By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Photo by George Duncan
Twenty-five years ago, Marilynne Robinson published Housekeeping, a strange and beautiful novel about orphan sisters living with their eccentric, possibly schizophrenic aunt on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Helene in Idaho. Housekeeping was a literary phenomenon that has been re-read, compulsively, by countless creative-writing students in the country, then and since. Yet for all of Housekeeping’s loveliness and success, its author did not rush to follow up with another novel. Instead came rumors of her studying . . . history? Then, in 1989, Robinson published Mother Country, a book-length investigative essay about the British government’s gross mismanagement of a large nuclear reprocessing plant. Nine years later brought The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, and it is in these essays that we glimpse certain themes that animate Robinson’s long-hoped-for (if, by now, completely unexpected) second novel, Gilead. In it, she explores her ongoing interests in abolitionism and radical Midwestern ministries, the nature of family and the shifting winds of 20th-century liberal Christianity.
Gileadtakes the form of a letter written in 1956 by 77-year-old Reverend John Ames to the adult man his very young son will become. The letter is elegiac in tone — Ames’ heart is giving out — and in it he tells family stories and struggles with death, all with quiet humor, intelligent self-reflection and much tenderness toward the living world.
Robinson spoke to the Weekly via e-mail from Iowa City, where she teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
L.A. WEEKLY: When you were away from fiction for all those many years, didn’t you yearn for it?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: I am always engrossed in whatever I am doing. If a novel, a voice and a circumstance had not engaged my attention, I would have been absorbed by nonfiction and by teaching. I am glad to have written Gilead. It was an interesting experience, very important to me. But that intervening time was also good and important.
What was the beginning ofGilead, the seed, the idea? Did the epistolary structure come to you as part of the original idea?
Years ago I saw the sun set as a full moon rose. This stayed with me. The voice and the epistolary form occurred to me together. The thought of an old man writing to a grown son he does not know but loves profoundly, and who, as a child, is lying on his belly in the sunlight drawing pictures as the old man writes — I could feel a novel implicit in that situation.
Where did the rich, elegiac voice come from? Did you have, as some critics have suggested, a literary model for this novel?
Voice is a mystery. The way I wrote it is simply the way it sounded in my mind. I had no literary model, particularly. There are plenty of literary clergy, as the narrator is well aware — Donne and Herbert and Watts, for example. The Diary of a Country Priestis really very different from Gilead, though the old reverend sees something of himself in it.
What were the challenges in writing about a religious man, a good man?
I had no problem writing about a religious man. I know preachers are conventionally represented as frauds or scoundrels, hypocrites at best. In general, I try to steer clear of conventions. I know good characters are supposed to be uninteresting. That must be a very recent discovery. There are plenty of good people in literature. For one thing, they make reliable and scrupulous narrators. For another, they convey ethical and emotional nuance. Goodness, after all, requires a disciplined attention to other people. Ishmael is good, Nick Adams is good, many of James’ characters are very good. If the word "good" implies narrowness, judgmentalism or hypocrisy, then "good" has become a synonym for "bad," nothing a writer would wish to explore sympathetically. But if goodness implies the attempt to be a positive presence in the world, a good father or mother, a good friend, or simply an honest human being — that requires a great deal of sensitivity and attention, as everyone knows who has tried it. People are not good statically. They are good situationally. They can fail at any moment, and they know it. And they usually know when they do fail, because they want to know. This is a very active and complex experience of consciousness. Self-seeking is dull and monistic by comparison. In any case, making my narrator both religious and good (though blind to some essential things as well) allowed me to give him a large, active, reflective mind.
There are three generations of ministers in this book, starting with John Ames’ radical grandfather, who is impassioned, touched, conversant with God, political, willing to shed blood for his beliefs. Where did he come from?
There were actually a good many radical ministers who came out into the Middle West before the Civil War. Some of them were indeed armed, and did fight in the war when it came. And many of them were moved to their radicalism by visions of Christ. As the reverend’s father says, it was the times. These same people founded any number of fine little colleges, promoted women’s rights, established integrated churches and communities. They were highly educated and unbelievably energetic and resourceful. Now they are forgotten. The grandfather has lived long enough to see their labors sliding away, Jim Crow setting in.