When Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, in 1980, she was unknown in the literary world. But an early review in The New York Times ensured that the book would be noticed. “It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration,” wrote Anatole Broyard, with an enthusiasm and awe that was shared by many critics and readers. The book became a classic, and Robinson was hailed as one of the defining American writers of our time. Yet it would be more than twenty years before she wrote another novel.
In the interval, Robinson devoted herself to writing nonfiction. Her essays and book reviews appeared in Harper’s and The New York Times Book Review, and in 1989 she published Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, a scathing examination of the environmental and public health dangers posed by the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in England— and the political and moral corruption that sustained it. In 1998, Robinson published a collection of her critical and theological writings, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, which featured reassessments of such figures as Charles Darwin, John Calvin, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Aside from a single short story—“Connie Bronson,” published in The Paris Review in 1986—it wasn’t until 2004 that she returned to fiction with the novel Gilead, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Her third novel, Home, came out this fall.
In person, even when clad in her favorite writing attire—a pair of loose pants and a sweatshirt—Robinson carries herself with a regal elegance. While she is humble about her accomplishments and the acclaim they have brought her, the force of her intellect is apparent. In her nonfiction books, as well as in her recent novels, she passionately engages public policy as well as philosophical and theological scholarship. Her experience in academia—she wrote a Ph.D. dissertation on Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II at the University of Washington—made her a devout reader of primary texts, which remain the touchstones of her thought and conversation. Such intellectual pursuits clearly delight her. Her extemporizing on, say, Karl Marx’s Capital is often punctuated with laughter and blithe phrases such as “Oh, goody!” When a question gave her pause during our interview, she’d often shrug and say, “Calvin again,” and then look away as if the sixteenth-century Frenchman were standing in the room waiting to give her advice.
Robinson is a Christian whose faith is not easily reduced to generalities. Calvin’s thought has had a strong influence on her, and she depicts him in her essays as a misunderstood humanist, likening his “secularizing tendencies” to the “celebrations of the human one finds in Emerson and Whitman.”
Her novels could also be described as celebrations of the human—the characters that inhabit them are indelible creations. Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her sister Lucille, who are cared for by their eccentric Aunt Sylvie after their mother commits suicide. Robinson dwells on how each of the three is changed by their new life together. Gilead is an even more intimate exploration of personality: the book is given over to John Ames, a seventy-seven-year-old pastor who is writing an account of his life and his family history to leave to his young son after he dies. Home borrows characters from Gilead but centers on Ames’s friend Reverend Robert Boughton and his troubled son Jack. Robinson returned to the same territory as Gilead because, she said, “after I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters—I feel sort of bereaved.”
Gilead and Home are both set in Iowa, where Robinson has lived for nearly twenty years, teaching at the Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. For this interview, we met on six occasions over a five-month period. During that time, Iowa City seemed to experience every extreme of weather: two blizzards, frigid temperatures, hail, fog, spring rains, and severe thunderstorms. Shortly after our final meeting, the Iowa River reached record-setting flood levels.
Robinson leads a relatively solitary life. She is divorced, and her two sons are grown with families of their own. Her intellectual and creative ambitions leave little time for socializing. “I have this sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself,” she said. But she also has both a cell phone and a BlackBerry and during our conversations the world would occasionally intrude to interrupt her stream of thought. At one point her BlackBerry beeped to tell her she had an e-mail, and she said it was from a former student. “Blurbs,” she said. “I owe the world blurbs.”
INTERVIEWER Are there any unpublished Marilynne Robinson novels lying around that we don’t know about?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON In college, I was in a novel-writing class and I started a novel, which I loathed and detested the minute I graduated. It was as if worms had popped out of it or something. It was set in the Middle West, where I had never been—a little midwestern town with a river running through it. Isn’t that odd?
INTERVIEWER What eventually drew you to Iowa City?
ROBINSON The Workshop. I didn’t have any realistic conception of Iowa at all. I never expected to live in the Middle West because I had the same prejudices that other people have about the region. But when they invited me to teach here I thought it would be an interesting thing to do. So I came.
INTERVIEWER Were you told that it would compromise your creative energies to teach creative writing?
