Interview and article by Jason Green.
Photo: Kelly Ruth Winter
Home is the focal point in each of Marilynne Robinson’s novels. In Housekeeping (1981), the old family home in Fingerbone provides refuge for the orphaned sisters Ruth and Lucille and their eccentric Aunt Sylvie, a space where their imaginations and creativity, their oddness and individuality, can flourish. Outside the home, the wilderness that surrounds the town, with its seductive lake and sheltering forests, provides Ruth and Lucille with further space apart from the confining routines of the town to roam and wander and explore—requisites for the inner transformation their adolescent souls long to fulfill.
In Gilead (2004), named after the fictional Iowa town of the setting, the preacher John Ames’s house is his life’s sanctuary and true church, the place where, through writing a lifetime of sermons, the drama of his inner life has been carried out. It is the place that harbored his dark years of loneliness and the place where, in old age, he discovers the joys of family love and devotion. The sanctuary of the house in Gilead’s companion novel, Home (2008), is unsettled with the Prodigal Son Jack’s return: the home becomes the theater of spiritual struggle between Jack, his younger sister, Glory, and their frail, dying father Robert Boughton. While the first novel focuses on Ames’s house and the second on Boughton’s, the action in each depends on both homes. The dual homes are the twin poles between which the characters—and the imagination itself—moves. They are binaries of concentrated human interaction each deeply implicated in the other: Ames, as Jack’s godfather and namesake, must confront the Prodigal Son in the course of his own spiritual battle, and Jack’s quest for atonement and reconciliation leads him to Ames’s home for guidance.
The prominence of the physical house in the action of all three novels creates an aura of solitude that enhances the deep inwardness of the characters. The real home in Robinson’s novels can be found here, in the discovery of an enduring spiritual truth in the course of daily life. This truth hovers on the surface of our experience but it often takes devoted efforts of memory or imagination to reveal it. During the long letter to his young son that comprises the form of Gilead, John Ames writes, “Sometimes the visionary aspect of any particular day comes to you in the memory of it, or it opens to you over time. [. . .] I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect (91).” Begun in order to record what, as a result of his failing heart, he will never be able to say in person, Ames’s letter comes to record, beyond this, his efforts to return to the spiritual center of life in his life’s final days, to salvage visions from long ago as much as from the quickly vanishing present. Ruth’s return, in Housekeeping, to her ancestral house in Fingerbone; Glory and Jack’s return, in the two Iowa novels, to their childhood home in Gilead: each is a figure of the same search for the enduring home at the center of experience.
Pulse: All of your novels are set in small remote towns. Characters make excursions beyond these towns, but the center of the drama and the majority of the actions take place within a narrow circumference of imaginative space. How important was the choice of setting for you?
Robinson: The town in Housekeeping is in the Far West, just west of the Rockies. Though the novel is not autobiographical, the town is modeled, in terms of topography, on the town where I was born. I chose that terrain, that sense of a thinly populated place in a great wilderness, because it was something I knew well, something outside the world that seemed to me to be conventionally represented in fiction at the time I wrote the book. The choice of setting was very liberating for me because I felt that I was eluding convention. No one had written about the place before. I had it all to myself.
There’s a tradition of American writers firmly rooted in a specific place, finding sustenance throughout their careers in their own little patch of the country, discovering in the narrow and limited environments of their experience stories that acquire universal appeal and significance. Do you think of yourself as a regional writer?
This is such a big country–I suppose the opposite of a „specific place“ would be New York or Los Angeles? Both notoriously specific places, of course. By comparison with European countries, whose economic, political and cultural centers are also their major population centers, the life of the United States is centered around a considerable number of regional capitals, no one of them so definitively American as to seem un“specific“–as Paris or London might seem definitively French or British, and therefore not regional despite their particular histories, populations, accents, etc. It is hard for me to imagine writing about anything except a limited environment, no matter where a fiction is set. This is a long way of saying that all writing is regional, and that this is not different in America, simply more apparent because of a broadly dispersed cultural life. In more specific response to your question, the regions invoked in Housekeeping and then the two Gilead novels are very different from each other historically, culturally, demographically. Though I love Iowa, I am not really a Midwesterner–instead a student and observer of the place. In theory I could choose yet another region to write about.
Memory plays a powerful, creative role in your novels: collective regional or family memory as much as personal, private memory. Do you think of writing as a kind of remembering? What role does memory play for you during the writing process?
