Hellenga grew up in Three Oaks, Michigan, a typical Midwestern small town, but spent summers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his 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 his father were almost all Italians, and in retrospect he saw that this is how he got my first sense of Italy as something opposed to small-town Midwestern Protestant culture - a theme that has shaped a lot of his writing, including Philosophy Made Simple.
He has taught English literature at Knox College, in Galesburg, IL, since 1968. During his tenure at Knox he directed two programs for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest, one at the Newberry Library in Chicago and one in Florence, Italy, and spent a year at the University of Chicago on a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship. They 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.
He started writing fiction at Knox, which has a strong creative writing program, published his first story in 1973 and his first novel (after 39 rejections) in 1994. Snakewoman of Little Egypt was his sixth novel. The first five are: The Sixteen Pleasures, The Fall of a Sparrow, Blues Lessons, Philosophy Made Simple, and The Italian Lover.
He have three daughters. 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. His wife has recently retired from teaching Latin at Monmouth College.
Robert Hellenga's website
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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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