Interview: Mary Helen Stefaniak

Mary Helen Stefaniak‘s latest book, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, has been compared to a favorite I read last year, The Help, so I knew I had to interview her. I first spotted her book at my local independent bookstore (another reason to support those in your neighborhood!). I enjoyed her interview answers a lot, and I know you will as well.

Your novel, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, has received a lot of positive attention from Indie booksellers, which I love. I always trust my Indie bookseller’s opinions. Did you do any special marketing to this group?

My publisher sent advance review copies to many independent booksellers around the country. I think that’s standard procedure for W. W. Norton Company, which is the last of the major New York publishers to remain independently owned. I believe that all of the other big publishers—many of which used to be independent—have been purchased by various conglomerates. W. W. Norton has always been an employee-owned company. In addition to the indie booksellers that Norton contacted, I had arc’s sent to my favorite bookstores and to stores around the country that friends and other readers recommended to me—like Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Boswell Books and Next Chapter in Milwaukee, Foxtale in Woodstock GA, McIntyre’s in Fearrington Village NC, and more. And then sometimes booksellers look for your titles and contact the publisher themselves.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

I’ve got three writing projects underway at the moment—two works of fiction and a nonfiction piece that might be a long essay or might grow into a book. I’m not sure which of the three (if any) will be my next book. The nonfiction piece is about some adventures I had as a patient in a neurological ICU last fall: it’s like the space shuttle in those places, no difference between day and night—and all the incredible technology! I’d had a subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain) at my mother’s 84th birthday party in Milwaukee, and it was one wild ride from there. Having come through it all awake and unscathed, I feel a real obligation to write about what I learned—about myself, mortality, and the health care system.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass was the first most interesting book I’ve ever read and is still one of my favorite books. (Consequently, I find it hard to tolerate the cartoon and film versions and spinoffs, even if the Mad Hatter is Johnny Depp.) Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is also a favorite and maybe equally interesting. Aside from the harrowing journey of Billy Pilgrim, the fact that he is unstuck in time required a major renovation of the form of the novel. I had similar feelings about One Hundred Years of Solitude. And while it’s not a whole book, Alice Munro’s story “Carried Away” is another great feat of storytelling. I guess I find most interesting the books that get away with breaking the rules of narrative—or making new rules. (I’m sure I’m forgetting about some other ground-breaking book that blew my head off. There are so many miracles to read out there.) (See below!)

Book you’re currently reading?

Katheryn Stockett’s best-selling novel, The Help. Several readers and more than one reviewer compared The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia to The Help—one reviewer said The Cailiffs was like a prequel, dealing with the same kinds of issues one generation earlier than The Help—so I thought I’d better read it myself. I am enjoying it very much.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Read. Sit. Swim. Talk to people. Look out my window. I really do like to look. I live in Iowa City but teach at Creighton University in Omaha, which requires a 250-mile trip each way almost every weekend. People ask me if I listen to books on tape—and I do, sometimes, although I usually prefer music, NPR, and learning other languages for work and pleasure—but the real reason I don’t find the same trip boring is that I love to look at the landscape. I have favorite fields and oak groves—and I got to watch them building all those giant windmills in Iowa during the last couple of years.

Wait! That’s another most interesting book I’ve read—probably THE most interesting: Don Quixote. I have to confess that I listened to it, rather than read it, all 35 unabridged CD’s of it, brilliantly read by George Guidall. It took close to a an academic year of driving back and forth to listen to it all, and it just happened to be the year when they were putting up windmills across the middle of Iowa. When I finally came to the end, I was bereft. In all the centuries since that novel was published (just after 1600), no one has come up with any kind of innovative technique that Cervantes hadn’t already come up with. DQ is a hybrid form, it experiments with point of view, it’s metafictional, self-referential, you name it. The translator is the brilliant Edith Grossman. It’s so great. And you get to abbreviate it DQ—another delicious treat.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

A regular—even daily—writing schedule that results, eventually, in a finished book or story or poem or essay every now and again.

Advice for other writers?

Set up a regular—even daily—writing schedule.

Where can we learn more about you?

You could look for me at (this takes a few clicks), visit me at, or join the Friends of the Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, on Facebook.

Anything else you’d like to add?

If you get around to reading The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia—and I hope you will—then be sure to visit the official website of The Baghdad Bazaar, which is recommended by narrator Gladys Cailiff at the end of the book:

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