Photography: Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux
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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. >>>