Interview with Marilynne Robinson

October, 2014
Marilynne Robinson Fans of Marilynne Robinson's luminous debut, Housekeeping (1980), waited more than 20 years for her next novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (2004), the story of elderly Reverend John Ames, who is writing an account of his own life so that his young son will remember him after his death. His wife, and the mother of that child, is Lila, a younger woman with an unspoken past who appeared in their small town. The same characters and setting return in Home (2008)—which, much to the delight of Robinson's many fans, was published just four years later—though that book focuses primarily on the Boughton family during the same time period. The patriarch of the Boughton family is also a reverend and a good friend of Reverend Ames.

With Lila, out this month, Robinson returns to the town of Gilead, Iowa, and to the Ames family. It is seven years earlier, and each day Lila's belly grows with the child who will become the intended recipient of her husband's letters in Gilead. We finally learn about Lila's early life, in which she was the subject of a sort of mercy kidnapping by a woman, Doll, who acts as her mother and protector. The two of them lead a hard life of itinerant farm labor before Lila finds herself in Reverend Ames's church. At its core, Lila is about the development of a mind. Just because she is unschooled does not mean that she is unaware, unperceptive, unfeeling. The ways that Reverend Ames falls in love with her mind and soul, and she with his, is one of the many rewards of Lila.

We talked to Marilynne Robinson about the books that have influenced her, her speculations on the authors of the Bible, and writing what you know versus reading what you don't.


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Goodreads: Let's start off with a question from a Goodreads member! Emily asks: One of the most consistent and affecting currents of thought in your writing is your evident deep respect for the mystery in a person's encounter with themselves, others, and the world. 'We live on a little island of the articulable,' you write in the essay 'Imagination and Community.' And in Gilead so many of John Ames's most beautiful and profound statements are followed by some version of "…and I have no idea why that is." Gosh, this is so thoroughly a theological and an aesthetic statement both! I wonder: Would you say that this came to you first in one realm or the other, theology or art?

Marilynne Robinson: Strangely, perhaps, science has been a great contributor to the sense of wonder I also derive from theology and the study of an art. In the middle of the night last night, I remembered seeing a headline somewhere—water on the earth is older than the solar system. This seemed so beautiful to me that I thought I might have dreamed it. So of course I had to find it on the Internet. I was disappointed to see this gorgeous fact trivialized by talk of extraterrestrial life and by cranky debates about Genesis. What else to do but go downstairs in the dark and drink a glass of ice cold water?

GR: We met Lila in Gilead, which focused on her husband, the Reverend John Ames. When you were writing that book, did you have a sense that you would return to Lila's story? Did you already know about Lila's past?

MR: I didn't have any thought of returning to Lila. I'm still a little surprised to find that I have written what might, inexactly, be called sequels, let alone what might, inexactly, be called a trilogy. Characters enter my consciousness oddly complete. In this sense I knew about Lila's past.

GR: Lila's life before arriving in Gilead is one of itinerant labor and extreme poverty. She talks about the ways you guard against hope when your life is that hard. Meanwhile Reverend Ames is one of the loveliest men in literature—truly kind and wise. Can you talk a little bit about the ways that they need each other and their reasons for coming together? And about writing a relationship like this?

MR: John Ames's kindness is perfectly suited to Lila's pride and caution and weariness, and her seriousness, too. There is a way in which her destitution has made her purely soul, unaccommodated, as King Lear might say, though reduced not to animal but to essence. [Editor's note: In Shakespeare's King Lear, Act III, Scene IV, the titular character says: "Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art."] Ames can see this, and it puts him somewhat in awe of her. His love for her is of one substance with his piety. She can accept his love because of this rapt respect, this attentiveness to a soul her loneliness and hardship had always defended and concealed.

GR: I'm interested in the way that Lila gradually opens up to the Bible. Her first encounters are revival meetings that she and Doll pass when she is young and they are constantly on the road. Later she keeps up her writing skills by copying passages from the Bible, and she finds great satisfaction in the Old Testament god, who disapproves and reprimands even as the reverend tries to persuade her to read softer passages. It seems as if she wants to be recognized, like she wants God to address her past and to call it by true words. Can you talk about this need for people to be known and seen?

