By Johnny Temple
I first met Eric May during a visit to Story Week in the mid-'00s. Joe Meno spoke highly of Eric and his writing, so naturally I was eager to see the novel he was working on at the time. And while I had reasonably high expectations, I wasn't prepared for the tour de force that arrived several years later as a Word document attached to an e-mail from Eric on October 26, 2012. It was one of those rare submissions to Akashic Books where the full staff endorsed it immediately upon review, without need for the cajoling, wrangling, and threatening amongst ourselves that characterize our standard editorial acquisition process.
Although Eric has been a professor at Columbia College for a number of years, and although his fiction has been published in a variety of prestigious literary journals, Bedrock Faith is his astounding debut novel that Dennis Lehane has described as "full of vitality and pathos and grit." The book tells the story of the chaos unleashed upon the outlying Chicago neighborhood of Parkland when a local delinquent, Stew Pot Reeves, is released from prison and returns to his mother's home. This is one of those rare novels where the story structure and character development are equally captivating. While the most memorable characters may be Stew Pot and the compassionate, singular Mrs. Motley, the supporting cast dazzles throughout the eleven "books" of the novel, which are divided into bite-sized chapters.
The following conversation was conducted via e-mail. It was a pleasure to put to Eric these questions which have been knocking around in my brain since my very first reading of his novel.
Johnny Temple: What came first, Bedrock Faith or Mrs. Motley?
Eric May: Mrs. Motley came first. She was in my head from the very beginning. I needed to make Stew Pot's arrival have a dramatic effect on someone as soon as he got out of the taxi. The title came much later, years after I had started the book. I remember the moment well. I was returning home late one night (oneish? twoish?) from a saloon just down the street from my apartment. Save for Friday and Saturday nights, that particular stretch of Chicago is usually devoid of traffic in the early-morning hours. Back then, the novel was often on my mind when I was walking about. I was thinking about some scene as I strolled across street (it must have been winter because I had a heavy jacket on), when "Bedrock Faith" popped into my head, just like that. I instantly knew that was the title. I remember feeling thrilled as well as a little puzzled that I hadn't thought of it before. It's such an obvious perfect fit for the story I was writing.
JT: Is Stew Pot inspired largely by a specific person, or is he a composite, or is he solely a product of the Great Eric Charles May Imagination?
EM: The first wiggle of Stew Pot came when I saw a TV news show. This was back when I was living in Washington, DC, in the early '90s. I saw a report about a kid, a White Southern kid, 6 or 7 years old, who was terrorizing his playmates and/or schoolmates by telling them that they and their parents and their siblings were going to Hell because they weren't sufficiently religious. School officials were helpless to stop him (this was way before bullying became an issue) since he wasn't threatening to take anyone's money or threatening to beat anyone up.
A few years later, while still in DC, I saw a 60 Minutes story about a guy in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, I believe it was, who was harassing residents by walking alongside them and yelling at them. The authorities couldn't arrest him for anything because he would do these things when he was off his meds and, technically, not responsible for what he was doing. He never physically harmed anyone as I recall, just scared people to no end. I remembered the earlier story (I store stories and story ideas in my head the way some musicians say they store tunes) and I thought: What if the religious zealot wasn't a kid scaring other kids but an adult scaring other adults?
Back in the 1980s I had started a novel about a love triangle (a married woman who has an affair) where the woman and her lover were both from the far South Side neighborhood of Parkland. I actually invented the neighborhood for that novel. Although that story didn't work out as I had planned (I hope to go back to it one day) I was still very much interested in the community I'd invented. I realized very quickly that it would be a perfect place to set my adult zealot, who of course would be African-American. I originally saw the story as a long short story or novella, but after only fifty pages I realized there was more than enough meat on this bone for a novel. The first image I had of Stew Pot is a scene that never made it into the book. He's standing in front of his home reading aloud from a Bible in a voice so loud that it draws neighbors to their front windows and doorways.
JT: The book is long but the chapters are short. Would you ever write a full draft of a chapter in a single sitting? And in the writing, did the book come out of you chronologically?
EM: I wrote the first draft of just about all of the short chapters in a single shot, and a number of the longer ones too, such as the conversation over tea between Mrs. Motley and Stew Pot that takes place in her kitchen, the scene where Stew Pot confronts Reggie Butler, the block club meeting in the first section of the book; however, nearly all were revised to one degree or another. The prologue went through well over fifty drafts as I searched for just the right tone and length. I particularly remember laboring over the wording of the prologue's last paragraph. The extended paragraph that ends the book I wrote in a single rush, including the last line. The revising I did for that section was just some tweaking—a removal of a sentence here, the addition of a phrase there.
Although I wrote the drafts more or less chronologically, the story did not come to me that way. For instance, I knew early on there would be a scene at the end with Mrs. Motley and her granddaughter strolling around Parkland. In a way, I was writing toward that. The final scene was something I had in mind before I was halfway through the book. I guess you could say that scenes would come to me and I would arrange them chronologically in my mind. Of course there were some things that were a total surprise, epiphanies of scenes or plot situations that sprang to mind while I was writing a draft or when I was journaling about the book.
