© Nancy Crampton.
Farrar, Straus &
Interview conducted by Bret
Bret Anthony Johnston:
First, congratulations on being a finalist for the National
Book Award! How did the news reach you? What was your
Robinson: I received a phone call from
the Foundation. Of course I was very happy to learn
that my book had been nominated.
is the story of Reverend Robert Boughton’s household.
The narrative runs concurrently with your previous novel
Gilead and the storylines of the two books
occasionally overlap. When did you notice that the second
novel was on your mind?
I was at work on a nonfiction book I have actually been
working on for years. And I realized that I was persistently
distracted by Gilead characters who seemed
to be insisting on lives of their own.
BAJ: How long did
you work on Home before it was published? What
is your writing process? Did working on this book feel
any different than working on your previous books, especially
I wrote Home within two years. And some time
had elapsed since the publication of Gilead.
I really don’t keep track of such things very
well. It was finished in the spring and published the
next fall, if memory serves.
I write when I have something
on my mind--not deserving of the name ‘process,’
Every book feels different
because it involves an immersion into different characters
BAJ: Both Home
and Gilead are set in Iowa, where you’ve
lived for many years. How does setting or place function
in your writing?
I try to give a sense of the way a landscape might figure
in the perceptions and self-definitions of characters
who live in it.
BAJ: What was the
most difficult aspect of writing the novel?
I have no real complaints. I was surprised by all the
dialogue. Other than that, there was only the resistance
of a conception to finding its way into words that is
always to be expected.
BAJ: An interesting
similarity among the fiction finalists this year is
how all of the novels focus on the past. What is it
about the past that so captivates readers and writers?
In retrospect it is possible to make judgments about
what has mattered. In any present time there is the
noise of distraction and misinterpretation and special
pleading. We are literally sold ideas about the lives
we lead, what we should fear or aspire to. Of course
a good deal of this persists as historical memory. But
there are consequences to weigh against what might have
been the assumed tendency of things. And history is
what we know about what we are, and is always relevant.
BAJ: For some writers,
the engine that powers their fiction is character. For
others, it’s language. For others still, the engine
might loosely be called “theme.” Do you
identify with any of those?
I would say that voice is central for
me. It involves character and language, and theme, too,
since people are always trying to interpret their lives,
consciously or not.
BAJ: Who is your ideal
Anyone to whom a book of mine matters.
BAJ: What books or
writers do you find yourself rereading? Do you see any
of their influence in your current work?
Faulkner, Stevens, the 19th century
Americans. The Bible, of course. I would be
pleased to think they influence me.
BAJ: We’re in
an election year. The country is engaged in two wars.
The economy is all but collapsing. Other wars are being
waged around the world. The environment is suffering
on every front. In light of all of these pressures,
why does fiction matter?
Whatever makes us value human life and living nature
matters. Fiction can do that as well as any resource
Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed
and the editor of Naming
both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5
Under 35” fiction honor from the National
Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’
Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative
Writing at Harvard University. For more information,
please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.