Monday, May 13, 2024

Jess Keeler returns: The Eryk Pruitt interview

Visit Eryk Pruitt on X for more: @reverenderyk

By now, you've read and loved Something Bad Wrong, the first in Eryk Pruitt's energetic, engaging Jess Keeler series.  Or you've heard about it, and it's on your TBR pile. Brooke Cain of the Raleigh News & Observer called it "the most devourable mystery novel [she's] read in years.”

Now Pruitt is back with the second in the series, picking up a  starred review in Library Journal: “The intriguing sequel to Something Bad Wrong utilizes dual timelines and three voices that contrast styles of crime coverage in a Southern noir story of violence, corruption, and racism. For fans of true-crime podcasts or S.A. Cosby.”

Author Casey Stegman calls this new one a "grit lit crime epic."

Shamus-winning author James D.F. Hannah said this is "expert storytelling from the hands of a master.”

And Eryk Pruitt had a few things to say, too, as I emailed some questions his way recently.

Steve Weddle: Blood Red Summer is the second in the Jess Keeler series. How and when did you know you had a series and not just a stand-alone story?

Eryk Pruitt: I spent a long time writing Something Bad Wrong and rewriting it and editing it so those characters and that world were camped out in my brain for quite a while. I had based it off my own experiences researching and writing a true crime podcast, and I really wanted to continue that work. I'd even found some interesting cases that would be exciting to investigate. However, those cases came with some immediate danger, because, as I was warned by a detective with whom I'd consulted, "this time I would be looking into some people much more dangerous than an eighty year-old doctor." I made no money off my podcast, so my wife and I had a discussion regarding the risk vs reward and, in the end, I had to back away. However those stories were very compelling and I was always looking for a way to tell them. Jess Keeler's journey in Blood Red Summer is a way for me to envision what might have happened if I had followed my dream.

SW: As with Something Bad Wrong, you use various points of view and timelines to tell this story. What does this allow you to do with the storytelling that a present-day narrative wouldn't do?

EP: I really enjoy giving the reader information that the characters don't have. Readers of SBW have told me how heart-wrenching it was to have Jess and her mother maneuver through the story without the knowledge that Big Jim Ballard had suffered from early onset dementia in the past timeline. This time around, there were events that Hal Broadstreet would experience but never live to tell anyone. I want the audience to know things that Jess Keeler and the present-day characters may never know, and the audience will root for them to uncover, despite the fact that it may never happen.

SW: In Blood Red Summer, Jess starts off working with TV journalist Dan Decker as her partner, but in this one she's being funded by Germans and is working with a team. Is that an improvement for her?

EP: The reader will have to decide that for themselves. The advantage to self-producing a podcast is that she can control the delivery of information. If she wants to tell the unvarnished truth, there is nothing stopping her from doing it. However, once you sign away your story to a larger entity and taking their money, she basically becomes their employee. If they lean toward sensationalism, she will have to sensationalize or she will be unemployed. While I was never paid for THE LONG DANCE, I was able to tell the story straight and include everything I thought was necessary and in the manner I wanted to tell it. Had I signed on with a larger media corporation, their focus may not have been on the truth, it would have been on producing content that would have made their shareholders more money. It's one of the most frustrating aspects of what people call "true crime documentaries" these days. The "truth" is often manipulated in order to increase streaming metrics or to get buzz. But if that's your job and you are being paid to do it, then your choice is to be good at your job or bad at it, and that is Jess' dilemma in Blood Red Summer.

SW: This "past crime" of BRS took place in 1972, while this new book is partially set in 1984. How has the area changed since we last visited?

EP:  I've written about Lake Castor in nearly every one of my novels. Although this is the first time I've directly connected any of them (SBW & BRS), a reader could easily watch this community transform. In the 70s, the June River Fabric mill was the largest textile mill in the midAtlantic states. It closed in the mid 70s, and by the 80s, the entire region was affected. People lost their livelihoods or simply moved away. Those who remained wallowed through poverty and many people became desperate. Crime was able to flourish and, because of this, the police employed a more aggressive response.
In the present day timelines, the area has come through the nearly 40 years of blight to transform those empty mill buildings into condos, cupcake shops, and hip restaurants. The city has begun a sort of renaissance that has its own implications on the population. I've lived in or near Durham, North Carolina since 2007 which, like many towns in the area, were greatly affected by the rise and fall of tobacco, and are just now coming out of the ashes. Everybody's always talking about the "old days."

SW:  In addition to Jess Keeler, for the new book you've brought back Ennis Worthy, who is such a great character. What is so important about Worthy and his connection to this?

EP:  I love writing about Ennis Worthy. He's a man who sees what's wrong and wants to make a change, but society refuses to let it happen. When he's young, society handcuffs his ideas because of his race. When he gets older, his inability to change things for the better is hindered by the very power that he had sought for so long. I've enjoyed showing him at the beginning of his career when he is full of ideals and hope, and contrasting that with him at the end of his career when he is forced to look back and reckon with the mistakes he made along the way while trying to change his community for the better and balancing his regrets against his successes.

Blood Red Summer (5/14/24) is available from Thomas & Mercer.

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.

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