Forget the farmhouse with its wide veranda. Forget the fields of corn so often used to evoke Iowa City, where Marilynne Robinson spends most of each year as a fiction professor at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Picture instead an apartment complex in Queens, complete with mesh security gate, the cheerfully bedraggled bushes of a community courtyard, and four flights of narrow stairs.
For a few months, Robinson, '68, '77, is calling this place home—not as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author but as a grandmother, temporarily relocated to New York to spend all the time she can with her first grandchild. "A girl," she says happily. Joseph, one of Robinson's two sons, lives just a few floors away. Her walk-up apartment has the endearing sparseness of a grad student's pad: one overflowing bookshelf with volumes crammed in sideways (Junot Diaz, Ernest Hemingway, The Swan); a rice paper screen draped in white Christmas lights; an oil-and-photo collage, provenance unknown, salvaged from an antique store. A square of bare floor marks where the breakfast nook's table and chair should be. She admits this has been on her mind. She's losing out on the opportunity to sit and gaze out at the galley kitchen's view of … well, actually, a view of the neighbors' exhaust vents. "Oh," she says, "but the morning light is lovely."
Marilynne Robinson's warm manner and casual style—she greets me in a sweatshirt and jeans—do little to blunt the force of her steely intellect and an acuity of language and vision that has propelled her to the foremost ranks of contemporary American writers. Born in 1943 in Sandpoint, Idaho, she earned her bachelor's degree at Pembroke University (the former women's college at Brown University) before receiving her master's and Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington. At age 65 she has authored three novels, each of which is regarded as a major contribution to American letters, along with two acclaimed essay collections. Before joining the faculty of the Writers' Workshop in 1991, she taught at many institutions including the University of Kent in England, Amherst College, and the University of Massachusetts.
In speaking of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where she is the F. Wendell Miller Professor, Robinson displays typical modesty. The first and most famous creative-writing program in the country has "a good admissions policy" that leads to "students who become interesting writers," she says. When I point out that "interesting" is not the same as "successful," she is quick to agree, preferring the former quality.
"But," she allows with a small smile, "our writers do all right."
When the conversation veers toward President Barack Obama, another Midwesterner recently relocated to the East coast, Robinson leans forward like a slightly giddy teenager. She praises the president for "riding a wave of interest in public speaking—the oldest tradition in American life." The admiration, it turns out, is mutual. "He has a Facebook thing," she says—quickly adding that it was her students who found the page online, not her. Sure enough, Obama's personal page on the social network lists Robinson's novel Gilead as one of his "Favorite Books," alongside the Bible and Lincoln's Collected Writings.
Obama is hardly alone in his admiration of the book. Published in 2004 and just her second novel, Gilead won both the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. The book serves as an autobiography for the fictional Reverend John Ames, a dying Congregationalist pastor in the isolated town of Gilead, Iowa; it is composed of letters from Ames, who is terminally ill, to a seven-year-old son who will have few memories of his elderly father. One of the book's focal points is Ames' relationship to his best friend, the Presbyterian Reverend Robert Boughton, and their respective families. Another is Ames' musings on the nature of predestination—a subject dear to John Calvin (an intellectual icon to Robinson, who feels he has been sorely misjudged over the years).
Befitting the religious context, there is a marked reserve in tone and dialogue. "I've immersed myself in the world of very tactful people," Robinson notes. The wildfire success of a book set in 1950s rural Iowa is counterintuitive in a fiction market typically dominated by hyperbolic imagery, international politics or suspenseful twists. The readers flocked anyway, drawn by what the famously hard-to-please New York Times critic James Woods called "a beautiful work—demanding, grave and lucid."
It takes bravery for the creator of such a well-loved world to revisit that landscape, and complicate our understanding of the characters within it. But Robinson could not resist journeying back to Gilead, and in 2008 Farrar, Straus & Giroux published Home. Winner of the 2009 Orange Prize (Britain's £30,000 award for the best work of fiction by a woman writing in English), the book is an independent novel—"not a sequel," the author states firmly—that takes place concurrently to Gilead but is related from the perspective of the Boughton household. Robinson seized the opportunity to illuminate two characters mentioned in the first book: "Jack," a.k.a. John Ames Boughton, a prodigal son of Reverend Boughton and the godson of Reverend Ames (who is haunted by his namesake's misdeeds); and Glory Boughton, Jack's sister, who stays long after her siblings have gone only to find herself slipping toward spinsterdom.
These are books driven by voice, not plot.
For some authors, a book is a gyroscope of story that carries its characters along for the ride; for Robinson, a book is an elaborate needlepoint of decisions and observations. At any time, a character might pause to pick at a thread that unspools into revelation. Consider what could have been a cursory moment in Glory's description of the Boughton property: "the oak tree in front of the house, much older than the neighborhood or the town, which made rubble of the pavement at its foot and flung its imponderable branches out over the road and across the yard, branches whose girths were greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa."
