An Interview With Fiction Writer Harry Mark Petrakis

Martin Northway

The ninth novel and eighteenth book by Harry Mark Petrakis, who turns 80 on June 5, will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in the same month. Twilight of the Ice is set in the Chicago railyards, in the blue-collar, industrial neighborhoods of the early 1950s. In this elegy to a rough crew of railroad car icemen facing obsolescence in the advent of modern refrigeration, the Chicago author who was twice shortlisted for the National Book Award again finds nobility in the struggles of immigrants and working people.

Petrakis has been publishing books for nearly 45 years (his first novel was Lion at My Heart, published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1959), but he struggled for a decade to learn how to write before publishing his first short story, "Pericles on 31st Street," in Atlantic Monthly when he was 32.

Petrakis is the author of the novels A Dream of Kings (McKay, 1966), The Hour of the Bell (Doubleday, 1976), Nick the Greek (Doubleday, 1979), and Ghost of the Sun (St. Martin's, 1990), among others. He has also written memoirs about his Greek-American family, Stelmark: A Family Recollection (McKay, 1970), which was later incorporated into Reflections: A Writer's Life, A Writer's Work (Lake View Press, 1984), and Tales of the Heart: Dreams and Memories of a Lifetime (Ivan R. Dee, 1999). His short fiction was assembled in Collected Stories, published by Lake View Press in 1987.

Poets & Writers Magazine talked with Petrakis about the critical value of audience, and asked the author if he still gives public readings.

HMP: Yeah, I do them. I don't do as many now. . When I first started I was lecturing for a national lecturing organization based in New York. Because my fees initially were not very much—$200, $250—why, to make it worthwhile, they'd send me on the road for two weeks, and in those two weeks I might do eight to ten lectures before colleges, before societies—and it was an exhausting experience, which I could never do now. In fact, on one of those trips it just seemed like the old comics that do the bread-and-butter circuits. You know—one night in Milwaukee, the next night in Racine, and work your way around the state like that. I remember many, many years ago, one night calling [my wife] Diana—I don't know whether I was making up the story or telling her something that actually happened—but telling her I had a nightmare the evening before in my hotel room. I dreamed I died and the undertaker couldn't close my mouth!

P&W: Well, as long as you were getting paid posthumously.

HMP: Yeah, yeah. But you know, [it was] a wonderful experience for me—not only that it has provided us a means, [but] I don't know that I could have lived as a freelancer if it had not been for the lecturing, because there were years I was doing, you know, two, three a month, and during that period of time when you're working on a novel and there's nothing coming in, you need that income. Now some do it by working as editors. Many writers do it by attaching to universities. I did it through the lecturing. But it also gave me the opportunity to get an immediate and emotional response from people when I read my stories. If I read a story like "Journal of a Wife Beater" to an audience and there was laughter, why, I was getting something that only the actor is privileged to get, or the playwright—to have his words heard and then have a response from an audience. Writing tends to be, as you know, a lonely, solitary occupation. You don't really know what response you're getting until the book or the story is published and then a few people may talk to you, a few people may write to you. But to be able to read your work and speak of your work before an audience and get an instantaneous reaction—that's been enormously rewarding and fulfilling for me.

I started with writing poetry—not very good poetry—in an effort to express myself. And then I sent off a few things and they would come back, [but] I had no real sense of confidence in what I was doing. Then I was at Columbia College [in Chicago]—this was probably in the first couple years after I married, so I must have been 23, 24 years old—and we had an assignment to do a story on the theme of Christmas. Then we were allowed in the class to read these one-pagers and then the class would respond. Well, I wrote a simple little story about a waiter who comes home on Christmas Eve bringing a small tree, and he comes home to a wife who is an alcoholic ... he doesn't find her there but he knows the bar she normally hangs out in. He goes there, he finds her drinking with a couple of men. He takes her home, slaps her once and then, remorseful, puts her to bed and washes her face and hands. And he goes into the living room and onto the porch and brings in the small tree. And the little piece ends with him beginning to decorate the tree, by saying that in the morning things would be all right for a little while—she'd wake up sober and they'd sit around the tree. So my turn came to read. I read it—and there was immediate, instantaneous response to the reading of the other stories—but my reading was greeted by a total silence in that classroom. I couldn't understand. I thought, "God, are they so repelled by this story they're rendered mute?" And the teacher kind of goaded them, urged them, and nobody wanted to talk, and finally one boy got up and he said, "I can't speak to this story. It is so obviously written from personal experience that I can't speak to the agony the story reflects." And they wouldn't believe, that class, despite my protestations, that my wife wasn't an alcoholic. They wouldn't believe that that story wasn't real.

Well, you know, you don't have to be a moron to sense that that story—rough, clumsy, as it was—indicated some ability to communicate reality and an emotion. And I remember leaving Columbia College, which was on Michigan Avenue, and it had begun to snow slightly, and I'm walking across the street in Grant Park, and I'm thinking to myself, "You know, I must return now to this work I've wanted to do and which I've done half-heartedly and haphazardly, I must return to it with some degree of intensity." I look at that moment and that class reaction as a turning point for me in my development as a writer.