Books interview: Marilynne Robinson

The Pulitzer prizewinning novelist and academic on Robert Louis Stevenson, Piers the Plowman and buttered egg

December 17, 2015
Marilynne Robinson, University of Iowa

Which book captivated you most as a child?
So many books captivated me then – it was wonderful. I remember with particular fondness Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson. I remember being very moved by the kindness of the man who tells the boy hero that he is not actually stranded on an island, that he could wade ashore. I don’t remember how the boy got there. I remember his eating raw mussels, and then when he had fallen in with some sailors, going off to a tavern to eat buttered eggs – which still sounds wonderful to me, though I have never tasted it, so far as I know. Hal and Falstaff breakfast on it, and it is the name of a pretty weed that grows in Massachusetts. These associations support the memory of the book, I think, and make it fragmentary but rooted. I also loved The Yearling, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, especially the opening scene of the boy hero lying on his belly watching a stream. I suspect I may have borrowed moments like these for my female characters.

Which of your own books are you proudest of?
I am proud of all my books, because I feel disloyal when I seem to favour some over others. I know this is not a reasonable response to your question, but a book is a particular kind of commitment, and real bonding goes on. I love best, for the moment at least, the one that seems to have been slighted by critics, but that changes and evens out over time. In America, at least, Home seems to be finding a larger audience than it had found in previous years.

Would you care to name a book, other than the Bible, that has been most inspiring with respect to your own faith?
I happened to reread Piers the Plowman, which had been required reading in graduate school, and which I therefore failed to appreciate. It has moments of great spiritual generosity, not a thing I would have expected in such an early work, and, for that matter, nothing I would necessarily expect now.

Thinking of your work as an academic who teaches creative writing, what books have you found most valuable to you and to your students?
I have never used a book about writing, for myself, or in teaching. In my workshop we talk only about the writing students themselves have submitted. I forbid allusions to other writers, however estimable. Even Chekhov is banned. I want the students to see what they come up with, without formulae or models. (Of course their heads are full of books. But I don’t find comparisons useful so I discourage them.)

Which books are you presently reading, or are on your desk waiting to be read?
Two books waiting to be read are Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, by Michael S. Roth, and Stuff Matters: The Strange Stories of the Marvellous Materials that Shape Our Man-made World, by Mark Miodownik. I have actually read a little way into the second one. It sensitises me to the experience of the ordinary physical environment, always an interest of mine.

Marilynne Robinson is the F. Wendell Miller professor of English and creative writing at the University of Iowa, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for her novel Gilead. She is author, most recently, of The Givenness of Things: Essays (Virago).

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