Magazine article The Christian Century

A Pastoral Voice: An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Pastoral Voice: An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

Article excerpt

IN 1980, Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, which won a PEN/Hemingway Award and was made into a movie. She published nonfiction works during the next 24 years, including The Death of Adam and Mother Country, but kept her fans waiting until 2004 for a second novel. Gilead is the memoir of John Ames, a Congregationalist pastor in a small Iowa town who reminisces about his father, a preacher with pacifist convictions, and his grandfather, an abolitionist minister. Gilead received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize and the 2006 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion. For the past 14 years, Robinson has lived in Iowa City, where she works with students at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

When did you decide to write Gilead?

I was in Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the end of 2001, giving a reading. My sons were on their way to visit me there but were delayed, so I was alone in a little sunlit room on Cape Cod, and I started writing. It seemed to me as if I suddenly knew the voice [of John Ames]--it sounds sort of mystical, but at that point I had the conviction that I knew the character. Then I wrote the book quickly, probably in less than two years, which is very brief for a novel.

Where does fictional inspiration come from for this and other books?

Everything you've done in your life goes into everything you write. I've read theology and history for many years just because it's my pleasure, so I had a background into which I could incarnate this voice. Other than that it's a matter of watching people and thinking how someone of a certain nature would think in certain circumstances.

Gilead reflects a strong sense of place, yet you did not grow up in Iowa. How did you develop the relationship to the land that is expressed in the novel?

I grew up in the mountains in northern Idaho, then lived in New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Both of these places are appropriately vain on the subject of their landscapes. When I came to the Midwest and the Great Plains, I decided that I had to learn how to see this landscape, so I spent a lot of time just looking at it, trying to understand how to relax my expectations about mountains, for example, and see the beauty unique to this place.

I began to consciously and systematically study the nature of the place because I wanted to know where I was. For me that always means building a historical sense of a place. And there was one amazing experience that inspired Gilead: I did once see the sun and the moon on opposite horizons. It was very beautiful.

The main character of the book is a pastor who is the son and grandson of pastors. Obviously you've spent some time thinking about the role of ministers. Can you say more about your sense of ministry as a vocation?

People, even unchurched people, seem to want to invest a particular meaning in the role of pastor, and almost instinctively wish to be respectful of the pastoral role. I think it can be very difficult for the pastor himself or herself to understand that this is true because the meaning is community-generated rather than generated by the individual herself or himself. Some pastors live up to their role very beautifully. But often they are anxious about seeming pretentious or exclusive, and this keeps them from filling the role that they need to fill for the sake of other people.

One would assume that a pastor has an education that qualifies her or him to speak in certain terms, to take certain broader perspectives. It's not elitist, for example, for a doctor to know about medicine. It's not elitist for a professor to know about history, and it's not elitist for a pastor to know about theology. That's what they're there for. The idea that in their sermons pastors have to speak to people in almost infantile terms about things that they can read in the daily newspaper is an insult to others who are there to hear something that they do not know. …

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