Idaho has spawned world-class skiers, prize-winning rodeo cowboys and inspirational characters as wildly diverse as Jeremiah Johnson and Napoleon Dynamite. That rugged Ernest Hemingway would wind up here in Idaho, with its fierce beauty and fly-fishing, makes perfect sense.
But what may be the best novel to come out of the state—ever—is not about grizzled fur trappers or good-hearted geeks. It is the 1980 novel Housekeeping, written by Idaho native Marilynne Robinson and recently named one of the best novels written in the U.S. in the past 25 years. Robinson left Idaho when she went east to college and she never really came back. But in France, while working on her dissertation, she began writing her first novel, placed in Idaho in the fictional town of Fingerbone, which many read as Sandpoint, the northern city by the lake where she grew up.
It is the moving story of two young girls being raised by a succession of adult relatives after their mother commits suicide. They wind up in the care of a clearly unstable aunt, a good-natured transient with tales of trains she’s ridden and a habit of collecting cans. As the girls grow up, outsiders in this small town, they start skipping school to explore and fish in the mountain lake that dominates their environment. While it is their playground, it is also a dark and terrible presence, having been the final resting place for too many people, including their mother.
That book earned Robinson great reviews and some prizes and was made into a film starring Christine Lahti in 1988. But fans of Robinson’s graceful writing would have to wait nearly 25 years for another book of fiction from her. In the meantime, she wrote two books of non-fiction, including Son of Adam, in which she discussed religious theory, praised John Calvin and the Puritans and revealed her own deep interest in faith. (She has been a deacon in her Congregational Church.) When at long last her second work of fiction, Gilead, was printed in 2004, it was almost universally praised. The story is about a third-generation preacher writing down his life story for the young son he will not live to see grow up. He ranges far and wide, from the joys of late love to the sometimes-curse of the food brought to his house by parishioners. But a central issue is the story of his own father’s conflict with his grandfather. The grandfather was an ardent abolitionist and his son a pacifist.
What is surprising is that Robinson manages to engage readers with the same lovely writing and compelling storytelling in what is essentially an inner dialogue of a religious man, surely a daunting task for any writer in this modern world. She also wanted to make the point, she has said, about taking a stand (against slavery, in this case) and sticking to it. And she succeeded magnificently, earning the Pulitzer Prize for her novel in 2005.
In 2006, the New York Times Book Review took a survey of current famous writers, asking them to name the best book of the last 25 years, and Housekeeping received multiple votes.
Since 1989, Robinson has lived in Iowa City, Iowa, teaching at the University of Iowa’s prestigious Writers’ Workshop. She has clearly found her niche there and can reportedly be seen walking her small dog and reading a book at the same time in her neighborhood. And while she has said she is incapable of small talk and is awkward in those situations, she returned to Sandpoint last May for “An Afternoon with Marilynne Robinson,” where she spoke, answered questions and signed books. For this article, she answered questions via e-mail from Iowa. >>>
Q) I’d like to ask you about Idaho and your connection to this state. You grew up in Sandpoint, in far northern Idaho, closer to Canada than Sun Valley. Your first novel, Housekeeping, is set in that glacial lake area. Your second novel is set in the Midwest where you have lived and taught for a longer portion of your life than you spent in Idaho. Are you done with Idaho in either a literary or real sense?
A) I was in Sandpoint for a few days last month. I was amazed, as I have always been, by how beautiful the landscape is._Except for some poems when I was a child, I have never written in Idaho. The writing about the lake and the woods I did in France, from memory, in a place as little like Sandpoint as could well be imagined. I think the landscape is a little overpowering to me, looked at directly. I really have no idea what my next obsession will be, and whether it will have reference to Idaho.
Q) Can you tell a bit about your childhood and youth…were you a superbright kid? Were your parents professionals? Did you always write? You have said you were always religious, even as a child.
A) I suppose I was super-bright, though not more so than others. I was not an academic star, particularly. My parents were not professionals. I always felt some enchantment with writing, mawkish little poems, mainly. Religion, religious thought or thinking, has always interested me deeply, for as long as I have had any acquaintance with it.
Q) Were you someone who wandered Idaho’s remote woods and forests or were you a city kid? Have you ever been to Sun Valley or environs?
A) I did some wandering. I have never been to Sun Valley.
Q) How did you happen to go from Idaho to Brown University? You said in a radio interview that you found people outside Idaho thought it was both remote and uninhabited. But even you say, in Housekeeping, that people who lived in the Idaho town where the story takes place were “chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Do you think that of Idaho?
A) I went to Brown because my brother was there already. He wanted to do academic work and also study painting, and Brown has joint programs with the Rhode Island School of Design. He liked it, so I thought I would, too.
Housekeeping is fiction, and should not be read to determine what I think about Idaho.
Q) Since your current book, Gilead, is about a family of ministers and issues of doing good and right, I wonder if_you are familiar with the strong religious current in Idaho today and the growth of fundamentalist churches? Do you see a similar growth of such groups in the Midwest? Do you have an opinion about this?
