Marilynne Robinson: ‘I don’t have an ideal reader in mind’

The award-winning author of four novels in 34 years has a new book of essays out. She talks about how faith can be the key to a balanced life

The novelist, academic and essayist Marilynne Robinson is one of the United States’s leading intellectuals, tackling the big subjects of faith, fear and regret with a quiet clarity and rigour that has earned her a Pulitzer prize, among many other awards including the Orange prize for fiction in 2009 for her third novel, Home. Born in Idaho 74 years ago, Robinson now lives between homes in Iowa and Saratoga Springs in New York State, spending her time writing, teaching and lecturing. Her trilogy of novels – Home, Gilead and Lila – produced over a 34-year period, have left an indelible mark on the literary landscape. Her latest book of essays, What Are We Doing Here?, out last week, reaches once more for some of the guiding concerns of our existence, turning them in the light of a newly polarised political environment.

Much of your writing invites readers to take greater pleasure in human traits and talents. In your new essay The Divine you point out our odd reluctance to celebrate society’s achievements. Quoting from a Wordsworth sonnet, “It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be a pagan”, you argue it is a lack of a sense of the divine that inhibits us. Is that how you see it?
Well, yes, that’s a problem that has interested me for so long now. I don’t understand why, but there is a kind of default negative attitude about the modern world, and especially about technology. And it is a self-fulfilling attitude. It produces a panicky sense among us that everything is just going to pieces. There should instead be some kind of balance without, of course, having to say everything is good.

Would you go so far as to say that a feeling of wonder is the key to your position on religious faith? For you, the argument for believing appears quite plain, the proof so undeniable, that you seem bemused by efforts to sidestep it.
One thing I cannot understand about contemporary society is that, as we learn more, and become more aware of the incredible singularity of our Earth, we cannot seem to allow ourselves to recognise it. And even if one day we were to discover there is another planet out there, just like ours, that fact would just mean that, in all this universe, there were only two things so absolutely extraordinary. Such a sort of atheism, that rejects this thought, seems so antiquated. I don’t see any reason in it. There is a kind of rudimentary thinking at work in it, whether it is based on Darwinism or on other theories; to deliberately exclude all that will not tolerate the experience of human subjectivity.

Are you likely to be best understood by an ideal reader who comes to you with Christian faith already in place?
I don’t really have an ideal reader in mind at all, whether one with or without faith. When I write it is to try to figure out something for my own purposes. It is self-indulgent really. It is much more the blank page that I write for, in some way. I have this feeling, should a problem present itself, that I should try to resolve it.

How troubled have you been by the extent of God-fearing Christian support for Donald Trump in the last two years?
The terrible turn this part of the populist culture that calls itself Christian has taken is appalling. It is terribly destructive, too. It is a failure of the Christian argument. Religious leaders have failed in that they have not inculcated a good enough understanding of what Christianity should be. They should have paid much more attention to this. That is not to say that the history of Christianity is not pretty scary, even before now. It is very liable to being treated as subservient to some other cause or political purpose.

What are you reading at the moment?
The Defender of the Peace by Marsilius of Padua, an Italian 14th-century scholar. It contains all kinds of ideas about how to run society that we think are modern. He says things Jefferson could have said. We tend to think we have developed so far, especially in our conscience, but really we have not “sophisticated” our way into very much at all.”

What do you pick up for fun?
When you ask me that I realise how eccentric I am. I don’t like the idea of taking a break, so it is a good thing not everyone is like me; it would be a difficult world. I am reading medieval interpretations of the Old Testament at the moment as preparation for some lectures I am giving in Cambridge next month. But if it comes to wit, I do enjoy reading Thomas Higginson, who was Emily Dickinson’s publisher and also a funny writer.

How do you organise the bookshelves in your homes? I expect you are not one of those who does it by the colour of the spine?
No! I don’t do it that way. It would just be light drab and then darker drab. I keep my theology books together, although there are some I have to have by me. These are the Latin Vulgate, St Augustine and Calvin, as well as a French bible translated in 1545.

Which new writing talent do you rate?
I am not good at keeping up with my contemporaries at all. Although I do enjoy the work of one of my former students, Paul Harding. His book Tinkers is very fine.

Where do you usually like to write? And what are you working on now?
I sit in the same place, as I am very much a creature of habit. I have a beige couch that you sink right into it. It is a major decision to get up from this couch. And I have just signed a contract for a new novel this week. I have already written about 25%, but I don’t talk about it yet.

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago (£18.99). To order a copy for £16.14 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

• This article was amended on 25 February 2018 to correct the titles in the author’s trilogy of novels.

Contributor

Vanessa Thorpe

The GuardianTramp

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