Writer Marilynne Robinson on Family and Faith

Marilynne Robinson, novelist and teacher at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, is the author of five books, three of them works of fiction. Her 1980 novel, "Housekeeping," is a modern classic. Her 2004 work, "Gilead," written as a love letter from a dying Iowan pastor to his son, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This week marks the publication of "Home," a follow up to her last work which also takes place in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, in the 1950s. "Home" centers around the Boughton family, as the prodigal son, Jack, returns home after 20 years away to visit his dying father and his younger sister.

"Home" is a lyrical meditation on devout faith in the face of death, as well as the inescapable bonds that tie families together, and the complexities of the father-son relationship. Adam de Jong caught up with Robinson to discuss her new book, the role religion plays in her fiction, what it was like to win the Pulitzer, and teaching the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What brought you back to the characters of "Home" and, more specifically, the town of Gilead? While you were writing "Gilead," did you think there was another story there?
Marilynne Robinson:
The place and the people, especially the three Boughtons, were still in my mind after I had published "Gilead." I didn't want to write a sequel, but I did want to give them their own lives.

Much was made of the fact that 24 years had passed between the publication of your first and second novel. Why do you think you were able to follow up with your third novel so quickly?
Between my first two novels, I wrote nonfiction. I pursued interests in history and theology. I have always enjoyed that kind of writing, and I felt the need to broaden my education. There was no hiatus, from my point of view. I was simply working in a different genre.

One thing that was very clear while reading "Home" is that it is written with an authorial voice that is very different from the first-person letter form of "Gilead." Was it difficult to return to Gilead, yet find a new voice--presumably your own--to tell this story?
The voice of "Home" is Glory's. Of course there is a difference in tone, since John Ames is writing for his son, while the convention of the narrative in "Home" is that we are close to Glory's thoughts, which are not considered and composed in the same way his would be. I have no autobiographical impulse, and would never put my voice or anything else of mine in fiction. It was not difficult to write her voice because I felt as though I knew it.

The new book seems less like a sequel than a sort of Faulknerian return to Gilead. How conscious were you of the notion that the town itself is a central character to the story? Was that the intention?
To me it seems true that towns are always characters and that landscapes are as well. Gilead has resonance for me as a repository of a certain history, and as the kind of commonplace, self-forgetful little town you might find anywhere and not even bother to wonder about. These places are full of history and full of meaning. I am not particularly interested in creating my own Yoknapatawpha, but Gilead is where these characters live, and that was the reason I returned there.

The novel takes place at a time in American history when the cultural revolution of '60s is just about to happen. As a result, there is a forebording feeling that comes over the reader during political discussions between Glory, Jack, and the Reverend Boughton. Was this the intent? If so, what makes this time in American history--the Eisenhower '50s--so mysterious?
The civil-rights movement is just becoming important, and this matters to Jack for reasons of his own. Gilead is an old abolitionist settlement, so the re-emergence of the issues that created it and preoccupied it once is very much to the point. Gilead is a small model of America, or much of America, and I am interested specifically in the question of how it lives with its history. Domestically, the Eisenhower period was one of great apparent stability, and one in which impulses in the culture that had been suppressed were about to become suddenly and powerfully resurgent.

"Home" is in many ways a snapshot of Iowa in the middle of the 20th century. What is it that draws you to that time and place?
I think I like to set fiction in the '50s because there is less cultural noise. Language can seem a little worn out when people are inundated with it, as they are now. They can be distracted from their own thoughts, and taken up with the fad or the dread of the moment. Of course the '50s had a world of problems, and left us with the consequences of all sorts of bad decisions, for example the prospect of nuclear war. Still, people were less accessible to each other, which meant more of a kind of privacy, more time to think. I have probably chosen Iowa as a setting because I live here and have made a study of the place.

Obviously, themes of spirituality and faith are woven into the story. There is one passage that says, "For her, church was an airy white room with tall windows looking out on God's good world, with God's good sunlights pouring in through those windows and falling across the pulpit where her father stood, straight and strong, parsing the broken heart of humankind and praising the loving heart of Christ. That was church." This passage seems to illustrate Glory's ambigious faith and her unsure feelings toward her father's faith. You don't seem to be interesting in writing about faith and religion within the confines of our national debate of the "culture wars." Is it difficult to write about faith and religion given the current political climate?
I don't consider Glory's faith ambiguous. It is complicated by the fact that her father is so strongly intertwined with it that she has a little trouble telling one from the other. But the questions of spirituality and faith you find in the book are aspects of her thinking, and in fact govern the way she thinks and acts. The "culture wars" are toxic nonsense that would have died and been forgotten if there were not industries built around endless, edgy talk. I consider myself a Christian, and as a consequence I don't consider myself to be at war with anyone. As an American I am disturbed by the suggestion that it is appropriate to be hostile to other Americans because of their beliefs. That certainly represents the erosion of a core value. Religion and theology are modes of thought that have been profoundly fruitful. I think of them as questions, strategies of inquiry--assuming that God is there, that he gave us minds for a reason, and that he is not in need of creedal iterations. I do not identify in any degree with the kind of loud, mass-market certitude that is thought of as religion in some quarters now. But religion is very central to my thinking and therefore it emerges in my writing.

It does seem fashionable within certain intellectual circles to be hostile toward religion. Was there ever a concern that writing openly about religious people would leave your work ignored by certain critics?
I really never think about critics. I suppose it is clear from my previous response that I can understand how people might have had exposure to forms or expressions of religion that would make them hostile to it. That said, I think my work has been treated fairly, indeed generously, by readers and critics of all kinds.

Do you get the sense that winning the Pulitzer opened you to a whole new audience?
The Pulitzer Prize does bring a great deal of attention with it, and the assumption that one does quality work. It is very gratifying to have that kind of encouragement. But writing for me is a matter of curling up somewhere with a pen and a notebook and suspending my own disbelief. Self-consciousness is not compatible with writing fiction--for me, at least.

There is a lot of talk about pressure to follow up past success. Did you feel that?
This has never been a real issue for me. I have been interested to watch the unfolding of my life, surprised that my very private work has found a significant readership. I am so dependent on a particular kind of concentration to do what I do--an experience that is both motive and reward.

You've been teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop for some time now. Does your own success and recognition in the mainstream make it easier or more difficult to teach? Have students approached you differently?
I don't notice a great difference. My colleagues on the faculty have won their share of prizes, and the students are aware of this. I am sure that the status of all of us is enhanced by evidence that we know what we're talking about.

What is the pleasure that you get from teaching writing?
Teaching writing has made me more conscious than I might otherwise have been of matters like voice and the development of scene and so on. We have very fine students at Iowa, good material to talk over, interesting questions to respond to.