Tuesday, 5 June 2012
Inspirational award-winning American author Mary Helen Stefaniak discusses how successful writers reach out to their readers.

By Shobha Nihalani

On Tuesday 5th June, we had the opportunity to meet award-winning author Mary Helen Stefaniak. Last year, her book The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia won an Anisfield-Wolf book award. These awards recognize books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.

Mary spoke passionately about her books. She is the author of Self Storage and other Stories, The Turk and my Mother, and more recently The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, which took her seven years to write. The idea of the book was spawned while living in Omaha, Nebraska. She had read news stories about the US bombings in Baghdad and was greatly affected by them. She wanted to write about a Baghdad that is recognized in history as the cradle of civilization, not as home to an oppressive regime.

While researching and writing, she drew on her own past; her father's side of the family is Croat. Mary's mother was from rural Georgia. She grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and spent her holidays in Georgia. Mary was able to draw on her experiences of cultural segregation. While the book is not historical fiction, she does portray incidents from the past. 

Her favourite periods in history are the 1930s, World War 1 and the American Civil War. She researched for many years to include accurate accounts of history. She read newspapers of that time, memoirs of a Hungarian Count, a Polish professor, an Austrian nurse, so that she could create realistic characters. She also drew on her own heritage. With different cultures living side by side, she included the adjustments and conflicts existing within the community.

Mary read from two chapters, and I was especially struck by the descriptions of the narrator's voice and how easily the character was brought to life in just a paragraph.