Q&A with Mary Helen Stefaniak

Isthmus | October 6, 2004
The Turk and My Mother

W.W. Norton, 320 pages

Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of Mermaids on the Moon, says that The Turk and My Mother “sparkles with originality, humor and insight.” In three overlayered tales that span the 20th century, Stefaniak’s novel crafts the narrative arc of a Croatian-American Milwaukee family, filtered through the memories of each story’s teller. The author lives in Omaha and Iowa City, and teaches at Creighton University.

Q: How did you conceive of the braided structure for The Turk and My Mother?

Stefaniak: You could say that I modeled it after the way family stories are told, at least in my experience: piecemeal, with new facts and details emerging over time, different versions from different tellers with different agendas. Like Staramajka in the novel, my aunt Madeline -- the real Aunt Madeline -- had a style of storytelling "that did not accommodate the listener in any way." With her voice and the voice of my (real) father in my head, the novel braided itself as I wrote it. In fact, I had to work at untangling it. I'd make somebody say, "Wait a minute, wait a minute!" and ask a question to accommodate the listener (and reader).

Q: Jonis Agee, the author of Acts of Love on Indigo Road and The Weight of Dreams, has called The Turk and My Mother "hilarious, heart-breaking and deeply touching." Is that the book you set out to write, or did you find those attributes as you wrote? Which three adjectives would you use to describe the book?

A: I set out to write a book that could be described with those three adjectives, yes. I like those three. I also like "innovative," which is what Sandra Scofield called it, and "brilliantly constructed," which is not an adjective, I know. It is also a compassionate book, a book that encourages compassion, forgiveness. Hence the epigraph, from a poem called "Gift" by Czeslaw Milosz: "Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot."

Q: Amazon.com customers who purchased your book also bought The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, by Paula Huntley; Poe & Fanny, by John May; and Strange but True, by John Searles, among others. If you were to go out right now and buy a copy of your own book, what other books might you buy to complement it?

A: Those three sound pretty interesting to me. Maybe I'd buy those. Or maybe these:

Collected Poems, by Czeslaw Milosz

Inheritance, by Lan Samantha Chang

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (no particular relationship to my book, but I just love those stories, especially "People Like That Are the Only People Here.")

Sparrow (poems) by Carol Muske-Dukes

Q: Who or what is your muse?

A: Esmé (With Love and Squalor). Also, there's this very lovely grove of oak trees alongside I-80 near Avoca, Iowa.

Q: What was the last book you read that you would recommend, and why would you recommend it?

A: Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray, because my mother's Aunt Molly had an idyllic junkyard a lot like the one in that book. (My mother is from Georgia. Aunt Molly's junkyard was in Macon.)

Q: What book from your childhood left the greatest impression on you?

A: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I first read it when I was seven (Alice's age, I believe), and I thought: How did Lewis Carroll know exactly what my dreams felt like?

Q: Is it true that you live in Omaha and in Iowa City? Why and how do you live where you live?

A: It is true. I teach at Creighton University in Omaha, my husband works at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. We take turns making the four-hour drive (each way) on the weekend. It's a beautiful drive across Iowa, even on I-80, especially western Iowa.

Q: Which of the five senses do you most rely on in daily life and in your prose?

A: Looking to the future, I'm training myself to navigate by smell. In my prose, sound is most important to me.

Q: What is your favorite meal?

A: Nutter Butter Bites, with a glass of milk. I also love the Garden Burgers at the Hamburg Inn in Iowa City. Also, two eggs over-easy with hash browns and whole wheat toast at George Webb's.

Q: What are you afraid of?

A: Inadvertently committing a mortal sin. Also, nuclear war. I'll stop there.

Q: What brings you joy?

A: Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello on Appalachia Waltz, especially if I hear him while I'm driving past the oak grove near Avoca.

Q: What is in your CD player?

A: They Might Be Giants. Mink Car.

Q: What is your favorite Web site, and why?

A: Mod-estlads.com. Check it out and you won't have to ask.

Q: If you were to sell the naming rights to your next book, who would you solicit?

A: I don't understand this question. My next book already has a title. It's called The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia.

Q: Do you have any tattoos?

A: Maybe.


David Medaris is a staff writer at Isthmus, the Madison, Wis. alternative newsweekly.


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