An Interview with Robert Hellenga
Philosophy Made Simple marks the return of the Harrington family. Why did you decide to bring back these characters?
In the original version of The Sixteen Pleasures, Margot's father, Rudy, had his own chapters. These were ultimately deleted, because the editor and I agreed that they impeded the forward momentum of the novel. I published these three chapters separately, as short stories, but I never got over the feeling that I still had some unfinished business with Rudy. So, I just took up his story where I'd left off - on an avocado grove in Texas.
How did you first learn about elephants that paint and at what point in the creative process did Norma Jean start to take shape?
Several years ago I heard a spot on NPR about elephants painting and thought immediately of a circus elephant named Norma Jean, who was struck and killed by lightning in Oquawka, an old Mississippi river town not far from my home in Galesburg, Illinois. Once a year or so we drive over to Oquawka to have a look at the river and to stop at Norma Jean's grave, which is in a little park near the center of town (right where she died). I put this elephant information together with the fact that Rudy's middle daughter was already (in The Sixteen Pleasures) engaged to an Indian, and decided to include Norma Jean in Philosophy Made Simple, which was just a rough sketch at the time.
There are elements of King Lear in Rudy Harrington, and you've mentioned that, like Lear, you have three daughters. Is he a favorite classical character of yours?
It's really the archetypal situation of the Lear family that I'm drawn to - the king and his three daughters who are the staple of fairy tales. After The Sixteen Pleasures and The Fall of a Sparrow, I decided it was time to write a novel that was not about a father and three daughters. So I wrote Blues Lessons. But then I was drawn right back to the fairy-tale archetype in Philosophy Made Simple. Fortunately the parallel is not exact: my wife is very much a part of the real family constellation, and our two older daughters are not nearly as wicked as their fairy-tale counterparts.
Rudy works in produce, as did your father. Are there other elements of your father - or other people you have known - in Rudy, or do the similarities end there?
Very interesting question. My father was also a professional basketball player, though in those days there was no NBA. It was all semi-pro industrial leagues. So that's where that came from in the novel. The fact is, Rudy is much more easy going than my father was, but now that I think of it, all sorts of things from my father have a way of sneaking in. For example, Rudy refers to a boatload of black- market avocados from the Cayman Islands. The men who worked for my father told me that he once had a boatload of black- market cement, something he always denied. But they said it docked in Hammond, Indiana. And my father was a hunter and fisherman. Rudy is too, but only very vaguely. I suppose that's because I never got into hunting and fishing myself.
Your novels are generously peppered with references to works of art - books, songs, poems, paintings, etc. How important is the role of art and literature in your life? And how do you think that's expressed in your novels?
Literature has always played a very important role in my life. My grandmother read the King Arthur stories to me when I was little; my mother read Dickens to me; and I read to my three daughters every night for years. And of course I read on my own. That's what I do. Art and music are more difficult. I feel that I understand literature. I don't have to ask myself, do I like this story or this novel? I do not understand art and music, however, probably because they're non-verbal. I don't know how to deal with them. But in a way that's an advantage: they are mysteries that I don't understand, and so I keep pecking away at them, trying to get a foothold.
What works of art and what other writers have inspired you and shaped your journey as a novelist?
My favorite novel is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I always have a copy nearby. I especially like the forward momentum of the novel. There's an urgency in the narrative voice, something that says this story is so important that I don't need to fool around with narrative tricks or verbal fireworks. Let me just set things down as clearly as possible.
Three contemporary novels that I return to very often are: Gail Godwin's Finishing School and Father Melancholy's Daughter; and Sue Miller's Family Pictures.
In both Philosohy Made Simple and The Sixteen Pleasures, your characters find solace - and guidance - in books. As you mapped out these novels, which came first: your characters or the books that save them?
I've always been a Gutenberg Man, a person whose life has been shaped by books from an early age, so that it's only natural that my characters are shaped by books. What Woody, in The Fall of a Sparrow, finds in the great Homeric poems is a way to affirm the goodness of life without lying or deceiving himself, which is the problem with religion, which always wants you to affirm things you know aren't true. On the other hand, I like to test the wisdom of the ages against my own personal experience, and that's the task I set for Rudy in Philosophy Made Simple.
What's your favorite part of the writing experience? How do you manage to balance your writing with your teaching career? Do the two conflict with or nourish each other?
My favorite part of the writing experience is revising. I think that insight, inspiration, creativity - whatever you want to call it - is more likely to strike in the fifth or sixth draft than in the first.
If my classes are going well, then the teaching nourishes the writing. If they're not going so well, I tend to get preoccupied, and this makes writing more difficult. I taught full time for thirty-three years, and now I'm shifting to writing full time and doing a little teaching on the side.
Are there any persistent themes in your novels?
All my protagonists are torn between the desire to affirm that this world is enough and the sense that there's some spiritual realm that calls to them from beyond this world. They all like to sing "Mr. Jelly Roll Baker," and they all write with expensive fountain pens.
Copyright © 2005 Robert Hellenga
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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