Area author overcomes rejections, revisions

From the Daily Reveiw Atlas (Monmouth, IL):

Robert Hellenga, a former Knox College professor and Galesburg novelist, has written six books. Wednesday, he gave a reading of his most recent novel “‘The Snakewoman of Little Egypt,” at the Warren County Library.

Hellenga came up with the idea for the novel at the library. He was reading a book about snake handling when he began to envision the character of Sunny.

“I usually start with characters,” he said. “I have three daughters, so I really like to write about young women. A man with three daughters will never run out of stories.”

Sunny’s husband is a snake handler — a sect of Pentacostals that interpret the Bible literally. Snake handlers believe that if a just person handles a snake it won’t bite them, but unjust people will be punished. Sunny’s husband wants to see if Sunny is cheating on him, so he asks her to handle snakes. Sunny, who doesn’t share her husband’s enthusiasm for snake handling, instead shoots him.

When Hellenga begins writing a novel he is careful not to plan too much.

“I’m a big believer that you should just sit down and write and surprise yourself,” he said. “I think it should be open to surprises every step of the way. What is this all about? What do I really care about? I like to imagine that I’m letting the reader imagine certain things. A lot of that happens after writing.”