ROBINSON Yes, of course. But everything compromises your creative energies. Years ago I accepted a grant from the American Academy that was supposed to support me for five years without teaching. I lasted about a year and a half before I nearly went crazy. Teaching is a distraction and a burden, but it’s also an incredible stimulus. And a reprieve, in a way. When you’re trying to work on something and it’s not going anywhere, you can go to school and there’s a two-and-a-half-hour block of time in which you can accomplish something.
INTERVIEWER When you were little, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
ROBINSON Oh, a hermit? My brother told me I was going to be a poet. I had a good brother. He did a lot of good brotherly work. There we were in this tiny town in Idaho, and he was like Alexander dividing up the world: I’ll be the painter, you’ll be the poet.
INTERVIEWER Is it true that Housekeeping started as a series of metaphors you wrote while you were getting your Ph.D. in English literature?
ROBINSON When I went to college, I majored in American literature, which was unusual then. But it meant that I was broadly exposed to nineteenth-century American literature. I became interested in the way that American writers used metaphoric language, starting with Emerson. When I entered the Ph.D. program, I started writing these metaphors down just to get the feeling of writing in that voice. After I finished my dissertation, I read through the stack of metaphors and they cohered in a way that I hadn’t expected. I could see that I had created something that implied much more. So I started writing Housekeeping, and the characters became important for me. I told a friend of mine, a writer named John Clayton, that I had been working on this thing, and he asked to see it. The next thing I knew, I got a letter from his agent saying that she would be happy to represent it.
INTERVIEWER Were you surprised?
ROBINSON I was, but these things always came with little caveats. She said, I’ll be happy to represent it but it could be difficult to place. She gave it to an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who wrote to me and said, We’d be very happy to publish it but it probably won’t be reviewed.
INTERVIEWER But then it was.
ROBINSON Anatole Broyard—God love him—reviewed it early because he thought no one would review it and he wanted to make sure it got attention.
INTERVIEWER How did you approach creating the characters of Ruthie and Sylvie in Housekeeping?
ROBINSON In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.
INTERVIEWER Was your family religious?
ROBINSON My family was pious and Presbyterian mainly because my grandfather was pious and Presbyterian, but that was more of an inherited intuition than an actual fact. We would talk more politics than anything else at the dinner table. And they were very Republican politics, I need hardly say. Or perhaps I do need to say.
INTERVIEWER What did your father do for a living?
ROBINSON He worked his way up in the lumber industry the old-fashioned way. The lumber industry was dominant in that part of Idaho. When you fly over the Rocky Mountains now, you see terrible clear-cutting, but back then there wasn’t the level of exploitation that there is now.
INTERVIEWER How did your family come to settle in the West?
ROBINSON We have a family legend about homesteading relatives in the nineteenth century—coming in covered wagons—dark forests, wolves, American Indians coming to ask for pie. My great grandmother was one of the first white people in a certain part of eastern Washington, and supposedly she would see an Indian standing outside the door, and she would go out, and he would say, Pie. That’s just a story, but the women in my family always bake pies. And they’re vain about it.
INTERVIEWER Do you bake pies?
ROBINSON I used to bake pies, when I had people to eat them. But I don’t any more.
INTERVIEWER What was your best pie?
ROBINSON Lemon meringue, which is a family tradition.
INTERVIEWER You’ve published only one short story, “Connie Bronson,” which appeared a few years after Housekeeping. Have you written others since then?
ROBINSON I wrote that story in college. I had a sort of fondness for it because it seemed to me to anticipate Housekeeping, though I had written it more than a decade earlier. So when The Paris Review asked me for something, I sent it off. I am actually interested by the fact that I never feel any impulse to write a short story. It is such an attractive form.
“Connie Bronson” has for me now the interest and charm of anyone’s juvenilia—that is, almost none at all.
INTERVIEWER In your second novel, Gilead, the protagonist is a pastor, John Ames. Do you think of yourself as a religious writer?
ROBINSON I don’t like categories like religious and not religious. As soon as religion draws a line around itself it becomes falsified. It seems to me that anything that is written compassionately and perceptively probably satisfies every definition of religious whether a writer intends it to be religious or not.
INTERVIEWER You said that Ames came to you as a voice. How did you know that it was your next novel?
