Tell us something about Bedrock Faith.
The story is about a guy named Stew Pot Reeves who gets out of prison after 14 years and moves back home with his widowed mom. She lives in Parkland, a middle-class African-American neighborhood on Chicago’s far South Side. Stew Pot’s staid neighbors are worried about his being back since he was quite the terror before being sent away. Neighbors soon find out that Stew Pot has had a religious conversion while in prison. With his newfound religious fervor, he appoints himself the moral judge of Parkland. He gets into it with one neighbor after another, each encounter escalating in intensity and violence, leaving many community residents irrevocably changed.
Is Stew Pot based on a person you actually know?
Fortunately I’ve never encountered anyone like Stew Pot, although I’ve spoken to folks who say they’ve known people with similar personality traits.
How’d you come up with such a character?
Nearly thirty years ago, when I was living in Washington DC, I remember seeing a TV news story about a 7 or 8-year old White kid who lived in the South. He was terrorizing his schoolmates by telling them that they and their parents were all going to Hell because they were sinners. The schoolmates came home crying and the parents were angry; however school officials could do nothing to stop the boy since he wasn’t stealing lunch money or physically abusing them. (I imagine now school officials would get him on bullying.)
Some years later I saw another TV news story, this one about a guy terrorizing residents on the Upper Westside of Manhattan by following them down the street and yelling at them. And that’s when the idea came to me: What would happen if instead of a kid terrorizing other kids with religious fervor, it was an adult terrorizing other adults with religious fervor? The novel grew from that.
Is Parkland a real neighborhood?
No, like William Faulkner with his town of Jefferson, Thomas Hardy with his county of Wessex, and Toni Morrison with her Ohio locales in Sula and Song of Solomon, Parkland exists only in fiction; however, just as with Hardy and Faulkner and Morrison, I drew powerfully from my memories and impressions of the community where I grew up.
And what place was that?
Morgan Park, a Chicago community that is located on the southern edge of the city. Although my family moved from there when I was close to 14, I’ve always considered it the place that formed me. The section of the community we lived in has been an all African-American neighborhood since the area was prairie; lots of large churches, tree-lined streets, large back yards, and very little crime. My mom grew up out there and it was the kind of place that if someone didn’t know you, they knew your parents, or your grandparents, or your aunts and uncles, or your cousin, somebody who was blood kin.
What was the neighborhood like when you lived there?
Working-class and middle-class for the most part. On my block Mr. Govan was a bus driver, Mr. Perkins was a mail carrier, Mr. Bell was a police officer, my mom and Mrs. Dawson were school teachers, Mr. Roberts worked for the Chicago Park District. In Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the matriarch of the Younger family, Lena, makes a reference to Morgan Park as the place she and her late husband had hoped to one day move their family.
So you invented Parkland for this novel?
Actually no. Back in the early 1980s I started a novel about a love triangle. I invented Parkland for that story, with two of the members of the love triangle coming from that neighborhood. I eventually put that novel aside for a number of reasons. But twenty-six years later when I got the Stew Pot idea, I realized almost immediately that Parkland was the place to set it. Fact was, I had long wanted to write a novel set in an area like Morgan Park.
Is Mrs. Motley based on your mother?
Mrs. Motley is a composite character, drawn from many of the Black women I knew as a boy: my mother and her sisters, my school teachers at school, mothers of kids I played with, women I saw at church. Many of them were educated women who were prim and proper and attended church regularly. Like their husbands (almost all were married) they had either been born into poverty or close to it and were as surprised as anybody to find themselves, in their adulthood, to be solidly in the middle-class.
What sort of books did you read while growing up?
I loved history books, especially those about the Civil War and World War II. During my primary years I read lots of Beverly Cleary–Henry Huggins, Beezus and Romona, etc. I attended John D. Shoop School for elementary school. (It was the same school my mother and her siblings attended and where she spent most of her teaching career.) I was on the school’s Book Club from 6th to 8th grade and read many Newberry Award books. I also read lots of comic books. I didn’t much care for DC comics like Superman or Batman or the Flash, but I loved the Marvel characters: Spider-Man most of all, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man. Surprisingly, I didn’t much care for Science Fiction or Fantasy. Too literal minded a kid I suppose. One thing I do want to mention, as Toni Morrison has commented in reference to her own reading childhood, my reading world was bereft of any stories about Negroes (as we called ourselves back then). It was a hole I didn’t fully realize until my early teens.
What was the first African American novel that you read?
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, I was a sophomore in high school.
How did you react to that?
I read it with great relish. At the time I knew that some of what Ellison was telling was going over my head, but I didn’t let that stop me. To get lost, at long last, in a story about people of color, was thrilling to me, so I just kept plowing through, at some points re-reading sections two and three times in an attempt to try and get what Ellison was getting at. And of course the last line is one of the best in American literature. I won’t quote it here because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone. One of the things that makes it such a great last line, is that its greatness will only have a strong emotional impact if you’ve read the whole novel, so getting the book and thumbing to the last page won’t do you much good.
Morrison has also said that she wrote the books she’d always wanted to read. Do you feel that way too?
Yes. One of the reasons I wrote Bedrock Faith is that I have seen very little literary fiction about the sort of people I knew while growing up: middle and working class African-Americans whose lives are not embroiled with drug use, poverty, and family meltdown dysfunctions. Which is not to imply the validity of such stories or that they shouldn’t be told, but there’s more to the African-American experience than deprivation, despair, and victimization.
Is there anything that surprised you while you were writing Bedrock Faith, something that emerged in the story that you hadn’t planned on when you started?
Mrs. Motley’s romantic situation with Alderman Paiger and Mr. McTeer was not even the tiniest blip on my imaginary radar screen when I started. It was only when I was well into the second half of the novel that I realized I was writing a version of Sense and Sensibility. (Ha-Ha.) Reggie Butler’s was another surprise. He started out a minor-minor character; a poor mope in love with a girl who didn’t care for him, nothing more.
Was there anything that emerged from the writing that disturbed or upset you for some reason? Something else you didn’t expect?
When I was in the last part of the story and I discovered, in an epiphany flash of realization, what Stew Pot was going to do to his mother, I was unnerved for days afterward. The scene where Reggie is being questioned by police officers had an emotional resonance with me that I didn’t fully realize until I read the section aloud at a Chicago Story Slam event. I remember that as I read, my hands began to shake. Didn’t see that coming.
How many times did you revise Bedrock Faith? Some sections I rewrote so many times I lost count–fifty, sixty times? The opening section describing Parkland I know I did at least fifty times. Not complete overhauls, but numerous revisions to find just the right length, tone, story movement, and sense of story anticipation. This summer with the page proofs from my publisher, I read the manuscript three times over the course of about three weeks, the last two times aloud to myself; making some corrections and small additions each time. Hard work, but well worth it. I think the novel is much better for the effort.
What are you working on now?
A crime novel set in Chicago during the early 2000s. Only a little of the story takes place in Parkland. In tone and language, this novel is way different from Bedrock Faith with a cast of cops, mobsters, and assorted other rough-and-tumble characters.
What are you reading now?
I’m re-reading The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate, which I assigned to one of my writing classes this semester. I’m also going to take a second look at The Godfather, which I haven’t read in nearly thirty years. Mario Puzo wrote it in this folktale sort of voice, a folktale that had been translated into English, which I find interesting despite the novel’s sometimes-cheesy scenes and scenarios.
ERIC CHARLES MAY, author of Bedrock Faith, is an associate professor of 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.