Marilynne Robinson: ‘Obama was very gentlemanly ... I'd like to get a look at Trump’

The Pulitzer prize-winning author is ‘too old to mince words’ – and so she’s taking on the cynicism of liberals, the toxic history of America and the sloppiness of contemporary discourse

“Getting older has made me aware how amazing it is to have been alive in the first place,” says 74-year-old Marilynne Robinson, celebrated as one of America’s defining writers. “It’s dazzling, it’s brief. Emily Dickinson said: ‘To be alive is so amazing there’s hardly time for anything else.’ It used to be if I got caught in the rain, I’d think, what a nuisance, and now if I get caught in the rain I think that there are a finite number of times in one’s life when one gets caught in the rain.” Of course, she adds, “I don’t live in England.”

This sense of wonder pervades her writing. You don’t read a Robinson novel so much as bathe in its radiance – not a lot happens (“literature has enough whale hunts and sword fights”), but she has a gift for capturing the strangeness of human character, transforming the everyday through rapt attention. Her work has been compared to Rembrandt’s paintings. “Your writings have fundamentally changed me,” President Obama remarked. “I think for the better … I really do believe that.” One of his favourite fictional creations is the dying Reverend John Ames, who narrates her second novel, Gilead: “I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book,” he enthused in their conversation for the New York Review of Books in 2015.

President Obama presents a National Humanities medal to Robinson at the White House in 2013.
‘Your writings have changed me’ … President Obama presents a National Humanities medal to Robinson in 2013. Photograph: Pete Marovich/Getty Images

The former US president is not alone. Robinson’s numinous writing – “I think and write about religion because I am religious,” she states simply – inspires reverence from readers as seemingly far apart as the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Nick Hornby. But despite a long writing life, her novels can be counted on one hand: beginning in 1980 with Housekeeping, a lyrical story of abandoned sisters; followed 24 years later by the Pulitzer-prizewinning Gilead; then Home, winner of the 2008 Orange prize; and Lila, longlisted for the Man Booker in 2015. The last three are all set around the mythical middle west (she dislikes the term mid-west, “it sounds like a brand name or something”) of Gilead (not to be confused with Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale), and return to the same characters from different points of view. Ranging in setting from the 1950s civil rights movement back to the Depression, the books are often referred to as a series. “I prefer to think of them as a constellation,” she tells me. Of the long pauses between novels she has said: “I would rather be tastefully silent, than write bad stuff.”

Growing up in Idaho (her father worked in the timber business), the young Marilynne was given two pieces of advice. The first was a quote from the 18th-century philosopher-theologian Jonathan Edwards, passed on by her older brother, the future art historian David Summers: “Never permit a thought that you wouldn’t permit on your deathbed … Everything my brother said to me had a big effect.” The second was from an English teacher in high school: “You will live with your mind for the rest of your life, so make it a good companion.”

“Isn’t that brilliant!” she marvels now. “There’s a way in which you become aware of your thoughts, your mind, that makes it feel as if trivialising them is an unaccountable choice of terrible impoverishment.”

As Time magazine put it, Robinson “makes her readers want to be more thoughtful people”. Her recently published essays – many of them given as lectures or sermons, mostly pre-2016 or Before Trump (whom she describes as “a sort of political Lady Gaga”) – are a crusade against the sloppiness of contemporary discourse, an impassioned plea for a renewed moral seriousness. “A question is more spacious than a statement,” she writes, and as the title What Are We Doing Here? suggests, these are the Big Questions that Robinson sets about interrogating with formidable eloquence and erudition. Despite their polemical tone, these essays, with their unapologetic emphasis on qualities such as beauty, grace and compassion, are unusually consoling – if occasionally hard going.

Just as she speaks in the smooth paragraphs of her written prose, so Robinson emanates the same goodness. Her high cheekbones and habit of listening with her head to one side suggest the gentle wisdom of an owl. If she has talons they are well hidden, but she is incisive with her prey and happy to swoop down on both sides of the political spectrum: between our contemporary left and right, she writes, “we circle in a maelstrom of utter fatuousness”.

“I am too old to mince words,” she declares in the preface to the essays. There is nothing more stupid than the “slick unrelenting cynicism” she believes has become the default liberal position. Worse than greed, or intolerance or selfishness? “Cynicism induces a state of helplessness,” she replies. “It disables resistance to all these ills and reduces those who can see and name them into passive collaborators.” It is used as “a kind of cover for what might otherwise seem naive”.

We are gripped in “a spasm of fear”, to quote Obama, and fear, Robinson argues, is another excuse for our failure to act according to our best selves. “We always have a great deal to be afraid of, and those are conditions of our existence,” she says. “At any moment there might be some rogue cell that has decided to end our lives. We are mortal, we are vulnerable. The question is, ‘How do we respond to the fact of our vulnerability?’” As always, she prefers to take a historical view. “We have no idea of the perils that other people have shouldered and carried without anything like the degree of fear that we seem to be predisposed to. Maybe it is the fact that we take safety to be a normal condition,” she says. “It’s a matter of recovering a kind of poise.”

