Q and A with Eric Charles May, BEDROCK FAITH
Tell us about your new novel.
Bedrock Faith is about a guy who’s terrorizing his neighbors with the Word of God. After fourteen years in prison, Gerald “Stew Pot” Reeves, age thirty-one, returns home to live with his widowed mom in Parkland, an African-American, middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. A frightening delinquent before being sent away (his infamies included butchering a neighbor’s cat, torching another neighbor’s garage, and terrorizing the locals with a scary pit bull named Hitler), his staid Parkland neighbors are more than a little worried at having him back. Soon after his arrival, Stew Pot announces to one and all that he experienced a religious awakening while in prison; however, this is no break for the neighborhood.
With his newfound and uncompromising fervor (and with a new pit bull named John the Baptist), Stew Pot appoints himself the moral judge of Parkland. He gets into it with one neighbor after another on religious grounds--he outs one neighbor, destroys the marriage of another household, plays a prank that leads directly to another neighbor’s death. Others decide to retaliate, which ramps the drama higher still, eventually sending Stew Pot over an emotional edge as his life spirals out of control. The novel provides a reflection on God, the living and the dead, and the possibilities of finding love without reservation.
Bedrock Faith is set on the south side of Chicago, in a neighborhood similar to the one where you grew up. What were some of the pleasures (and challenges) of writing a book about a place you know well? Did you learn something that surprised you as you progressed through the writing of this book?
It was a real joy to work in a fictional world based on the neighborhood I was raised in. (And that my mother was raised in too.) The African-American middle class is conspicuous by its absence in a lot of modern dramatic literary fiction. My childhood in Morgan Park was about as idyllic as it’s going to get for a kid raised in the city. Back when I was small, our section of MP was more like a small town, with Euro-American neighborhoods to the north, east and west, and until the late 1950s, a mile or so of prairie directly south. Creating my own community (like Hardy with his English county and Falkner with his Mississippi locales) allowed me to gleefully indulge in imaginative urban planning, putting streets and stores and parks and homes wherever I wanted.
Stewpot, one of your novel's central characters, and also the one who serves as the biggest source of tension, is such a complex person, a newly religious ex-con. How did he come about? Were you inspired by someone you knew or someone in the news?
When I was living in Washington DC, this was the late 1980s, I saw a TV story about a White kid in the South, six or seven years old, who was terrorizing his classmates and playmates by telling them that they (the classmates and playmates and their parents) were all going to Hell because they weren’t fundamental Christians like he and his own parents. He’d make these pronouncements complete with Bible quotes and as you can well imagine, it sent the other kids into tizzies of fear and tears. The parents of other kids were furious but there was nothing the teachers or officials at the grade school could do. It wasn’t like he was threatening to beat anyone up or take lunch money. (These days they might get him on bullying.) I was struck by the predicament of the parents of the other children. Some one was doing something injurious to their kids but because of the way it was being doneit, there was nothing they could do.
Okay, so flash forward a few years, I’m still living and working in DC and I see a “60 Minutes” piece about a guy in Manhattan, the upper West Side I believe, who would go off his meds and go to this particular block and start yelling at people for no reason. The women of the neighborhood were particularly unnerved by this guy, who if I remember correctly, never threatened anyone with physical harm or attempted to take anything. The courts could not convict him of anything because when he went off his meds he was not in his right mind and therefore not responsible for his actions.
Again I was struck by the situation of people who feel they are threatened by someone but helpless to stop the person who’s doing the threatening. I thought of the earlier story about the kid and the idea hit me. “What if, instead of a kid threatening other kids on religious grounds, it was an adult threatening other adults?” Back in the early 1980s I had been working on a novel, which I set aside of a number of reasons. It involved a love triangle (that favorite male writer set-up, a married woman having an affair) where the two lovers were from a middle-class, African-American neighborhood.
It was actually for that novel that I first invented Parkland, although the community played only a small part in that tale. With this new story idea, I quickly saw that Parkland would be the perfect setting. My initial impulse was to write a long short story, but after about fifty pages in I realized I had more than enough potential dramatic material for a novel.
As far as surprises, there were lots of them, as is always the case when the writing is going well for me--character surprises, scene surprises, surprises in regards to plot, you name it. I guess the biggest surprise was the romantic situation that emerges between three of the senior-citizen characters: a retired librarian and widower, and two widowed men, one retired, the other a politician. Little did I know when I started that would wind up writing a modern version of Sense and Sensibility. You've structured the book in short chapters, which helps create a real sense of momentum - was this the structure you began with?
Yes. I was able to end nearly every chapter with some sort of mystery of tease or cliffhanger to lure the reader to keep in reading.
What are some of the books that inspired you before and during the writing of Bedrock Faith?
My novel has a lot of characters and is told in the third person with all sorts of point-of-view shifting about, sometimes within one chapter. Two novels that I’ve read that excel at this are The Thin Red Line by James Jones and The Narrows by Ann Petry. Both novels are also excellent examples of how to portray characters’ internal thought processes, they way they rationalize their actions and view the world. The short stories of Chekov and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon were influences in that regard as well. My novel’s ending were strongly informed by the ending of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and the ending to James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead.”
What are you working on now if you don't mind telling us?
I don’t want to tell too much. The novel I’m working on now is about three-fourths done. It’s a crime story, set in 2008 Chicago. It’s 180 degrees from Bedrock Faith with mobster killers, mobster wannabes, a Chicago Police homicide detective team, a bigoted and stupid lawyer, his two equally stupid colleagues, a computer wizard private eye, a college professor and his married lover, the lover’s vindictive husband, an eager beaver news paper reporter, a vengeful college student, plus a cast of characters from two more invented neighborhoods, one on the near South Side, the other on the North Side.