Robert Hellenga’s first novel was rejected thirty-nine times before it finally found a publisher. The Sixteen Pleasures (Soho Press, 1994) went on to earn glowing reviews from Booklist, Chicago Tribune, Kirkus, Library Journal, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Publishers Weekly.
Six novels later (a seventh is in the works), Hellenga, the George Appleton Lawrence Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English and Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Knox College in Galesburg, is hooked on writing fiction. “I don’t know what to do if I don’t have a project,” he says.
Hellenga grew up in Three Oaks, Michigan. Life, love, family, and work have taken him across the country and around the world, from the Midwest to the East Coast and from Ireland to Italy. He began teaching in 1968 at Knox College, which was one of the first institutions in the country to offer a creative writing major.
It was at Knox where Hellenga caught the writing bug. Those Midwestern roots—and his travels abroad—have influenced his writing ever since. Florence, Italy, features prominently in The Sixteen Pleasures. Chicago and Texas feature in Philosophy Made Simple. Southern Illinois in Snakewoman of Little Egypt. Real-world experience in such places has gone a long way in informing Hellenga’s fiction, and so has some first-hand research.
“When I write about Chicago or Florence or Rome or Verona, I have to study it,” Hellenga says. “But when I write about the Midwest, I don’t have to study it. That’s who I am. That’s what I do.”
Indeed, Hellenga has been called a “Midwestern author” and even a “rural author”—labels he embraces. “I’m a native Midwesterner,” he says. “I’m not afraid of living in a small town. I grew up in a small town. I’ve made use of it in the novels.” Hellenga does bristle a bit, however, at the notion that “Midwestern” somehow means plain or dull. “Whatever I do is Midwestern because I’m a Midwesterner,” Hellenga says. “But there’s no need to be unsophisticated. I don’t like that stereotype of ‘simple salt of the earth’ type people.”
In fact, it is a certain level of sophistication for which Hellenga strives, as do those authors whose work inspires him. Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Wobegon” stories are among those that he admires. “Those stories are effective because Keillor has laid down a base of enormous sophistication. He’s not just writing down simple stuff about simple people. I aim for something like that.”
Hellenga, whose book Snakewoman of Little Egypt was named one of the best novels of 2010 by both Washington Post and Kirkus, likely has very little to worry about when it comes to writing compelling, imaginative stories that people love. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be inspired by—and learn from—his favorite authors: Jane Smiley, with whom he shares the Midwest, and Gail Godwin, with whom he shares a publisher and an editor. “I used to think that learning from other writers meant you were inspired by other writers,” he says. “But also, you learn other very practical stuff. Like how to put together a scene that has more than two people in it. You can look at the beginning of War and Peace if you want to get an idea of how to set a scene with a hundred people.”
Reading the work of other novelists can be intimidating, but it can be inspiring at the same time. “Good writing energizes me,” he says. “A lot of these authors, they see further into things. They help me see further. I want a sense that a writer’s imagination goes beyond my own.”
Not that Hellenga is lacking in the imagination department. With novels that make snake-charmers and painting elephants completely believable, this is one Midwestern author who doesn’t have to worry about a dearth of creativity.
Thankfully, readers won’t have to wait too long to dive into Hellenga’s next creative effort. His seventh novel, The Confessions of Frances Godwin, is set to publish in summer 2014—less than a year away. The Confessions of Frances Godwin straddles the Midwest and Italy, locations that will be familiar to Hellenga’s fans. Now in production with Bloomsbury, the novel features a teacher, a priest, a voyage, and an affair (among other things).
Beyond that, Hellenga has a novella, The Truth About Death, in the works, and he’s working on a book about literary experience. And he’s doing all of that from his desk in western Illinois because he is, after all, a Midwestern author.