Thursday, May 4, 2023

Eryk Pruitt on what he reads, writes, and owes

“There are storytellers who seem to come to us fully formed. Bards who create worlds and characters that captivate us instantaneously. Eryk Pruitt is such a storyteller, and Something Bad Wrong is such a book. A kaleidoscope of Southern Gothic traditions seamlessly combined with an incredible murder mystery, all told with Pruitt’s unique, indomitable style. Something Bad Wrong is some very, very good writing.”
—S. A. Cosby, bestselling author of Razorblade Tears and Blacktop Wasteland


By Steve Weddle

So, like many of you, I've been reading Eryk Pruitt's work for years. Something Bad Wrong, which published from Thomas & Mercer this week, is what everyone will now refer to as his "breakout" novel, and with good reason. It's fantastic. 

As I type this, this book is in the Top Ten for police procedurals and, by the time you're reading this, it might be in the top 100 or top 10 overall books on Amazon. 

It's no wonder, then, that his publisher has already snapped up the next book in the series.

But we're here to talk about Something Bad Wrong. (We'll talk about the next one next year.)

To catch the killer who eluded her detective grandfather fifty years ago, a true-crime podcaster must contend with outdated evidence, ulterior motives, and the dark family secrets that got in the way.

True-crime podcaster Jess Keeler has returned to Deeton County, North Carolina, to pick up where her grandfather left off. Sheriff’s Deputy Big Jim Ballard, her grandfather, was a respected detective—until it all came crashing down during a 1972 murder investigation.

For Jim, solving the murders of two teens should have been the highlight of his already storied career. Instead, he battled his own mind, unsure where his hunches ended and the truth began.

Working from her grandfather’s disjointed notes, Jess is sure that she can finally put the cold case—and her family’s shame—to rest. Enlisting the help of disgraced reporter Dan Decker, Jess soon discovers ugly truths about the first investigation, which was shaped by corruption, egos, and a family secret that may be the key to the crime.

Told in a dual timeline that covers both investigations, Something Bad Wrong explores human folly, hubris, and how sometimes, to solve a crime, you have to find out who’s covering it up.

Eryk and I chatted last week over email. 

Steve Weddle: You know, I'm starting to get the feeling that Lake Castor might not be such a fun place. The setting for some of your other novels plays a role here. What, if anything, should readers know about Lake Castor and the area across the state line?

Eryk Pruitt: Lake Castor is a very fun place for the right people, especially those carrying a copy of Things to Do in Lake Castor Before You Die. It's had a hell of an evolution. When we first meet it in DIRTBAGS, it is a dying mill town, where the June River Fabrics had left years earlier, which dramatically reduced the population and many opportunities. This results in people resorting to crime in DIRTBAGS and my second novel, HASHTAG. In HASHTAG, the town's sole deputy is allowed to commit some crimes due to the remoteness of the outpost and the fact that the police department had been decommissioned. WHAT WE RECKON's protagonist had left Lake Castor, only to return by the book's end. Half of the short stories in TOWNIES are set there, and it's a lot of fun to revisit in SOMETHING BAD WRONG, because the dual timelines allow me to feature when the mill was still up and running and Lake Castor was the jewel of the region (1972) and later, (Present Day) when revitalization efforts have led to a rejuvenation in the former mill town.

SW: You worked on a true crime podcast a couple years ago and have now written a "true crime" novel. This isn't just a novelization of your podcast, of course, so how did one lead to the other?

EP: My experience working on THE LONG DANCE enabled me to see firsthand how a so-called "cold case" investigation takes place, as well as the role of a citizen journalist. My previous stories and novels featured the experiences of criminals, because at the time, that's all I knew. However, I was fortunate to work with Major Tim Horne of the Orange County Sheriff's Office for 2.5 years as I observed him pursuing leads on a 50 year old case. That offered me insight on law enforcement, which I hadn't previously experienced, and it enlightened and informed my writing. There were several things in my own investigation as a citizen journalist that I found dramatic and entertaining (the monkey cage scene was based on a real life experience that still gives me goosebumps) but it was also very interesting to have access to the notes of original investigators and to be frustrated with how differently murders were investigated in the 70s as opposed to now.

SW: You have two timelines in this story -- the present and 1972 -- but more than two POVs. Was that always the case? Why did you decide to tell the story this way instead of simply staying in 1972?

