Marilynne Robinson, on ‘Home’ and places in her heart -- like Iowa

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When Susan Straight interviewed Marilynne Robinson on Saturday at the Festival of Books, the pairing couldn’t have been stranger.

Straight had ample energy and funny quips. Robinson, on the other hand, was composed, calm and dignified: a persona that matched her prose. She cocked her head to the right as she spoke, as if confiding to the microphone.

They began by talking about place in Robinson’s fiction. (She was awarded the L.A. Times Book Prize for fiction on Friday night for ‘Home.’) Straight wanted to know whether Gilead, the town of her last two novels, was inspired by a real town.

Robinson initially denied that it did -- “It’s a composite of a bunch of small towns” -- but later admitted the origin of the town’s history: “There is a town in Iowa called Paper. A lot of the history in Gilead is drawn from Paper.” Robinson then complained that many people ignore Iowa, saying folks go to the West Coast and East Coast but skip the middle. To her, the area’s beauty is quite unparalleled: “When I travel around Iowa, it looks a lot like France, a lot like Ireland.” She also argued for Iowa’s progressiveness, noting that it recently passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage.


When Robinson talked about place, her depth of research showed. She talked of the abolitionist history of the Midwest and the history of mixed-gender education before the Civil War and named the universities promoting racial integration. Her knowledge about place owes much to skills developed through nonfiction research (a book on nuclear dangers) and also demonstrates why she took 20 years between ‘Housekeeping’ and ‘Gilead’ -- she was, in her own words, “re-educating” herself.

Since religion is so integral to Robinson’s fiction, its appearance was inevitable. “I read a lot of theology. I don’t think I could write a novel that wasn’t theological.”

Robinson also seemed most at ease with questions on this subject; her answers waxed long. In response to those who pit secularism against religion.“The reason for the health of our religion is that we’ve created a secular space. What we call secular is the greatest protector of religion we have. When we see secularism as a problem, we’re actually creating a problem,” she said.

She was also encouraged by the way that her recent fiction had expanded the conversation about religion, noting that ‘Home’ was being translated into Arabic. “I think it’s heartening that people can talk around religion. Too often it’s talked about in a polemical way.”

She invoked the term “polemic” often, as a reproach for misguided religious discussion. Theological influences include John Calvin, Thomas More, and Martin Luther, but she admires only the renaissance aspect of Calvin, not his polemic excesses, though she gives him leeway because of his time period.

After questions from the audience, just before the session ended, Straight offhandedly mentioned: “I listened to an interview where you said writing is like prayer.” Robinson nodded politely, and as the audience exited, those words -- a kind of benediction -- accompanied us.

-- John Fox

Click here for more photos of the Book Festival.