ROBINSON I was at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown at Christmas time. Some students had asked me to come to do a reading. I reserved several rooms at an inn in the sunniest part of Provincetown, so that my sons, neither of whom was married at the time, could spend Christmas there with me. But they got delayed, so I had several days there by myself in an otherwise empty hotel, in a little room with Emily Dickinson light pouring in through the windows and the ocean roaring beyond. I had a spiral notebook, and I started thinking about this situation and the voice. And I started writing. Frankly, I was happy for the company.
I ended up writing that book like a serial novel. I would write thirty pages or so and then send it to the editor, and then write thirty more pages and send it to the editor.
INTERVIEWER Do you write longhand normally, or on a computer, or both?
ROBINSON On Gilead I went back and forth. Housekeeping I wrote longhand. I didn’t have a computer, and I’ve always been distracted by the sound of a typewriter.
INTERVIEWER How long did it take you to write Gilead?
ROBINSON I wrote it in about eighteen months. I write novels quickly, which is not my reputation.
INTERVIEWER Ames says that in our everyday world there is “more beauty than our eyes can bear.” He’s living in America in the late 1950s. Would he say that today?
ROBINSON You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as “beauty.” Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning—that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt’s Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there was something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at the sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it’s not Versailles. It’s a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.
At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There’s no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.
INTERVIEWER Ames believes that one of the benefits of religion is “it helps you concentrate. It gives you a good basic sense of what is being asked of you and also what you might as well ignore.” Is this something that your faith and religious practice has done for you?
ROBINSON Religion is a framing mechanism. It is a language of orientation that presents itself as a series of questions. It talks about the arc of life and the quality of experience in ways that I’ve found fruitful to think about. Religion has been profoundly effective in enlarging human imagination and expression. It’s only very recently that you couldn’t see how the high arts are intimately connected to religion.
INTERVIEWER Is this frame of religion something we’ve lost?
ROBINSON There was a time when people felt as if structure in most forms were a constraint and they attacked it, which in a culture is like an autoimmune problem: the organism is not allowing itself the conditions of its own existence. We’re cultural creatures and meaning doesn’t simply generate itself out of thin air; it’s sustained by a cultural framework. It’s like deciding how much more interesting it would be if you had no skeleton: you could just slide under the door.
INTERVIEWER How does science fit into this framework?
ROBINSON I read as much as I can of contemporary cosmology because reality itself is profoundly mysterious. Quantum theory and classical physics, for instance, are both lovely within their own limits and yet at present they cannot be reconciled with each other. If different systems don’t merge in a comprehensible way, that’s a flaw in our comprehension and not a flaw in one system or the other.
INTERVIEWER Are religion and science simply two systems that don’t merge?
ROBINSON The debate seems to be between a naive understanding of religion and a naive understanding of science. When people try to debunk religion, it seems to me they are referring to an eighteenth-century notion of what science is. I’m talking about Richard Dawkins here, who has a status that I can’t quite understand. He acts as if the physical world that is manifest to us describes reality exhaustively. On the other side, many of the people who articulate and form religious expression have not acted in good faith. The us-versus-them mentality is a terrible corruption of the whole culture.
INTERVIEWER You’ve written critically about Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Is it their disdain for religion and championing of pure science that troubles you?
ROBINSON No, I read as much pure science as I can take in. It’s a fact that their thinking does not feel scientific. The whole excitement of science is that it’s always pushing toward the discovery of something that it cannot account for or did not anticipate. The New Atheist types, like Dawkins, act as if science had revealed the world as a closed system. That simply is not what contemporary science is about. A lot of scientists are atheists, but they don’t talk about reality in the same way that Dawkins does. And they would not assume that there is a simple-as-that kind of response to everything in question. Certainly not on the grounds of anything that science has discovered in the last hundred years.
The science that I prefer tends toward cosmology, theories of quantum reality, things that are finer-textured than classical physics in terms of their powers of description. Science is amazing. On a mote of celestial dust, we have figured out how to look to the edge of our universe. I feel instructed by everything I have read. Science has a lot of the satisfactions for me that good theology has.
INTERVIEWER But doesn’t science address an objective notion of reality while religion addresses how we conceive of ourselves?
