Interviewed by Josiah Neufeld
In 1980 Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, astonished the American literary world with its beautifully wrought prose, eccentric characters, and elemental images. The novel has come to be regarded as a classic in American literature. Although she continued to write non-fiction after Housekeeping, Robinson didn’t publish another novel for more than twenty years. Her second novel, Gilead, written as a series of meditative letters from a minister to his son, won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. Robinson has since written two more novels centred around characters first introduced in Gilead. Home was published in 2008, and LILA will be in bookstores later this year.
Robinson teaches writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop and has mentored writers such as Paul Harding (also a Pulitzer winner) and Justin Torres. U.S. president Barack Obama counts Gilead among his favourite novels. In 2013 he honoured Robinson with the National Humanities Medal.
Robinson is also known for non-fiction. She writes with elegance and authority about subjects such as nuclear pollution, theology, the history of western thought, and the roots of American liberalism. She has published three books of essays and Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, an excoriation of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in England.
I fell in love with Robinson’s contemplative prose several years ago while reading Gilead on a road trip across the American Midwest. Since then I’ve read everything of hers I can lay hands on. I was surprised and delighted when she agreed to answer the following questions by email.
How did you come to start writing?
I always liked books, and started writing poems when I was very young. Writing always seemed like something I would do, even when I was not doing it.
Housekeeping was published in 1980. More than 20 years later you wrote your second novel. Why such a long gap?
I had no fiction on my mind, really. I tried out a few things that did not engage me. I read and wrote non-fiction. I enjoyed those years. I didn’t think of them as preparation for anything, but they have served me well.
In the interval between Housekeeping and Gilead, you wrote Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution about the environmental and health dangers posed by radioactive contamination from the Sellafield nuclear plant. You’ve said if you could have written only one book in your life, that would be the one. Why?
I learned a great deal writing that book. It taught me a very thorough skepticism about virtually everything I had been taught or led to assume. It taught me the satisfactions of research, the amazing resources that can be found, and the need to think things through on one’s own. I regret that it has had no practical effect, and Sellafield and the “plutonium economy” have only continued to expand without meaningful challenge.
Do you go out looking for things to write about, or do the ideas find you?
Something comes to my mind that feels like the way into a novel. I can’t induce this. Neither can I explain it.
Do you write your first drafts on a screen or on paper?
I don’t really write drafts. I might rewrite a paragraph or scene while I am at work on it. I write from a voice in my head. If I lose this, however briefly, the fiction goes wrong. So I write carefully in the first instance, and do not revise. I use both pen and computer, as one or the other seems to be working better.
I love the generosity, the grace you extend to your characters in your fiction. Jack Boughton comes to mind. The Christianity I grew up with was preoccupied with drawing lines between who was in and who was out. When I first read Gilead, and later Home, I felt I was encountering the idea of a divine love that truly had no boundaries. Where does that generosity in your writing come from?
It comes precisely from the belief that God’s love is boundless, and that to see truly, humanly speaking, is to see anyone under the aspect of God’s love for her or him.
Each time I reread Gilead I’m struck by the way John Ames observes the sacred in ordinary things—water falling from a branch, grimy mechanics smoking, a child baptizing cats. How does one learn to observe beauty in the world and then write about it in a way that isn’t sentimental or trivial?
I suppose by believing that such things are indeed sacred, that, because we are precious to God individually, He fills all experience with sacred moments. Being itself is so remarkable that no part of it can be taken as ordinary or negligible. The very richness and constancy of it leads us to undervalue it.
In your essay “Imagination and Community” you describe reading fiction as “an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” Is that something you think about when you sit down to write?
Not really. I do try to enter into my characters, to be fair to them.
You’ve influenced many writers who have studied with you at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As a teacher of writing, what do you feel is the most important thing you can offer your students?
I think all of us try to encourage our students to find where their integrity as writers lies and to be faithful to it.
“Literature itself is the society thinking,” you’ve said. Is writing a discipline that allows you to think in a different way than you otherwise would?
There is no question that writing fiction is a special discipline of attention and reflection. I can’t really explain it beyond that.
Your newest novel, LILA, is coming out this year. Can you say anything about it without spoiling the surprise?
A summary of a novel is never fair to it. I think I will just wait until the novel can speak for itself.
Josiah Neufeld is a writer and journalist interested in telling stories of people who meet injustice with compassion, conviction and creativity. His journalism, essays and short fiction have been published in The Walrus, The Globe and Mail, Prairie Fire, Hazlitt, Geez Magazine and elsewhere. His work has been a shortlisted for a Western Magazine Award and the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. josiahneufeld.com