National Book Award winner Marilynne Robinson created a fictional Iowa town in the first half of the 20th century as the setting for her three most recent novels. But don't mistake her look back as an attempt to avoid human complexity. "History is a great cure for nostalgia," she says.
Dr. Marilynne Robinson is an author and essayist living and teaching in Iowa City. In 1981, Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. In the years that followed, Robinson focused on non-fiction essays. In 2004, Robinson published the Pulitzer Prize winning book Gilead, a novel that centered around John Ames, a preacher in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, in the 1950’s. Her third and fourth novels, Home and Lila (published October of last year) returned readers to Gilead, Iowa. Lila won the 2014 National Book Award. Dr. Robinson spoke with the Yonder about why she writes about rural places, and why she hesitates to make generalizations about any time or place.
Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and what was it like?
Marilynne Robinson: I grew up in northern Idaho, Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, both at the time small, still undiscovered by the resort industry. It is a beautiful region, mountains and lakes, and it was a wonderful place to grow up.
DY: You now live in Iowa City. What brought you there?
MR: I was invited to teach in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
DY: All of your four novels are set in small towns. Are you drawn to rural settings because of your upbringing?
MR: Perhaps I am. I like the quiet and simplicity of life in small towns. I like the fact that they can reflect very directly the choices that are made to shape the community. I love cities, too, but just because they are so interesting they demand more attention than I am used to devoting to daily life—or at least they demand attention of another kind. I have spoken at flourishing mainline churches in Manhattan, different in size and resources but not in ethos from my church in Iowa. I don’t drive, and a small town with a big university is ideal for me, because I can walk to a major library, a concert, a farmers’ market.
DY: Gilead, Home, and most recently, Lila, are novels set in Gilead, a fictional town in rural Iowa in and before the 1950’s. Why and how did you settle upon this place and time?
MR: I had been reading about the history of Iowa and the Midwest, which were very important in the period of the Civil War. It is a history that was entirely new to me, and very fascinating. Gilead is set in the period of the Civil Rights movement, when the heroic past had been largely forgotten. John Ames is old enough to have known someone, his grandfather, who was involved in it.
DY: Religion and faith loom large in these novels, as well as several of your non-fiction essays. Do you think there are differences in how people practice religious faith in rural America versus urban America? Is the role religion plays in the town of Gilead a metaphor for religion in America today?
MR: This country is so vast and so diverse religiously that I would not attempt a generalization about either urban or rural religious life. Many people find things they recognize in Gilead, not only in America but in Greece, Dubai, all sorts of places. Organized or formalized religion is based on the expression of a sense of the sacred that is not given the same kind of explicit expression in ordinary life. Perhaps religions are always more similar than they are different.
DY: At times these three novels feel nostalgic for a particular place and time in American history, though as a whole you portray the town and its inhabitants and morally, politically and religiously complex. Was this ambiguity intentional?
MR: Simply being fair to the past is sometimes seen as nostalgia. Of course people were as complex then as they are now. I am a realist, in the sense that I want to populate my books with human beings, and to do justice to them. History is a great cure for nostalgia. I don’t think anyone who spends a little time studying history will be afflicted by illusions about the special goodness of the past. People in previous generations were as mingled phenomena as we are.
DY: Do you think about rural stereotypes when you’re writing? Do you try to acknowledge or avoid them?
MR: I never think about them. The word ‘stereotype’ should warn anyone away.