Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Marilynne Robinson was born in 1947 by the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in Sandpoint, Idaho, a lake whose glacial waters spread 65 miles across the Idaho Panhandle, and whose memory runs so deep that when it rises off the water in the form of mists or smells, it seems to haunt the forests of its own shores and get into the bones of the people who live there.
Its presence is so beautifully unsettling that it’s no wonder, almost 20 years after Robinson left Idaho, the lake returned to her unexpectedly, “sharp as the breath of an animal,” and took over her consciousness when she began writing the first of her three award-winning novels: Housekeeping, followed by Gilead and Home.
Robinson’s language, so deeply infused with wonder, has won over countless readers, including President Obama, who named Gilead, the 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner, as his favorite novel.
Robinson leads a fairly solitary life in order to devote her time to her creative works. Divorced and the mother of two sons and one granddaughter, Robinson also writes theology, sometimes gives sermons and currently leads classes at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
Our interview for Sun Valley Magazine took place at her home in Iowa City on the first of October. When I thanked her at the doorway, she waved my thanks away. “Anything for Idaho,” she said.
SVM | Did you know from an early age that you would be a writer?
ROBINSON | You know, when I was a child, what I mainly thought was that I did not want to live a conventional life. I didn’t have any idea of what the alternatives were, but the idea of being continuously distracted by other people’s demands, even the kind that would come from a highly rewarded life, like being a doctor or a lawyer or something like that, the idea that somehow or other you were always at the beck and call of certain kinds of obligations, was something that I wanted to evade.
SVM | From very early on?
ROBINSON | Yes, exactly. I couldn’t have articulated it in those terms. I read a lot. I was a flashlight-under-the-covers sort of kid. I’ve always enjoyed having my mind to myself, and I’ve been very systematic in retrospect about preserving it. It comes down to controlling my own time, so that I can actually think a thought from the beginning to the end, or read what I feel I need to read in order to understand what I’m thinking about.
SVM | You told us once in class that one of the most important things we could do as writers was maintain a “mystified loyalty” to our own fascinations. Could you talk about this in terms of your own imagination?
ROBINSON | In my experience, the things that actually take root in your imagination are pretty arbitrary. I mean that among the millions of complexities that individuate any consciousness, one of the things that is true and also very mysterious is that you can see something a million other people have already seen, but for some reason it becomes luminous to you; it becomes something that, if you attend to it, it opens out. You find that if something has a certain sort of emotional coloration for you, usually very ambiguous, it has this sort of importance that you could not possibly gloss. You attend to it, and similar things begin to constellate around it, so to me this is the mind working. It does aesthetic things and then suddenly those things are charged with meaning beyond articulation in straightforward terms. And that is the sort of self-transcendence of the mind, in a way. Because it is not utilitarian, it is aesthetic, and it’s consciousness putting itself together in terms of the kind of meaning that we recognize when we read a good poem, or the “higher”—I think it’s fair to call it—the “higher” operations of consciousness.
SVM | What was the “tone” of your childhood in Idaho?
ROBINSON | To the extent that my mother found possible, my life had a suburban cast. But my grandparents lived on the homestead that my grandfather’s parents had established and they had a crazy old, wonderful white clapboard house and old hunting dogs and all that, and a woodshed, and a crazy old barn, and that really was a much stronger image for me in a certain way. I mean it was very distinctive. My great-grandparents seem to have been very powerful personalities, and my grandparents seemed to be the custodians of everything that my great- grandparents had done, so the furniture was the same. Well, you know, I went to that museum that they have in Sandpoint now, and it looked exactly like the interior of my grandmother’s kitchen, my grandmother’s parlor. And that was probably my strongest Idaho association, along with lady slippers and wild strawberries and huckleberries.
SVM | Do you have a certain loyalty to Idaho?
ROBINSON | I have to say, I feel I was well-served by Idaho. I went to a public high school and then I went to Brown and throve, and was completely at a level with any of my peers. I mean, I think that’s pretty wonderful because Coeur d’Alene High was not elaborately funded, shall we say. But I was taught very seriously and generously, and it gave me a good foundation.
SVM | Is there a sense of loneliness that comes with the life you’ve chosen?
ROBINSON | I don’t think there’s any question. I think that’s absolutely true. It’s an odd life. You really do have to concentrate profoundly on things that have no reality for anyone else until the deed is done, and I mean, I write relatively quickly—my books take me about a year and a half—but I mean people take 10 years writing a novel. And you think what that means in terms of shutting yourself away into an imagined world that really can’t mean much of anything to anybody until you’ve finished it. And then there’s that melancholy thing of having finished it, and realizing that a whole swatch of life is gone. But it’s true. You know, Chekhov wrote with all of his tubercular relatives around him and so on, and there are people who can do that, but I think for most it’s a matter of self-isolation, and it’s pretty severe by a lot of people’s standards.