ROBINSON As an achievement, science is itself a spectacular argument for the singularity of human beings among all things that exist. It has a prestige that comes with unambiguous changes in people’s experience—space travel, immunizations. It has an authority that’s based on its demonstrable power. But in discussions of human beings it tends to compare downwards: we’re intelligent because hyenas are intelligent and we just took a few more leaps.
The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly.
INTERVIEWER Did you ever have a religious awakening?
ROBINSON No, a mystical experience would be wasted on me. Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.
INTERVIEWER How would one learn to see ordinary things this way?
ROBINSON It’s not an acquired skill. It’s a skill that we’re born with that we lose. We learn not to do it.
INTERVIEWER On occasion you give sermons at your church. How did that come about?
ROBINSON If we need someone to give a sermon because the pastor is ill or out of town then typically they ask someone from the congregation to give the sermon. Since I write about these things, often they ask me.
INTERVIEWER Do you ever get nervous being the sub?
ROBINSON Yes, I do. You’re talking within a congregation. They know the genre. There are many things that the sermon has to resonate with besides the specific text that is the subject of the sermon. In my tradition, there’s a certain posture of graciousness you have to answer to no matter what the main subject matter of the sermon is.
ROBINSON The idea that you draw a line and say, The righteous people are on this side and the bad people are on the other side—this is not gracious.
INTERVIEWER Your new novel Home is set in the same time and place as Gilead and incorporates many of the same characters. Why did you decide to return to their story?
ROBINSON After I write a novel or a story, I miss the characters—I feel sort of bereaved. So I was braced for the experience after Gilead. Then I thought, If these characters are so strongly in my mind, why not write them? With Jack and old Boughton especially, and with Glory also, I felt like there were whole characters that had not been fully realized in Ames’s story. I couldn’t really see the point in abandoning them.
Then I had to make sure that the chronolog y clicked and certain phrases that occur in the first book occur in the second. For example, the dinner party—Ames is there but doesn’t say a word about it in Gilead. It’s completely consistent with Ames as a character that he would not choose to report a situation that he found painful or that he thought would reinforce unfortunate memories. But I wanted Home to be a freestanding book. I didn’t want it to be a sequel. I wanted it to be true that you could pick up either book first.
INTERVIEWER Whereas Gilead reads almost like a meditation—John Ames is writing it to his son—Home has a different personality.
ROBINSON So much of the novel is dialogue. I was really surprised. I kept thinking, I’ve got to stop doing this—it’s just one dialogue scene after another.
INTERVIEWER Do you plot your novels?
ROBINSON I really don’t. There was a frame, of course, for Home, because it had to be symbiotic with Gilead. Aside from that, no. I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character. The one consistent thing among my novels is that there’s a character who stays in my mind. It’s a character with complexity that I want to know better.
INTERVIEWER The focus of the novel is Jack, but it’s told from Glory’s point of view. Did you ever consider putting it in his point of view?
ROBINSON Jack is thinking all the time—thinking too much—but I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator. He’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.
INTERVIEWER Is it hard to write a “bad” character?
ROBINSON Calvin says that God takes an aesthetic pleasure in people. There’s no reason to imagine that God would choose to surround himself into infinite time with people whose only distinction is that they fail to transgress. King David, for example, was up to a lot of no good. To think that only faultless people are worthwhile seems like an incredible exclusion of almost everything of deep value in the human saga. Sometimes I can’t believe the narrowness that has been attributed to God in terms of what he would approve and disapprove.
INTERVIEWER How do you write historical figures in your novels?
ROBINSON My unvarying approach to anything is to read the most primary and proximate material that I can find. I try to be discreet in my use of historical figures. My John Brown is only a voice heard in the darkness.
INTERVIEWER Does your faith ever conflict with your “regular life”?
ROBINSON When I’m teaching, sometimes issues come up. I might read a scene in a student’s story that seems—by my standards—pornographic. I don’t believe in exploiting or treating with disrespect even an imagined person. But at the same time, I realize that I can’t universalize my standards. In instances like that, I feel I have to hold my religious reaction at bay. It is important to let people live out their experience of the world without censorious interference, except in very extreme cases.
