Multi-award-winning American novelist Mary Helen Stefaniak tells Ilene Frankel about books, baseball and Baghdad
Awards for books don’t come easily. Yes, it’s not hard to be fooled by the sheer amount of literary awards on offer across the globe – however, let’s face it, there’s also an ever-growing army of writers who think they’ve got an award-winning book in them. But you know you must have ‘it’ – whatever ‘it’ is – when you’ve only written two full novels in the past decade and both of them have won multiple prizes.
Step forward, Mary Helen Stefaniak. The American novelist’s debut, The Turk and My Mother, scooped the 2005 John Gardner Fiction Book Award and was recognised by the Wisconsin Library Association for Outstanding Literary Achievement before being translated into several languages and being shipped out to countries across the globe. Then, only last year, the Milwaukee native received the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction (which, for 76 years, has toasted books that ‘make important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures’) for The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia after also being selected by booksellers as an Indie-Next ‘Great Read’.
Stefaniak is already on a path to a distinguished literary career despite only penning the two tomes – and a few short stories (including a collection in 1997) and essays – so far. So, as a result, the 61-year-old is getting her name out in Asia and, as part of this profile-boosting mission, she’s just been in Hong Kong, giving talks and readings at the Foreign Correspondents Club and Ladies’ Recreation Club, as well as hosting a signing session at Bookazine.
Stefaniak’s passion for writing is evident in her methodical research, her immersion in her work and the complete sensory experience that follows. “You have to touch things,” she tells us when we meet in Kowloon Tong. “If you’re going to write about people who’ve picked cotton, you have to have held a cotton ball.” She says that she tries to fully experience what her characters do in order to get the details just right. She sustains a soaring passion which stems from her personal beliefs in the creative output. “It saves my life to write because it is a way of making sense out of things,” she reveals.
The Cailiffs of Baghdad isn’t light reading. Opening in 1938, it tells the story of how a small town in Georgia, USA, is turned on its head after a teacher casts an African American student as ‘chief engineer’ in the town’s annual festival – and then the KKK gets involved, with some of the novel actually set on the banks of the Tigris in Baghdad. It’s rich in plot and character, enveloping heavy racial material and cultural clashes yet tastefully maintaining a balance of tones with the insertion of a strong dose of comic-provoking content. “Irony has the potential for humour,” says Stefaniak. “The world is so ridiculous. Everything is funny when you look at it. When you look at it really and truly, things start looking either kind of grotesque, which then become funny – or they just are funny.”
Asia has been on Stefaniak’s travel wishlist for a while, she says. “Hong Kong in particular – and also Beijing – have a kind of mythology and mystery about them, even just in their names.” She says she’s always on the hunt for writing inspiration – ‘every place you go, everything is material’ – and she is positive she will write about all the places she visits (including Hong Kong) in some capacity in the future, whether it be for her blog or for her characters and, perhaps, storylines.
Stefaniak says we can expect a baseball (one of her ‘deep passions’) novel on the horizon. But, whatever the future holds, her warmth and wryness will shine through. And, of course, our eyes are peeled for the day when Hong Kong invades her pages. Stay tuned…
The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia is published by WW Norton, priced $159.