The Writing University hosts the 5Q Interview series with authors from the University of Iowa Press. We sit down with UI Press authors to ask about their work, their process, their reading lists and events. Today we are speaking with Mary Helen Stefaniak, author of The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your new book?
Well, in 15 words or less, it's a book of 55 short, smart, fun-filled essays from the middle of the Middle West. (Actually, that's 16 words if you include "it's".) The essays capture extraordinary moments in one woman's ordinary life. In the Author's Questionnaire I describe it this way:
This collection of 55 short essays culled from two decades’ worth of Mary Helen Stefaniak’s Alive and Well column in The Iowa Source—many of them read by the author in six-minute spots on Iowa Public Radio—delivers more joy than many books twice its size. Each essay invites readers into the ordinary life of a woman "with a family and friends and a job . . . and a series of cats and a history, living in one old house after another at the turn of the 21st century in the middle of the Middle West.” A toddler rubs elbows (linguistically speaking) with French deconstructionists. One future is lost—and another gained—for lack of the right sort of clothes. In these pages, we find feline philosophizing, scrounging on a grand scale, and recycling ahead of its time. Happiness theories are tested and sometimes found wanting. One great aunt presides over 19 acres of pecan grove profitably strewn with junk. A borrowed hammer rings with the sound of immortality. Famous poets pipe up where you least expect them. Living and dying are found to be two sides of the same remarkable coin.
Many of the essays are laugh-aloud funny. What’s more, writing prompts at the end of the book invite readers to search their own lives for such moments—the kind that could have been forgotten but instead are turned, by the gift of perspective and perfectly chosen detail, into treasure. The Six-Minute Memoir encourages people to tell their own stories even if they think they don't have the kind of story that belongs in a capital-M Memoir. (My daughter Liz came up with the "capital-M Memoir.")
2. What was the inspiration for this work?
Life. Specifically, my life--though not necessarily things I did or things that happened to me. Anything that came within sight or hearing or smell or taste, etc. was fair game for this work. Things I observed, things I heard about, sometimes even things I imagined. Things I wrote down in my notebook or on a scrap of paper or an index card or a paper plate. Things I would have forgotten and lost forever if I hadn't written them down. Of course I'm using "things" in a general way, to refer to people, places, objects, events, you name it. Conversations I took part in and ones I overheard. Moments. Images, there's always an image to get me started: something somebody said or did that seemed significant in some way that I could almost discern--or maybe it's more accurate to say, something that left a residue of meaning, significance that would float to the surface if I paid close enough attention to the details that I put on the page.
3. Do you have any plans for readings or events for this book, either in person or virtual?
Yes, several, in fact. On Tuesday, October 25, at 7:00 I'm celebrating the publication date with a reading and conversation at Prairie Lights. Earlier that same day, at 10 a.m., I'll be chatting live with Charity Nebbe on Talk of Iowa. And later that week, on Thursday, October 27th, at 6:30 p.m. I'll be reading at the Bookworm, which is a lovely independent bookstore in Omaha. There are more events in November and into December: a reading at Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, a reading and workshop at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, an event at Dundee Book Company in Omaha, a holiday brunch in the Alumni House at Coe College. Readers can find details about these events and additional ones as they are added in the EVENTS tab of my website, maryhelenstefaniak.com.
4. What are you reading right now? Any books from other university or independent presses?
I'm reading Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (Ottumwa, Iowa, is mentioned early on) and All Is Leaf by John Price (from the University of Iowa Press). I recently read Khabaar by Madhushree Ghosh (also the University of Iowa Press) and I am reading essays in One by One, The Stars by Ned Stuckey-French (University of Georgia Press). I tend to read poems one by one rather than book by book. Lately I'm enjoying selections from Miracle Fair: Selected Poems of Wislawa Szymborska tranlated by Joanna Trzeciak (from W. W. Norton).
5. What is your writing routine? Do you have a daily routine?
When I was in the Iowa Writers' Workshop, I had three small children and a husband with a full time job. The only time I had for writing was Saturday morning and all day Sunday. When I was teaching full time at Creighton University, I would have to make a new schedule each semester that allowed me four hours per day, five or six days per week, to write. Between terms, I might use more than four hours if I had them. These days, I have learned to use shorter increments of time.
The important thing for me about routine is that it be nonnegotiable--never having to make a decision about whether I would write or do something else with this scheduled time. That doesn't mean that I don't jot things down whenever they occur to me. It just lets me know that whatever I have jotted, there will soon be a window to look at it again and see what, if anything, is there. For me, the writing schedules is not a matter of discipline. Those "windows" are more like an escape. They are like little sojourns outside of time, where the clock doesn't matter. Kind of like a baseball game.
Mary Helen Stefaniak’s debut novel, The Turk and My Mother, was named a Favorite Book of 2004 by the Chicago Tribune. The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction. Both novels were recognized by the Wisconsin Library Association for Outstanding Literary Achievement. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and Professor Emerita of English and Creative Writing at Creighton University in Omaha. She teaches in Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program. She and her husband live in Iowa City, in a 165-year-old stagecoach inn they restored. The Six-Minute Memoir is her first book of nonfiction.