INTERVIEWER What is the most important thing you try to teach your students?
ROBINSON I try to make writers actually see what they have written, where the strength is. Usually in fiction there’s something that leaps out—an image or a moment that is strong enough to center the story. If they can see it, they can exploit it, enhance it, and build a fiction that is subtle and new. I don’t try to teach technique, because frankly most technical problems go away when a writer realizes where the life of a story lies. I don’t see any reason in fine-tuning something that’s essentially not going anywhere anyway. What they have to do first is interact in a serious way with what they’re putting on a page. When people are fully engaged with what they’re writing, a striking change occurs, a discipline of language and imagination.
INTERVIEWER Do you read contemporary fiction?
ROBINSON I’m not indifferent to contemporary literature; I just don’t have any time for it. It’s much easier for my contemporaries to keep up with me than it is for me to keep up with them. They’ve all written fifteen books.
INTERVIEWER What is your opinion of literary criticism?
ROBINSON I know this is less true than it has been, but the main interest of criticism seems to be criticism. It has less to do with what people actually write. In journalistic criticism, the posture is too often that writers are making a consumer product they hope to be able to clean up on. I don’t think that living writers should be treated with the awe that is sometimes reserved for dead writers, but if a well-known writer whose work tends to garner respect takes ten years to write a novel and it’s not the greatest novel in the world, dismissiveness is not an appropriate response. An unsuccessful work might not seem unsuccessful in another generation. It may be part of the writer’s pilgrimage.
INTERVIEWER Do you have any writing rituals, habits, or peculiarities?
ROBINSON I dress like a bum. John Cheever would wear a suit and a hat and go down from his apartment to the basement of his building with an attaché case. But that’s not me. I like to be as forgetful of my own physical being as I can be.
INTERVIEWER Do you write in your study or do you occupy every room of the house?
ROBINSON I do a lot in the study, but the couch also, and so on. It’s nice to be able to move around and not be completely bound to one place or another, the way some people are. Although I do stay inside my own house. That’s crucial.
INTERVIEWER Why is that crucial?
ROBINSON Because I can forget my surroundings. And I don’t get distracted by thinking, Who chose that painting? I know who chose that painting.
INTERVIEWER Does writing come easily to you?
ROBINSON The difficulty of it cannot be overstated. But at its best, it involves a state of concentration that is a satisfying experience, no matter how difficult or frustrating. The sense of being focused like that is a marvelous feeling. It’s one of the reasons I’m so willing to seclude myself and am a little bit grouchy when I have to deal with the reasonable expectations of the world.
INTERVIEWER Do you keep to a schedule?
ROBINSON I really am incapable of discipline. I write when something makes a strong claim on me. When I don’t feel like writing, I absolutely don’t feel like writing. I tried that work ethic thing a couple of times—I can’t say I exhausted its possibilities—but if there’s not something on my mind that I really want to write about, I tend to write something that I hate. And that depresses me. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want to live through the time it takes for it to go up the chimney. Maybe it’s a question of discipline, maybe temperament, who knows? I wish I could have made myself do more. I wouldn’t mind having written fifteen books.
INTERVIEWER Even if many of them were mediocre?
ROBINSON Well, no.
INTERVIEWER Do you keep a journal or diary?
ROBINSON At various times in my life I’ve bought a little finely ornamented volume with a clasp, and written a couple of days’ worth of reflections. And then I come back to it and I think, What an idiot.
INTERVIEWER What about revision? Is it an intensive process or do you let the first draft stand?
ROBINSON If I write something and don’t like it, I basically toss it. And I try to write it again or I write something else that has the same movement. But as far as going back and working over something that I’ve already written—I really don’t do that. I know there’s a sentence that I need, and I just run it through my mind until it sounds right. Most of my revision occurs before I put words down on the paper.
INTERVIEWER Does that happen when you’re sitting at your desk or on the couch or do you write in your head all day long?
ROBINSON If I’m writing, I write in my head all the time. But as far as inventing, I try to do that only when I’m physically writing. If I get an idea while I’m walking home on the bridge, I think, Close that down, because if I think through a scene, I’ll wreck it by the time I get a pen in my hand.
