Mary Helen Stefaniak: New Crime Caper Explores a Nursing Home Mystery

Mary Helen Stefaniak

For many years, Mary Helen Stefaniak has contributed her warm, contemplative, and playful essays to The Iowa Source. This month, she releases her third novel, The World of Pondside, a thriller involving a bunch of gamers in a nursing home. Described as “a wild, suspenseful ride” by Eileen Pollack, the book was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Most Anticipated Thrillers of Spring. Stefaniak will read at Prairie Lights Books in Iowa City on Tuesday, April 19, at 7 p.m.

What was the inspiration behind the setting in The World of Pondside?

My mother spent some of her life in a nursing home. On the evening of her very first day there, long after the dinner she refused to eat, she was hungry. We found our way to the kitchen, where one young man was still at work, and we requested a jelly sandwich. The young man fixed one for her, no questions asked. She ate the whole thing. I never saw that young man again, never learned his name, but his kind act led to the creation of Foster Kresowik, who works in the kitchen at Pondside Manor and who is losing his friend Robert Kallman, creator of the video game that staff members and residents are playing, to the ravages of ALS.

My friend Sarah Lamb was diagnosed with ALS back in 1997. While there are exceptions, most people survive only three to five years after diagnosis. For three years, ALS whittled away at Sarah’s body but left her spirit intact. I’ve written about her before in the pages of this magazine and she appears more than once in my book of essays coming out this fall. The World of Pondside is dedicated to her.

What made you decide to write a thriller?

In The World of Pondside, I was looking for a way to bring an unlikely bunch of characters together, to give them a project they all could participate in, you might say. A mystery to solve seemed like such a project. And, to be perfectly honest, I thought a good old-fashioned mystery would be easier to write than a multigenerational family saga. A misconception to which I now say, Ha!

Pondside takes place in a nursing home in the course of about a week. It’s pretty simple, setting-wise, except for the video game that staff members and residents are playing. Inside the game, you can get into an elevator on a screened porch in Iowa and step out on the 24th floor of an office building in Manhattan.

I was not expecting Pondside to show up on any “most anticipated” crime fiction and thriller lists, although I’m glad it did. There are two dead guys on the scene by page 10, and the police do show up repeatedly, but most of the characters are more interested in getting back into the World of Pondside video game than they are in finding out how the game’s creator actually died.

Where did you get the idea for nursing home residents playing a video game? Are you a gamer yourself?

I am not a gamer myself. In recent years, I have put in some time playing a variety of video games—for research, you understand, not for fun.

Whenever someone asks “Why a video game?” in a novel set in a nursing home, I want to say, why not? As Robert Kallman, the resident who created the game, says, “Who needs an alternate reality more than people who live in a nursing home?”

Playing a video game in which you get to be your own best and, in that sense, your truest self is something that can motivate characters as different as 88-year-old resident Laverne Slatchek, a former biology teacher, and twentysomething kitchen worker Foster Kresowik, who dropped out of high school. A Goodreads reviewer said, “It’s like Ready Player One but with old people.” I thought, I’ll take that! I was even more pleased when Booklist said the novel “infuses an often forbidding and depressing environment with joy and dignity.” My aim in this novel is to allow readers to share the experience of people who live and work in a nursing home—people like my mother and the young man who made her a jelly sandwich. Getting readers inside the nursing home is the whole purpose of this novel.

What’s interesting is that in the years since I began working on The World of Pondside, programs and studies using video games and virtual reality with nursing home residents have proliferated. So it’s not such an odd combo anymore.

Has your approach to writing a novel changed over the years?

I think I proceed a little more slowly, which means I throw fewer pages away, but I still begin by writing scenes as they occur to me, gathering material before I know very much about where it’s going. Eventually, I sit down and look at who and what I’ve got on the page. I make lists and timelines and I begin to decide where the material is going, what seems to be missing, and what belongs in some other novel. I believe that makes me a cross between a seat-of-the-pants writer, as the kids say today, and an outliner. I research all through the process, before I start and whenever I need to know something. I set up a nonnegotiable schedule for writing and put in my time at the kitchen table, which is where I write. Some mornings, my characters speak to me so willingly that all I have to do is keep up and write down what they say. Other mornings, I eke out one word after another until a sentence appears on the screen. Either way, work gets done.

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

I can tell you what’s coming up next. In October, the University of Iowa Press will publish a collection of essays culled from two decades’ worth of my “Alive and Well’ column in The Iowa Source. Some of them I read in six-minute spots on Iowa Public Radio years ago. Hence the title: The Six-Minute Memoir: Fifty-Five Short Essays on Life. Many of the essays are laugh-out-loud funny. Writing prompts at the end of the book encourage readers to capture the moments that tell their own stories, even if they think they don’t have the kind of story that belongs in a capital-M Memoir.