undefinedRobinson in 2005.

 

When Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, she was unknown in the literary world. But an early review in The New York Times ensured that the book would be noticed. “It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration,” wrote Anatole Broyard, with an enthusiasm and awe that was shared by many critics and readers. The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel. 

In the interval, Robinson devoted herself to writing nonfiction. Her essays and book reviews appeared in Harper’s and The New York Times Book Review, and in 1989 she published Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, a scathing examination of the environmental and public health dangers posed by the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in England—and the political and moral corruption that sustained it. In 1998, Robinson published a collection of her critical and theological writings, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, which featured reassessments of such figures as Charles Darwin, John Calvin, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Aside from a single short story—“Connie Bronson,” published in The Paris Review in 1986—it wasn’t until 2004 that she returned to fiction with the novel Gilead, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, Home, came out this fall.

In person, even when clad in her favorite writing attire—a pair of loose pants and a sweatshirt—Robinson carries herself with a regal elegance. While she is humble about her accomplishments and the acclaim they have brought her, the force of her intellect is apparent. In her nonfiction books, as well as in her recent novels, she passionately engages public policy as well as philosophical and theological scholarship. Her experience in academia—she wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II at the University of Washington—made her a devout reader of primary texts, which remain the touchstones of her thought and conversation. Such intellectual pursuits clearly delight her. Her extemporizing on, say, Karl Marx’s Capital is often punctuated with laughter and blithe phrases such as “Oh, goody!” When a question gave her pause during our interview, she’d often shrug and say, “Calvin again,” and then look away as if the sixteenth-century Frenchman were standing in the room waiting to give her advice. 

Robinson is a Christian whose faith is not easily reduced to generalities. Calvin’s thought has had a strong influence on her, and she depicts him in her essays as a misunderstood humanist, likening his “secularizing tendencies” to the “celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman.” 

Her novels could also be described as celebrations of the human—the characters that inhabit them are indelible creations. Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille, who are cared for by their eccentric Aunt Sylvie after their mother commits suicide. Robinson dwells on how each of the three is changed by their new life together. Gilead is an even more intimate exploration of personality: the book is given over to John Ames, a seventy-seven-year-old pastor who is writing an account of his life and his family history to leave to his young son after he dies. Home borrows characters from Gilead but centers on Ames’s friend Reverend Robert Boughton and his troubled son Jack. Robinson returned to the same territory as Gilead because, she said, “after I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters—I feel sort of bereaved.”

Gilead and Home are both set in Iowa, where Robinson has lived for nearly twenty years, teaching at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. For this interview, we met on six occasions over a five-month period. During that time, Iowa City seemed to experience every extreme of weather: two blizzards, frigid temperatures, hail, fog, spring rains, and severe thunderstorms. Shortly after our final meeting, the Iowa River reached record-setting flood levels. 

Robinson leads a relatively solitary life. She is divorced, and her two sons are grown with families of their own. Her intellectual and creative ambitions leave little time for socializing. “I have this sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself,” she said. But she also has both a cell phone and a BlackBerry and during our conversations the world would occasionally intrude to interrupt her stream of thought. At one point her BlackBerry beeped to tell her she had an e-mail, and she said it was from a former student. “Blurbs,” she said. “I owe the world blurbs.”

 

INTERVIEWER

Are there any unpublished Marilynne Robinson novels lying around that we don’t know about?

MARILYNNE ROBINSON

In college, I was in a novel-writing class and I started a novel, which I loathed and detested the minute I graduated. It was as if worms had popped out of it or something. It was set in the Middle West, where I had never been—a little midwestern town with a river running through it. Isn’t that odd? 

INTERVIEWER

What eventually drew you to Iowa City?

ROBINSON

The Workshop. I didn’t have any realistic conception of Iowa at all. I never expected to live in the Middle West because I had the same prejudices that other people have about the region. But when they invited me to teach here I thought it would be an interesting thing to do. So I came.

INTERVIEWER

Were you told that it would compromise your creative energies to teach creative writing?

ROBINSON

Yes, of course. But everything compromises your creative energies. Years ago I accepted a grant from the American Academy that was supposed to support me for five years without teaching. I lasted about a year and a half before I nearly went crazy. Teaching is a distraction and a burden, but it’s also an incredible stimulus. And a reprieve, in a way. When you’re trying to work on something and it’s not going anywhere, you can go to school and there’s a two-and-a-half-hour block of time in which you can accomplish something. 

INTERVIEWER

When you were little, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?

ROBINSON

Oh, a hermit? My brother told me I was going to be a poet. I had a good brother. He did a lot of good brotherly work. There we were in this tiny town in Idaho, and he was like Alexander dividing up the world: I’ll be the painter, you’ll be the poet.

INTERVIEWER

Is it true that Housekeeping started as a series of metaphors you wrote while you were getting your Ph.D. in English literature?

ROBINSON

When I went to college, I majored in American literature, which was unusual then. But it meant that I was broadly exposed to nineteenth-century American literature. I became interested in the way that American writers used metaphoric language, starting with Emerson. When I entered the Ph.D. program, I started writing these metaphors down just to get the feeling of writing in that voice. After I finished my dissertation, I read through the stack of metaphors and they cohered in a way that I hadn’t expected. I could see that I had created something that implied much more. So I started writing Housekeeping, and the characters became important for me. I told a friend of mine, a writer named John Clayton, that I had been working on this thing, and he asked to see it. The next thing I knew, I got a letter from his agent saying that she would be happy to represent it. 

INTERVIEWER

Were you surprised?

ROBINSON

I was, but these things always came with little caveats. She said, I’ll be happy to represent it but it could be difficult to place. She gave it to an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who wrote to me and said, We’d be very happy to publish it but it probably won’t be reviewed.

INTERVIEWER

But then it was.

ROBINSON

Anatole Broyard—God love him—reviewed it early because he thought no one would review it and he wanted to make sure it got attention.