Naming Names

Mary Helen Stefaniak had her first novel, The Turk and My Mother, published this summer from W.W. Norton. She is one of the best creative writing instructors I've had--among many excellent--proving a good teacher can also be a good writer (see excerpt below with more astounding stupendous superlative excerpts to come). Locally, her most popular story appeared in Iowa Review and as the lead story in New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 2000, "A Note to Biographers Regarding Famous Author Flannery O’Connor", although my personal favorite does not seem to be listed anywhere since her bibliography is presently incomplete as are the back issues of two major literary magazines I checked (it is curious to note the different attitudes toward the history of one's own magazine between science fiction and other literary genres).

Despite an insuperable distance of being maybe fifteen blocks apart, the interview was and is being conducted online. Maybe one day I'll sneak into her house to give a full description of its most nefarious contents, revealing the dark secrets buried there.

* * *

How do you come up with names of characters? Are they all from "real life" or did you have to come up with them, pulling them like confetti out of a fez? For example, Staramajka. How do you pronounce her name? Did you guess that the average English reader might struggle not to read it as "Star-magic-a?" Does the name have similar or another significance in its native tongue?
I like the "star" and "magic" in Starmajka--both associations suit her in the book. It means "grandmother" in Croatian--didn't you read the "Author's Note"?

That real long seven-word sentence at the front of the book? Uh, yeah. But I wanted to see if you had.

Literally, stara = old (same as in Russian: remember the "starry" blokes in A Clockwork Orange) and majka = mother (pronounced "my-kuh" like "mica").

Many are family names: Josef and Marko Iljasic (my grandfather and great-uncle in real life), Madeline, George, Agnes. Frankie Solapek was a childhood friend of my father, and the Tomasics owned the tavern on the corner. I flipped those and made Frankie a Tomasic and the tavern owners the Solapeks. Marie Sinyakovich is a real person, although she is not Uncle Marko's daughter. (She's the one who gave me a name for the rooster.) The Kaszubes are a real ethnic group with a website and everything--sometimes called Kashubian. Gunter Grass is a Kashubian by birth, I believe.

I don't have a sister named Aggie, nor do I have a son named Rob. Just thought I'd put that in. And my mother's name was not Sarah.

Tas Akbulut--an entirely fictional creation--is named after a teacher at my kids' high school (Tas) and a Turkish doctor who publiished in a medical journal I used to work for. I liked to save the Turkish and Thai names from the contributors: They are so wonderful, each one a poem or a curse. Akbulut! (Or a sneeze.) Heinrich and Nadya and Fyodor Pitkin--all made up,don't know from where. Ditto for Kata and Anica, although their last name is a common one in Milwaukee, as are Konkel and Struck and other Kaszubenames used in the book. There really was a fishing village on Jones Island. An orchestra really did get shot by a Cossack/White Russian army officernamed Kalmykov, at least according to two different sources I found (both memoirs of former prisoners of war who spent some time in Khabarovsk orthereabouts).

"Staramajka" means grandmother, as you now, and "Jabotevrag" means what the book says it means. I got that name for the rooster from an elder relative of mine, a native of the village in the novel as a matter of fact. I told I wanted a curse for its name. At first she said she didn't know any cusswords in Croatian. A few days later, she called me up and said, "Mary Helen, I think I got a name for your rooster."

discuss this post at our messageboard