A discipline of mine when I am writing is to try to remember what things are like–the idiom refers to the fact that experience is conveyed through simile, metaphor. This is true of memories of dreams and emotions as well as of places and objects. It is more useful to me to recall things than to see or feel them directly. My memory is a better judge of what is essential about them.
In each of your novels the action revolves around characters who transgress traditional boundaries of ordinary living. What is the attraction of the outcast for the literary imagination? The one who transgresses?
People who seem to define themselves, even by reacting against the definitions offered to them by family and culture, allow another look at what a person is essentially. Goods and attainments whose value is clear and socially established obscure individuality. This is no criticism of civil life, which I think I admire more than most people do. It is just an acknowledgment that there is an outcast in anyone, perhaps the element that is otherwise known as the soul.
It seems novels are often built out of the materials of story traditions—for example, religious, historical, literary, or folkloric traditions. While dependent on traditions and shaped by influence, the nature of a novel is to tell a story that’s never been told in a style that’s wholly unique and original. Can you comment on these conflicting pressures for yourself as a novelist as they are played out in your work, for instance in the way the prodigal son narrative was instrumental in the creation of Jack?
In fact, the stories, here the Prodigal Son, emerge for me within my fiction, rather than my choosing to base a fiction on them. Of course I become aware of this as it happens, and my thinking is influenced by this more primary narrative I find in conversation with the one I’m writing. In this quite natural sense the fiction becomes a meditation on a story that is rooted in my imagination. One hears often about the influence of the Bible on literature, and I think it has been strong and persisting because in the churches these stories are told and reflected on so often over the course of years that they become an intrinsic part of one’s thought.
Gilead and Home explore the ways history affects small towns and the private lives of individuals. The theme appears in various guises in your characters, from the trauma of the Civil War on John Ames’s grandfather to how Civil Rights turmoil broadcast on the television—drama that seems to be happening far away—has direct bearing on Jack Boughton’s secret marriage with a black woman. What role did researching history play in your conception of these novels?
History really had everything to do with them. When I came to Iowa, never having lived in the Middle West, I started reading the history of the place, just to be able to feel located there. I found that it had a wonderful early history, very important to the country as a whole, especially for its part in the movement to abolish slavery. I did the history for its own sake, but when the figure of John Ames came to my mind all the history settled around him and set him on that landscape. The town of Gilead is based on Tabor, Iowa, in the southwest corner of the state, hundreds of miles from where I live. I spent about two hours there one day to see what the river and woods and the hills looked like–it was once a famous settlement, and I knew about it from old books.
An Emerson line that appears in various forms throughout his writing is expressed this way in Representative Men: “[T]he experience of poetic creativeness [. . .] is not found in staying at home, nor yet in traveling, but in transitions from one to the other.” Your novels are shaped around such moments of departure and arrival. How have moments of transition oriented or energized your work?
I wrote Housekeeping in Seattle, France and Massachusetts–at a great distance in every case from the place where the book is set. I wrote Gilead and Home still aware that Iowa was an adopted home for me. I have always felt at a remove from the place where I lived. Although I was born in Sandpoint, Idaho I spent my childhood in other towns and came there to visit my grandparents for summers and holidays. It was home to my family, not really to me, though their feelings about it and the stories I heard made it seem to epitomize home. So I have reasons for my own interest in arriving and leaving, for being at a remove. I know other writers also deal with these things, so I suppose it is in some way a universal human experience that I understand in terms particular to myself.
In Gilead, Ames tells a story about a horse’s head sticking up out of the center of a dirt road. In Housekeeping, Ruth and Lucille shake old books by the spine sending flowers raining down to the floor. Your novels are full of extraordinary and peculiar imagery such as this. What’s the relationship between strangeness and beauty? Between eccentricity and the literary imagination?
Poe has an excellent essay on the relationship of the strange to the beautiful. I accept the fact of their privileged relationship though I am not sure I can explain it. I think it may be that the strange requires a freshness of attention. Too much of the conventionally beautiful disappears in a haze of familiarity. William James has an essay that begins, imagine a newborn mind. Imagine that all this mind can perceive is the flame of a candle. The idea of perception without context or interpretation makes a sense of the beauty of perception itself come flooding back–the strange draws on other resources than beauty alone can do. It makes the mind singular and active.