MR: It is very moving to Lila to find the painful and awesome and bizarre extremes of experience addressed in the Bible—the very elements of it that people more at ease in the world are offended by. She is struck by the fact that the sufferings of the poor and afflicted are so much its subject. Since she is an outsider, without the assumptions that Christians bring to the text, she reads it as she might any book that is available and of interest. At the same time, it marks the difference between herself and the world she has entered, and this intensifies her curiosity. So when she reads the passage in Ezekiel about the baby inexplicably cast out and by chance taken up by a passing stranger, she sees herself and her circumstance even further acknowledged. This is the parable of her own life.

It should be said that the books of the prophets ponder calamity, of which ancient Israel had its share. As monotheists, their writers must assume that God caused or permitted their suffering and that it therefore must have had an ethical meaning, usually God's chastening their abuse of the poor. But the insistence in Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all the great prophets is that God is faithful and loving, not finally judgmental. Read on from the passage that fascinates Lila and you will find that it is a parable of an endless readiness to forgive.

GR: Goodreads member Avi Steinberg asks: "Do you think about the author/s of the Bible, about who they were as people, what they were like, how they conceived of themselves as authors, and whether their literary process was, in some way, similar to that of a modern novelist?"

MR: I have wondered about this often. I think most writers are probably unremarkable "as people," that crowds passed Shakespeare on the street, taking no notice at all. No doubt millions of poets have come and gone whom no one noticed or remembered because they were unlettered or they died young and never knew themselves what gifts they might have had. Sometimes I think what a trove of brilliance has been lost to poverty and war. How it happened that certain ancients were the ones to write beautifully and passionately and at length I can't speculate. As great a miracle is that the culture against whom these denunciations were directed preserved them and venerated them. They are full of ethical direction, and they give assurances of God's loyalty and Israel's destiny. Still, they effectively exculpate Israel's enemies and place the onus of suffering on Israel itself. This is like nothing else in literature. If it seems to make God punitive (and be it remembered that he is punishing human cruelty), it also testifies to an extraordinary capacity for self-scrutiny, for honesty. Their audience is so extraordinary that the place in the culture of these writers must be assumed to be unique. Clearly their audience recognized great poetry.

GR: Goodreads member Alex Stroshine asks: "A question I've been interested in over the last little while is why so many Christian novelists write stories set in the past as opposed to the present (i.e. the 21st century). The extreme example would be Frederick Buechner's novels Godric and Brendan, but writers such as you, Leif Enger, and Alice McDermott set their narratives in the middle of the 20th century. What is special about that particular historical period? I would love to see a novelist of their caliber write a story set in a time that has to deal with all the complexities of what the Internet age has brought for our relationships and faith."

MR: I think of the mid-20th century as a period in which great, slumbering issues awoke and demanded thought and articulation. It is the moment before great change, full of tremors and stresses most people scarcely felt and could not interpret. We still struggle with all this—by my lights the great question for us is where it will end, what stability will look like. There are powerful pressures in society now to reverse change that came after the midcentury, to curtail civil rights of women and minorities, to relocalize government in ways meant to reverse national legislation that protects minorities, and so on. The Internet is small change, ephemeral in terms of our national history. We like to play with it. Our relationships are our responsibility, as they always have been and can only be, and our faiths the same.

GR: It seems that so much of your work is about the beauty of the natural world—both the very grand and the very ordinary. Just being in it, being witness to it. For Lila the wildness of the world calls to her. Is there anything in your personal history that makes you able to recognize this desire?

MR: Well, I did grow up in the mountains of Idaho. Wildness is seductive.

GR: In some ways your books take place in a world that must be deeply familiar to you—the characters share your part of the country, your faith, your race. As a teacher of writing, how important do you think it is for students to read work with varying viewpoints? And what are the challenges they face when they write from unfamiliar perspectives?

MR: I think reading from various perspectives is a great part of the value of reading itself. I encourage my students to value the perspectives they bring, to consult their sense of the beautiful and meaningful, which are often much inflected by culture and religion. If they want to write from perspectives unfamiliar to them, fine. But the essential thing is that they realize they do as individuals have a distinctive world view, the particular gift to their imaginations of history and experience, origins, and religion and culture. There is a kind of flatness, of uniformity, in much young writing that makes it read like news from a nonexistent civilization. My writers have the means to offer fresh testimony if they simply consider the difference between the world as they see it represented and the world as it feels to them.

GR: In past interviews you've talked about leading a somewhat solitary lifestyle because of a constant feeling of urgency, a sense that there are things that you want to get done. What are some of those things?

