So Much to Write – So Little Time
Mary Helen Stefaniak – a Poet of Forgiveness, a Poet ofJoy
Mary Helen Stefaniak, along with Melissa Milich, AnthonyMlikotin, and Josip Novakovich, forms a quadrille of Croatian-American writerswho belong to the mainstream of the contemporary American literature. Each ofthem has its own style, its own background, and its own artistic road – butwhat they have in common is that that road has brought them all to the very topof American literature.
The Matica spoke to Mary Helen for the first time in 1997, afterthe publication of her well-received collection of short stories Self Storageand Other Stories (Minneapolis: New Rivers Press, 1997). “What a joy thesestories are! Spun from the stuff of everyday life they are carefullyconstructed, lovingly sewn, and touched here and there by the miraculous. MaryHelen Stefaniak knows her craft, and she is wonderfully humane writer.” Theseare the words a fellow author, Sharon Oard Warner, used to describe MaryHelen’s stories.
This “poet of everyday joy” was born in Milwaukee, in a Croatianfamily originating from Novo Selo in Hungary, across from Virovitica. A numberof her stories deal with the family experiences in the Milwuakee’s ethnic“ghetto” – one of them, “The Hollywood Plate,” appeared in Croatiantranslation in the Korabljica 3 in 1997, and was described by a critic as“a story of anthological quality.”
Mary Helen attended Marquette University and the Iowa Writers Workshop,and, before joining the Faculty of the Creighton University at Omaha (Nebraska)teaching creative writing she had worked as a model, a soccer coach, a Europeantour guide, editor, etc. Her home is Iowa City, her husband is of Polish origin(Mary Helen’s family name is “Iliasics” in Hungarian, and “Iljašić”in Croatian), and they have three children.
The highly respected Epoch magazine published by CornellUniversity, brought out not longago Mary Helen’s short novel, the first one of a trilogy in progress, TheTurk and My Mother. This was one of the reasons we decided to close the fiveyear gap, and learn more about the career and current projects of thisremarkable Croatian-American.
VG: Welast spoke in 1997, after the publication of the Self-Storage. What happened inbetween? In your career? In your writing? In your life?
MHS: As far aswriting goes, I've been spending most of my time working on the"trilogy" of novellas that includes "The Turk and MyMother," which was published by Cornell University in EPOCH in Fall 2000. "The Turk and My Mother" was shortlisted for the O. HenryAwards, 2001. I've had a number ofshort stories published since 1998: "A Note to Biographers Regarding FamousAuthor Flannery O'Connor" (which draws on my mother's family history inMilledgeville, GA) appeared in The Iowa Review and was
then selected by Shannon Ravenel for the anthology, NEWSTORIES FROM THE
SOUTH: THE YEAR'S BEST, 2000. A story called "Believing Marina"--which is
sort of "ethnic" in that it involves meeting a"D.P." from Ukraine on a Greyhound bus trip--appeared in TheAntioch Review in Spring 2000, and "Arlo on the Fence" waspublished in the same journal in Fall 2001. I also write 9 or 10 essaysper year for a monthly publication called The Iowa Source. I read many of them on Iowa Public Radio. I started contributing those essays to The Source in the end of1997 and have about 40 essays accumulated now, which I've been working onpolishing for a book of essays. Some of those essays deal with my family historyand my travels to the ancestral village on the Hungarian-Croatian border. One of them was translated into Hungarian by a family friend so that therelatives we visited in Novo Selo (who, of course, read and write
Hungarian while they also speak Croatian) could read it.
One of the things that pleases me most: I fit into so many cultural niches that I don't really "fit"into any of them. In Fall 1998,SELF STORAGE was honored by the Wisconsin Library Association with the BantaAward for Literary Achievement. The Banta Award identifies me as a Wisconsinwriter, a wonderful web page has been created for me at a site called TheNebraska Center for Writers, which calls me a Nebraska writer, and the story in NewStories from the South suggests that I'm a southern writer, not to mentionthe fact that you have identified me as a Croatian-(Hungarian)-American
writer! I likebeing "nationwide"--and beyond.
In 1999, I accepted a tenure-track teaching position at CreightonUniversity in Omaha, Nebraska, where I'm now Director of the Creative WritingProgram. My husband and I continueto share a commute across the state of Iowa, between Iowa City, where we'velived since 1983, and Omaha--a four-hour drive. It's a beautiful drive acrossIowa—terraced fields, rolling hills, groves of oak trees--but it doescomplicate our
lives. At thispoint, the youngest of our three children is a junior in college (doing asemester in Australia at the moment, marine biology off the Great Barrier Reef),so I can't be accused of neglecting my children with my wandering professionallife, but there are two cats in Iowa City who miss me, and many friends in bothstates for whom I don't have nearly enough time.
