Photography: Danny Wilcox Frazier/Redux
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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.