JT: What made you decide to capitalize the words Black and White (when talking about a person's race) instead of the contemporary standard of making the words lower case?
EM: I capitalize because when we use those words to describe people, we use the words as proper nouns, not colors. Most Black people in this country are not literally black in skin color, and most White people are some variation of beige.
JT: I see your point, but the English language is filled with all sorts of exceptions and oddities. So is it really just a matter of you feeling that all proper nouns should be treated the same on a literary level, or is there more to it?
EM: And it's all those exceptions and oddities that make our language so much fun to use. Language is not a static entity, no matter what the MLA or Chicago Manual of Style may sometimes make things appear. Our language, our English, is a living thing that grows and adapts to the way people need to use it. Black and White in reference to people means very specific things that have powerful historical and cultural ramifications for people of this country. I've seen south capitalized when used in reference to that region of the United States that attempted to secede from the US, although if you look the word up in the dictionary it's not capitalized in that way. When we speak of "the South" (along with "the North", "the East", and "the West"), we are talking, in an emotional sense, about more than just directions on a map. The same emotional impact is at least as true for the words black and white when referencing specific groups of people.
JT: Most of the characters in Bedrock Faith appear to be Christians. But despite the fact that it's a close-knit community, there appears to be a variety of forms of Christianity embraced in the neighborhood. Is it fair to say that your novel takes a playful approach to exploring faith and community, but doesn't go so far as to critique Christian faith in and of itself?
EM: Firstly, I'm not much for using novels as a way to critique social issues. As Nabokov once wrote: "All novels are fairy tales." I think we can get into trouble when we start asking fiction to do what history and social commentary do much better. The fiction writer is almost always going to go for whatever makes the best story. (Which is almost always what the reader wants too.) Well, what's the best story may or may not always be what is historically true or socially accurate. And besides, a critique in fiction is just one author's opinion, which may or may not make any sense. There have been some wonderful writers who've had some fairly goofy worldviews. When the urge strikes the reader to draw socio-historical conclusions from a work of fiction, my advice is, "Tread carefully."
Secondly, I don't think Christianity needs critiquing, any more than I think Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, or Hinduism needs it. The bad things done in the name of religion are the rationales some people have historically used to defend some infamy that they would have done anyway. For example, these days some folks say that the reason Islamic terrorists are terrorists is because they're Islamist, which makes about as much sense as saying that slaveholders and those that fought in support of slavery during the Civil War did so because they were Christians. While it's true people have and do use religion as an excuse for doing harm—homophobia, for instance—I believe it's the desire to do harm that comes first. Which is just one author's opinion, which, depending on your view, may or may not make any sense. A person's faith is a person's faith, and as long as no one's harmed, I say live and let live. Besides, I know of some people whose lives have been changed for the better—years of sobriety and counting—who never would have reached the shore of recovery without their religious faith, so who am I to critique their faith just because it's not necessarily the faith that guides me?
JT: In a so-called enlightened culture, why would these major institutions of society (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc.) be left uncritiqued? Framing this in the context of your book, when Erma Smedley feels compelled to leave Parkland after Stew Pot outs her as a lesbian, is this simply a cultural bigotry that has nothing to do with the faith(s) of the community members? (To be clear, I'm also not suggesting that the residents of Parkland are any more, or less, homophobic, in general, than any other American community.)
EM: I don't have a problem with institutions being critiqued; I just don't think it's all that sensible to do it in fiction. As for the Parkland homophobes, it's the homophobia that's the problem. I've encountered plenty of homophobes in my time who'd never dream of attending a house of worship. In regards to my novel, I would hope that my live-and-let-live, even-handed approach to faith (if you could call it that) would be the thing that hopefully comes through, although I don't doubt there will be those who will hotly disagree with it.
JT: Did you do any "research" in the writing of Bedrock Faith that required you to step outside your home or office?
EM: Most of the research I did from books, the King James and the Revised editions of the Bible, the Daily Missal, encyclopedias of the Bible and biblical verses. I had to do research about arson investigators and the effects of sunstroke on senior citizens. What else? I read archival stories about the Conference of World Religions that took place in Chicago in the summer of 1993, and the effects of certain poisons.
As for out of the office...I had the good fortune to live next door to William P. Murphy, who's been a defense lawyer in Chicago for decades. He was a great source. I interviewed him a couple of times at his kitchen table. There's an interesting section on him in the nonfiction book Defending the Damned: Inside a Dark Corner of the Criminal Justice System by Kevin Davis. The book is about a special team of Cook County Public Defenders, the Murder Task Force, who handles nothing but the murder cases of defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. Murph was the task force's first supervisor when it was formed back in the 1970s. Also, I took a trip out to Blue Island, a suburban community directly adjacent south of Chicago and not far from where I grew up in Morgan Park. With a couple of friends who were living out there at the time, I inspected the area and took photographs to get a clear idea of how the terrain out there is arranged—what the banks of the Cal Sag look like, how high and how low the banks are at certain points, and so forth.