Robinson adds narrative momentum with the inclusion of historical figures such as John Brown, the radical abolitionist who is assisted by Ames' grandfather (as related in flashback) at a critical moment. Gilead offers a somewhat sympathetic view of Brown, informed in part by the author's careful reading of the 1909 book, John Brown: A Biography, by W.E.B. DuBois. "There's a lot of fictional treatments of people like John Brown that are very sensational," Robinson says.
There is little question that Robinson is a voracious reader; her current passion is science. When we met she was in the planning stages, anticipating three lectures grounded in science—and a fourth one inspired by the poetry of Wallace Stevens.
"I remember having long arguments over Wallace Stevens," Robinson says, thinking back to her days at the University of Washington. "How to read him." Stevens was a rare indulgence, a Modern poet amidst a reading list that consisted primarily of William Blake, John Milton and their contemporaries. This course of study was intended, in part, to balance an earlier education saturated in writings from recent generations. While at Pembroke (now Brown), Robinson majored in American literature. "My favorite writers were the nineteenth-century Americans," she says. Those people were talking to me."
For her graduate studies, Robinson chose the UW "because it had a fine reputation," she says. "I read somewhere that it was the premier institution in the northwest quadrant of the country. I had grown up in Idaho, where my parents were still living, and I missed the mountains and the pine forests, and those elusive qualities that make westerners, westerners. Seattle was urban, and it had that feeling of a northern tropic about it—azaleas and roses blooming in winter, monkey puzzle trees. So it wasn't exactly a homecoming for me. But it was interesting and beautiful."
Hoping to diversify her literary knowledge, she committed to a dissertation on the works of William Shakespeare. Robinson returned to primary documents and studied what Shakespeare would have been reading in his time, including the Chronicle Histories. She was determined to consult source materials before shaping opinions—a lesson that would inform all her subsequent writing. "I read microfilm for so long," she says, "and books with uncut pages." She recalls many hours spent studying in Suzzallo Library, "a very grand and lovely building, imposingly situated. I used to walk through the trees up to that big open green with the library beyond it.Old campuses always seem to try to evoke a kind of intellectual Eden, a very touching impulse."
But the fires of scholarship used up the oxygen that had once fed her fiction. "I would try to write a page, and I would use a particular word or concept. And I'd—" She pauses. "I'd stop. Do you know what I mean?"
Robinson married and began a family. They moved first to France, then to Massachusetts, where her then-husband (they would later separate) taught at a state university. Although she continued to jot down notes toward fiction, nothing gelled. Asked for details of this period, she confesses, "I really have a very poor sense of the chronology of my own life. The writing of metaphors was time stolen from classes, a dissertation and a baby…I did not realize then that they would be part of a novel. So what became themes in Housekeeping were only implicit in the fragments--problems of knowledge, really. How we see what we see, how memory is a factor in present experience, and so on."
From the ashes of this creative hiatus rose her first book. Published in 1980, Housekeeping follows the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are raised by relatives in the small town of Fingerbone (loosely based on Robinson's Idaho birthplace) following their mother's suicide. While Lucille yearns for the trappings of a "normal" household, Ruth follows the siren call of their Aunt Sylvie, who has only temporarily suppressed her transient, train-hopping lifestyle in order to care for her nieces. The book received the PEN/Hemingway Award for the best first novel; in 1987 it was adapted into a movie starring Christine Lahti as Sylvie; in 2003 the Guardian Unlimited named it one of the 100 greatest novels of all time; and in 2006 the New York Times named it one of the 25 best American novels of the last 25 years.
The post-Gilead media buzz dramatized the 24-year span between the first and second novel. But the author herself is dismissive of the gap, pointing instead to her two nonfiction books published in the interim: Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State, and Nuclear Pollution, an environmental treatise published in 1989 (fueled in part by her teaching stint in Canterbury); and the 1998 collection The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought.
I point out that three of the book projects we've discussed were invigorated by a change of locale, as if leaving a place might free her to look backwards and write. How does she feel about her new neighborhood in the Empire State? Robinson lights up. Calling it "the most diverse zip code in the city," she observes, "there are the most amazing vapors of cooking, things you can't identify. I feel like tracking it down to a door, knocking, and asking, What is that?" But when pressed on the topic of a next book project she carefully folds her enthusiasm inward, returning to an origami of Zen composure. "I was surprised by Gilead. I was surprised by Home. If something presents itself in that same way, I'll try it," she says.
Almost two hours have passed. As I gather my things and take a last look around her home, what I see is not what's missing, but the careful choices of what is present. These are the distilled ingredients of a life: A snow globe that plays "The First Noel" to the delight of a seven-month-old. A brilliant blue teakettle that warms an otherwise bare stovetop. On the kitchen cutting board, Robinson has lined up a formation of six oranges. They are mute and waiting, their ripe rinds absorbing the afternoon's final light.
Sandra Beasley is a free-lance writer and poet based in Washington, D.C. She is an editor for The American Scholar.