Acclaimed Greek-American novelist Harry Mark Petrakis, 92, spills his guts to touch our hearts in a new memoir, The Song of My Life. With enormous candor, as well as passion, humor, irony, and pathos, he bares his gambling addiction, depression, and near-suicide, and the monumental struggle to write. This new autobiography, from the University of South Carolina Press, offers a page-turner from a man who has led an unconventional life.
Petrakis has written a total of twenty-five books, the majority set in the almost- vanished world of Chicago’s colorful Greektown. He has twice been nominated for the prestigious National Book Award for fiction, including for A Dream of Kings, a novel that made the New York Times Bestseller list. A major film from the book starred Anthony Quinn as the vivid Matsoukas.
Petrakis faced down his demons to succeed. “Heaven knows what I would have become if I were not a writer,” he told The National Herald. “There are a lot of impulses in me, not all of them beneficial. The gambling obsession was lethal. It lasted for about four years, right into my marriage. But I was gambling before I was married. I stole my brother’s suit and my sister’s books to pawn, so it was a lethal obsession that could have destroyed me, really. Writing saved me from what could have been a very destructive life, because there were destructive impulses in me.”
He began life in Chicago, the youngest son of a Greek-Orthodox priest. Confined to bed for two years with tuberculosis, he devoured books, one a day. Recovered and sent to school, he became a notorious truant. “I was in classes with kids who were two years younger than I was,” Petrakis recalls. “I was so far in front of them as far as literature, but behind them in the social graces and getting along. I started playing hooky, and eventually I just dropped out.” Despite having only two formal years of education, Petrakis would later be awarded six honorary doctorate degrees.
“I wrote fairly seriously for ten years before I sold my first story, Pericles on 31st Street. Editors wrote back with printed rejection slips, and to this day I can remember the Harper’s Magazine rejection: ‘We are forced for reasons of the limitation of space to reject manuscripts that are otherwise ably written and publishable.’ After six or seven of those rejections over a period of a couple of years, an editor underlined the words in red ink ‘ably written and publishable.’ I folded up that rejection slip with the red line and kept it in my wallet. When someone asked me ‘How’s the writing going?’ I’d pull it out. I’d show him the red underlined page.”
His father never lost faith in him, and kept an early Petrakis manuscript in his desk drawer. He would assure parishioners that “My son wrote this. He will be a fine writer someday.” Petrakis later paid tribute to his father in a way only an artist could. “My father died in 1951. I sold my first story in 1956 to the Atlantic. When they asked me how I wanted my name on the story, I decided to take my father’s name, too, and that’s how I became Harry Mark Petrakis. The Mark was there but I had never used it.”
Married with three young boys, Petrakis took familial responsibility seriously. Nevertheless, the maverick held a succession of jobs that he either quit or was fired from. “Somehow I just didn’t fit in.” But the jobs, including owning a failed lunchroom, provided him with invaluable fodder for his fiction.
Petrakis’ major subject has been Greek America, and no author has as effectively captured the special flavor of that world. He writes with compassion, insight, pungency and firsthand knowledge. “I don’t think that it was a conscious decision to write about Greeks,” Petrakis says. “It was my community. I used Greeks the way Saroyan used Armenians. But at a certain point you cross a threshold and enter a universal area, and the sorrow is the same, and the laughter is the same, and the sufferings and yearnings. Each writer begins with what he knows best, and moves to a universal area.”
As for advice on writing, he says: “I know I floundered. I would think, I’m going to try something else. I’ll find a different profession. I thought of that but I kept coming back. I have six or eight of my early stories. How terrible they were. But little by little through the process of writing and rewriting – the greatest teacher of writing is yourself – and the greatest lesson to be learned is the lesson of doing it with some regularity, I learned. But I don’t think there’s a path laid out, particularly in the arts. There are no milestones. It’s not like you go for a law degree. Here you’re on your own.”
According to the author, his wife’s support trumped everything in helping him to develop his talent. He dedicates The Song of My Life to her. “I couldn’t have written any of the books without Diana. It’s as if we wrote them together. She would say ‘We wrote that book in 1963’. A psychiatrist once told me that people who live together for a long time share electromagnetic waves. We even occasionally have the same dream at night. If we make it to September, we will have been married for 70 years. Although Diana’s in her 90s, to me she will always be the blooming beauty.”
Of his many books, Petrakis believes that The Hour of the Bell and The Shepherds of the Shadows, both historical novels about the Greek War of Independence, will endure. He has slowed down his literary output. But despite a protest that he’s “worded out,” Petrakis continues to write. “I once wrote a story about an old poet dying in a Greek hospital, spending his final hours reshaping the lines of an unfinished poem. I would like to be able to do that, working with my last breath.
“It’s been an exciting life, I must say. My life has been a series of small miracles.”