When Robert Hellenga was on his second trip to Italy in 1989, he got an encouraging letter from his agent: a publishing deal for his debut novel “The Sixteen Pleasures” was expected by the time he returned stateside.
But for the next five years, he was met with nothing but rejection.
Hellenga recalls some generalities from the marketing suits at 39 publishers — all of whom turned down the chance to print his first novel.
“It won’t sell enough.”
“Nobody would be happy.”
“It’s a quiet novel.”
But Hellenga, then in his third decade as a professor of classical and Renaissance literature at Knox College, had no intention of giving up creative writing. By that time, he was already hooked.
Finally, in 1994, a small New York publishing company — Soho — picked up “The Sixteen Pleasures.” And soon thereafter, the tale of a 29-year-old book conservationist named Margot, who discovers in a Florentine convent the only known copy of a rare, Renaissance-era pornographic work, was launched to national bestseller status.
Two decades later, as the novel still sits on bookstore shelves and first editions are considered rare books, Hellenga keeps on writing. Though he no longer teaches at Knox, he has been met with widespread success since “Sixteen Pleasures” was first published. A 20th anniversary release of the debut book is in the works and Hellenga has 2010’s critically-acclaimed “Snakewoman of Little Egypt” under his belt, with a seventh novel set for release this July.
“Snakewoman” generated plenty of buzz at Knox in 2010, especially after it made the Washington Post’s list of top 25 novels that year. Succinctly put by the Post tagline, it’s the story of “a darling anthropologist (who meets) a lady convict who shot her snake-handling husband.”
There are “three reasons to love Hellenga,” according to a Kirkus review. “He’s a fine storyteller; he gives us new eyes; he restores our sense of wonder. Attention must be paid.”
Hellenga is now a professor emeritus for distinguished service to the college, a largely honorary title recognizing his accomplishments as a professor. He is also Knox’s writer-in-residence, and it shows. In all, the college archives hold about five large cartons of notes, composition books and manuscripts with his name on them.
But Hellenga never imagined himself a fiction writer before Knox.
“I just thought we already had enough good fiction, and I didn’t really feel the need to produce any more,” Hellenga said. He started at Knox in 1968 while finishing his Ph.D. in English at Princeton University, at a time when Knox’s creative writing program, spearheaded by Professor of English Robin Metz, was taking off.
“Everyone seemed to make a fuss over students’ stories, so I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that and people would make a fuss over me.’”
So Hellenga started small. He sat in on Metz’s creative writing courses. He got a couple of short stories published. That turned into a $5,000 grant from the Illinois Arts Council. And after a few applications, he was appointed director of the Associated Colleges of the Midwest program in Florence in 1982 and 1983.
“That was a life-changing experience,” Hellenga said. He moved to Florence with his wife, Virginia, and their three daughters. He took intensive Italian language courses and has returned periodically. “In a way, that became my material.”
And in that way, every part of Hellenga’s life becomes his material. Most of his novels have some connection to Italy. In “The Sixteen Pleasures,” Margot, the book conservationist, is modeled after one of Hellenga’s daughters. Margot used to work at the Newberry Library in Chicago, where Hellenga directed the ACM program earlier in his Knox tenure.
Metz sees plenty of Knox in Hellenga’s work. “I think there’s value in that a lot of the work has been roughly about the Knox community,” Metz said. “I’m a firm believer in writers drawing out of their own experience.”
Every novel reflects Hellenga’s love of music.
“It’s hard for me to imagine a character who doesn’t play the guitar,” said Hellenga, himself a seasoned blues guitarist. “When I move toward things that feel like an emotional center, I keep coming back to the same things, like the blues. Country blues is so important to me. It’s just hard not to include it.”
Hellenga sees danger in repetition, though, and he’s trying to “branch out.” Though he has moved away from writing the guitar into his novels, instruments still play a pivotal role: the Snakewoman plays the harmonica, and the protagonist in the forthcoming “Confessions of Frances Godwin” plays the piano.
This is not to say that every aspect of his novels has a personal connection. For instance, “The Sixteen Pleasures” revolves around a rare work of Renaissance-era pornography, which includes 16 sexually explicit engravings accompanied by the pornographic sonnets of Pietro Aretino, an Italian Renaissance writer. (For obvious reasons, most copies were destroyed by the Catholic Church.)
“I didn’t find the drawings very appealing, and I thought the poems were mostly disgusting,” Hellenga said. “But in my novel, Margot finds it pretty mind-blowing.”
Still, Hellenga’s tendency to write his own experiences into his novels stems from his ideas about what literature should be. For him, literature is about the reading experience, not the act of interpretation.
“I don’t mean you shouldn’t ask interpretive questions, but I don’t re-read Anna Karenina because I forgot what it meant. It’s a certain kind of experience,” Hellenga said, hearkening to a passage in “Sixteen Pleasures.”
“He doesn’t believe in talking too much about art, especially while you’re looking at it,” Hellenga writes in the debut novel, through the voice of Margot. “The pressure to appreciate is the great enemy of actual enjoyment. Most people don’t know what they like because they feel obligated to like so many different things. They feel they’re supposed to be overwhelmed, so instead of looking, they spend their time thinking up something to say, something intelligent, or at least clever.”
As Knox’s distinguished writer-in-residence, Hellenga writes from his own residence, a spacious Seminary Street apartment above Chez Willy’s. There, he lives with his wife, now a retired Latin professor at Monmouth College and part-time substitute teacher for Galesburg schools.
The open living area in the apartment includes the kitchen, creating a space for lively visits from his daughters and their families, who are now scattered throughout Illinois. Bookshelves occupy the space that might otherwise be occupied by a television. Simone, Hellenga’s aging black lab, is never far from his side.
Though he has seen major success as a writer, Hellenga misses the daily life of teaching at Knox. Hearing issues have kept him out of the classroom in recent years. Still, he offers one big piece of advice to Knox’s aspiring writers.
“Be open to surprises at every step of the way, even in revising,” Hellenga said. “Don’t think everything is set. Let something percolate up from the subconscious and take you by surprise.”
“I think you need to surprise yourself if you want to surprise the reader.”
I asked Hellenga if he imagines a point at which he would stop writing.
“Been thinking about it, actually,” Hellenga said. “I worry about repeating myself, but now I’ve reached a turning point in a new project. So I’m eager to get up in the morning and keep working on it.”
“There’s still a lot of room to discover things.”