SVM | What advice do you have for people like me, just beginning that sort of life?
ROBINSON | I’m a great believer in resignation, frankly. I mean, if you’re going to do anything of value probably, you are doing one thing at the cost of other things, and you just have to be realistic about it. I think people write because it’s a profound experience, that degree of concentration. It’s a privilege to have that deep of an experience of your own consciousness. There are other things that become difficult as a consequence, and it’s just that. It’s the cost of doing business. My idea, and I’m about to say something cliché and banal, but my idea of loneliness is having a superficial relationship with oneself, and therefore with other people.
SVM | Does writing make you happy?
ROBINSON | Well, you know, it depends. It’s emotionally complex. Sometimes I write something that I enjoy having conjured for my own purposes; sometimes there’s that sort of quantum fluctuation where you write something and you think “good,” and you look at it the next day and think “dreadful,” and you look at it the next day and you think “pretty good.” I have written passages that I felt had failed and depressed me. And then I find out later that they didn’t fail, and because of the intensity of the relationship between the writer and the work, there is this weather that goes on, these emotional storms, that really intervene between yourself and any objective sense of what you’ve done, so that when you’re happy you think “this might pass,” and when you’re depressed you think, “This will pass.” It’s not an easy life in that sense. It’s not a straightforward life.
SVM | Ok, what about the question of whether writing can be “taught.”
ROBINSON | Well, you know, the usual answer is, and I think the appropriate answer, is that a writing program is like any other art school in the sense that we try to recruit people who already show a gift, and then enhance the development of that gift. You can’t pick anybody off the street and make them into a ballerina, and you can’t pick anyone off the street and make them a writer, but if they, you know, if they have the basic capacity for either of these things, you can enhance their development along the lines of their own gifts, ideally.
SVM | Do you feel motherly toward your books? Which of them are you closest to?
ROBINSON | Well, that’s really hard to say. I do have this sort of maternal relationship with my books, and if I seem to prefer one, I feel guilty toward the others. I like them all.
Gilead: A novel
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004, 256 pages) won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and fully entrenched its author, Marilynne Robinson, as one of the greatest novelists of her generation.
Taking place in the fictional Iowa town of Gilead, the novel tells the story of how the elderly Reverend John Ames—who’s dying of a heart condition—attempts to write an account of his life, and what he remembers of his father and radical abolitionist grandfather, for his seven-year-old son, who will never really get to know his own dad.Covering several generations, the story tackles the challenges of the Civil War and the theological struggles of a man of the cloth who’s coming to the close of his life.
Housekeeping: A novel
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980, 212 pages) is Marilynne Robinson’s haunting and poetic story about three generations of Idaho women.
Winner of the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for best first novel, Housekeeping tells the story of how two orphaned girls, Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, are raised by an eccentric aunt in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho—an unveiled literary version of Sandpoint, Idaho.
The novel takes its name from the role housekeeping plays in the girls’ challenging lives, not only the actual domestic duty of cleaning one’s home, but also the idea of keeping and creating a spiritual home from which to handle the challenges and heartbreaks of life.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL LIFE, PART 2
More from Sun Valley Magazine’s interview with Idaho-bred novelist Marilynne Robinson
SVM | What is an example of a “constellation” or “self-transcendence” you talk about in your writing life?
ROBINSON | Well, the first thing that I was ever enthusiastically praised for by someone whose enthusiasm I took seriously was a description of Idaho that I wrote when I was a sophomore in college. And it was about being in the woods. It was about the feeling of it, the pulpiness of the ground, and it was just, you know, it wasn’t like a breakthrough or anything, other people have written about being in the woods, but there was something about the memory of it. And it was a childhood memory, that constellated certain kinds of language and even a tone of voice, that was seminal for the point of view of Housekeeping, which taught me to write, basically.
SVM | Do you go back to Idaho often?
ROBINSON | I don’t have anybody in the northern part of the state now. I go back time to time, but always to Boise, which is another world, except in Idaho terms.
SVM | Do students often come to you for advice about how to balance their non-fictional lives with their fictional ones?