INTERVIEWER Most people know you as a novelist, but you spend a lot of your time writing nonfiction. What led you to start writing essays?
ROBINSON To change my own mind. I try to create a new vocabulary or terrain for myself, so that I open out—I always think of the Dutch claiming land from the sea—or open up something that would have been closed to me before. That’s the point and the pleasure of it. I continuously scrutinize my own thinking. I write something and think, How do I know that that’s true? If I wrote what I thought I knew from the outset, then I wouldn’t be learning anything new.
In this culture, essays are often written for the sake of writing the essay. Someone finds a quibble of potential interest and quibbles about it. This doesn’t mean the writer isn’t capable of doing something of greater interest, but we generate a lot of prose that’s not vital. The best essays come from the moment in which people really need to work something out.
INTERVIEWER How do you decide on a topic for your essays?
ROBINSON It almost always comes as a surprise. I got to Marguerite de Navarre because I was reading a translation of Dante’s Inferno and I started looking into the context in which it was written. The Albigensian Crusades, which killed an enormous number of people, occurred just before Dante wrote Inferno. Whether Dante was influenced by Albigensianism or not I don’t know, but it was the Inferno that made me remember Albigensianism and made me start reading about the culture of southern France and discover Marguerite de Navarre, who was an older contemporary of Calvin.
INTERVIEWER Have you gotten to a point where you welcome that kind of indirectness?
ROBINSON I’ve learned to trust it. I worry about participating in the consensuses of opinion because frankly they don’t bear out very well. When I notice something that seems like an anomaly to me, I try to sort it out. It’s an impulse. I think, Gee, this might lead me to refurnish my mind in a certain way. I find the alternative undignified: you have your little life and live through it and trip along and fall into your grave.
INTERVIEWER In your essay “Facing Reality,” from The Death of Adam, you point out that many Americans have a poor sense of American history—or history in general.
ROBINSON We archaize Abraham Lincoln—he’s somehow premodern—at the same time that we use Marx to epitomize modernity. Yet the two of them were engaged in the same conversation. The slave economy and the industrial economy were interlocked. Marx is considered modern because he describes an ongoing phenomenon, industrialism, which once again is starting to resemble slavery—child labor and so on. You take a course as a sophomore in college called Modern Western Civilization and you get Marx and Nietzsche, but you don’t get Lincoln. The fact that they were all wearing frock coats and stovepipe hats doesn’t register.
INTERVIEWER You’ve also written that Americans tend to avoid contemplating larger issues. What is it that we’re afraid of?
ROBINSON People are frightened of themselves. It’s like Freud saying that the best thing is to have no sensation at all, as if we’re supposed to live painlessly and unconsciously in the world. I have a much different view. The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.
INTERVIEWER Do you suffer from anxiety?
ROBINSON I probably experience less anxiety than is normal. People who are literate and prosperous by world standards nevertheless choose anxiety. I consider that kind of anxiety to be unspent energy, energy that goes sour because it is not spent. Calvinism is supposed to induce emotional stoicism. One thing that comes with the tradition is the idea that you’re always being posed a question: what does God want from this situation? It creates a kind of detachment, but it’s a detachment that brings perception rather than the absence of perception. And at this point, my children are adults, established in life. They seem to know how to make themselves happy. When they were young I felt anxiety for them. It was a kind of animal alertness: what do I need to head off at the pass?
INTERVIEWER In your essay “Puritans and Prigs,” you reevaluate the idea that a good diet enhances our quality of life. You point out that although fish is purported to be healthier, overfishing is destroying the equilibrium of the ocean: “The sea has been raided and ransacked to oblige our new scruple.”
ROBINSON Europeans are one of the largest importers of fish and predatory fishing fleets are destroying the fish stock off of the west coast of Africa. As a result, the destruction of fishing villages has created a wave of migration from Africa into Europe. People say, Why do they go to France if they’re not happy there? Well, it’s better than starving.
INTERVIEWER Do you eat fish?
ROBINSON I’m generally a vegetarian of the ovo-lacto type, minus the ovo, yet I’m keenly aware of the fact that Hitler was a vegetarian. When he visited Mussolini in Italy he rejected the state dinner. He didn’t drink or smoke. I hold him up as an example of how an aversion virtue can be a negative sign.
