- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

Marilynne Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “Gilead,” a novel that centers on the character of the Rev. John Ames, and which drew praise for its serious treatment of Christianity.

Ms. Robinson is also the author of “Housekeeping” and two books of nonfiction, “Mother Country” and “The Death of Adam.” She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City. The following are excerpts of a recent telephone interview with Ms. Robinson:

Question: How long did it take you to write “Gilead”?

Answer: The actual writing of it came quite quickly. I wasn’t really keeping track of it in that way. It probably took between a year and a half and two years.

Q: Do you have a method for writing?

A: There are certain kinds of things that interest me that make me able to concentrate. When I experience the kind of concentration that is consistent with writing something, then I don’t really have to worry about the process. The process generates itself out of the fact that something is very much on my mind.

Q: What was on your mind when you were writing “Gilead”?

A: In a special degree, John Ames was on my mind. I had a very strong sense of his character from a very early point. The character was really the beginning of the novel. I was able to continue to feel that I had access to that character, during the time I was writing. It made it an unusually pleasant thing to write, actually. It was more the sense of being attentive to something that I seemed to know than it was like inventing something.

Q: Did anyone serve as inspiration for John Ames?

A: Only in a very distant sort of way. There was an old minister who was already retired whom I knew very slightly, just toward the very end of his life. In terms of his manner and physical presence and the fact that he was very much a product of Iowa. Those things helped me to feel that I knew this character.

Q: Was it difficult to write in a man’s voice?

A: Oddly enough, I always assumed that I would write from a female perspective. I felt as if it came much more naturally to me. And then, suddenly, here I had this character on my mind, and he was an old man. And that was just that.

Q: Why did you decide to base the book around relationships between fathers and sons?

A: That was another thing that was very important at the seminal period of the novel. In the first place, I imagined an old man, an elderly father, writing a letter to his very young son, whom he wishes to speak to as an adult man, to explain himself. … In a way, he’s trying to make himself, through his language, more of a father to his son than he could be if he did not attempt to write this letter.

Q: How do you think your book upholds the importance of history?

A: I think we live in a very complex relationship to history and generations. One of the things that’s interesting to me is what survives from generation to generation, either in families or in history or what is forgotten or what is rejected or turned against, or simply changed.

Q: Why did you emphasize his life of solitude before he met his wife?

A: You could develop things by any number of strategies, I suppose. For him, he’s on an edge between two things, one of them being a long time of when he was deprived of family. On the other side of it, his death, which means he will leave his family. Having his wife and son, in this sort of moment of sunlight, between these two, literal deprivation on the one hand and who knows what on the other. It makes everything stand out to him extremely strongly. It creates the visionary intensity of his own present moment.

Q: How did you interweave ordinary and divine aspects of life?

A: A given of John Ames’ theological understanding or religious understanding is that experience itself has quality of vision; whether it is perceived as vision depends as the observer. It’s not as if a visionary experience suddenly breaks through, but that suddenly you were able to understand the visionary content of what you see.

Q: Why did you compare two types of people of faith, through John Ames’ father, who was a pacifist, and his grandfather, who was a militant?

A: It just is the history of the Middle West and the country more generally. Part of it is that I think that this is a very interesting and difficult question, how one makes those kinds of choices. It’s very possible for religious people to disagree, both of them acting from very sincere religious consciousness.

Q: How did you develop John Ames as a legitimate person of faith?

A: That’s how I originally conceived of him. I’m a person of faith myself, I hope. I belong to a church and know a lot of religious people. I’m accustomed to seeing how they think. I suppose that was very helpful.

Q: How did your own faith influence this book?

A: It would be difficult for me to imagine writing it without my own religious interests and experiences of various kinds. For one thing, John Ames is a Congregational minister. I’m a Congregationalist. I felt secure and familiar within that religious tradition. I had no anxiety about writing from that point of view. If I were to try to situate him in another kind of religious community, it would be harder for me to feel that I really understand its habits and its atmosphere and customs. Simply familiarity with his tradition made that easier. I’ve read theology and studied Scripture for many, many years. It wasn’t a stretch for me to use that kind of material.

Q: Why do think much of today’s serious fiction lacks Christian themes?

A: Christianity has been a great fountain of world literature for generations and generations. I don’t know why it seems to be more difficult for people at this time to deal with in a literary way. You really can’t think of Western literature without thinking of its origins in Christianity.

Q: How do you think that John Ames’ character could help people come to terms with their lives?

A: It would be to make them be more sensitive to the really splendid fact of their life. The odds against any human being existing are overwhelming, utterly overwhelming. Consciousness, love, all these things are so extraordinary, when you consider that they occur in this great roaring universe. …

Q: When you’re giving advice to your students at the University of Iowa, what do you say to them?

A: You simply try to help them enhance their strengths. You can’t make a good writer by trying to impose assumptions on how he or she should write. You have to help them discover for themselves.

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