Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 14, 2010

Caxton Club presents Robert Hellenga

Professors from various departments, from English to Economics, students and others filled Alumni Room to hear Professor of English Robert Hellenga read from his new novel “Snakewoman of Little Egypt” during last Friday’s Caxton Club.

Currently a Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English as well as Distinguished Writer-in-Residence, Hellenga has been teaching at Knox since 1968. He received his bachelor’s degree in English at the University of Michigan and his Ph.D. at Princeton University. He is the author of six novels: “The Sixteen Pleasures,” “The Fall of a Sparrow,” “Blues Lessons,” “Philosophy Made Simple,” “The Italian Lover” and “Snakewoman of Little Egypt.”

Professor of English Barbara Tannert-Smith introduced Hellenga and said, “… As I tell my creative writing students, what makes Bob Hellenga such a wonderful writer and, I should add, such a profoundly interesting and wonderful human being, is that he takes such an interest in everything, big and small, olives and elephants and with such pleasure.”

Hellenga wrote “Snakewoman” from two points of view: Sunny, a young woman who grew up in a snake-handling church and was recently released from prison and Jackson, a 40-year-old anthropologist. Hellenga chose two passages to read from, both of which were from Sunny’s point of view. The first passage started with chapter two, picking up with Sunny in prison for shooting her husband, Earl, the pastor of a snake-handling church in Little Egypt, Ill., because he forced her at gun-point to put her arm in a box of rattlesnakes. Sunny tells the story of how she came to think of herself as “Snakewoman” in prison from when the warden asked her to catch a big rattlesnake that was loose in the dining area. The second passage was about Sunny as a biology major, who, along with three other people from her university, had to translocate a new population of snakes.

As Hellenga read his passages, laughter would emit from the attentive audience, especially from the back of the room during a few humorous descriptions and use of the “sassy voice” characteristic of Sunny. Many questions during the question and answer portion of Friday’s Caxton Club had to do with snakes and snake-handling and how Hellenga researched for his novel. Hellenga replied that he did not actually handle snakes himself but did his research through reading and asking experts.

The Chicago Sun-Times, in its review of “Snakewoman,” said, “A wonderful observer with a sharp take on life in a university town, Hellenga plunks his key characters into revealing situations, crafting a clever symmetry from the anthropology common to both the Mbuti and the Church of the Burning Bush with Signs Following, the snake-handling congregation where Sunny and Earl clash in such a world-changing way.”

Below is an interview with Professor Hellenga.

How did it feel to read in front of people you knew, people you work with on Friday’s Caxton Club?

I love to read aloud. I read the ‘Lord of the Rings’ aloud three times. It’s not exactly a hostile audience.

How long from start to finish did it take to write “Snakewoman”?

I’m never sure of that because when I finish one novel, it’s usually a year before it’s published and I usually have something pretty underway by then so probably four years from the inception.

Why did you choose to write in two interchanging points of view, Sunny’s and Jackson’s?

I don’t really know except I’ve always done that in, not every novel, but in almost every novel. And I like to write from a young woman’s point of view, which is how I got started probably because I have three daughters. And so when I started writing that way, I didn’t give it a thought. And well, people say, “How can you write from a woman’s point of view?” I say, “Well, I’ve always lived in a house full of women.” And I like that voice, that kind of sassy voice. And I think it’s an exciting time for young women. I think their stories have not been written. So many things have been going on that it’s exciting to write about. And then I just seem to gravitate toward those two points of view, the third person narrator and then the young woman’s voice. And one’s more like me and one’s like my daughters, I suppose. Though, I wouldn’t want to say Sunny’s like my daughters. [laughs]
How is writing “Snakewoman” different than from any of the other novels you’ve written?

I always think it’s going to be easier in the beginning and then it turns out to be just as troublesome. I’ve always done a lot of research. I think in writing about a snake-handling church, I ventured farther from anything I’d actually experienced than I have in the earlier novels. I mean, I like to write about Italy but we’ve been to Italy a lot. We’ve lived in Italy but I haven’t handled any snakes.

Do you have any other works in progress?

I’m working on a non-fiction book on the nature of literary experience. My tentative title is “The Varieties of Literary Experience.”

Do you have one piece of advice you would give to young writers trying to be successful?

I think you want to be open to surprises every step of the way. I think even when you’re revising, I think you want to be open to the possibility of standing something on its head or making a significant change. It’s like people get an outline and feel they have to stick to the outline. It’s your outline. Just change your outline.

Sheena Leano

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