I sat down on behalf of Little Village to catch up with Marilynne Robinson in her office at the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, in advance of her upcoming talk at the Englert Theater on Wednesday, Oct. 24. The acclaimed novelist, essayist and professor has received more awards, fellowships and prestigious visiting lectureships than can be tallied here, including a Pulitzer Prize and an Orange Prize for her fiction. She is the author of the award-winning novels Housekeeping, Gilead and Home, and of several best-selling collections of essays. Her most recent work of non-fiction, When I Was a Child I Read Books, was published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux earlier this year.
Though Robinson most often works at home, she can occasionally be spotted out and about enjoying a relaxed constitutional, or making her way to or from the university, always with her characteristic poise. Everything about her behavior conveys tranquility—a profound sense of peace with herself and her surroundings. What’s most striking about Robinson, though, is the vibrancy of her mind. She pauses only briefly for my queries, replying with the assurance of one who’s already spent years considering them.
How do you feel about living in Iowa City?
From the time I was first invited to teach here I felt very at home. Aside from the fact that the people in the workshop themselves are so interesting and cordial, all of them seem so devoted to the place. The longer I stayed and the more I developed connections and studied the history of Iowa the more I bonded with it. I enjoy going other places, but coming here always feels like coming home.
What are you working on now?
I have a novel that is probably four-fifths done, assuming I write the same length novel as I have done. I haven’t worked on it in the last couple weeks, which makes me unhappy, but at the same time sometimes you just have to stop and think.
You teach classes on Moby Dick. Why that book?
Because it is the most spectacular exploration of the metaphorical acts of consciousness—the hypothetical constructions of the world that consciousness creates and explores. I think that the most beautiful language is recruited to the purposes of the most beautiful thought, and Moby Dick is an exemplar of that, certainly in Western letters. Every time I read it I feel as if my mind is larger.
Are there flaws you perceive in the unusual construction—the cetology, the sections written in the form of a play, etc?
Well, I love the cetology chapters, which I think are meditations of a subtle and beautiful kind. I get uneasy with the quasi-Shakespearean passages, but it’s not perfect. With so much at stake, these kinds of bad joints you find in it from time to time are incredibly forgivable.
What do you believe to be the three greatest works of American fiction?
I’d have to think about that because my inclination is to say Moby Dick, As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. (Smiles.) Now I think Faulkner probably did not write two out of three of the greatest books, but he is very wonderful.
When did you know you were going to “be a writer.” Meaning: I know why I am here, I was put here for this, if you will.
(Laughs) I’m not sure that moment ever came….
You must know by now!
(Still laughing) Yes, by now I guess I’ve realized I do have a trade. I wanted to write, in the sense of having a physiological impulse to write, long before I knew there was any such thing as writing as a profession. I had that sort of feeling when I was a child writing bad little poems and so on. I wrote Housekeeping thinking it would not be publishable, and then it was actually very kindly received, and I suppose I could have taken that to mean that my career had been laid out for me as a novelist. But I really didn’t feel like writing fiction until I had a fuller conviction that what I was saying was really earned, in effect. And this was after I’d already gotten my Ph.D. I still had this feeling of being inadequately prepared to actually write. In the interval I wrote things that were studies of what I saw in the world, of background research, or of things that I was reading. For whatever reason, after two-and-a-half decades, I had a strong fictional idea and a very strong impulse to explore it.
Many find reading the Bible a daunting proposition, but you seem to take great pleasure in it. What do you find so compelling?
A lot of it is very beautiful simply as poetry or as a rich narrative found nowhere else in antiquity. Take the Book of Ruth, for example. Something that helps is that I read other ancient works, Babylonian mythology, Egyptian mythology, and so on. I read a lot on works that study the ancient near East. I have books that allow me to do word studies so I can find out etymologies of crucial words and things like that. So my reading of the Bible is supported by all sorts of lore that surrounds it, making it a much richer thing. Reading [the Bible] with these other kind sources to see how they are in conversation helps contextualize it. Without that you can’t possibly read it in terms of its richness as a text. I was attracted to it because when I was a child I heard the Bible read out loud often. A lot of it just has very beautiful language, to which I’m indebted, but I would make an argument that it’s sometimes misread because its actual formal structure is not perceived by critics. It tends to be taken down to little moments. I’ve actually written about 60 pages of interpretation that I hope to make into a longer work after I finish my novel.
