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An Unconventional Life

An Interview with Idaho-Bred Novelist Marilynne Robinson

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More from Sun Valley Magazine’s interview with Idaho-bred novelist Marilynne Robinson


 SVM | What is an example of a “constellation” or “self-transcendence” you talk about in your writing life?
ROBINSON | Well, the first thing that I was ever enthusiastically praised for by someone whose enthusiasm I took seriously was a description of Idaho that I wrote when I was a sophomore in college. And it was about being in the woods. It was about the feeling of it, the pulpiness of the ground, and it was just, you know, it wasn’t like a breakthrough or anything, other people have written about being in the woods, but there was something about the memory of it. And it was a childhood memory, that constellated certain kinds of language and even a tone of voice, that was seminal for the point of view of Housekeeping, which taught me to write, basically.

SVM | Do you go back to Idaho often?
ROBINSON |  I don’t have anybody in the northern part of the state now. I go back time to time, but always to Boise, which is another world, except in Idaho terms.

SVM | Do students often come to you for advice about how to balance their non-fictional lives with their fictional ones?
ROBINSON | One thing that I think that’s certainly been my experience is that if you have certain areas that are outside fiction writing, that give you models of understanding, that give you a historical, conceptual structure, it helps. Even in ways that are very invisible in the fiction itself. One of the reasons I teach, and my seminars have always been important to me, is to help make people feel like they have a certain command of basic things. It’s one of the reasons that I teach the Bible as often as I do. Just that it’s almost typical that people hear about these things through their whole lives, and it’s like a conversation going on in another room, that in a certain sense excludes them, so they have no way of orienting themselves toward these things at all. I mean that contemporary writers ought to have some awareness of contemporary science. And in a certain sense it infantilizes people to feel that the major thinking is going on somewhere else among other people, and they have no idea what it is and so they’re moving their toy figures around. I really feel very strongly, and it’s true, in terms of writers that I’ve known, the broader their field of awareness, the more confident the writing. And frankly, writing that is not confident is not worth much. Writing that is self-protective is not worth much.

SVM | Do people come to you for theological advice?
ROBINSON | Sometimes people come to talk to me about those things, and I’m happy to talk with them about them, but it doesn’t happen so frequently. I think that I, in a certain sense, I have a sort of highly defined religious identity, and I write theology and so on, and it’s great, I love it, but I don’t want to bring anything sectarian into a secular environment like the University. I mean, religion is, it’s a funny thing, on the one hand you don’t want to talk about it as if it’s anything besides religion—I don’t want to talk about it as if it’s sociology or anthropology or something—but on the other hand, I don’t want to talk about it on its own terms without shaping it in terms of my own religion’s acculturation. Which, you know, in a diverse environment seems questionable. So I just feel as though, in this setting, tact is required. People complain about secularism. I think secularism is a wonderful thing. I think there should be these huge environments where everyone feels equally at home, and there are none of these historically unpleasant distinctions are being made. And on the one hand, I’m interested in religion, and I’m happy to respond when other people bring up the subject with me, but on the other hand I have sort of a religious commitment to secularism.

SVM | How would you describe yourself as a teacher?

SVM | Was teaching something you’d always envisioned yourself doing?
ROBINSON | You know, I didn’t speak a word all the way through college. I probably, because you had to, I spoke a little in grad school, but never if I could avoid it, never. And I thought the last thing in the world that I would ever want to be was a classroom teacher. Then, at a certain point in my life, it as all I was qualified to do. And it’s like some other persona settles over you, who is happy doing what you thought you would never be happy doing. But under most circumstances, I still never speak. You know, I go to a political gathering or something and I sit quietly in the corner. It’s only when I’m specifically supposed to be the person speaking.

SVM | What things do you see your students doing in their stories now that excites or surprises you?
ROBINSON | I think that there has been a movement in the writing of the last few years to be more diverse than it has been through some of the time that I’ve been teaching. There was a certain style of writing that was very influential for a long time, associated with Raymond Carver—even though Raymond Carver was much more interesting than this little school that he seems to somehow accidentally inspire. But there was a sort of constriction of the imagination that was part of the aesthetic, and very boring, and not even honest in terms of the experience of the people who were writing that way. But now it seems to me as if there is a much broader range of things that people are interested in and attend to, and I think that is excellent.

SVM | Do you see yourself in the character Ruth (the narrator of Housekeeping)?
ROBINSON | I see myself in all my characters, although, it’s so hard to know because over time you get to know them so well, and even if they surprise you, after a while you get close to them in the way that they surprise.

SVM | How has having a family influenced your writing?
ROBINSON | The first thing I published was Housekeeping and my children were five and ten. I always knew that I wanted to have children. It is one of the great universal experiences, and I sort of wanted to know what it was, and it has been a great learning experience for me. I mean there is nothing like watching the consciousness become self-conscious and articulate and all the rest. From a novelists’ point of view, it’s as instructive as anything can be.

SVM | Who did you read growing up?
ROBINSON | I read people like Charles Dickens and so on, that are very highly distinctive writers. But it was still as if there were some great cosmic chute that books came down, and it didn’t matter basically who wrote them. I do remember one time when I was a little kid walking into a library and thinking, “I could do that,” that that books were within my capacity in some unusual way. But I didn’t have any professional sense of it, even when I was in college. If you haven’t published something, if you’re not in that world, it seems like there is a great chasm between present life and that sort of life, and so when I was writing Housekeeping I was pretty much sure I was writing a book that would never be published.

SVM | Do you write now for the same reasons you used to write?
ROBINSON | Well, you know, I think that as far as fiction goes, it’s probably about the same. Something gets on my mind, and for some reason or other—it seems like some little loose thread in the cosmos that you could pull on and something opens up. I think that’s kind of always how it felt to me. Where are these words going? Why do these words haunt me? And then— there you are.




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