Where people are on the planet has a profound effect on how they see everything,” Marilynne Robinson says. The wide coffee table in her living room is piled with books, which are in turn covered with page proofs of Robinson's third novel, Home, coming in September from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Robinson's place on the planet is Iowa City, Iowa, in a 1920s-style house a few blocks from the University of Iowa campus. Because of the concentration of Iowa Writers' Workshop faculty living on this street, Iowa City's literary cognoscenti call it “Writer's Row.” Robinson walks to the window and points out the homes of three of her colleagues, all of whom she describes as “very nice, very interesting” people.
“I've never had such a pleasant encounter with humankind,” she says of her 19-year tenure on the Writers' Workshop's faculty. She calls herself “basically a recluse,” who, when not teaching, spends much of her time alone at home, reading or writing, her constant companion her 13-year-old poodle, Otis.
Robinson, 65, the author of Housekeeping (FSG, 1980), a a novel widely regarded as a modern American classic, received the Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, Gilead (FSG, 2004). Gilead is written in epistolary form, as Rev. John Ames, an elderly preacher contemplates his mortality. He writes a letter on the eve of the civil rights movement to his young son, remembering his life and recounting his family's history, framed by the 19th-century social and political movements that swept across America's heartland.
Home revisits the town of Gilead (which Robinson modeled on Tabor, in rural southwest Iowa). It is 1956 and Reverend Ames is writing the letter to his son. This time, however, the story is told from the perspective of a neighboring family, headed by Reverend Ames's close friend and fellow preacher, Rev. Robert Boughton. While Gilead was a novel primarily about fathers and sons, Home explores the relationship between a brother and sister as well. Ne'er-do-well Jack Boughton, a pivotal character in Gilead, takes center stage here, having returned home after a 20-year absence to see his ailing father, who is being cared for by Jack's youngest sister, Glory.
“There were characters I still had on my mind,” Robinson explains, recalling how she'd felt “abandoned” by the characters in Housekeeping, two sisters growing up in rural Idaho—where Robinson herself grew up—whose lives are marked by loss.
“I went though this period of almost mourning, because I didn't have them anymore,” she admits, as she tells of not being inspired to write a second novel until, alone in a hotel on Cape Cod one Christmas more than two decades later, she “felt” the voice of an old man she “knew”—Reverend Ames. She started writing and “everything opened up from that.”
After finishing Gilead, “I sort of expected the same feeling of loss, but the characters didn't go away. Why not give them another book?” But she didn't want to write a sequel. “That didn't make any sense to me,” she says. “A novel has its shape and that's that.”
Robinson, who has a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Washington, is also the author of two nonfiction books, Mother Country (FSG, 1989), about radioactive pollution in Britain, and The Death of Adam (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), a collection of essays. Her fiction, she says, “is completely dependent on characters and voices.”
Leaning forward in her armchair, she speaks with great passion against the idea people have that “there's this great, stodgy, dense middle of the country that clings to old values, core values and that all experimentation has really occurred on the coasts.” While she doesn't see herself as “engaged in any sort of missionary work as far as cultural memory is concerned,” she does care about correcting people's misperceptions.
She maintains that the intellectual culture of the Midwest has played a crucial role in the history of this country. “It's a question of how America can understand its own past, then not acknowledge the importance of how radical the Middle West was.”
After having accepted the invitation to join the Writers' Workshop's faculty in Iowa City, Robinson admits she had to work to overcome her own biases against living in a sparsely populated state in the middle of the country by “really consciously” making herself aware of its physical landscape.
“I wanted to be able to feel at home here, because I did in so many ways feel at home here,” she says. “I think that is pretty obvious from what I've written.”