116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Mary Helen Stefaniak is a heck of a storyteller. She’s not just a sharp-eyed observer of humanity, nor just a crafter of lovely (and often hilarious) sentences — though she is both of those things. She’s a skilled spinner of yarns and she populates her fiction with characters who are quirky, memorable, three-dimensional, and all-too recognizable and relatable.
“The World of Pondside” is a heck of story. It’s not just a mystery novel, nor just a comedy — though it is both of those things. It is also a reminder of the complexity of each individual, and the compassion each individual is due.
As Stefaniak put it in our email exchange, “Story-making starts to feel like a real lifeline to what’s human in the world.” Story-reading — at least when the story is as fully realized and engagingly delivered as “The World of Pondside” — provides that same sort of lifeline.
Set in a nursing home, “The World of Pondside” opens with the discovery of the deaths of two residents. One of those residents created a game that both residents and staff members play obsessively in an effort to imagine their way into different versions of their lives. But when the creator dies, the game goes dead as well. Stefaniak’s characters are eager to both solve the mystery of the deaths and find a way back into their virtual world.
Q: What was the spark that ignited this particular story for you?
A: It all began with my mother, who spent six weeks as an extremely unwilling and somewhat rambunctious resident in a nursing home. Late in the evening of her very first day there, long after the dinner she had refused to eat, she was hungry. We wandered around the place in search of something for her to eat and found our way to the kitchen. Only one young man was left working there at that hour. When my mom asked him for a grape jelly sandwich, he made one for her, no questions (about her diet, etc.) asked. She ate the whole thing. That young man’s kindness, along with his willingness to bend the rules, inspired the creation of Foster Kresowik, who works in the kitchen at Pondside Manor and who is one of the two main characters in “The World of Pondside.” (The other is octogenarian Laverne Slatchek.)
Q: I'm interested in the intersection of a story about the elderly and unwell with a story about an immersive video game. What intrigued you about bringing those things together?
A: Well, as Robert Kallman, the resident who created the game, says, “Who needs an alternate reality more than people in a nursing home?”
I don’t think of it as a story about the elderly and unwell. It’s a story about a small group of individuals who want to get back in the game — both literally and metaphorically. The nursing home — a setting that I chose very deliberately — puts certain constraints on them, but the story is about getting back into the game and about finding out what happened to the game’s creator, Robert Kallman, who turns up dead under mysterious circumstances at the start of the book, as some poor soul must do at the start of any good mystery/thriller.
Beyond that, the video game lets them return to (or invent) a time in their lives when each of them was the person they truly feel themselves to be. So 86-year-old Laverne invents a San Francisco portal, complete with Candlestick Park, that recalls a 25th anniversary trip she took with her long departed husband Bill; and Foster Kresowik returns to a more magical version of his grandparents’ screened porch in Iowa; and Pondside Manor administrator Kitty Landiss requires a whole floor in a Manhattan office building for her fashion designer dreams.
As for the challenges, I had to do quite a lot of research into video games. This involved playing Call of Duty with my son in Florida, Grand Theft Auto with my son-in-law, and Legend of Zelda and Super Mario Brothers with my grandson and granddaughter, whose game playing sophistication developed, like my novel, over time. I also took computer science at Creighton (University), where I was teaching when I started writing “The World of Pondside,” and I’m particularly proud of my certificate in game design from Kirkwood.
Q: The book is something of a departure from your previous novels, perhaps most notably in the sense that it is built around the trappings of a mystery novel. What appealed to you about crafting that sort of narrative?
A: I knew that if I wanted to set the story in a nursing home — and that’s exactly what I wanted to do — then I had to give the diverse crowd of residents and staff a project that they would all care deeply about. A mystery that starts with the discovery of a body — or, in this case, two bodies — was something they all could be engaged in, especially if one of the bodies was the creator of the game they can’t get back into. Both the mystery and the video game keep my “unlikely bunch of gamers” — and the reader — focused on something other than wheelchairs and walkers and pureed food and waiting for visitors who don’t always show.
I recently discovered that AARP has a short course for college students to help them “recognize older adults as multidimensional individuals.” In “The World of Pondside,” I want readers to experience these characters as “multidimensional individuals,” which is to say, as the idiosyncratic and often very funny individuals they are.
Full disclosure: I have admitted elsewhere that I thought writing a mystery/thriller would be easier than writing a multigenerational family saga. Boy, was I wrong about that.
Q: “The World of Pondside” is set in Iowa — and of course you are part of the large community of Iowa writers (we claim you even as we acknowledge your teaching career at Creighton). Do you think of yourself as an "Iowa writer," and if so, what does that mean to you?
A: As you know, I brought my family — my husband and three small children — to Iowa City so that I could attend the Writers’ Workshop. We thought we’d be here for two years and then we’d go back home to Milwaukee. This summer, my husband and I will have been here for 40 years! So yes, I’d say that I am an Iowa writer. Among the writing credentials I’m proudest of is the column that I’ve written for The Iowa Source over the course of more than 20 years. We called it Alive and Well in Middle of the Middle West. I believe that’s another way of saying Doing Fine in Iowa.
Still, I have to say that I really enjoy having multiple identities as a writer. My fiction has appeared more than once in the annual New Stories from the South anthology, and I have been honored by the Wisconsin Library Association as a Wisconsin author. To top it off, my first novel, “The Turk and My Mother,” found its way into a Croatian American literature course in Zagreb.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: What’s coming next is a book called “The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life,” which will be published by the University of Iowa Press in October — further evidence that I am an Iowa writer. The essays are selected from the Alive and Well column I wrote for The Source. Of course, that book is in production. What I’m working on now is a “Book Containing Exploration and Excitement.” That’s the working title. It seems to be a novel.