VG: How do youcombine writing with teaching creative writing (and with
MHS: Withdifficulty! Having done a lot ofdifferent things to support my writing habit, I have to say that a full-timetenure-track teaching position is the most difficult thing to combine with aserious commitment to writing. Iwork from 6 a.m to 11 p.m. most days in order to fit in blocks of time forwriting and still get all the teaching and
administrating duties done.
VG: Your newshort novel "Turk and My Mother" is out. Tell us about it.
MHS: Likemy other "ethnic" stories, "The Turk" takes its cue and hasits roots in events that "really happened" and characters who reallyexisted--a guy named George who has a lot in common with my father, also namedGeorge, narrates--but it goes on to invent the parts of the "familyhistory" that didn't get passed on (because I made them up!) I realized after I wrote "The Turk" that it is aboutforgiveness, that I wrote it in
order to forgive my grandmother (Agnes in the story) forsomething she did
to her daughter (my aunt Madeline), something Aunt Madelinehad told me
about a long time ago. In order to forgive Agnes, I found I needed to invent a whole life andromance for her in the village, I had to imagine my way into her existence toexplain and understand what she did. It'strue that my grandmother Agnes did spend the years surrounding the First WorldWar in Europe while her husband was already in Milwaukee. It's true that my aunt Madeline conceived her first child before shemarried, and,
according to Aunt Madeline, it's true that my grandmotherpunished her in the cruel way the story describes. It's also true that my father used to catch snapping turtlesin the river as a child in Milwaukee and that he liked to swim in the filthywater of the canal with this friends and that he himself became a policeman inpart because of his admiration for the
neighborhood policeman who becomes "Pete the Cop"in the story. Pretty
much everything else in the story is fictional--includingtwo of the stars of the tale, Staramajka and the Turk himself.
VG: It is apart of a trilogy. What about the other two parts. When? What?
MHS: Tostart with the last question first, why two more parts? Because there are alwaysmore people to forgive and understand, more people whose lives we need toimagine our way into. In real life,my father died at age 59. In thisbook, he lives past 80 and gets a chance to tell his daughter more stories.
What? Aside from an invented family history, all three stories--"The Turkand My Mother," "The Kashube Girl," and "Uncle Marko &the Hollywood Plate"--are really interlocking love stories that take placein Europe and in America, moving back and forth between and among three timeperiods: the present, the 1930s, and the years surrounding World War. We meetAgnes and the Turk in the village during the war, Agnes's
husband Joe and Anica in Milwaukee at that same time, Joe'sbrother
Marko--missing in action in WWI--and a young Russian womanin Siberia, Joe
and Agnes's son George and "the Kashube girl" aschildren in Milwaukee in
the 30', and decades later as very senior citizens. Even Staramajka and--well, I won't give everything away. If there is a theme throughout, it's the relationship of love andforgiveness, how each is necessary for the other, each makes the other possible. My real father told me on his deathbed that the only thing that mattersin life is having people who love you, people you love. I guess I took him to heart on that one. Another thing that matters, thatgets us through the worst of circumstances, is recognizing the humor inherent inour human predicament. Even in the darkest, cruelest parts of my story, there ishumor, a recognition of the absurdity hovering over and under it all. There's a
sense that we're all in the same boat and a recognitionthat the boat is always sinking, but we keep bailing hopefully all the same. That is very courageous of us, but also quite absurd.
As for "when," I'm currently working on the third of the threenovellas and hope to have the whole "trilogy" ready to give to myagent by the end of this summer. Ihad hoped to have it finished a year ago, but the fiction writing process--or atleast my fiction writing process--has a mind and schedule of its own.
VG: I havedescribed you as a "poet of the American suburbia" emphasizing yoursensitivity for human feelings and relationships, and fine humor. Do
you agree? How the critics usually describe your work? Ofcourse, you are also a poet of the ethnic inner city blocks. Describe your earlyexperiences in Milwaukee, and also what role in your life and writing was playedby family memories?
MHS: Youknow, the truth is that I have never really lived in what we usually think of asa suburb. I've lived most of mylife on tree-lined streets in the city itself--on the south side of Milwaukee,in the industrial/residential city of West Allis, adjacent to Milwaukee, at theedge of downtown Iowa City, and now at the edge of a university campus
wedged between downtown and inner city Omaha. I grew up in neighborhoods,
the kind where kids played on front porches and inbackyards and alleys, where people shopped at the corner store. (In fact, my grandfather ran a grocery store on East BayStreet in Milwaukee before I was born--this is the same street that serves asthe setting, along with the village of Novo Selo in the old country and the fareastern reaches of Siberia, for the three novellas.) When I was a very small child, my parents and my older
sister and I lived with my grandmother on East Bay Street,in the very house that is the setting for most of the Milwaukee portions of thestory.