She is drawn to the “erasures and omissions” of history, those “black holes pulling the fabric of collective narrative out of shape”, and is grateful to the success of her novels for enabling her to indulge her fascination for “orphan figures, movements and periods”, such as John Wycliffe, Oliver Cromwell, Puritanism and her lifelong hero Edwards (famous, if that’s the word, for his sermon on spiders). As she acknowledges: “How many things have I chosen to be interested in that were obviously areas of common interest – practically nothing, right? I mean, frankly, Calvinism, you know!”

‘His policies were brutal. He was a mean man!’ … Winston Churchill in 1941.
‘His policies were brutal. He was a mean man!’ … Winston Churchill in 1941. Photograph: IWM via Getty Images

Of all the maligned reputations she sets out to rescue, the history of America itself – “a toxic compound of cynicism and cliche” – is surely the most challenging of all, not least at this particular moment. “Yes, that’s true. There are very strange things in the way that America has talked about itself for a long time,” she explains, in particular about issues of slavery and race. “Slavery was established when we were colonies, the plantation culture of the south was producing cotton for Manchester. There are distortions of American history that make it seem exceptional and odious, when basically, at our worst, we tended to be Europeans acting like Europeans.” And she is just as quick to expose feet of clay: “I know it is rude to raise questions about Churchill,” she remarks. “But I just can’t work up any admiration … His policies were brutal. He was a mean man!”

Has her faith in democracy – “My aesthetics and my ethics and more or less my religion” – wavered since the election of Trump? Not at all. “Everything is perilous, of course this is always true,” she says. “But I think that it has made people step back and rethink things that they really needed to think about again: the necessity of protecting basic institutions and basic norms and so on.” She hopes that there could be a restoration, “a recovery of liberalism”, after the Trump period.

Of Trump’s predecessor she says: “He’s very gentlemanly, very thoughtful, very funny.” They have kept in touch since he left office. She wrote to him expressing her worries about Hillary Clinton as a candidate, and he is consulting her on preparations for his library in Chicago. “There are jokes about the Trump library,” she says mischievously. “Because there won’t be any books in there.” But what if the current incumbent of the White House decided he, too, would like to sit down with one of his country’s greatest writers? “I would like to get a look at him,” she muses. “Everybody has seen every cartoon – those little hands, his long neckties, his strange bald spot and all the rest – but when all is said and done, he is a human being and it would be sort of interesting just simply to talk with him.” She would hate anyone to think it “was any gesture of approval”, although she concedes of his recent conversations with Kim Jong-un, “I like it when people talk to each other. I don’t care why they do it.”Perhaps the most engaging of all the essays is the last, “Slander”, an unusually personal reflection on her sometimes difficult relationship with her mother, who, until her death, aged 92, she would speak to for nearly an hour every day. “My mother lived out the end of her fortunate life in a state of bitterness and panic, never having had the slightest brush with any experience that would confirm her in these emotions, except, of course, Fox News,” she writes drily. Her mother was “scary and wonderful. Taller than me,” Robinson recalls now. “I realised that there was a great intensity about her. It was almost as if there was a kind of selfness about her that really kept her vividly alive for a long time, which I always found quite beautiful.”

The 1987 film adaptation of Housekeeping.
The 1987 film adaptation of Housekeeping. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

When I ask if she likes to be described as “writer, theologian ...?” she adds “Iowa grandmother”. She has recently retired from many years teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Long divorced, with two grown-up sons and two grandchildren, she still lives in Iowa City and spends her summers with her family in upstate New York, where she “gets her grandmothering in”. At home, she says, she goes to church and she writes. And if she has free time? She reads and she writes. “That’s what I enjoy. It’s like an endless interior conversation that I haven’t lost interest in yet.” She has been, she reflects, “in a certain sense a very self-indulgent person … I’ve always followed up what interested me, which involves in many cases a great deal of research, a great deal of solitude.”

Loneliness wraps itself around Robinson’s characters as insidiously as the Iowan wind, but for her it is a “condition” rather than a problem. “I love loneliness. I consider my history with loneliness to be among my great blessings,” she says. “I hasten to add that it is definitely not for everyone. It should be approached with caution.”

After the long gap between Housekeeping and Gilead, subsequent novels have come out more frequently. Each takes her only around 18 months to complete, with little revision. She says what writers often say about how a character or voice just “comes” to them one day. “It’s true!” she protests. “I’m just minding my business and I realise I have a voice in mind. It almost feels like a physiological sensation, that there is a sort of burden of consciousness that feels like a novel and then I sit down and try and find out what it is.”

She is deep into a new novel. Will it be part of the Gilead firmament? It shares characters and preoccupations, but the setting is different. “The fact that I write books that people read is just astonishing to me,” she says. “My life has very far exceeded any dreams, any intentions of mine. If I had sat down at 18 and designed the ideal life for myself I could never have imagined this life.”

What single thing does she believe would make the world in general a better place? “Loving it more.”

And she is off to catch the train from London back to Cambridge, where she is staying. That Sunday she is giving a sermon there, about which she is blocked.

What is the subject? Long pause ... “Light. Probably. I have a little thing for the abstract.”

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


Lisa Allardice

The GuardianTramp

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