Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Inland Northwest native Marilynne Robinson is the fourth guest of Gonzaga University's 2014-15 Visiting Writers Series. Robinson currently teaches at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and is beloved by readers and critics alike for her deeply intelligent, introspective narrative style. A Sandpoint native, Robinson reflects on her career and the state of American literature before her visit to Spokane.
INLANDER: Newspaper and magazine profiles of you often bring up the long break (24 years) between your debut novel, Housekeeping, and your second fiction work, Gilead. Yet in the past 10 years, you've had five books published. What are you working on now?
ROBINSON: I am working on a collection of essays that will be published in the fall. I will be traveling to Europe for publications of Lila in translation, which are coming out this spring.
You were born and grew up in North Idaho. Do you visit the area often? When was the last time you came back?
I didn't actually grow up in Sandpoint, though I was born there and my grandparents lived there. It was "home" to both of my parents and therefore to me, in some sense, even though we had wandered off to Coeur d'Alene. We visited often, and my parents lived in Sandpoint while I was in college and until my father died. I have no family in the area now, and my life is so busy that I rarely travel anywhere except to read or lecture. I'm still teaching, and writing absorbs endless time.
What are your favorite memories of growing up in North Idaho?
I loved the woods, and the lakes. It was a privilege to live in a place that was as open and wild as it was then.
How have your roots in this region influenced your writing, aside from setting the novel Housekeeping in a fictionalized version of Sandpoint?
I have taken a great deal of good from the education I got there. I had four years of Latin in high school, a rare thing, though I didn't know it at the time. That was an introduction to the basics of language that is useful to me every day. And my interest in small towns, and in settlement and the historical memories of family.
What spurred you to write Lila, a novel about one of the characters first introduced in Gilead, and the third novel set in the fictional town?
Lila was on my mind. That's how things work for me.
What piece of your work would you recommend to readers who are unfamiliar with your writing to read first?
I hope they are all freestanding. Most people seem to choose to start with Housekeeping or Gilead.
Do you worry that the general, non-scholarly public does not read enough books?
I don't worry much about the general public. I see the libraries that are going up in the cities and towns I visit — beautiful resources, filled with people — and I think the public is probably doing as well by itself as it is reasonable to hope. We have a huge publishing industry in this country, which can only reflect the fact of a huge reading public. Books are wonderful, but there are people who would rather be spelunking or practicing the cello, and I respect that.
How do you think modern society can fix this, and encourage people to read more?
Books have never been as cheap as they are now, or as readily available in as many formats. They have never had the kind of competition they have now, with films, games, the Internet and so on. It will all have to sort itself out, as cultural changes do from time to time. It has been my experience that many people love books intensely. As a writer, I have to say we might attract more readers if the books we wrote were better, if they seemed necessary to people. That is something to aspire to. In the meantime, I know that the public I meet are people who read, so generalization is difficult. But I think the public is often impressive.
You've said before that you don't follow other contemporary American writers much, preferring to study literature by writers and philosophers of past eras. Looking into the future, how do you hope your contributions to American literature are remembered?
I have scholarly interests that take a great deal of time, and with teaching and writing, I can't keep up with my contemporaries' work. I think I am missing out on an important period, and I regret this. But my passions are my passions. If in the future I am remembered for contributions to American literature I will be (posthumously) well content, without requiring more. ♦
Gonzaga Visiting Writers Series: Marilynne Robinson • Wed, Feb. 18, at 7:30 pm • Free and open to the public • Gonzaga University, Cataldo Globe Room • 502 E. Boone • gonzaga.edu/readingseries • Also on Feb. 19, at 7 pm • Auntie's Bookstore • 402 W. Main