VG: You are aCroatian from Hungary. If it is at all possible, how have you been relating to"real" Croats (again, if there is such a thing). Was your familyaccepted without question by the Croatian community in Milwaukee?
MHS: Therewas not much awareness of our Croatian-ness, even though my
grandmother, aunt, father, and other relatives spokeCroatian to each other all the time. Myfather (b. 1923) was the only one of three siblings born and raised in the US. Croatian was his first language. Mygrandmother's English was quite limited and my aunt's was definitelynonstandard. But when I was growingup, if you had asked me what language they were speaking, I probably would havesaid Hungarian. (In point of
fact, my grandparents spoke Hungarian when they didn't wantmy father to understand what they were talking about.) We belonged to a Hungarian parish and a Slovenian lodge. For years, we received the monthly magazine of the Slovenianorganization. Why was the "Croat-ness" hidden? Perhaps, living in the Austro-Hungarian "empire" before WWI andin Hungary afterward, one was wise to downplay other ethnic origins, to"assimilate" to the Hungarian. Andcertainly there were truly Hungarian relatives in
the mix of my family, by marriage and moving beyond thevillage. Some relatives --like myfather's sister Madeline--chose to identify themselves as Hungarian;others--like my cousin Marie Sinyakovich, with whom I've traveled twice toEurope, are more comfortable with a Croatian identity, too. After years of identifying being Croatian with being a kind ofsecond-class citizen in Hungary, there is a huge resurgence in cultural
and linguistic interest in Croatia among the younger peoplein the village of Novo Selo, something that's been growing and flourishing sincethe years following the war in 1991.
VG: Youvisited Hungary/Novo selo. How was it? And did it live up to the expectationraised by family lore?
MHS: I visitedthe village of Novo Selo (Totujfalu in Hungarian) with my now 80-year-old cousinMarie Sinyakovich in 1994 and with Marie and my sister Sandra and my youngestdaughter Lauren, then 18, in 1999 (the latter during the U.S./U.N. bombing ofSerbia, a nervous time with our village on the flight path between Budapest andsome targets in Serbia). I loved the village. It more than met my expectations. VLADIMIR: I will send you copies of two of the essays I've written on the subjectof visiting the village and of our family names/history. I may try to send the text as email messages to you, following this one. Maybe there will be something useful there.
VG: Do you plan to visit Croatia? Any ideas on cooperatingwith Croatian artists, critics, public? Or Hungarian?
MHS: I almost got to Croatia on my last visit to Hungary in1999. Next time (perhaps spring orsummer 2003?), I will definitely visit Zagreb and, I hope, Rijeka, and Dubrovnikand more. I would love to make someconnections with Croatian artists and writers, and as I told you, I have thisdream of reading to a Croatian audience in Croatian.
VG: You are first of all a successful American mainstreamwriter. Did your ethnic background contribute anything to your writing, exceptfor the subject-matter? Do you see your "ethnic" writing as differentfrom your "other" writing? Do you in any way feel"different" because of your "ethnic" background?
MHS: The combination of my father's Croatian/Hungarianheritage and my mother's roots in the rural Deep South have always made me feelbi-cultural at the very least. Ithink my writing style is a product of the "spoken storytelling" thatcomes out of both their backgrounds--not only in terms of sentence structure andword choice, but in the resistance to simple chronological storytelling. I heard plenty of stories from my Aunt Madeline and my mother and myfather, but they were never presented with a beginning, a middle, a climax, andend. They were always told inglimpses and moments, in layers and circles. That method of presenting a story certainly informs "The Turk and MyMother" and the other novellas, too. Ilove backtracking in a narrative, having something show up on page 100 thatreally happened between pages 9 and 10, seeing how events shift meaning whensome new scene, formerly hidden, comes to light. That keeps happening not only within the novellas but acrossthe trilogy as a whole. If I stick with the current ending, then the last lineof the last novella asks you to reconsider the first line of the first one. The story is always in flux, always being parceled out to the reader. As the narrator says in "The Turk," "My grandmother hadher own style of storytelling, a style that avoided accommodating her listenersin any way." While I doaccommodate my readers some, I expect them to work to follow the story, too.
For these stories I have also made a point of studying Croatian and oflistening to taped interviews that I made with my aunt Madeline speaking her ownparticular variety of English. Therhythms and syntax and diction I've picked up in this way--not to mentionlistening to spoken Croatian and nonstandard English as a child--certainly colorthe style of "The Turk" and the other novellas. I suspect they color my speech and writing overall, as well.
