“As writers we can be in multiple imaginative places concurrently.” Eric Charles May discusses Bedrock Faith
By seven that evening, every resident on the 1800 block of 129th Street knew that Stew Pot Reeves was out of prison and back home; home being his mom’s redbrick two-flat located at the very east end of the block where the road came to a halt before the high stone wall of a railroad embankment.
As a chilly wind waggled naked tree branches beneath an overcast sky and sent bits of debris pinwheeling across bare, damp ground, word of his return traveled from house to house. Some called neighbors on the phone, while others threw a wrap over their shoulders (it was early March) to trot next door or across the street with the bad news, each messenger beginning their bulletin with: “Did you hear? Stew Pot’s back!”
Those receiving the news widened their eyes in surprise or winced in anguish. “Stew Pot’s back? The judge gave him thirty years. It hasn’t been half that long. Who was it said they saw him? Was it Mrs. Motley?”
Yes, it was Mrs. Motley.
Excerpt from Bedrock Faith by Eric Charles May (Akashic Books, 2014)
AMBER KELLER: Bedrock Faith is set in Parkland, a fictional all-Black town on the far south side of Chicago. The book opens with an unknown narrator telling us how to get to “the old neighborhood.” As we travel from the Dan Ryan expressway into the side streets, the world of Parkland rises before us so that by the time we get to the Stew Pot Reeves’ rundown two-flat at the beginning of next chapter, I feel like I’ve already been there, lived there, for many years. When I read this opening, I knew right away I was going to love this novel. In fact, there’s nothing I love more than to be taken to a place I don’t know and held there for four hundred pages. How important was place when you first started this novel?
ERIC CHARLES MAY: Place was essential. For many years I had wanted to write a novel about the sort of African-American neighborhood I grew up in. When you say “all-Black neighborhood” to many Americans, including African-Americans, often times the first thing that pops to mind is some economically depressed area plagued by the destitute, the drunk, and the dysfunctional. I wrote the prologue so that readers would know bang from the start where the story was located—in the heart of the heart of the Black Middle Class.
AK: It is definitely not a place I’ve seen very much of in contemporary fiction, but I don’t know if that’s because these books aren’t being written or if they are not marketed to White readers and entered into the contests and review channels where I get most of my book recs. Do you feel middle-class African-Americans are underrepresented in today’s fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter)? Why?
EM: There are no doubt a number of factors, one of them is that the people who often make the decisions as to what gets published, or what’s even taken into serious consideration, are seldom African-American. Which should not be taken as a charge of racism against the publishing industry. (Two the last three winners of the National Book Award were African-American and the third was Native American.) What I’m talking about are the sort of blind spots we all have when it comes to our artistic likes and dislikes. We are often less diverse in our fictive tastes—be it literature, movies, or TV shows—than we would ever think of being in our everyday lives and that includes agents, and editors and marketing people at major publishing houses.
Without thinking we sometimes pigeonhole various cultures into certain story silos: Italian-Americans—Mafia stories, African-Americans—stories about suffering at the hands of White racism, just to name a couple. (And speaking of Italian-Americans, how many works of literary fiction do you see about that culture that doesn’t involve organized crime?)
AK: You grew up in Morgan Park, a community that shares many aspects with Parkland. Have you gotten any feedback, good or bad, from the old neighborhood? Any flack for exposing the secrets of the Black Middle Class? Was this something that worried you during the writing? Whenever I try to fictionalize a recognizable place, it turns out looking like an amateur crook in a bad disguise. Were there aspects of that community that you wanted to include but didn’t because they were too close to home?
I haven’t heard from anyone in the old neighborhood, but that may be because they haven’t read the book. Also, my family moved from MP a long time ago–1967–so a lot of folks out there have no idea who I am. I did visit my old block in June of 2012 and there are four people—three of them childhood friends—still living there. If there is any “secret” of the Black Middle Class is that they are not all that different from any other middle class people, which I imagine would come as a surprise to some. Not writing something because it was too close to home never entered my thinking.
