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2008 National Book Award Finalist,
Fiction

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Photo © Nancy Crampton.
Marilynne Robinson
Home
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.

Bret Anthony Johnston: First, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! How did the news reach you? What was your reaction?

Marilynne Robinson: I received a phone call from the Foundation. Of course I was very happy to learn that my book had been nominated.

BAJ: Home 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?

MR: 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 Gilead?

MR: 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,’ I know.

Every book feels different because it involves an immersion into different characters and circumstances.

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?

MR: 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?

MR: 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?

MR: 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?

MR: 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 reader?

MR: 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?

MR: 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?

MR: Whatever makes us value human life and living nature matters. Fiction can do that as well as any resource we have.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, 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.

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