INTERVIEWER How did you decide to write about Sellafield nuclear plant in Mother Country?
ROBINSON I didn’t really expect to write Mother Country—heaven knows. I was living in England, and it was all over the newspaper and all over television. I was surprised of course because it’s a terrible thing. Sellafield extracts plutonium239 and other salable isotopes of transuranic elements, very sloppily, and sends vast quantities of radioactive waste from the process into the sea. It’s a real disaster. They’ve been doing this since 1956. It’s amazing that people could have been up to this particular kind of mischief for fifty-two years, but they have.
When I came home from England, I didn’t even unpack my bags, I just sat down and wrote the article and sent it to my agent. And I said, You don’t have to deal with this if you don’t want to. But she sent it to Harper’s and they published it almost immediately. Then another publisher called and asked if I would write a book about it.
INTERVIEWER Mother Country was published in 1989. How do you view the book today?
ROBINSON If I could only have written one book, that would have been the book. It was a real education for me. It did as much as anything to undermine the education I brought with me when I started the project. It was as if I was writing a dissertation over again in my mind, trying to establish what would be the relevant thing to know and where to look next. Also, if I had not written that book, I would not have been able to live with myself. I would have felt that I was doing what we are all doing, which dooms the world.
INTERVIEWER Which is what?
ROBINSON Pretend we don’t know what we’re really up to. We know that plastic bags are killing animals in Africa at a terrific rate, but everybody still uses these things as if they just float away. We know that these new lightbulbs cut down on electricity, but where do they come from? China? Hungary? They have to be dealt with as toxic waste because they have mercury in them. So who’s being exposed to these chemicals when they’re manufactured and what are the environmental consequences in China or Hungary? What is the tradeoff in terms of shipping them long distances to save a little bit of electricity? I’m also partial to the Sellafield book because I think it exposes the ways in which we’re racist. We assume that Europeans are white and therefore more rational than other populations and to find something weird and unaccountable and inhumane we must go to a darker continent.
INTERVIEWER Did you ever worry about it coming across as a polemic?
ROBINSON Eh! Not among my worries. I was angry when I wrote that book. Nothing has happened to make me feel otherwise about the issues I raised in it. Sellafield is only larger now.
INTERVIEWER Mother Country appeared during the more than twenty-year gap between Housekeeping and Gilead. Why did it take you so long to return to writing fiction?
ROBINSON It was largely as a consequence of the experience of writing Mother Country that I began what amounted to an effort to reeducate myself. After all those years of school, I felt there was little I knew that I could trust, and I did not want my books to be one more tributary to the sea of nonsense that really is what most conventional wisdom amounts to. I am not so naive as to imagine that I have escaped that fate except in isolated cases and small particulars. But the research and criticism I have done have helped me to be of my own mind in some degree, and that was a feeling I had to achieve before I could enjoy writing fiction.
INTERVIEWER You once said that you “proceed from the assumption that the distinctions available to us in this world are not arrayed between good and bad but between bad and worse.” Do you ever worry that you’re too pessimistic?
ROBINSON I worry that I’m not pessimistic enough. My own life is full of profound satisfactions, and I’m distracted from the fact that the world is not in good shape. I cherish time, for instance, and for the most part I have control over my time, which is a marker of a very high standard of living as far as I’m concerned. At some point I created an artificial tropic for myself, where I could do exactly what I wanted to do and be rewarded for it. There’s a puritanical hedonism in my existence.
INTERVIEWER Puritanical hedonism?
ROBINSON I read books like The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine. Oh, terrific. I’ve almost never done anything that I didn’t want to do. My life has been laid out to satisfy any aspiration of mine to the power of ten or a hundred. I can only make sense of my unaccountable good fortune by assuming that it means I am under special obligation to make good use of it.
INTERVIEWER As opposed to always wanting more or something else?
