s To Be Read Pile here.

Scoundrels Among Us is reviewed here.

 

IMG_8884Darrin Doyle’s most recent book is the story collection Scoundrels Among Us. He has previously published two novels – The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo and Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet:A Love Story – as well as the story collection The Dark Will End the Dark. He believes in Bigfoot, shaves on days of the week that contain the letter T, and teaches at Central Michigan University. His website is darrindoyle.com.

Review: Scoundrels Among Us by Darrin Doyle

Darrin Doyle’s new short story collection, Scoundrels Among Us, is packed full of stories that take us inside bizarre situations or introduce us to colorful characters, who are sometimes off-color and other times average people caught in abnormal situations.

5139ixbgzpl-_sx311_bo1204203200_I have to be honest. Short story collections are very hit and miss for me. You get less of a sense of genre and focus, because each story can have a radically different setting, subgenera classification and style. One story may feature a character you love and the next story can focus on a character you loathe.

This short story collection is immensely entertaining. It’s a celebration of the absurd. Sometimes, situations escalate, and the story is about what an otherwise normal person does then. Sometimes, the story centers around something unfathomable, like a dangling man way up in the sky. Scoundrels Among Us has everything from stole Presidential pickles to exploding genie heads to pissed off neighbors that earn their place on the pages. Some stories shock while other stories amuse, and some make you see the world in a different way.

I never like to give too much away, and with a short story collection you have as many premises and endings as you have stories. The title story, Scoundrels Among Us, had a Bruenesque brutality to the swiftness of the action and the unexpected outcome.

Other stories had me thinking about identity (Insert Name) while others had me thinking about how clearly we see our children (Water Fowl). I could go on, but what’s crucial here is that this is a well written collection of a various stories that are at times provocative and at other times absurd, but always entertain. Doyle has the ability to see beyond the black and white of our lives and spin even the mundane on its head to produce compelling stories, some of which I’ve even re-read.

 

Check out what’s on Darrin’s TBR pile and our interview with him about the colorful characters featured in Scoundrels Among Us.

Online Issue 12: Zombie Cat

Lots of good stuff in this issue, as well as some news, so let’s get to it.

 

Willie Davis chats about his novel Nightwolf. Davis has some keen insights about the benefits of being an author, a razor sharp wit and some interesting anecdotes to share. Plus, there are links to where you can find him on podcasts. Check it out! And don’t miss my review of Nightwolf by Willie Davis.

Paul D. Brazill is back, sharing all the tunes referenced insharing all the tunes referenced in Small Time Crimes and the link to his playlist. In case you missed it, Paul dropped in a few issues back to talk about Last Year’s Man.
Gray Basnight is here to chat about alternate history thrillers, New York City, hurricanes and more.
Tom Leins is back to talk about Meat Bubbles and Other Stories. In case you missed it, he was here a few months ago, talking about the perfect cast for this collection.

dscf1052-0Who is this man that is not my husband? Who is Allan Guthrie, you say? Brian shares thoughts on the author he now considers to be a cult writer. The tragedy is that there are now a whole crop of hardboiled/noir writers coming up who don’t know who Al is and this needs to be remedied. The next time someone tells me that they are brave or redefining the genre because they killed the dog I have two words for them: Allan Guthrie. Oh, and did you do it to be shocking or did you earn it on the page? Being a shock jock doesn’t take talent. Anybody can say or write something inappropriate that will upset people. Earning every horrific moment of pain and violence you write? Making someone writhe in their chair as they read but having them so deeply hooked they have to keep turning the pages? That’s raising the bar in writing, and few will match Allan Guthrie’s talents at that. I sense a re-read of Savage Night in my near future.

 

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Since so many people have forgotten (or don’t know) who Allan Guthrie is, there are also a lot of people in the crime genre circles who may not even know about Thuglit, Demolition, Pulp Pusher, Spinetingler and the far too many other notable ezines that were prevalent a decade ago.

When the owner of Spinetingler shut the site down, I was keenly aware of how much stuff I had out there that was lost. I was also aware of how many short stories no longer had a home. As a writer myself, I’ve had a number of short stories that were published online that have disappeared when other sites shut down.

That’s why I’m announcing today the launch of a sub-site for Toe Six Press: Zombie Cat.

Zombie Cat will publish reprints of short stories… maybe more. For now, we start with short stories that have been previously published. As long as they don’t conflict with rights bought, if the story has previously appeared in print or online it can be considered for republication. However, I don’t want things that are presently posted on an author’s website. The priority is stories that do not currently have a home online.

We kick things off today with “Absolution” by Mindy Tarquini, a story originally published in Spinetingler’s 2006 Spring Issue.

Reviews
Thoughts on Reviewing

Reviewing is one of the toughest things for me to do sometimes. On the one hand, it’s easy to give an overview of a plot-driven story and be enthusiastic about how it got its hooks into you and kept you turning the pages. That’s a certain type of story in its own right.

There are other types of stories. Literature was the perfect marriage of thriller and commentary, for example.

I wouldn’t even hazard a guess about how many books I’ve reviewed in my life. I was taught to review back when I was 20, in college studying journalism. And I had to produce things back then. When I started Spinetingler I wanted to talk about books I liked, so I started reviewing again.

These days, I review for Toe Six and Underground Book Reviews. Reviewing for UBR has changed my reviewing system, because I also judge the Book of the Year award for them, and have for the past two years. I was thrilled to see novels like Brian Cohn’s The Last Detective win BOTY last year and The Last Great American Magic win the year before. Hell, I don’t even know what genre The Last Great American Magic is, but I don’t care. Fantastic read. Enjoyed every page of that.

The great thing is that this means I get to read a variety of works that don’t always fit into neat genre categories.

It’s also meant that over the past few months I’ve had to revise my ranking system. I used to say mentally every book starts out as a 4 out of 5, which is a great read to me. 5 stars was reserved for books that really blew me away or stood out as special for some reason. Books that had major developmental and technical issues would fall down the rankings.

However, since the BOTY system relies on reviewers giving books 5 star reviews, and since that’s subjective, I realized that any book that does it’s job should get top billing, or it won’t be considered for the annual awards.

The simple reality is that I hate ranking systems. They are wildly inconsistent. Ask 20 people how they decide what a 5-star read is and you’ll probably get 23 answers. Art, by its very nature, is subjective. So my objective with written reviews is to give people enough information to decide if the book is right for them.