AK: Although the details, concerns and actions of the characters are deeply rooted in its place and time, the underlying story—of a community vs. an individual—is universal. As I reflect back on the book, I can see how much the community’s actions trigger Stew Pot’s own. From the moment of his return, even his most innocent actions—such as borrowing a Bible—are regarded with suspicion, and the residents of 129th form a plan to try to send him back to prison as soon as possible. Is this a condemnation of these sorts of tight-knit communities who can nevertheless exclude one of their own? Or is it a fact of life?
I’d say it’s a fact of life. There’s an upside and a downside to living in any sort of community. In a close-knit neighborhood people watch out for each other, give their support in times of trouble. They can also feel they have every right to “get all up in your business” as the saying goes, with no sense of boundaries when it comes to judging the behavior of neighbors. And sometimes that judging can grow out of entrenched conventional thinking that’s narrow-minded and cruel. (Think Erma Smedley.)
I grew up surrounded by loving adults: my parents, the parents of playmates, teachers at my neighborhood school, the adults at my church. It was so much a part of the place that I didn’t even think about it. It was like the air that I breathed, it was just there. Which doesn’t mean I was getting constant fawning. The formative experiences for the child-rearing adults of my childhood were the Depression and World War II. Many had either been born into poverty (like my father) or raised just a step or two away from it (like my mother). As parents they tended not to molly-coddle their children. (If you said X happened at school and the teacher said Y, the parents believed Y.) They had little patience for kid complaints about too much homework, or being bored, or not having the latest hot toy to play with, because they themselves had come up with so little.
I don’t think this was radically different from many White or Hispanic parents of the same era. But I didn’t know that back then, because I had, in my all-Black neighborhood, almost no contact with anyone other than other African-Americans on my economic level. What I did know was that in my community, save for the run-in with the occasional bully, I felt perfectly safe, safer than I’ve ever felt since my family moved from Morgan Park. Part of that feeling of safety was the sense I got from just about every adult I knew that I was someone of value, someone worth loving. It was a wonderful legacy that has been one of the emotional foundations of my life.
AK: With its huge cast of characters, keen social observations and omniscient narrator, Bedrock Faith feels like an old Russian epic novel. On the surface, this does not seem like a typical choice for a novel about an all-Black community on the south side of Chicago; nor is it that common in contemporary fiction. But it really brings this story to life. How did you come by this voice and point of view for the novel, and did you have doubts along the way?
EM: Some Russian literature has been an influence on me for sure, particularly Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and the short stories of Chekov. As for voice, three major influences were The Thin Red Line by James Jones, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery. All these novels have a wide cast of characters and approach their characters’ foibles with an occasionally amused humanity that at the same time never sugar coats what’s going on in the story or lets the characters off the hook for the things those characters do. Some modern examples of this approach would Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and The Narrows by Ann Petry. The voice and point-of-view approaches were the two things I was absolutely sure about when I started the novel. I had developed them in other fiction writing years before. This kind of craft knowledge is one advantage of writing novels in your 40s and 50s. (Ha-ha.)
AK: There is also a lot of comedy in this book—for the first half, anyway. For me, some of the funniest parts have to do with the elderly Mr. McTeer’s unrequited passion for the equally elderly and rather prim Mrs. Motley. What role does humor play for you in the book and how did you walk that line between exposing your characters’ shortcomings and all-out mockery?
EM: George Bernard Shaw once wrote: “Life does not cease to be funny place when people die any more than it ceases to be a serious place when people laugh.” The world is seldom all funny or all sad. Some of the novels I cited above—The Thin Red Line, Song of Solomon, The Narrows—are a mix of the sometimes funny and the sometimes-not-funny-at-all. You avoid mockery by not using characters as punching bags, by never forgetting that even the most wrong-minded person is a human being, with fears, and desires, and needs, and hopes; just like yourself.
