One, it was a welcome return from a writer who hadn’t published a novel since her first, Housekeeping, in 1980. Two, it was an unusually sympathetic portrayal of an unabashedly religious protagonist. It was an anachronism, and like nothing else in contemporary fiction.
The lead character is John Ames, a dying preacher living in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, in the mid-1950s. Ames, telling his story in the form of an extended letter to his young son, reflects on his own mystical upbringing, ruminates over theological mysteries, and faces up to his own anxieties for the future – which are only heightened by the arrival in Gilead of the one person in the world he can’t stand.
Widely acclaimed by critics and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Gilead is the first book featured in the University of South Carolina’s five-week Open Book series.
FREE-TIMES: I’ll start with a question you’ve been asked a lot. Housekeeping was published in 1980. Gilead didn’t arrive for another 24 years, during which time you also published a non-fiction book on England’s nuclear industry and a book of essays. Was Gilead a long-time brewing? What was the hardest part about bringing it to completion?
ROBINSON: Gilead was actually rather easy for me to write. It presented itself to my imagination, so to speak, and from that point on I felt pretty secure about the course it was taking. I was not really thinking about writing fiction during those twenty-four years. I intended to do it, but the real impetus, the voice in my head, was not there. I educated myself during those years, simply because I didn't feel I knew enough to trust what I thought I did know. Part of the education was Scripture and theology, and part of it was the history of the Middle West, where I had come to live. John Ames emerged from all this, unbidden, really. But there he was, and he led me through the book.
FREE-TIMES: Your prose has poetic rhythm. There are passages from your novels – the first sentence in Gilead, for example – that could pass for poetry if they were just typeset that way. There were sentences in Housekeeping that made me think of Wallace Stevens. Do you read a lot of poetry? Which poets do you keep coming back to?
ROBINSON: The poets I come back to are Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. And Walt Whitman. I know there are any number of others, living and dead, whose work would enrich mine. I think I stay with these few because every time I go back to them I see more. They are inexhaustible. This says something profound about the artful use of language.
FREE-TIMES: Gilead is about a lot of things, but the crux of it seems to me to be about the struggle for forgiveness and the power of grace. Did it start with that idea?
ROBINSON: I can't really say Gilead started with an idea. It would be truer to say it started with a mind. I knew that Ames was honest, prayerful, reflective, learned in his own way. And solitary by habit. These were the givens--the rest was exploration.
FREE-TIMES: The novel is also about the joy and frustration of writing. Ames’ life is full of books and sermons, but he fears that in the end maybe it isn’t worth much. He doubts his ability to communicate the depth of his thoughts – “I felt the poverty of my remarks” is a typical comment -- even though, in the writing of the narrative itself, he reveals more of himself than he intended. Is Ames close to you as a writer?
ROBINSON: I suppose he is closer to me than to most people. A great part of the interest in writing is the attempt to find language that works the way it is meant to. The other part of the interest in writing is that when language seems to go off on its own it can be much better than whatever was intended, much more complex and alive. It has often seemed to me that a preacher who attempts earnestly to be adequate to his occasion must feel in acute forms the poverty, or the unruliness, of language.
FREE-TIMES: On a purely religious level, how much of Marilynne Robinson is in John Ames? In recent years, you’ve clashed with new atheists like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins over whether science and religion are incompatible. Ames, likewise, is a veteran arguer against skepticism (which he understands at an exceptionally high level).
ROBINSON: Religion in America has largely stepped back from its own intellectual history, and has conceded this ground to skepticism in virtually any form, however crude. Real skepticism is simply an aspect of engagement, a part of the cultural conversation. Only because American Christians know nothing of their own heritage of thought are they daunted by these noisy onslaughts we have seen recently. John Ames comes from the time before total capitulation. He has resources that enable him to consider skepticism without being cowed by it.
FREE-TIMES: Did the critical response to Gilead surprise you? A book with a central character who is not only devout but also deeply intelligent and appealing isn’t normally the kind of book you think of as getting much traction.
ROBINSON: Gilead's reception has surprised me. It is in about thirty languages now, including Arabic and Persian. One of the great privileges of a writer's life can come from the fact that a book can be a testing of the cultural waters. Now I know that readers in Muslim countries can be receptive to a book about a Congregational preacher in Iowa. This is a splendid and reassuring thing to know. As for its reception in America, our expectations are based on the endlessly reiterated "fact" that our literary culture is essentially secular, and that secular means hostile to religion. Gilead could be offered as evidence that these things are not true. Critics of all sorts have responded to it with great generosity.
[Personal aside: The religion angle actually did get in the way of one otherwise good critic.]
FREE-TIMES: What does winning the Pulitzer Prize do to a person?
ROBINSON: Winning the Pulitzer Prize bestows a very valuable credential. Never afterward do you have to prove that you are a serious person. The dangers of getting this kind of pass are obvious. But the satisfactions are also very real.
(This originally appeared in the March 13, 2013 issue of the Columbia, SC Free-Times.)