MR: Reading books and writing books, trying to get a better understanding of any number of things.

GR: Tell us about your writing process. Do you have any unusual habits? And does it differ when you're working on fiction versus nonfiction?

MR: I really don't have a process. I write when there is something on my mind or when I have committed to giving a lecture on something. I need quiet and solitude, coffee, not much else.


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GR: What books have influenced you the most?

MR: The Bible, Moby-Dick, and 19th-century American literature generally, the poetry of Wallace Stevens—there are so many.

GR: And what are you reading right now?"

MR: The Trial of Charles I, The Marian Exiles, both nonfiction. I'm very interested just now in the English Renaissance and Reformation and the English Civil War.


Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Diana (new)

Diana Thank you for the questions you asked that gave birth to a rich dialogue with an extraordinary human being. I'm so glad to be alive while she's writing. I'm especially thankful for her treatment of theology as deep, mysterious, and challenging. Please thank her for us.


message 2: by Peggy (new)

Peggy Dover I'm quite glad I took the time to look at the GR email this evening. Thank you, Ms. Robinson. I'm looking forward to reading Lila. I've enjoyed the others, even when they were difficult.


message 3: by Geoffrey (new)

Geoffrey Kamadi Wow! I have never read any of Ms. Robinson's books, but this interview alone makes me want to find those books and read them. Thank you so much!


message 4: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Levack My thoughts mirror Geoffrey. That's what's great about these news letters. Exposure to authors that you haven't read.


message 5: by Camille (new)

Camille Wonderful news--another book from Ms Robinson, my favorite living author. Current right-wing religious politics frighten me. The sane, calm and thoughtful voice of Ms Robinson in interviews, essays and through her characters is more than comfort, it is balm.


message 6: by April (new)

April Henderson Patricia wrote: "My thoughts mirror Geoffrey. That's what's great about these news letters. Exposure to authors that you haven't read."

I agree! :)


message 7: by Dale (new)

Dale I suggest that those who liked this interview that they also look into Robinson's great 2013 collection of essya, When I Was a Child I Read Books. It is much more than that title suggests and one of the most amazing books I have read in years.


message 8: by April (new)

April Henderson Thank you for that suggestion Dale :) . I know I'll check into that!


message 9: by Gail (new)

Gail Kearns I look forward to reading 'Lola'.. 'Home' is one of my favourites, especially the character of 'jack'. I have read it twice and could read it again.


message 10: by Gail (new)

Gail Kearns Please correct to''Lila'on my post!,


message 11: by Letty (new)

Letty Gray I am interested now in reading When I Was a Child I Read Books. I have read all her other work except Lila. So happy to know there are two other Robinson books to go on my wish list. My book club read Home and we had good discussion on that novel.


message 12: by Suzie (new)

Suzie Geoffrey wrote: "Wow! I have never read any of Ms. Robinson's books, but this interview alone makes me want to find those books and read them. Thank you so much!"

Read them! Housekeeping and Gilead, two of the most beautiful books I have ever read.


message 13: by Gail (new)

Gail Kearns I agree Suzie. I have read all her books and there is something luminescent about her writing which stays... utterly beautiful.


message 14: by Kathleen (new)

Kathleen Johnson Geoffrey wrote: "Wow! I have never read any of Ms. Robinson's books, but this interview alone makes me want to find those books and read them. Thank you so much!"

Home, Giliad and Housekeeping are the three of hers I have read, and reread and will probably read again!


message 15: by Sheree (new)

Sheree Turnock it was good


message 16: by Nirman (new)

Nirman Kendra This is a Good Tips Against Interview.
Plastic Moulders


message 17: by Awad (new)

Awad Bakr The old man and the sea


message 18: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Chipperfield Discovering and reading Gilead and Home were transformative for me. Lila is beside my bed, waiting for the perfect moment to start reading. As a Christian, I was delighted by the thread of Biblical faith; as a reader and writer I was charmed by the simplicity of Ms Robinson's prose. I'm grateful to have found these books, and so very glad to have experienced reading them.


message 19: by Sofyan (last edited Jul 13, 2015 05:08PM) (new)

Sofyan Thank you for the questions you asked that starts to a rich dialogue with an extraordinary warm. I'm so glad to be alive with her writing. I'm especially thankful for her treatment of theology as deep, mysterious, and challenging. Please thank her for us.


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