May 182018

How does the blues influence your writing style? How did the blues, or a particular musician or song, inspire the work you will present at Waterline?

My first two novels feature a family with three daughters, the father plays blues guitar, and someone goes to Italy. When I started writing my third novel, I told myself that there would not be a family with three daughters, that no one would go to Italy, and that no one would play blues guitar. No one goes to Italy. I got rid of the daughters, though an illegitimate daughter creeps into the story. But I couldn’t get along without the blues, which you can figure out from the title of the book—Blues Lessons

Why is that?

I think that it’s because for me the blues is the mother tongue, the American mother tongue. The language of the blues allows me to articulate something that’s central to my life as a person and as a writer. And it’s a mystery: How do three lousy chords and three of four basic patterns open a door to great riches in a little room? Like all great mysteries, you can’t explain it. You can only tell stories about it. Stories that begin like this:

“I got the key to the highway. I’m going away, Baby; cryin’ won’t make me stay. Come on in my kitchen, ’cause it’s goin’ to be rainin’ outdoors. Now she’s gone gone gone, and I don’t worry, ’cause I’m sittin’ on top of the world. I got me three wimmin and they live on the same old road. You know I’d rise from my grave, for some of your jelly. If I get lucky, and find my train fare home. Standin’ in the station, my suitcase in my hand. I told you you could go, and don’t come back here no more. I’m goin’ back home, wear out ninety-nine pair of shoes. Now it is a needin’ time. Ain’t had no lovin’ since you been gone. I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. I went down to the depot, that evening train done gone. I’m a stranger here, just blowed in your town. I’m a big fat mama, got the meat shakin’ on my bones. You made me love you, now your man done come. All my life I been a travelin’ man. If I had a listened to my second mind. When I had money, we lived on Easy Street. Winds on Lake Michigan, Lord, blow chilly and cold. Rise up dead man, and help me drive my row. When my bed get empty make me feel awful mean and blue.”


Robert Hellenga has published short stories from coast to coast, seven novels, and a collection of short stories. He is the father of three daughters, who have inspiried much of his fiction, and lives in Galesburg, Illinois, with his wife, Virginia, and a dog, Simone.

Read reviews of his book, Blues Lessons, in Acoustic Guitar Magazine and the LA Times.

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