I grew up in Three Oaks, Michigan, a typical Midwestern small town, but I spent summers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my father, a commission merchant with a seasonal business, handled produce that was shipped there from what was then the world's largest farmers market, in Benton Harbor, Michigan. The men who worked for my father were almost all Italians, and in retrospect I see that this is how I got my first sense of Italy as something opposed to small-town Midwestern Protestant culture - a theme that has shaped a lot of my writing, including Philosophy Made Simple.
My wife (Virginia) and I met at the University of Michigan, spent the first year of our marriage in Belfast, Northern Ireland, spent a year in North Carolina, and started having children when I was in graduate school at Princeton.
I've taught English literature at Knox College, in Galesburg, IL, since 1968. During my tenure at Knox I have directed two programs for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, one at the Newberry Library in Chicago and one in Florence, Italy, and I've spent a year at the University of Chicago on a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. We've spent quite a bit of time in Florence and Bologna, and in 2009 we spent six weeks in Verona, where I was a visiting writer at the university.
I started writing fiction at Knox, which has a strong creative writing program, published my first story in 1973 and my first novel (after 39 rejections) in 1994. Snakewoman of Little Egypt will be my sixth novel. The first five are: The Sixteen Pleasures, The Fall of a Sparrow,Blues Lessons, Philosophy Made Simple, and The Italian Lover.
I have three daughters, like King Lear, but unlike the Lears, we all get along. Rachel is the Director of Museum Exhibits and Eduction at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie, IL; Heather teaches fifth grade in Galesburg, IL; and Caitrine is a veterinarian in Glen Carbon, IL. My wife has recently retired from teaching Latin at Monmouth College.
This biography was last updated on 10/04/2011.
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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 ...
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