Interview with Marilynne Robinson, 2014 National Book Award Finalist, Fiction


LILA Marilynne RobinsonLila

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Interview by Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee: In an essay for A Public Space in 2006, you wrote that “at its best, fiction can be said to express a higher truth.” You wondered if in part that higher truth was that “we live in uncertainty, which means we are always exposed to the possibility of learning more.” Is that idea of productive uncertainty still important to you as a writer?

Marilynne Robinson: The idea is extremely important to me, in my writing of every kind, and in my thinking. 

I am persuaded that inappropriate extrapolation—generalization or inference on the basis of information that is never sufficient—is a great source of error.  Generalization is inevitable, inference is necessary, but they must always be tentative even in the best cases.  Often the information is simply in error, and the error becomes the basis for a whole field of thought ... 

JL: You get a good deal of immediacy from your choice to narrate Lila in a very close third person voice. It’s a style that’s closer to the first person than it is to omniscience. I’m curious whether, in early drafts, you ever toyed with other modes of narration.

MR: This is the only one I considered. 

I knew Lila was complex, conflicted and stoical.  So I had to have other access to her mind than the first person could give me. 

I’m too interested in inwardness to find much use for omniscience. 

JL: Leslie Jamison has pointed out in a review for The Atlantic that chief among Lila’s fears is the idea of “being beholden.”  Lila seems to find a kind of inward comfort in the fact that one day she could just buy a bus ticket and leave her life behind.  Why do you think that is?

MR: This is a very common form of pride, in the best sense of the word. 

I think most people dread dependency even though many are forced into it by circumstance. They do not want to be the objects of generosity they cannot reciprocate. These things loom for Lila because her circumstances are so difficult.

JL: Lila returns us to the world of Gilead and Home, but opens up the story of a character who is a more marginal presence in the previous two books.  What was it about Lila that drew you into her story and demanded a whole book? 

MR: I just sense that a voice and a presence in my imagination can be explored at book length.  Lila was just there waiting.

JL: I’ve read that you don’t spend a great deal of time revising your sentences.  And on the other hand, Lila is your fourth novel in 33 years.  Are you a quicker writer than we think – a writer that takes long breaks between books? 

MR: I do write rather quickly and take breaks between books—or, more precisely, wait for the next book to divulge itself.

JL: What is it about the 1950s that continues to excite your imagination? 

MR: They [the 1950s] are modern without the encumbrances of contemporary life. 

In the 1950s people can actually be alone, and when they seek out contact it is a real, slightly demanding, choice. 

At the same time, the issues that arose in society then are still very much with us. 

JL: You once said that, in writing classes, a lot of the time you spend teaching is actually spent “un-teaching”.  I’m curious what kinds of lessons commonly have to be un-taught. 

MR: Well, that you can write only things based in your own experience, and that good characters are never interesting, and that you must project forward the dominant styles and trends of the decade if you are to be published and acknowledged, and that you must always “show” rather than “tell”—one of the great artificial distinctions. 

There are many.

JL: Which writers have been important to you across your career to date, and which do you find yourself teaching at Iowa most often?

MR: I am endlessly indebted to the 19th century Americans, the old pantheon.  I have taught them often, especially Melville.  I also teach Faulkner.

JL: At one point in Lila you write that “the air in a good house is so still.”  Is this true of good novels too?  Your books are full of moments of calm.  Many of your contemporaries aren’t quite so comfortable with quiet.

MR: I do like quiet.  It is the climate in which inwardness flourishes.

JL: You’ve said before that you doubted Housekeeping would ever be published – that it might have been “too private a novel” to reach a wide audience.  And then when FSG agreed to publish it, I understand they warned you that it probably wouldn’t be reviewed.  Have you been surprised by how many people your novels have touched since then, and the response in terms of accolades and awards?

MR: I really have been surprised.  I still am.  It’s very gratifying.  

Jonathan Lee’s third novel, High Dive, is forthcoming from Knopf. He is Associate Editor at the Brooklyn-based literary journal A Public Space. [@JonLeeWriter]