For Petrakis, like many serious writers, his literary labor had to be funded. He has worked long hours these past six decades, inventing, plotting, drafting, revising, tweaking, and editing. Stories. Novels. Essays. Memoirs. Nonfiction books. Alone in that writing room, Petrakis entered all manner of invented worlds. But outside of that room, the real world demanded payment for rent, utilities, clothes, diapers, baby formula. There were car payments, gas money, pocket money. The mail—all those notices and reminders—did not stop to accommodate his art.
Of course, we know the end to this story, and it is a story that mostly gets told about the successful authors. Petrakis has gone on to publish twenty-five books, as well as essays and stories in the most prestigious magazines, newspapers, and literary journals. He has twice been nominated for the National Book Award in fiction; he won the O. Henry Award; he was given the Chicago Public Library’s Carl Sandburg Award, as well as awards from the Friends of American Writers, Friends of Literature, and the Society of Midland Authors. He has adapted his stories and novels for film and television. So it is easy to say, “Aha, told you so!” or “It was all worth it.”
But success was never guaranteed, even for a writer of Petrakis’s immense talent.
“The field is littered with these wonderful writers whose work is not known,” Petrakis says, using his now-deceased friends William Stevens and Gladys Schmitt as examples. “[William] was a magnificent writer, but there was no entry of any kind for him. [Gladys] wrote monumental books. Whenever I want to feel humbled, I read a few pages of her work.”
Petrakis dropped out of Englewood High School as a sophomore, and with no education or marketable skills took what employment availed itself. What availed itself were grinding, unattractive positions he found difficult to keep. He hauled crates onto and off of a beer truck; he ran an industrial lunchroom; he poured sodas and delivered prescriptions at a drug store fountain; he sold package liquor; he unloaded packages from the railway car at the 12th Street station.
“I pressed cloths for a cleaner—an onerous profession,” Petrakis says. “Steam releases this fuselage of odors—shit and piss on the pants. I remember once pulling a soiled pair of pants on the floor, and I told Max, ‘I quit!’ Max said, ‘I wish I worked for somebody else so I could quit, too.’ ”
Petrakis also worked as a dispatcher at an icing company at 15th and Halsted called Team Track, and he answered complaint letters at Simoniz Wax company that went something like, “I’m very sorry your experience with our wax was not satisfactory …”
“Simoniz Wax company fired me on a Friday afternoon,” Petrakis says. “Diana cried, and my mother in law slapped her head, as if I and Jesus were both being crucified.”
At U.S. Steel, Petrakis wrote production sheets and picked up overtime in the bone yard. He sold real estate out of Baird & Warner’s Hyde Park and South Shore offices. He swept up after the degenerate gamblers in betting parlors, like the shanty near the 12th Street railroad station that had a sign warning, “Don’t piss on the walls.” You name it—fleeting positions imbued with drudgery and despair. “All the jobs that look so attractive on the book jacket are hell when you’re going through them,” he says. “The truth is, I had no other access to employment, had no training. I couldn’t get a white-collar job. These were the jobs I was forced into. Diana’s mother thought it was a terrible idea to marry somebody at 21 with no prospects.”
Finally, in late 1956, The Atlantic accepted Pericles on 31st Street, and Petrakis revived the joy he’d experienced as a boy reading to his Koraes Elementary School classmates and then as a fledgling writer fooling Columbia College peers into believing his fiction had to be based on reality. When he received the acceptance note, Petrakis practically guffawed, part happiness and part relief, for himself, his wife Diana and his three sons. He was thirty-three years old and had a sense that he had made it, though of course it wasn’t and never would be that simple.
“That was after ten years of writing and rejection slips,” he says.
The Atlantic paid Petrakis $400 for that story, and then added a bonus of $700 as recognition for Pericles being deemed the best of the magazines “firsts.”
Soon, Petrakis made the decision to be a freelance writer, despite the warnings from agents, publishers, friends—everybody, basically—saying, “Don’t do it!”
“That was a reckless undertaking,” he admits.
Petrakis made about $1,600 that first year as a professional writer; around $2,200 the next.