Jack Boughton figures into two of your novels. Did the prodigal son idea have a particular resonance or need to be investigated, or was this mere coincidence since you were revisiting the same characters?
Except for the parable of the great judgment at the end of Mathew 25, the prodigal son is probably the most theologically embracing of all the parables. It addresses something that Jesus brings up all the time, that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter heaven before you do—this insistence that the people who are discounted and problematic from the point of view of the righteous are, in fact, dear to God. And in a way it’s an explanation of this relationship. People who try to be righteous I utterly admire. The world depends on them. But the people who for some reason or other are askant of this understanding of the world, who can’t embrace it and can’t make sense of it, I think they’re precious too. I’m Calvinist (laughs). Others say it of me so I say it about myself, though nobody else really says it about him or herself. Anyway, of the things that [Calvin] says, one that I find most striking is that when another person is presented to you or given to you—he uses that language—God is posing a question to you. And the question is, what does God want from this encounter at this moment? I think that’s a very rich way to look at human interaction. It takes the emphasis off the self. So “what do I want” is no longer the question. I think that does in fact affect the way I conceive of my characters. They do test each other. They pose questions to each other. Of course, the world is so constructed that there is no end to the questions. Every question blossoms into other questions. But in the moment you are understanding something about the nature of being in the act of encountering the question.
You’ve said you cannot put yourself on a schedule for writing since every time you’ve tried you disliked what you’ve produced. Does the ‘inspiration’ model work better for you?
Marilynne: The word inspiration is not one I’d necessarily choose. This is different from inspiration. Sometimes I realize that my mind has gone off somewhere—thankfully—usually to my characters. And it’s not something I can induce in myself. If [the characters] are very strongly in my mind it can go on for a month or six weeks. If I come to a stop, or something else intrudes, I have to wait until I feel that again. But I’ve always felt as if I, in the ordinary sense of the word, was attending on another self, an obsessive self. It has one thing or another in mind, and wants to do it (laughs). It’s not a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of thing, I’m perfectly happy to be associated with this other self. But it’s not from every state of mind that I can write fiction, and I can’t induce in myself the state of mind to write fiction. But I know it when I feel it.
When waiting for those moments, then, you just think, and read, and teach and…
…take naps (laughs).
You’ve spoken of the idea of God’s grace. How do you see this notion of grace fitting into your writing? For example, in Housekeeping Ruth’s grandmother creates bread that was tender and jam that was tart, demonstrating how she tries to surround her recently motherless children with a—what she perceives to be—a kind of grace.
Grace is something that can be talked about on any number of scales. There is the amazing verse in the Gospel of John, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” People have a way of treating that as if it were a formula for an exclusivist Christianity. For me the emphasis falls on the first part “For God so loved the world,” and I think one of the hardest exercises that we have is to believe that and see how it could be true. If you can, then you are sensitized to all the free-floating beauty there is, and all the graciousness and poignancy of human beings. I think that when you share with someone else a good thing, like tender bread or tart jam, in a way that’s an almost sacramental participation in the grace of God because these things exist and we can be articulate in their terms. And if you think of everybody that way, you can understand that people who might be disappointing if judged by normal standards, may also be very articulate in material, verbal, or other ways, in certain circumstances or toward certain people, and that this could be the real life—the gracious life that we tend not to see in each other.
How do you think God might see us, if you don’t mind anthropomorphizing in that way?
Well, [if I were to anthropomorphize] I do sort of like the idea of God’s consciousness as timeless. The way we experience ourselves or other people [chronologically] you might think: bright child, charming youth, disappointing adult, dreadful old person. (Laughs) In this sort of Beckettian fashion, after the world has stripped us of our charms, we must arrive at judgement. But if you think of God as knowing a human being altogether, then the most beautiful moments in that life are probably the salient ones, no matter where in the course of life they might have happened.
When asked in 2010 about the recent discovery of the Gospel according to Judas you quipped, “Well if he didn’t write one, somebody should.” Have you since read it?
