Eric May talks about the origins of his novel, Bedrock Faith, his writing career, and how to stay motivated with writing your first novel.
Interview by Benjamin Peachy
I was a first semester junior when I first read Eric May’s debut novel, Bedrock Faith. I was most intrigued by the character of Stew Pot Reeves, the protagonist of the novel who is an ex-convict and has just returned to his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago with a newfound faith that causes immense tension amongst the people around him.
In my interview with Eric, we talk about his career in writing, his novel, and his thoughts on writing.
Eric May’s novel, Bedrock Faith, was published in February of 2014. It was one of Chicago Readers’s Favorite Books of 2014 along with being named one of Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels of 2014. Booklist had this to say, “In May’s vivid, suspenseful, funny, compassionate and epiphanic first novel, the decorous Mrs. Motley, a retired librarian, along with her close-knit, gossipy Chicago South Side community, dreads the return of the notorious Stew Pot Reeves.” It was selected as One of O, The Oprah Magazine’s Ten Books to Pick Up Now in April 2014. May’s fiction and nonfiction has been published in such literary anthologies as Criminal Class Review, Sport Literate, and Angels in My Oven. He has been on the English and Creative Writing Faculty at Columbia College Chicago since 1993. May is also a Certified Story Workshop Director.
You worked for a time for the Washington Post, what made you want to come back to Chicago to continue your writing career?
I was a part-time instructor in what was then Columbia’s Writing/English Department from Spring 1976 through Summer 1985. Although being a reporter was great, I finally decided that teaching had the stronger hold on me. I returned to Columbia as a full-time instructor in the winter of 1993.
Was your novel, Bedrock Faith, based on a previous short story you had written? If so, what ideas of expansions led you to turning it into a full novel?
It began as a short story, actually. Then it was a long short story, and then at around page 50 I realized that there was enough material there for a novel. However, I what didn’t realize at the time it would take 470-some manuscript pages and ten years to see the project to a satisfactory conclusion, which is probably a good thing.
You have worked in the newspaper industry, published short stories and a novel—what medium do you enjoy the most for writing?
The novel form seems to be my “natural” form, the one that comes most easy to me, although I love the sweet brevity of short stories and journalism articles. I’ve also done nearly a dozen personal essays over the last ten years for various storytelling programs around Chicago.
There is a large, overarching commentary on religion and its effects on people in your novel. Does religion play a role in your life as it does for Stew Pot? (Possibly more of a minor one compared to him?)
I was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and for the first thirteen years of my life I lived in the Morgan Park neighborhood where I had to pass four churches on the four block walk to my grade school. Although those long ago Sunday School lessons at Arnett A.M.E. have not left me completely, I would describe myself these days as more spiritual than religious. I did have to read voluminous parts of the Bible to finish the book.
Are you working on any stories currently? If you are, can you give some information on it?
Working on another novel. Like BF, much of this story is set in the South Side neighborhood of Parkland. Don’t really want to say too much more about it. In print.
What would you say to a writer who hasn’t been able to complete a novel yet, but is still determined to do it?
I started two novels and put them down unfinished before I got onto Bedrock Faith, which, as I said, didn’t even begin as a novel. Sometimes the novel finds you. Sometimes the reason a novel doesn’t work is that we haven’t found the right point of view from which to tell it, or we get bogged down in drawn-out explanations about the world of the novel and don’t get right to the story. Tony Morrison said she started writing the novels she had always wanted to read but had never found anywhere. That’s not a bad way to go. What are the sorts of things you yourself want from a novel in terms of subject matter, character, plot twists, dialogue? The key thing is to keep writing. I like to tell my students that it’s the people who keep at it that eventually get something like what they want from the writing process. My novel was published a month before my 61st birthday, and no less sweeter for the wait.
Can you give any insights on your writing process for Bedrock Faith? Did you have a set time each day where you worked on it? Did you find any inspiration for certain characters from your daily life?
By the time the novel was up and going, I was too busy with teaching and various administrative duties to have anything like a writing schedule. I did have two sabbaticals in 2002 and 2009, which were a big help. Often times you have to work the writing in and around your work/family obligations. That means grabbing the time when you can, even if it’s while having a sandwich at your desk. The 3-4 hour block of time to write is often a train that either seldom arrives at the station, or never arrives at all. Also, putting off the writing until the home is clean and tidy, and the clothes are washed, and shopping is done, are sure fire ways not to get things finished.
Although I can’t say that any of the characters from Bedrock Faith are based on any particular person, I did draw heavily on the types of people I grew up around on the South Side. My character Mrs. Motley for instance, is kind of a conglomeration, a composite character if you will, of the college educated, church-going, middle class, African American women I knew growing up in the 1950s-60s; women like my mom and her sisters, as well as my grade school teachers and the moms of kids I played with.
Bedrock Faith, Akashic Books