Downtown Durham goes dark on Thursday when it becomes the latest city to host NOIR AT THE BAR, a gathering of crime-fiction writers whose work is the hardest of the hardboiled. Local novelist Eryk Pruitt, author of Dirtbags (see Recent Books column at indyweek.com), organized the event at the bar whose name is also its address, 106 Main.
Pruitt and six other writers—Grant Jerkins, Phillip Thompson, Steve Weddle, Charles Dodd White, Peter Farris and Chad Rohrbacher—will read from and sign their books. Pruitt talked to the INDY about why crime stories are enjoying a renaissance, why bookstores don't always welcome independent authors, what crime fiction offers that literary fiction doesn't and what the South uniquely offers as a setting for noir.
INDY: I understand that Noir at the Bar has taken place in cities around the country.
Eryk Pruitt: Yeah, it started as a one-time event with a couple of guys in Philadelphia, and then it was popularized by Jedidiah Ayres and Scott Phillips in St. Louis. Ayres wrote a book called Peckerwood and a few others whose titles probably aren't family-friendly, and he writes the crime blog Hardboiled Wonderland. Phillips wrote the novel that became the Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack movie The Ice Harvest.
As crime writing picked up its own kind of indie scene, [the event] really caught on, and I felt it was high time we got our own. I was talking to Ayres on Twitter and asked, "How do we get one of these in Durham?" And he wrote back, "You have to run it yourself." He helped get me up with these writers, and it grew from there.
What can people expect at the Durham event?
All seven writers have prepared 10–15 minutes of reading. In between readings, we'll talk with the audience, and everyone will have their stuff on hand to sell. That's a fun part of this—it makes perfect sense for writing like this to be featured at a bar, because it's so on the fringe.
A lot of bookstores aren't thrilled with the independent writer movement, and with some of the things Amazon is doing. A lot of smaller publishers are only print-on-demand, and some bookstores won't sell print-on-demand books that are done through Amazon. That's why the bar is a perfect venue for this—it lets us speak to our audience directly and sell our books.
Crime writing has always been a bit of an outlier. It was the bread and butter of pulp magazines, and was thought of as kind of trashy stuff, but it had a literary reevaluation in the 1950s and 1960s. So it's interesting that it's an underground thing again, with crime writers marketing themselves outside of the usual bookstore-ordering system.
I think that any time you want to find some really good unbridled fiction, you have to dig a little bit for it. I've got a degree in literature, and there were a lot of books I read for school that I would never have gotten through on my own, but I got through Peckerwood in a day.
There's a lot to be said for pacing and tension, and a lot of our great books don't always have that. You get that with crime fiction. I think the only difference between that and something "literary" is how people perceive it. If you sit down and read the entire Jim Thompson canon, or other writers of that era, they had something going on that was quite literary. It's similar with horror, Westerns ... I used to call it "guns, hookers and fire trucks." If, somewhere in a book, you have guns, hookers or fire trucks, it's going to have me rip-roarin'.
Is this going to be a regular event in Durham?
I want to see how it goes, but Bouchercon, the World Mystery Convention, is being held in Raleigh in 2015. Jedidiah Ayres told me, "You need a couple of [Noir at the Bar events] under your belt by the time that rolls around!" If we do that, who knows what could happen in 2015? We could get some really great crime writers to come through the area on their tours and interact with the local creators. I'd like to show everybody what we've got. There's so much good crime material right now, it's a reader's paradise.
Could you tell us about the concepts of "rural noir" or "country noir?"
I grew up on a farm but read these pulp books about the city: New York, Chicago, L.A. I never felt a true attachment until noir moved to the country, like in Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone or Frank Bill's Donnybrook or Steve Weddle's Country Hardball. I felt a truer connection to my work when I felt allowed to "write what I know," which was bad guys from the South doing bad things. There's nothing scarier than a Southerner with a chip on his shoulder—black snakes, crime in the sticks. So I'm glad these voices coming to N.C. are on the same page with that vision: That we don't need the big city to get our pulpy noir on. We can do it just fine down here.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pulp friction."