As a writer you have to put yourself, that is your writer’s imagination, inside the imagined places that are the characters’ points-of-view, to see the world as they see it and feel it and internally react to it, which sometimes means perceiving the emotional vantage point of a character who is strongly opposite of you yourself, and to do so without judging.
At the same time (for as writers we can be in multiple imaginative places concurrently) you must also see the characters from the outside, as they interact with other characters in whatever imaginative locale you’ve created. This double awareness allows you (and your reader) to see a character’s internal perception in context to the wider world of your story. That’s how you get balance.
AK: I also think this is one of the main questions the book poses: How do you know another person? Mrs. Motley in particular grapples with whether to trust her instincts or let outward appearances and public opinion sway her. She is probably the character that comes the closest to doing what you describe doing as the writer—and she uses her religion as a guide. Others in the book represent different kinds of Christians—Mrs. Hicks is a “holiday Christian” who loves Christmas so much she celebrates it again in July; Mr. McTeer is a devout Catholic who would never marry a non-Catholic, despite his love and desire for Mrs. Motley; and Vernon Paiger believes God is everything. And of course, we have Stew Pot and Brother Crown’s variety. What were you trying to explore in terms of religion, and do you think the book (intentionally or otherwise) in the end, makes a statement about one kind of religion over another?
EM: I’m not big on trying to give definitive answers or statements on stuff because I don’t see myself as any sort of font-of-all-wisdom. What I was trying to do with the novel was articulate certain crucial questions; hopefully, in a way that would leave the reader no choice but to reflect and contemplate those questions after she or he finished the story. One of those questions is, “How well do you really know another person?” Another is the one Mrs. Motley asks herself: “What do you say to the person who’s been wronged by your right?”
Other questions that may emerge for the reader will not even be questions I’ve posed; they’ll be questions that grow from a reader’s reaction to the story. It’s another aspect of the creativity that the reader brings to the storytelling process, which is a joint venture between author and audience. Until someone picks up a story and reads, its just ink on paper; it’s only when the reader’s imagination is engaged and he or she is experiencing the story imaginatively that the magic happens, that it becomes art. No one reading Bedrock Faith will see its locations and characters and scenes exactly as I do, they will bring their own imaginative imagery to the process and see it the way they see it.
Part of my job as a writer is to give my readers enough in terms of imagery so their imaginations have something to work with, so that they don’t have to imagine every place and person from scratch, which with a novel can make for tiring reading after a while.
AK: In the wake of the most recent set of school shootings, I can’t help but think about Stew Pot as a kid without a safety net. At the end, we are left with the question of how much responsibility the community bears for Stew Pot’s actions and all the events that transpire. Had they not shunned his family, could he have been saved—truly—much earlier? Was this something you thought about during or after the writing?
EM: We must not forget that fictional characters do what the fiction writer needs them to do to produce the story the fiction writer wants. I needed Stew Pot to be a certain kind of person, so there was going to be no reprieve for him from that. The shunning was just another emotional log I could throw on the novel’s dramatic fire. Whatever inspires a novel, whatever happens in it, must serve the story. So while we can ruminate on things like an author’s background and how he or she feels about it, in the end the author will manipulate factors to get the strongest story results.
Parkland exists only in my novel and I had the people there act the way I needed them to. Not giving Stew Pot a safety net made for a more compelling story while at the same time providing part of the explanation for why he was the way he was. So many times in real life people do things that leave us clueless as to why they did what they did. But in fiction we usually know what the character motivations are—even if the characters sometimes don’t. Why characters do what they do is one of the itches we want scratched when we read fiction. Or watch a fictive movie, or play, or TV show. It’s a lifeblood of storytelling.
AK: This book was ten years in the making. What was that process like?