Do you agree with Joseph Conrad’s view that the writer’s task is get the reader to hear, to feel, but above all, to see? Is the visual sense paramount in your pursuits as a writer?
Yes, I agree. Even when I am teaching nonfiction (this summer I gave a seminar for practicing theologians, to help them improve their writing) I tell the students always to keep something before the reader’s eyes. (Which means their own eyes, too, of course.) This is not an illusion that can in fact always be sustained. But the attempt to sustain it is a very good discipline, not least because it reminds the writer that ideally she or he is creating experience for another consciousness.
Your character Jack Boughton brings his hands up to cover his eyes whenever he feels threatened or vulnerable in a conversation. The drama of Jack’s fate is played out in that one gesture, his longing to hide himself from the world and his predisposition to loneliness and exile. Is characterization like this an intuitive discovery? What comes first, Jack or the gesture?
It is always hard to say which comes first. In one way fiction is a sort of metaphysical thought experiment–within its world, all we know are what the philosophers called “attributes.” But in fiction there can be assumed to be no substances whose attributes these are. The writer has to persuade the reader that he or she knows the fictional world in a way that resembles the real world at least well enough to sustain the suspension of disbelief. Ideally, the writer succeeds in making reality seem more acutely perceived within the fiction than it is in the phenomenal world. All the arts play on the capacities of the mind, its richness of association, its generosity of attention. All I really meant to say is that you, writer or reader, know characters through attributes, not otherwise, and a sense of the fictional person as presence is the crucial thing.
In your most recent book, Absence of Mind, you write, “Why does catastrophe occur? What are its implications?” Catastrophe and its implications: each of your novels can be read as providing a new variation on this theme. In each novel, catastrophe is at the origins of the family’s history: in Housekeeping, the “spectacular derailment” that ends Ruth’s grandfather’s life and the watery suicide that ends her mother’s; in Gilead and Home, the disasters of History, through the terrible violence of war, provide the originating catastrophe whose aftershocks continue across the generations; another catastrophe important to the plot of Gilead and featured in the plot of Home, is Jack’s youthful liaison with a poor uneducated girl that results in the death of a young child. As a novelist, what is your fascination with catastrophe and its implications, and why does this one theme seem so inexhaustible and essential to understanding the human story?
I’m afraid catastrophe is a thing to which we are highly vulnerable, and toward which we are very much inclined. So to exclude it would be an evasion. Then, too, it disrupts habit and order and comfortable assumptions, and throws people back on themselves, making them think long and hard about things that otherwise might seem to them stable and unquestionable. And it prompts them to look for the sources of disaster in what before might have seemed innocuous. Catastrophes large and small (and by definition they resist being understood in relative terms) open all questions and restore an awareness that all answers are tentative at very best.
In each of your novels, sacred space is created that provides sanctuary for the characters and shelters their loneliness. The obvious example is the physical house, the stage of family drama and the scene of housekeeping, those daily mundane rituals—cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, taking meals—that your books prize as nourishing experience. But there are other spaces as well: the attic where Ames writes his sermons; the hayloft out in the barn where Jack goes for solitude. Would you say that these private sacred spaces are a figure of what literature is—or can be: nourishment to individualized, experience-centered spirituality?
Yes. I think this can be said about the arts in general. Arts in the broadest sense of the word. Everything that is a cell of memory, everything that is meant to be humanly communicative, however candidly, even of oneself to oneself. I subscribe heartily to the view that human beings are the crowning wonder of the universe, and that this is true of them one by one, each as a unique intelligence and perceiver. So ideally each one of them would find and create sacred space, if not private in every case at least expressive of a singular experience-centered spirituality, to borrow your phrase.
Glory from Home, and Aunt Sylvie from Housekeeping, are both woman who return to the small towns and houses where they grew up following years spent out in the world trying to forge new lives—attempts that fall short. For both women, their trials in love have ended in disappointment, and their return home seems motivated by the desire to distance themselves from heartache and find healing. As different as your recent novels are from your first novel, there are elements like this that unite them. Do you think of certain themes as native to your imagination, as themes that will always fascinate you?
In fact I try not to repeat myself, even to the point of resisting the idea that there are themes that fascinate me. Then, when I have written another book, I see themes recurring. For practical reasons I remain in a state of denial. Therefore my answer to your question is: Definitely no (and apparently yes).
Interview conducted August, 2010.