EP: During the writing--and later the editing--process, I tried many things. I believe my first draft was told in two parts, where all of 1972 was laid out, and then we jumped forward to present day for the back half. Later I alternated it in blocks. Then we interspliced. I always knew the questions would remain unanswered in the 1972 version, much as these cases remain in real life. My own experiences plus the current zeitgeist of true crime podcasts meant that the ability to look back from the vantage point of fifty years later would come into play in SOMETHING BAD WRONG. I was hoping the audience's frustration from knowing more than the present day protagonist would be palpable in my telling of it.

Eryk Pruitt
SW: What are some of the good scenes or characters you had to cut from this book because they didn't work for this story? Do you keep these in a folder for later use?

EP: I had an entire subplot featuring an overambitious ADA who wanted a piece of the main villain and would stop at nothing to get it. He teamed up with the laser-focused Jack Powers to falsify evidence against the main villain, which would later trouble our protagonist in the future. This was based on something that happened in real life, but just like in real life, it required some leaps of faith. Overall, the book was already coming in long, so somewhere in the early drafts, that story was lost. But yes, I'd love to revisit. Who knows?

SW: Who are some authors writing today making you a better writer, either when you read their work or when they read and comment on your work?

EP: I've always been a fan of yours, Steve, and COUNTRY HARDBALL is a forever reread. I swallow up anything written by Tana French, William Gay, Chris Offutt. Lately I'm on the lookout for whatever Lisa Taddeo and Danya Kukafka write next. And I'm fortunate to have Jordan Harper, SA Cosby, Rob Hart, Kathleen Kent, and Jamie Mason on speed dial so that when I finish reading what they write, I can call them up and stan them for hours.

SW: You've based this book on real places, real crimes, real people. What, if anything, do you owe those people and places?

EP: This is an important question. When I wrote this book, I had two readers in my head. I hoped, of course, that other people would read it, but I only truly cared about the reactions of two people. I dedicated the book to them. They trusted me with their stories and they always told me "This would make a good movie." So, as a gift to them, I took their stories and gave them an ending that they were denied in real life. When I got my ARCs, I took them to dinner and gave them the book. I had never been more scared in my life. I have no idea how it must have felt to have someone translate their stories the way I have, but I can testify to the pressure one feels when trying to do that. All I thought while writing this book was that I wanted to be honest by them. I wanted them to understand that I respected their experiences wholeheartedly and I hope every day that I might make them proud to have trusted me.

SW: Where do you, as a reader, hear about good books to read?

EP: I really appreciate the "Best Of" lists at the end of each year, as well as the award nominations. I am very busy with my own research and reading in my own lane. I have a great fascination for contemporary Irish crime fiction, as well as works from the American South. I am grateful for those lists because, after an entire year of vetting books, they are presenting you with what they think stands above the rest of the crop and I can choose them, ride outside my lane for a bit, then (silently) agree or disagree with their tastes. Also, there are people whose tastes align with mine and I read their articles or even get a text sometimes with a recommendation, like Jed Ayres of HARDBOILED WONDERLAND, or the ATLANTIC's Sophie Gilbert, etc

SW: Without spoiling anything, of course, what scene in SOMETHING BAD WRONG was the toughest to write?

EP: The "connective tissue" scenes are hard for me because we have to lead the audience to a scene with the right amount of buildup and emotional stakes so that we earn whatever big moment we are preparing to unveil. There are several scenes throughout the book that are designed to break your heart or give you a moment of victorious joy, but I have to build to those. So this means a scene written here or there to connect the dots, or, a worse word might be "filler." I hate those scenes. They are hard and all I'm wanting to do is get to the tough one. There is one near the end of the book which is our past timeline's protagonist's emotional arc and I probably wrote that in ten minutes, even though it is a difficult scene to read and one that often gets labeled as "heartbreaking." It was the building to that moment and the earning of it that was twenty times more difficult than writing it.


Holly West said...

I love the premise of this book so much it makes me wish I'd written it myself. Not that I could've done it justice the way Eryk does. Great interview, Steve.

E. Ellis said...

One thing I will never fully understand about books, publishing, and attention is how so many exceptional books like Something Bad Wrong escape the attention they deserve, while so many lesser books explode like fired missiles.

Dana King said...

This book exceeded even my high expectations. Outstandng interview, both of you.