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Blues Lessons

A Novel
By Robert Hellenga

Reading Group Guide

    Blues Lessons: Discussion Points
    1. For Martin, growing up with Cory in Appleton, Michigan, was truly paradise. What parallels can be drawn between Martin's life in the orchard and the biblical Garden of Eden? Why is he, like Adam, ultimately expelled from the garden?
    2. Vocation is an important theme in Blues Lessons. What is Martin's vocation and how does he struggle to find it? Do you think everyone has a vocation? Do you agree with Reverend Taylor's belief that God has a plan for each person, but that it's up to us to choose to follow that path? Or are we more or less at the mercy of dumb luck?
    3. The work of Ayn Rand makes a big impression on Martin in high school. After seeing the movie, his mother deftly sums up the main theme of The Fountainhead: "You have to live for yourself, heroically, if you want to achieve something for mankind" (page 30). In what ways could Martin be said to succeed -- or fail -- at living for himself, heroically? How about Cory?
    4. Why do you think Martin chose to enlist in the navy and then take a job with the RPO instead of studying at the University of Chicago, as he intended? How do you make sense of his decision, and how do you feel about it?
    5. Where did Martin's passion for the blues originate? With what does he connect its sound and its power to move him? The blues is sometimes identified with feelings of disappointment and longing. In fact, as a teenager Martin claims that he's come to regard longing as "the central experience in my life" (page 33). How does this feeling of longing continue to characterize Martin even as an adult? Does his relationship with the blues change and grow over time?
    6. Do you agree with Cory's initial criticism that it's inappropriate for Martin to claim the blues as his vocation? Can the blues be played only by a certain kind of person? Has Martin -- a young, white, middle-class guy -- earned the right to play the blues?
    7. Blues Lessons unfolds over the course of the turbulent sixties and seventies, alongside the civil rights movement. How does that time period shape the events of this novel? In what ways does Cory's life path exemplify the changing role of African-Americans in society at that time?
    8. Ultimately, do you think it's simply race that separates Cory and Martin? Had their parents allowed them to stay together, what do you think their relationship might have been like?
    9. After learning about his daughter, Cozy, for the first time, Martin thinks, "sometimes finding something can be as painful as losing it" (page 156). What does he mean?
    10. The nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty" appears several times in Blues Lessons, and at one point, Martin tells Cory, "Sometimes you can put things back together" (page 249). Do you think they could ever go back to the ways things were, making a whole from the broken pieces? What kind of future do you envision Martin, Cory, and their daughter will be able to create together?
    11. Climbing the water tower was a profound experience for both Martin and Cory, but for completely different reasons. What did the event mean for each of them, and why did they see it through such different eyes? What does it mean for Martin to climb the tower again as an adult, this time with his daughter? What effect do you think the experience will have on Cozy?
    12. Martin's mother prepares a special dinner for herself and her son in which she re-creates "Babette's Feast. " What is she hoping to evoke or affirm with this meaningful evening? Why is her trip to Paris important to her, and what does it mean that she never gets to make the journey?
    13. Martin and Cory's parents conspired to do what they thought was best for their children. Did they succeed in helping Martin and Cory achieve the brightest possible future? What kind of regrets -- if any -- do you think they had about their decision? What would you have done in their shoes?
    14. As the orchard foreman, Cory's father, Cap, sometimes experimented with apple trees, grafting various kinds of branches onto a young tree. The result was a tree that grew several different types of apples at once. How does this image resonate within this story?
    Q&A with Robert Hellenga
    1. Reading Blues Lessons, it seems clear that you're a passionate fan of the blues yourself. Can you explain what role the blues plays in your life? You write about playing the blues in considerable technical detail. Do you play the guitar, or is this topic just especially well researched?
    In a way, the blues are the sonnets of the musical world. There's a pretty tight format on the one hand, and room for variations on the other. But I'd trace my emotional involvement to the great themes and images of parting: men and women standing in railway stations as their lovers are carried away; or leaving their lovers behind; or men and women saying good-bye to someone setting out on the highway, or setting out on the highway themselves. My working title for Blues Lessons, in fact, was "Key to the Highway," but we changed it because that sounds too much like a road novel.
    I've devoted a lot of time and energy to the blues since I took up the guitar in 1975. I play out occasionally, but mostly I play at home, where I do some recording on an eight-track digital recorder. I've learned mostly from books, which is how I learn most things.