A) I am not aware of the religious environment in contemporary Idaho. I think “fundamentalist” is probably too broad a term to be useful. The media are so strongly attracted to the grotesque and the sensational that there is always the risk of being drawn into unkind and inaccurate generalizations about people of whom one in fact knows nothing. It does pain me that in this era of supposed religious awakening, social justice as an ideal—the old biblical concern for the fatherless and the stranger—has been so largely abandoned, and that Christianity is treated as a kind of tribal loyalty that thinks in adversarial terms and in terms of exclusion and rejection.
Q) In Housekeeping, two young girls suffer from very random mothering after their own mother kills herself. You, on the other hand, told one interviewer you suffered from being “regally mothered.” So that puts to rest the idea your first novel was autobiographical, but could you disclose what or who did inspire the amazing story?
A) The story inspired itself. A fiction has its own preoccupations, and a great part of writing is finding them and letting them take their own way.
Q) Did people really live with regular flooding in their homes in Sandpoint?
Q) And about mothering. You said you wrote at night and “played a sleepy version of myself” with your two sons during the day. How’d they turn out?
Q) You have said you live without a TV and you don’t drive, so does that mean you’ve been spared Paris Hilton, Brad and Jen, reality TV and even the Da Vinci Code furor?
A) I got the CDs of Da Vinci Code to listen to while I walked my dog. Furors interest me, often. Nothing was interesting about the book except that it inspired a furor. As for the rest, I have indeed spared myself all of them. There is a dime store quality to this mass-marketed stuff. I can live without it, very happily.
Q) You might be accused of living an ivory tower existence in one of the U.S.’s best writing programs in the bucolic Midwest. So how come you have attacked America’s materialism and frivolity? (The New York Times.) Have you been to a Wal-Mart or something?
A) I am not sure I accept that characterization of what I have done, whatever the Times might say about it. _You really have to stand in line to “attack America’s materialism and frivolity.” That is the great cliché, and it compounds every problem, in my opinion. I have studied and pondered American literature and history since college. It is my strongest interest after theology. I regret that so much that is best and most distinctive in American history and culture has been forgotten. It is true that I have a pleasant and interesting life. It is true also that I follow the news. >>>
Q) You won the Pulitzer for Gilead, so besides money, what does that mean to you?
A) I am honored.
Q) Then a year later, the Times runs a survey of famous writers asking them to name the best novel of the last 25 years and Housekeeping is named among the top books. That must be rather gratifying, particularly since you have said you don’t read current writers.
A) Yes, it was gratifying. I had read a number of those books.
Q) About Gilead, many reviewers say it makes you slow down to read and savor the words . . . yet most reviews make it seem daunting and, dare I say, boring, which it is not. Do you think because it’s about a family of ministers talking about being good that reviewers aren’t sure how to treat it?
A) The reviews have been seen as positive, and have promoted the sales of the book. I had no expectation that a book about a minister dying in Iowa in 1956 would be of great interest to reviewers, frankly. I think they have responded generously and perceptively.
Q) If you answered previously that you had in fact heard of the Da Vinci Code, tell me this: Did you read it? Do you think it’s possible Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children?
A) Though I have no reason to suppose that Jesus was married, it would have no great consequence for me if I were to learn that he was indeed married. Celibacy is not significant in my tradition as it is in some others. But I have read enough European history to be offended by the notion that Jesus’ progeny would have been European royalty, surely on average as unattractive a lot as the world has had to deal with. Sensationalist theories are commonplace now. I suppose packaging this one as a whodunnit accounts for the attention it has received.
Q) You might be interested to know that there are two Pulitzer winners that Idaho calls its own: you and Ernest Hemingway, who of course wasn’t actually from Idaho. And you might also be interested to know that your books are called for at The Community Library in Ketchum (a very fine library, I might add) at about the same rate as those from Vardis Fisher, who wrote an enormous number of Westerns (including one that inspired the popular film “Jeremiah Johnson”) and that he was a famous atheist. Do you find this ironic?
A) No, there is no irony in the fact that Idaho is home to every sort of belief and opinion. That is one of the things I remember most fondly about it, and one of the ways I feel indebted to it. And I am happy to have doubled the number of its Pulitzer Prizes.
Q) Hemingway was quoted as saying authors who have their books made into movies should stand far apart and throw the filmmakers the book while they throw the writer the cash. What was your experience with having Housekeeping made into a film? For my money, it was a little gem of a film, actually.
A) My experience was wonderful. Bill Forsythe, Christine Lahti and all the rest of the people involved in making the film did everything they could to be faithful to the book—everything that was consistent with making a good film. They could not have been more gracious, more serious about the quality of their work.
Q) You teach writing . . . another writer told Sun Valley Magazine that writing classes can teach the craft, but whether the writer writes is ultimately up to him, and that some people simply have more perseverance than others with equal talent. Do you find that to be true?
A) It is hard to gauge talent in the absence of accomplishment. I myself find persistence less to the point than impulse or inclination.
Q) You have said you have a hard time with small talk, so how do you handle all the interviews and, no doubt, book signings, and posing for photos, etc.?
A) Not especially well.
Q) On your school’s website there is a quote from you about how much you love teaching, and a story about how you earned a Strauss Living Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which gave you $250,000 so you could write without having to work. The school gave you a five-year leave of absence . . . but you came back after 18 months and gave the remaining money back to the Academy. What prompted that?
A) I missed teaching.
Q) When will you come back to Idaho?
A) Soon, I hope. My last visit was a great pleasure.