It’s been more than half a century since Harry Mark Petrakis, a Chicago native, began selling short stories and novels after several years of rejections, but writing from experience – and his home city – still endear him to legions of fans.
The story of Petrakis, 91, endures and he told Tina Sfondeles in the Chicago Sun-Times, in a piece about his career and life, that he became successful after returning to writing about what he knew after starting out trying to tell tall tales about gangsters and cowboys in a world he didn’t know.
Petrakis grew up on the city’s South Side where, the paper said, he watched his father, a Greek-Orthodox priest, help immigrants find faith while struggling to start a life and make ends meet in America. And in the South Loop, where he opened a short-lived restaurant that inspired his creative nature.
The faces he saw, the struggles of immigrants and the stories he heard inspired the characters he’d create in short stories and novels in a career that has spanned decades.
“We had as many as a dozen hobos who would sit and tell marvelous stories. I’d be sitting and listening to their stories,” Petrakis said.
“I suspect some were great liars. The girl whose boyfriend had left her and she was on her way to Chicago to kill him and his girlfriend. I didn’t believe her, but these were wonderful stories, and I learned from them.”
He now lives in Chesterton, Indiana but his soul is still seeped in Chicago and he returned there earlier this month to the National Hellenic Museum to receive the Fuller Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.
His son John, a screenwriting teacher at the School of the Art Institute and the University of Chicago, introduced him.
Petrakis became so overcome with emotion by his son’s words that he had to pause before beginning his speech.
“Many families have credos, words they live by, such as ‘when the going gets tough, the tough gets going,’ or ‘every journey begins with the first step.’ The Petrakis family credo, my father once said, is ‘Nobody suffers in silence.’ How could we possibly be mute when there are so many wonderful words out there to describe the way that life has thrown us curves, brushed us back or plunked us right in the back,” his son said.
Petrakis was raised in what he calls a Greek-Jewish-Italian immigrant community in the South Side Washington Park neighborhood, then moved to Woodlawn and finally to South Shore.
“The church [Sts. Constantine and Helen] was full of immigrants. They were thrown in between two worlds. I admired them and at the same time feared them. I reviled them for the prejudice even I could see at a young age. Prejudice wasn’t justice. A Greek boy on our block married a Jewish girl and his father put his clothes out in the back and burned them,” Petrakis said.
He wrote the novel The Odyssey of Kostas Volakis in 1963, telling the story of a Greek man in a new world. Other stories inspired by the plight of Greeks included his bestselling A Dream of Kings and Nick the Greek.
“I never thought of myself as an ethnic writer because when you write about that which you know, there is your beginning where you cross a certain threshold and you enter the areas of love, sadness, sorrow, anger, revulsion. These are universal. You take which is yours as the beginning and you move into the universal areas,” Petrakis said.
He told touching, moving stories with simple themes that touched the heart, such as that of a young Greek woman yearning for a young man who walked behind her house and whistled – and then didn’t show again, or a couple separated when a man moved on to care for his mother and then saw his former love several years later.
After sitting down to tea, he offered the explanation he was caring for his ill mother who had died three years before. And just when the writer was ready to believe there would be a happy ending and all would be forgiven, the woman threw the tea in his face and said, “Three years, two words, but a thousand bitter cups of tea for me.”
It took a few years to get noticed and published but he said he was encouraged by his father, the Rev. Mark Petrakis, who believed in him and his writing.
“He died [in 1951] before I sold anything, but he kept a manuscript of my early story in his desk,” Petrakis said. “The secretary there was a wonderful lady named Bessie Spirides. When I came to the office to visit, she pulled out that story. He would tell people ‘My son wrote this. He’s going to be a good writer someday.’ That’s based not on my story. It was based on love.”