EM: A did a lot of first draft writing, reflection and contemplation on what I was writing, journaling in notebooks on plot, character, and story possibilities, and rewriting, and rewriting, and rewriting, which was followed by—more rewriting. I see revisions as just part of the artistic process—like musicians or actors rehearsing. For me rewriting is just as imaginative and exciting an exercise as the first drafts. In some ways the revision process can be the most satisfying part because that’s when you can really see the story coming into sharper focus. Rewriting is when all of your writing skills—conceptualizing, editing, re-imagining, sometimes expanding—are working in concert. If you can approach writing as a process with the understanding that multiple revisions are part of that process, as opposed to seeing it as a penance you must serve for not getting the writing dead-solid-perfect the first time (which nobody does), then writing can be a very pleasurable experience, even when the writing isn’t going as smoothly as you would like; because you can always fix any problem in the rewriting. I’ll let Toni Morrison have the last word on this. She once said: ”I rewrite a lot, over and over again, so that it [her fiction] looks like I never did.”
AK: I have always enjoyed rewriting, too, though I know some writers don’t. Is this something you see a lot in writing students—that rewriting is thought of as a penance? Was there a particular choice you made or revelation that occurred during rewriting that opened things up for you?
EM: As an instructor, if you make it clear to students that revision is part of the writing process, if you don’t set up a classroom dynamic that makes students feel that everything is riding on the first draft they turn in, if you conduct specific in-class exercises that directly address rewriting and takes the anxiety out of it, if you don’t have students feeling that a story is “bad’ or “wrong” just because it isn’t perfect right now, then that can go a long way to revising their approach to rewriting. I started writing Bedrock Faith when I was 46 years old. At that point I had 25+ years of fiction writing under my belt along with 4 years as a newspaper reporter and 16 years as a teacher. The novel writing process wasn’t one where anything “opened up” I was wide open creatively by then.
AK: One choice you made was to divide the book into sections, each of which focuses on a different character or family’s interactions with Stew Pot. The events build on each other at a pretty rapid pace, each action or reaction triggering the next. How did you keep track of all these storylines?
EM: Although I knew where the novel was headed in terms of its general direction, a lot of what I came up with I made up as I went along. I kept myself open to plot and scene and character possibilities and followed my instincts. For instance, Alderman Paiger and Reggie Butler had very minor roles in my imaginings when I started. I didn’t come up with the idea of Brother Crown until I was about halfway through novel. Ditto for the Motley-McTeer-Paiger triangle. One of the ways I was able to keep the storylines straight (for myself and the reader) was to divide the novel up into sections, with certain characters in the spotlight in certain sections while playing supporting roles in other chapters. This process required some shuffling around. I started out with Delphina Davenport’s sweet-sixteen party happening in August, but later decided that it would better to have it occur earlier in the summer, so I moved her birthday to June.
AK: You were my teacher in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago more than 15 years ago, and you’re still at it. How does teaching help or hinder your process?
EM: I love teaching. I consider myself a writer who teaches and teacher who writes. The two go hand-in-hand and the one informs the other. I come from a tradition of teachers. My mom is a retired teacher with the Chicago Public Schools, as are two of her sisters; their mom, my grandma, taught as a young woman in one-room schools in Alabama. Now that I’m an old fart (61) I find that being around young people does keep you young. I’m continually energized and thrilled by the talent, enthusiasm, and creativity of my students.
AK: What are you working on now?
EM: I don’t want to say too much. It’s a novel with a story that grows out of a double-homicide. It’s set in Chicago in 2008, although that year may change. In terms of plot and language and tone, it’s 180 degrees from Bedrock Faith. (Characters are cussing up a blue streak.) Basically it’s a tale where just about everybody concerned, including a bunch of mobsters—gets in way over their heads. It’s similar to Bedrock Faith in three respects: there are a lot of characters, the Law Of Unintended Consequences plays a big role, and I use the fictional Chicago neighborhood deal again—twice! One community is on the North Side and the other on the South Side. Parkland is in this novel too, but only in a minor way.
ERIC CHARLES MAY is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. A Chicago native and former reporter for the Washington Post, his fiction has appeared in the magazines Fish Stories, F, and Criminal Class. In addition to his Post reporting, his nonfiction has appeared in Sport Literate, the Chicago Tribune, and the personal essay anthology Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck. Bedrock Faith is his first novel.
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