I did read the Gospel of Judas and as I recall it’s very fragmentary and similar to most of the non-canonical texts of that sort. I think it would be very interesting if the early Christian imagination turned to Judas in that way, as though trying out [his Gospel] without applying for a place in the canon. I know that, in Coptic Christianity, Pilate is a saint. An East Indian Christian man was talking with a man [of the lowest caste] who said that without Judas, nothing could have happened. He was demonstrating loyalty to his status in Indian society, as if saying, “We’re necessary, without Judas there could be no Christianity.” And it bothers me that these old texts, when they are found, tend to be treated like things that are suppressed, when probably they were someone’s idea of an interesting question that didn’t circulate or reach far. The bible really doesn’t make much of Judas. When they talk about replacing him in the Book of Acts they are very oblique [as if to say], “Well, we’re missing a disciple at this point….” (Laughs) They demonstrate a lot of tact, considering. I think that’s interesting.
You’ve taught several classes on the Bible, not only at the Writers’ Workshop, but also at your local church. How do you approach the different audiences with the same material?
When I teach the Old Testament in church, it’s very much like what I teach here. Frankly I’m less at ease teaching the New Testament in this setting because more people are sensitive to different interpretations. When I’m teaching in my church, even though it’s open to the public, I can more or less assume that I’m elaborating on theological opinions that are shared there, rather than getting into any kind of controversial relationship about it. But in both cases I use various translations and other kinds of scholarly materials. One of the reasons I do that is because the Bible is the foundational text for a very great part of Western civilization. It is not a simple text. And it is vulnerable to being undervalued on the one hand, and abused on the other. What I hope to do is make people competent readers in their own right, so that it’s not so intimidating, not so closed to them, as it might be if you are not introduced to it as what it is—an ancient text with a long translation history.
What would you say to someone who wanted to write fiction who has never done it? What should they read?
I wouldn’t know what to say…. I’m interested in how the mind works, in consciousness, which precipitates what it will in the way of dreams, or in the way of something practical, such as how to build a machine. And in some people it precipitates a haunting sense of character that has to be externalized in some way. I think that how to go about writing fiction is a new question every time it is done. [There are two tiers, of course, or three, or ten.] And some people write basically imitative fiction, but there are how-to’s for doing that sort of thing. And sometimes people can use them to step toward something that is more interesting. I’ve been reading John Locke, Descartes, and Maimonides. They are pre-modern in the sense that they do not have our assumptions about what the mind is or about what a human personality is. They have what is for me a much fresher language about consciousness and perception. For me it stimulates fiction, because it’s about strategies of knowing, which is what it all depends on. When I encounter this situation or I encounter this person, how am I to understand or to respond? It’s all basically about consciousness.
What do you recommend to recover from a cold, a broken heart and a tough economic break? It need not be the same thing for all three.
(Laughs) Okay, that’s good. One thing about writing fiction, or even non-fiction in some cases, is that you can have a really bad experience and then you can say, ‘Oh, that’s what that feels like. I now have a bond of understanding with humankind that I did not have before. So that’s a broken heart, or that’s a bad economic turn.’ There’s a sort of transvaluation that goes on, a very healthy one I think, something related to wisdom, where you can actually step back and understand yourself as a human being. By the grace of misfortune, you can make something of it. As for a cold… hot lemonade.
Rumor has it you are a fan of HBO’s The Wire. Any other shows or guilty pleasures have you hooked these days?
(Laughs) Guilty pleasures… right. I watch old movies. I just found Bitter Rice, which is an Italian film, made just after the war. The reason I was so pleased to find it was because when I was little kid, very small, the film came out and my mother was desperate to see it because there was a lot of talk about this art film from Italy. It was considered very risqué at the time. She smuggled me into the theater and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone!’ So of course I remembered it in uncanny detail. And I can see why my mother thought I should perhaps not be in the theater—it’s a pretty dark film. But it was wonderful to watch. That’s what I have been doing lately. Finding films that I saw when I was a child or a teenager, and re-exploring the emotional experience or whatever it was that haunted the film, causing it to stay in my memory. It’s an interesting thing to do. It’s not like following a series but it has its own satisfactions.
I was hoping we could make a joke together.
(Smiles) Okay, let’s make a joke.
I’ll give you the intro. Jesus, Calvin and Buddha walk into a bar….
(Laughs) Calvin says, ‘How disappointing, this is a juice bar.’ Buddha says, ‘What’s wrong with a juice bar?’ Then Jesus says, ‘Just order water. I’ll take care of it.’
Andrés Carlstein is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the author of the motorcycle travel book Odyssey to Ushuaia. He currently lives in Iowa City.