ROBINSON I don’t think I could want something else. For instance, I’m kind of a solitary. This would not satisfy everyone’s hopes, but for me it’s a lovely thing. I recognize the satisfactions of a more socially enmeshed existence than I cultivate, but I go days without hearing another human voice and never notice it. I never fear it. The only thing I fear is the intensity of my attachment to it. It’s a predisposition in my family. My brother is a solitary. My mother is a solitary. I grew up with the confidence that the greatest privilege was to be alone and have all the time you wanted. That was the cream of existence. I owe everything that I have done to the fact that I am very much at ease being alone. It’s a good predisposition in a writer. And books are good company. Nothing is more human than a book.
INTERVIEWER You were close with Frank Conroy before he passed away. Are you close with other writers?
ROBINSON The social life of the Iowa Workshop seems to have changed to a certain extent. It’s the quietest among us who are left now. It’s a wonderful faculty, a wonderful working environment, and I like the way that the students who come to me have been prepared by the people around me, but I have a sense of urgency about what I want to get done and I discipline myself by keeping to myself. It’s a nice opportunity to be able to know these people, but I have to do other things, which take hours, days, weeks.
INTERVIEWER Have you always felt that urgency or is this something new?
ROBINSON It’s a little new. Years ago, I was younger than I am now.
INTERVIEWER You’ve said that reading a footnote in Jonathan Edwards’s “The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended” changed your consciousness. What was the footnote?
ROBINSON It’s not an attractive title for an essay, but in it he talks about the arbitrariness of “being” itself. He uses the metaphor of the reflected light of the moon, which we see as continuous light. Yet it is not intrinsic; it is continuously renewed as light. No physicist can tell you why things persist as they are, why one moment follows another. The reality we inhabit and treat like an old shoe is amazingly arbitrary.
INTERVIEWER Does that arbitrariness include the supernatural?
ROBINSON I’m not terribly persuaded by the word supernatural. I don’t like the idea of the world as an encapsulated reality with intrusions made upon it selectively. The reality that we experience is part of the whole fabric of reality. To pretend that the universe is somewhere else doing something is really not true. We’re right in the middle of it. Utterly dependent on it, utterly defined by it. If you read somebody like Wallace Stevens, he’s basically saying the same thing.
INTERVIEWER Do you believe in an afterlife?
ROBINSON I assume immortality, but religion doesn’t teach me to assume immortality. I assume immortality and this reinforces religion. But there’s a qualitative difference between actually confronting death and thinking about death in the abstract. By the grace of God, it has been an abstract concept to me up to this point.
INTERVIEWER It doesn’t keep you up at night?
ROBINSON No, I have benevolent insomnia. I wake up, and my mind is preternaturally clear. The world is quiet. I can read or write. It seems like stolen time. It seems like I have a twenty-eight-hour day. When I do think about death, the idea that life will be going on without me makes me melancholy. There’s so much to miss: history and architecture! But it won’t miss me.
INTERVIEWER Is religion a way to feel comforted in the face of death?
ROBINSON Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.
INTERVIEWER Someone once said that there has to be a problem with Christianity because four hundred denominations later they still can’t get it right.
ROBINSON People in the churches worry about that, but would we be richer for the loss of Catholicism? Would we be richer for the loss of the Quakers? Isn’t it true that every one of these traditions expresses Christianity in a way that the other traditions could not? It’s prismatic.
Religion, however, has presented itself in some extremely unattractive forms. It has recruited people into excitements that don’t look attractive to their neighbors. People seem to be profoundly disposed toward religion, yet they’re not terribly good at it.
INTERVIEWER Do you ever censor yourself in order to try to live up to a religious standard?
ROBINSON It’s not so much that I censor myself—I have to prod myself more often than not. I just get engulfed in whatever I’m thinking about, and I tend to forget that other people exist. I just don’t do right by people in every circumstance. It’s not that my religion inhibits me, it’s that my religion is not always sufficient to overcome certain failings of mine, which tend toward solipsism.
INTERVIEWER Do you feel like there’s something you’ve missed out on in life?
ROBINSON There’s always something that I feel I’ve missed. I should travel more, for instance. I went to Paris last fall, which was a great departure for me. I flew Air India, which in itself was quite remarkable. I had a lovely time in France and I thought, I should do this more often. But then I come home and I think, I have all of this work to do. Look at all of these books I haven’t read. Frankly, you get to a certain point in your life where you can do unusual things with your mind. So then, I think, do them.
[Source: The Paris Review]