ROBINSON | One thing that I think that’s certainly been my experience is that if you have certain areas that are outside fiction writing, that give you models of understanding, that give you a historical, conceptual structure, it helps. Even in ways that are very invisible in the fiction itself. One of the reasons I teach, and my seminars have always been important to me, is to help make people feel like they have a certain command of basic things. It’s one of the reasons that I teach the Bible as often as I do. Just that it’s almost typical that people hear about these things through their whole lives, and it’s like a conversation going on in another room, that in a certain sense excludes them, so they have no way of orienting themselves toward these things at all. I mean that contemporary writers ought to have some awareness of contemporary science. And in a certain sense it infantilizes people to feel that the major thinking is going on somewhere else among other people, and they have no idea what it is and so they’re moving their toy figures around. I really feel very strongly, and it’s true, in terms of writers that I’ve known, the broader their field of awareness, the more confident the writing. And frankly, writing that is not confident is not worth much. Writing that is self-protective is not worth much.
SVM | Do people come to you for theological advice?
ROBINSON | Sometimes people come to talk to me about those things, and I’m happy to talk with them about them, but it doesn’t happen so frequently. I think that I, in a certain sense, I have a sort of highly defined religious identity, and I write theology and so on, and it’s great, I love it, but I don’t want to bring anything sectarian into a secular environment like the University. I mean, religion is, it’s a funny thing, on the one hand you don’t want to talk about it as if it’s anything besides religion—I don’t want to talk about it as if it’s sociology or anthropology or something—but on the other hand, I don’t want to talk about it on its own terms without shaping it in terms of my own religion’s acculturation. Which, you know, in a diverse environment seems questionable. So I just feel as though, in this setting, tact is required. People complain about secularism. I think secularism is a wonderful thing. I think there should be these huge environments where everyone feels equally at home, and there are none of these historically unpleasant distinctions are being made. And on the one hand, I’m interested in religion, and I’m happy to respond when other people bring up the subject with me, but on the other hand I have sort of a religious commitment to secularism.
SVM | How would you describe yourself as a teacher?
ROBINSON | Great.
SVM | Was teaching something you’d always envisioned yourself doing?
ROBINSON | You know, I didn’t speak a word all the way through college. I probably, because you had to, I spoke a little in grad school, but never if I could avoid it, never. And I thought the last thing in the world that I would ever want to be was a classroom teacher. Then, at a certain point in my life, it as all I was qualified to do. And it’s like some other persona settles over you, who is happy doing what you thought you would never be happy doing. But under most circumstances, I still never speak. You know, I go to a political gathering or something and I sit quietly in the corner. It’s only when I’m specifically supposed to be the person speaking.
SVM | What things do you see your students doing in their stories now that excites or surprises you?
ROBINSON | I think that there has been a movement in the writing of the last few years to be more diverse than it has been through some of the time that I’ve been teaching. There was a certain style of writing that was very influential for a long time, associated with Raymond Carver—even though Raymond Carver was much more interesting than this little school that he seems to somehow accidentally inspire. But there was a sort of constriction of the imagination that was part of the aesthetic, and very boring, and not even honest in terms of the experience of the people who were writing that way. But now it seems to me as if there is a much broader range of things that people are interested in and attend to, and I think that is excellent.
SVM | Do you see yourself in the character Ruth (the narrator of Housekeeping)?
ROBINSON | I see myself in all my characters, although, it’s so hard to know because over time you get to know them so well, and even if they surprise you, after a while you get close to them in the way that they surprise.
SVM | How has having a family influenced your writing?
ROBINSON | The first thing I published was Housekeeping and my children were five and ten. I always knew that I wanted to have children. It is one of the great universal experiences, and I sort of wanted to know what it was, and it has been a great learning experience for me. I mean there is nothing like watching the consciousness become self-conscious and articulate and all the rest. From a novelists’ point of view, it’s as instructive as anything can be.
SVM | Who did you read growing up?
ROBINSON | I read people like Charles Dickens and so on, that are very highly distinctive writers. But it was still as if there were some great cosmic chute that books came down, and it didn’t matter basically who wrote them. I do remember one time when I was a little kid walking into a library and thinking, “I could do that,” that that books were within my capacity in some unusual way. But I didn’t have any professional sense of it, even when I was in college. If you haven’t published something, if you’re not in that world, it seems like there is a great chasm between present life and that sort of life, and so when I was writing Housekeeping I was pretty much sure I was writing a book that would never be published.
SVM | Do you write now for the same reasons you used to write?
ROBINSON | Well, you know, I think that as far as fiction goes, it’s probably about the same. Something gets on my mind, and for some reason or other—it seems like some little loose thread in the cosmos that you could pull on and something opens up. I think that’s kind of always how it felt to me. Where are these words going? Why do these words haunt me? And then— there you are.