Magazine money was better back in his early publishing years, but still hardly a fortune relative to the time it took to finish top-quality work. Playboy once paid Petrakis $2,500 for a story, the most he had made until Lands’ End gave him five grand each to place three of his stories in their catalogue.
“We call the remodeling of our kitchen ‘the Lands’ End Kitchen,’ ” Petrakis says.
With publishing success, Petrakis’s reputation as a serious literary figure grew. That increased his ability to make money in academia, and on the lecture circuit.
“I had been an actor in school,” he says. “They would put on these tragedies in Greek. I played the parts of Agamemnon, Oedipus, Creon. It was real training for public speaking later on; it gave me both Thespian training and some confidence.”
By his last count, Petrakis had been to seventy-three writers conferences, including five times at the University of Rochester, five times at Indiana University, and five times at the University of Wisconsin. He was Columbia College’s very first writer-in-residence. He has held appointments at Ohio University as McGuffy Visiting Lecturer and at San Francisco State University as Kazantzakis Professor in Modern Greek Studies.
“We wouldn’t have been able to live on the writing alone,” Petrakis says. “The reading and lecturing sustained us. I developed a reservoir of lectures, and really lived on those.”
Indeed, hardly any writers could. Or can. There are bevies of grim statistics available, most in agreement that only the top couple percentage of all writers earn enough to subsist. Writers have to do something else—something that comes with a check.
“It’s always a struggle,” Petrakis says. “It’s a very tenuous profession, a profession where you love what you do and can only see yourself doing it—so damn the consequences.”
In the late 1970s, the Chicago Public Library hired Petrakis to set up writing workshops at the Edgewater branch. The program was so successful that he wound up visiting twenty-seven libraries in two years. That success led to a Board of Education gig, in which Petrakis was its writer-in-residence. He would drive each day to grade, middle, and high schools, visiting sixty-three schools before his two-year tenure ended. “It was a great experience,” he says. “I went all over the city, in neighborhoods I didn’t even know existed, like Jenner School, under Cabrini Green.”
All this time, Petrakis was churning out new books, each with the promise of additional income, perhaps even financial stability. With his fifth book, A Dream of Kings, he hit it big. The novel stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for three months; became a Book Club selection; and was translated into a dozen languages; the rights were eventually sold to National General to make a feature-length film. Petrakis was hired to write the script.
“Today it would be much bigger,” he said. “Then, it was good for a few years then back to the grind again. There was a little money coming over period of a few years from the film, but that was about it.”
That success led to a three-book deal from Doubleday, and he fulfilled the contract with Nick the Greek, Hour of the Bell, and Vengeance.
“I never earned the advances I got from Doubleday,” he says. “They never got their money back. The books made some money, but not enough.”
In the early 1960s, before A Dream of Kings, Petrakis had written a biography of Paul Galvin, who had founded Motorola. Herman Kogan had recommended his friend Harry, who worked two years, knocking down good commission checks, to finish that book. Paul Galvin’s son, Bob, liked the book immensely, and around 1988 commissioned Petrakis to write the company’s corporate history. That was followed by work on a biography of Henry Crown.
“I spent most of the ’90s on commission work,” Petrakis says. “It took me away from writing my own books. But these books allowed us for the first time to build a modest estate, travel around the world. I’m grateful. I don’t regret it.”
When Petrakis talks about his life, he almost always uses “us” or “we” rather than “I.” He is extremely grateful to his family: wife, Diana, three sons (Mark, John, and Dean), and now four grandchildren. He has written extensively about their support, always sensitive to the hardships they endured.
There is no doubt that Harry Petrakis’s lifetime of writing also has been a lifetime of other work. The saving grace for a writer is that those experiences are fodder for literature, and Petrakis’s oeuvre is absolutely sparkling with stories born in tedium, agony and sacrifice.
—Donald G. Evans
Donald G. Evans is founder and executive director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He is the author of the novel Good Money After Bad.
Chicago Literary Hall of Fame will present the 2014 Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement to Harry Mark Petrakis at 7 p.m. October 4 at The National Hellenic Museum, 333 S. Halsted St., Chicago. For information, visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/clhof-harry-mark-petrakis-2014-fuller-lifetime-achievement-award-tickets-12925260803