Robert Hellenga interview with David Alan Binder

Post date: Oct 28, 2017 4:42:49 PM

Robert Hellenga interview with David Alan Binder

Just a note: I love what he has to say at the very end. It made me laugh.

Shortened bio from his Wikipedia: Robert Hellenga is an American novelist, essayist, and short story author. His seven novels include The Sixteen Pleasures, The Fall of a Sparrow, Blues Lessons, Philosophy Made Simple, The Italian Lover, Snakewoman of Little Egypt, and The Confessions of Frances Godwin. In addition to these works, he has written a novella along with a collection of short stories in The Truth About Death and Other Stories. Hellenga has also published scholarly essays and literary or travel essays in various venues, including The National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, and The Gettysburg Review.

Hellenga grew up in Three Oaks, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Michigan and his graduate work at the Queen’s University of Belfast, the University of North Carolina, and Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton and began teaching English literature at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois in 1968. In 1973–74 he was co-director of the ACM Seminar in the Humanities at the Newberry Library in Chicago, and in 1982–83 he directed the ACM Florence programs in Florence, Italy. He has also worked and studied in Bologna, Verona, and Rome. He is currently Distinguished Writer in Residence and Professor Emeritus at Knox College.

Hellenga has received awards for his fiction from the Illinois Arts Council and from The National Endowment for the Arts. The Sixteen Pleasures received The Society of Midland Authors Award for Fiction published in 1994. The Fall of a Sparrow was included in the Los Angeles Times list of the "Best Fiction of 1998" and the Publisher’s Weekly list of the "Best 98 Books." Snakewoman of Little Egypt, was included in the Washington Post’s list of "The Best Novels of 2010" and Kirkus Reviews’ list of "2010 Best Fiction: The Top 25." The audio version of Snakewoman was a 2011 Audie Award Winner for literary fiction. The Confessions of Frances Godwin received The Society of Midland Authors Award for fiction published in 2014.



All my novels are available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, with excerpts from reviews. Lots of stuff on Good Reads.

1. How do you pronounce your name ?

Accent on first syllable: HELLenga.

2. Where are you currently?

In an apartment in Galesburg, Illinois.

3. What is the most important thing that you have learned in your writing experience, so far?

I think planning it great; I think outlining is great; I think deliberate, conscious effort is great. But, it’s very important to leave yourself open to surprises—at the beginning of the journey, in the middle of the journey, and even at the very end of the road. Just when you think you’ve arrived at your destination, you can still surprise yourself, turn your story upside down, pull everything together into a unified whole.

4. What would you say is your most interesting writing, publishing, editing or illustrating quirk?

I’m quirky enough in “real” life, so I try not to be quirky as a writer. In Becoming a Writer (1934) Dorothea Brande contrasts the popular image of the quirky (neurotic) artist with an earlier and healthier image of the artist as “more versatile, more sympathetic, more studious than his fellows, more catholic in his tastes, less at the mercy of the ideas of the crowd.” I think the latter is the better model. It’s better to discipline yourself to write X number of pages every day than it is to cultivate your quirks.

5. Tell us your insights on self-publish or use a publisher?

I don’t like the idea of self-publishing. Published work has at least been vetted by someone.

a. Who is the name of your publisher and in what city are they located?

Bloomsbury. New York.

6. Do you have any secret tips for writers on getting a book published?

Make sure you’ve written the best book you can write before sending it out. And do your homework and send it to agents who handle this kind of material. Most publishers give short shrift to manuscripts that are not sent by an agent.

7. How did you or would you suggest acquire an agent? Any tips for new writers on getting one?

That was a long time ago, and things are different now. I followed the advice of a successful writer and sent the complete manuscript to five agents and five editors. I wouldn’t do that now. If you’ve sent your manuscript to Editor A, then your agent can’t submit your book to Editor A. I got an agent this way and he stayed with me when the first novel never found a home and my second novel was turned down 39 times before being published, and becoming a National Best Seller.

8. Do you have any suggestions or helps for new writers (please be specific and informational as possible)?

Read Poets & Writers. Lots of good advice on finding agents. Lots of how to articles. Lots of success stories. And failure stories too.

Read, read, read. (Actually, we’ve got too many writers and not enough readers.)

9. What was one of the most surprising things you learned with your creative process with your books, editing, publishing or illustrating?

Most (but not all) editors today are acquisitions editors. They buy a book they think will sell, but they don’t spend a lot of time working on it. Although, I see from reading Poets & Writers that lot of editors who have lost their jobs through downsizing are working as agents. These agents are more likely work with a writer make the book as good as possible.

10. How many books have you written?


11. Do you have any tricks or tips to help others become a better writer (please be as specific and information as you possibly can)?

On the one hand, I write what I want to write. I don’t try to chase the market.

On the other hand, I always keep an imaginary reader in mind. I feel a duty to interest this imaginary reader. I want to take this reader for a good ride. I want to provoke certain responses in this reader, or to forestall them. For example, in The Fall of a Sparrow Woody, the protagonist, almost strangles the young woman who put a bomb in the train station in Bologna that killed eighty-five people, including Woody’s daughter. In the course of this scene Woody suddenly sees this young terrorist woman as his daughter. He says, “I have to love you because hating you is too hard.” I wanted the reader to experience a kind of catharsis, BUT knew I was on thin ice. I could imagine the reader rolling his or her eyes and saying, “Oh, Brother,” and I did everything I could to forestall this response. I convinced most reviewers; but I didn’t convince the New York Times reviewer, who said: “Much of the novel is full of arresting stories, but as it winds down and Woody, supposedly on the brink of self-knowledge, finds himself making pronouncements like, ‘I have to love you, because hating you is too hard.’”

You can’t always get what you want.

Think of your writing as a job. This is easier psychologically than striving to produce great art. Just go to work every day and get some stuff done.

12. Do you have any suggestions for providing twists in a good story?

See above: leave yourself open to surprises. Don’t try to make something happen at the end. Let something happen.

13. What makes your or any book stand out from the crowd?

Two things come to mind:

#1. Insight. When I read Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, for example, I find that she illuminates everything she touches—horses, of course; but love, marriage, sex, money, food, antiques, friendship… And I like what I call double insights: the writer moves to a perfectly good insight, and then takes the reader one step further. In Horse Heaven two girls on a high school senior-class trip—Mary and Rosalind—get on a bus in New York. At one of the stops a woman with a young child in a stroller doesn’t get off the bus fast enough for the driver, who yells at her. The women responds by slowing down—putting on gloves, adjusting the stroller, tying the baby’s shoes. After the women and the stroller are finally off the bus, Mary says to Rosalind: “God that was rude.” And Rosalind realizes that Mary is going to spend the rest of her life in the Midwest.

#2. Imagination. Another word, one that’s closely related: Imagination. I want the author’s imagination to go beyond my own. I want to see more than I can see with my own eyes.

14. What saying or mantra do you live by?

La vita non è inesauribile? Non è bello essere vivi?

Isn’t life inexhaustible? Isn’t it good to be alive?

15. Anything else you would like to say?

My wife and I are compiling a list of things we don’t know. It gets longer every day.