VG: Do youhave any literary models? Idols? Teachers? Do you know personally anyCroatian-American writers, or Croatian writers, or Hungarian writers? Does it,would it matter?
MHS: Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, and George Saunders arecurrent favorites, and
I've learned a lot from Flannery O'Connor and J.D. Salingerwhen it comes to bringing a world into sound and light on the page, or creatingcharacters with a line of dialogue or a gesture. My sense of the possibilities of story and the absurdities ofhuman existence has been expanded by reading Italo Calvino, Borges, GarciaMarquez, Milan Kundera,
Gunter Grass, and others. I have a book of Albanian Folk Tales that has been very helpful to me. I don't know any Croatian or Hungarian writers personally. I would be happy to work together on translation--my work or someoneelse's--from English to Croatian and vice versa, but the opportunity has notarisen.
VG. How do you go about conceiving your stories? Frominspiration to the editor's desk? Your write in a very natural and fluent style.How much do you have to "work on it"?
MHS: I'm glad to hear that my style comes across as"very natural and fluent," because the truth is that I am a very slowwriter. I write a great deal that Ithrow away--either because it's rough and weak or simply because I don't have aplace for it. My stories come to mein moments and scenes and pieces and images--not a very efficient way for themto come, since I have to write down every line and gesture even before I know ifI will ever use it or not. Then Iarrange all the bits, and rearrange them, and
write more bits, and rearrange and cut and write some more. I try not to polish and fiddle with sentences until I am reasonably sureif the sentence will actually survive to the final draft, but I find a certainamount of polishing is necessary just to see if something MIGHT work. Sometimeswhole scenes and passages come to me like a vision and hardly need any work atall. I accept these gifts withgratitude and try to keep them in mind as I struggle with less graceful pages.
Stories begin with a character I've observed or imagined in a particularmoment, and or with a first line that sets the tone, creates a narrative voicethat needs to go on speaking.
I often jot down observations of people and places--details, gestures,images, dialogue--and use many of these later in ways that I could never haveanticipated. I feel as if there isso much to write down, so much richness to capture before it gets away. If I didn't have a job and a family (and three cats), I would read andwrite all the time. In the summer, when I'm not teaching, I often write for 10hours a day, day after day. I dotry to go for a swim everyday--my nod to the healthy lifestyle. While I swim, I work out scenes and passages in my head.
VG. What is in the future - beyond the Trilogy?
MHS: Ihave more writing projects lined up than lifetimes in which to get them done. When the trio of novellas is finished, I will set aside time to polishthe essays and hope to interest a publisher in what it means to be "Aliveand Well" in the American Midwest. Atthe same time, I will be working with my daughter Liz Stefaniak on co-authoringa book about obsessive-compulsive disorder, something that has plagued both ofus and other members of our family. Lizis a recent grad of Washington University in St. Louis and a writer herself. The OCD book will be nonfiction, of course, drawing on our experiencesand the current state of knowledge on OCD. It will be a funny and heartbreaking book in which we try to do whatfiction does so well: to givepeople an opportunity to imagine what it's like to be someone else, someonewhose whole attention
and energy are required just to get from Point A to Point Bduring any hour of any given day.
I've got plans for a book of nine related short stories, one each aboutmy maternal grandmother, her 7 brothers and sisters, and her mother. These arethe southern relatives. Theirstories would be set in Georgia and will, taken altogether, span the whole 20thcentury. Each will be named for themain character, and here I have to thank the richness of southern naming, forthe siblings are: Ebeneezer, Elmo,Clifford, Ralphord, Gladys, Hattie, Aileen, and their mother, Daisy.
Thenthere are the duo-biographies I'd like to write: alternating chapters from the lives of a pair whose experiences speak toeach other and to the culture: twowomen from the same Senior Swim Club, one a Japanese-American whose family wasinterned in California during WWII and the other the wife of a war hero andmayor; or two priests, one a lifelong missionary in the mountains of Peru, theother a founder of revolutionary
movements in El Salvador.
Andof course, I'm always at work on the miscellaneous short story, the one thatsuddenly came to me while I was changing in the locker room, thinking about mylast trip to Georgia, or maybe while I was driving across Iowa. I'm almost finished with "You Love that Dog." It will end up in a collection one day, I hope, along with "Arlo onthe Fence" and "Believing Marina" and the other stories Imentioned in response to
question #1 above.
Ideasfor novels occur to me about once a week. Iwrite them down. I wait, I hope,for the time to write them. Meanwhile,I plug away, working all but two days a week (T and Thursday, when I teach),proceeding at my glacial pace.
Somuch to write, so little time.