    2. The main character in your previous novel, The Fall of a Sparrow, is also very drawn to the blues. In fact, the song "Corinna, Corinna" even makes an appearance in that book. Was this the inspiration for Blues Lessons? How did the ideas in this novel take shape?
    Rudy, Margot's father in The Sixteen Pleasures, is also a blues player, though he doesn't get much playing time in the novel. Woody in Fall of a Sparrow gets a lot more playing time, so I guess you could say that from the very beginning I was moving in the direction of a full-time bluesman/protagonist.
    The novel didn't really take shape, however, until I hit upon the illegitimate daughter, Cozy. I'd vowed that in the novel no one would go to Italy, and that there wouldn't be a father with three daughters. No one goes to Italy, but I couldn't go without a daughter to move the story along.
    3. Your novels are generously peppered with references to other works of art -- books, songs, poems, paintings, etc. How important is the role of art and literature in your life? And how do you think that's expressed in your novels? Literature has always played a very important role in my life. My grandmother read the King Arthur stories to me when I was little; my mother read Dickens to me; and I read to my three daughters every night for years. And of course I read on my own. That's what I do. Art and music are more difficult. I feel that I understand literature. I don't have to ask myself, do I like this story or this novel? I do not understand art and music, however, probably because they're nonverbal. I don't know how to deal with them. But in a way that's an advantage: they are mysteries that I don't understand, and so I keep pecking away at them, trying to get a foothold.
    4. What works of art and what other writers have inspired you and shaped your journey as a novelist?
    My favorite novel is Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. I always have a copy nearby. I especially like the forward momentum of the novel. There's an urgency in the narrative voice, something that says, this story is so important that I don't need to fool around with narrative tricks or verbal fireworks. Let me just set things down as clearly as possible.
    Three contemporary novels that I return to very often are: Gail Godwin's Finishing School and Father Melancholy's Daughter; and Sue Miller's Family Pictures.
    5. Do you see your books as related? Are there themes that you explore from book to book, with pieces of each novel echoing one another? Are there also motifs that you find recur even unconsciously in your works?
    Yes, and I'm not terribly happy about it, but I don't seem to have any choice. The largest most consistent theme is transcendence vs. immanence. I can't get away from it. All my characters are torn between the desire to affirm that this world is enough and the sense that there's some spiritual realm that calls us away from this world.
    There are smaller things, too, about which I don't seem to have any choice. The blues, for one thing. In the novel I'm working on now the impulse to make the protagonist a blues player is hard to resist. And it's hard not to give him a really good fountain pen, too. All my protagonists have a really good fountain pen, and in fact my picture appeared on the cover of Pen World magazine in an article about writers who write with a fountain pen.
    6. The Sixteen Pleasures and The Fall of a Sparrow were set at least partly in Italy. What draws you to Italy? And what brought you back to the United States -- and to Michigan, the state where you grew up -- for this book? Will you be returning to Italy in a future work?
    My first taste of Italy came from the men (almost all Italians) who worked for my father on the produce market in Milwaukee (where we spent our summers). They represented a different world, a different set of values, from the small, Protestant town in Michigan where we lived the rest of the year. The Italians valued pleasure, sex, food, drink. Back in Michigan we admired restraint, self-discipline, keeping a lid on things. (Like Lake Woebegone. )
    7. The idea of vocation is a key theme in Blues Lessons. Do you consider writing fiction to be your vocation? Was discovering and accepting your vocation as difficult for you as it was for Martin?
    Writing fiction has definitely become my vocation. The importance of story is a key them in all three novels. Margot realizes that without our stories we don't know who we are; Woody believes that what we find at the core of all religions are stories; Martin and Corinna define themselves by their stories, which are, in a sense, two different versions of the same story.
    8. What's your favorite part of the writing experience? How do you manage to balance your writing with your teaching career? Do the two conflict with or nourish each other?
    My favorite part of the writing experience is revising. I think that insight, inspiration, creativity -- whatever you want to call it -- is more likely to strike in the fifth or sixth draft than in the first.
    If my classes are going well, then the teaching nourishes the writing. If they're not going so well, I tend to get preoccupied, and this makes writing more difficult. I taught full-time for thirty-three years, and now I'm shifting to writing full-time and doing a little teaching on the side.
    9. What can we look forward to reading after Blues Lessons?
    I'm working on a novel about Rudy Harrington, Margot's father in The Sixteen Pleasures, who goes to Texas to raise avocados and to meditate on the nature of reality. Right now it looks like a comic philosophical novel, but we'll see.
    Copyright © 2002 by Robert Hellenga

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