Marilynne Robinson.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Arts & Culture

For Marilynne Robinson, literary explorer, gifts of language reward journey

Pulitzer Prize winner, Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor on complex characters, dream parallels, fiction vs. nonfiction, and more

8 min read

Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 debut novel “Housekeeping,” about a pair of orphaned sisters raised by their eccentric aunt in an isolated town, was an instant hit among critics and is still widely read and admired today. Yet despite her early success as a fiction writer, Robinson didn’t publish another novel for more than two decades. The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead,” written as a letter from an ailing father to his young son, appeared in 2004. It was followed by two acclaimed sequels, “Home” (2008) and “Lila” (2014).

On a recent visit to Harvard, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop professor emeritus, whose latest work is “What Are We Doing Here?,” answered questions about her life as novelist, essayist, and teacher.


Marilynne Robinson

GAZETTE: I think you were in high school when you sensed writing was where you were headed. Can you recall an early piece of writing, something you thought was good?

ROBINSON: I usually found out from other people that I was good at it. I am indebted to the various English teachers who would give me a 99.

GAZETTE: Was there an influential teacher?

ROBINSON: I had a high school teacher named Mrs. Soderling, bless her heart. She said one must make one’s mind a good companion because you live with it every minute of your life, you know. And that really resonated with me. She sort of, in a way, defined a project that I have actually carried through my life.

GAZETTE: You taught creative writing at Iowa. Do you miss it?

ROBINSON: Oh, I miss all sorts of things. It’s a very, very interesting thing to see people come in and develop and emerge as people that are actually writers in the public space.

GAZETTE: Anything in particular that you wish you could still engage with?

ROBINSON: One of the things that is interesting is that it’s always a new roll of the dice — always these different voices and personalities and new combinations. I miss the general stimulation of it and hearing them talk about how they perceive things and what they consider when they write. I always felt if I were not being educated by them I was at least being re-educated by them.

“There’s something affirming to me in the fact that language itself exists so much in excess of anything that can be described as a necessity.”

GAZETTE:  I’d love to hear your thoughts on character. You spoke about that recently with Harvard’s James Wood during a discussion at Radcliffe. Why is a complex character so key to good fiction?

ROBINSON: I think a character is complex or not worth pursuing. People are complex — that’s the whole center of interest. I don’t make my characters complex. I have a feeling that I know a character, and one of the aspects of that is knowing that they are complex. I never have the feeling of putting a character together from a selection of qualities.

GAZETTE: Where do your characters come from?

ROBINSON: I have no idea. They are like people in dreams. I am sure we all experience dreams in individual ways. I often have dreams that conjure some character with particular traits and tics and attire, and there they are, all together, ominous or reassuring or whatever, and it’s quite a bit the same with the character. You simply know that certain things would be true, certain things would not be true.

GAZETTE: Do your characters appear as real to you as the people you feel you should be engaging with?

ROBINSON: It’s a different kind of reality. But, you know, it is a very odd thing because hard things happen to people in my fiction. I love them all and I think, “Oh, this is terrible, this is so sad, but it has to happen.”

GAZETTE: What is it like when you have to let a character go?

ROBINSON: Well, it feels a lot like mourning, frankly. And the other very powerful sensation is that books tend to end themselves. You can feel the conflation of things that mean the ending is coming and there’s nothing you can do about it.

GAZETTE: When you start a work do you know where or how it’s going to end?

ROBINSON: With both “Housekeeping” and “Gilead” I had an absolute prohibition against preconceiving an ending because that, in anticipation, governs too many things that actually had to be dealt with on their own terms. You get to a much better ending, I think, if you do that because you’ve put all the pieces together. After I wrote “Gilead,” then of course the later books are dependent on things in “Gilead,” so that controls things to a degree in which there was no control in “Housekeeping.”

GAZETTE: How did you know at the end of the trilogy that you were done, or is it done? I know you are working on another novel. Will you return to familiar territory?

ROBINSON: Yes, I am working on another novel, and frankly, I can’t claim to have departed from my earlier novels altogether. It’s not set in Gilead the town, but even people from Gilead end up in other places from time to time.

GAZETTE: So we might see a return to some familiar characters?


GAZETTE: In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year you said that you write “to try to figure something out for my own purposes.” I wondered in terms of fiction if there is something you are trying to work out, or does that quote refer more to your nonfiction work?

ROBINSON: No, it’s true of my fiction also. “Housekeeping” was an exploration of language, among other things. I had read 19th-century American fiction and I loved their extended metaphors and the way that they seemed to almost come out of the page and become so much more dimensional and suggestive. American literature took a turn after the 19th century away from the kind of epistemological concerns that were so characteristic of early writers, and it seemed to me as if there was a great deal more exploring to do of the earlier style. And so I consciously did that in “Housekeeping.” I thought I was writing a book that would never be published and that gave me a lot of latitude.

GAZETTE: You gave it to a friend and then the next thing you knew someone was interested in publishing it, I believe.

ROBINSON: It seemed so unreal. People always ask me when I decided to become a writer. I never decided to become a writer. It just is something — the whole phenomenon just comes naturally to me for some reason. I like the challenge of putting an idea in words or evoking something, moving it from felt reality or whatever into language — how that happens. It’s very unreal, really very unaccountable, I think. You fail a great part of the time. Even if the language is not failing, it’s not doing what you want it to do. But I enjoy that feeling. There’s something affirming to me in the fact that language itself exists so much in excess of anything that can be described as a necessity. It is so much more than utilitarian. It obviously is something that, however it developed, has been developed with enormous consciousness by all those language speakers. That’s just interesting to me.

GAZETTE: There was a 24-year gap between “Housekeeping” and “Gilead.” You have said that you had a crisis of doubt after you finished “Housekeeping.” I wonder if you could say a little bit more about that. Was there a point at which you thought you might not go back to writing fiction?

ROBINSON: Yes. I was happy writing nonfiction, I was happy doing the research that lay behind it. I could have lived out the rest of my life happily writing nonfiction, but that impulse came back and I was perfectly happy to accommodate it.

GAZETTE: Can you talk about the joy or the sense of accomplishment that you get from fiction versus your nonfiction work?

ROBINSON: It’s kind of similar. There is a sort of sense of something generating in my mind that I don’t necessarily anticipate or expect in any way. You hear how mathematicians talk in a certain way. You have an idea in your mind. You feel blocked. And then you can be walking across a campus in Iowa and you think, “Of course this implies that,” and it recruits other elements into the narrative. And it’s not as if you figure it out. It’s as if somewhere in your brain, your mind, it figures itself out and then lets you in on the information.

GAZETTE: That sounds like that might be a function of the work you have done, the research and the primary texts and sources and reading.

ROBINSON: I don’t know if that’s true. You live one life one way. I think I would probably always have written fiction, but I’ve no idea what it would be like if I hadn’t done all the other things I have done.