NEA Big Read


by Marilynne Robinson

I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes.

Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943)

As one might imagine from reading her work, Marilynne Robinson is passionately tied to the dramatic northwest landscape of her childhood. She was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, where her family had lived for four generations: her grandparents were farmers and ranchers; her father was in the lumber industry. Robinson recalls hearing the whistles of passing trains, though "nothing ever seemed to stop" at the railroad junction in town.

She spent many hours at the edge of Sandpoint's large, cold, beautiful lake. Robinson's two sets of grandparents lived at opposite ends of the bridge that crossed the lake, which claimed the life of her mother's brother in a sailing accident before Robinson was born.

After graduating high school in nearby Coeur d'Alene, Robinson followed her brother to Brown University in Rhode Island, where she studied with the writer John Hawkes and nurtured her interest in nineteenth-century American literature and creative writing. She graduated in 1966, and from there went on to earn a PhD in English from the University of Washington in Seattle.

Once she completed her dissertation on Shakespeare, she was ready to begin work on Housekeeping, her first novel. She wrote much of it while teaching in France and, after that, in Massachusetts. She gave a draft of the novel to her friend and fellow writer John Clayton, who passed it on to an agent without her knowledge. "If he hadn't done that," says Robinson, "I'm not at all sure that I would ever have submitted it for publication." It was published in 1980 to widespread critical acclaim, winning the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel.

Since Housekeeping, Robinson has written many essays and book reviews in journals such as Harper's, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Book Review. Robinson's second novel, Gilead, was published in 2004. It won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

Robinson has served as visiting professor and writer-in-residence at several colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. In 1991, she joined the faculty of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She currently resides in Iowa, where she teaches and writes.

"I have spent my life watching, not to see beyond the world, merely to see, great mystery, what is plainly before my eyes."
—Marilynne Robinson, from The Death of Adam

An Interview with Marilynne Robinson

On January 9, 2008, Dan Stone of the National Endowment for the Arts interviewed Marilynne Robinson at her home in Iowa City. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

Dan Stone: What was your childhood like in Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene?

Marilynne Robinson: Sandpoint, at that time, had a more remote feeling than Coeur d'Alene, at least from my point of view. Both sets of my grandparents lived in Sandpoint, at the opposite ends of the bridge that crossed the lake which became Housekeeping's Fingerbone in my imagination. The most dramatic moments of my childhood all come from Sandpoint.

DS: Are those mostly memories or experiences of the outdoors?

MR: Yes, the landscape more than anything else. The lake is very impressive. It's very large and cold. It's like the local spirit of the place, and we spent a lot of time just hovering on the edges of it, looking at it and dipping into it.

DS: In Housekeeping, the accident with the train is especially poignant. Was there also the sense of mystery and loss associated with the lake?

MR: Before I was born, my mother's brother died in an accident, in a sailboat that was swept against a rock. That was a very great loss to my mother's family. I think my family stayed in northern Idaho because of the lake, because it was very beautiful. It's never been the easiest place in the world to live, you know. It's hard to describe, but it was as if they found something irrefutable, something they couldn't turn their backs on.

DS: Is there significance to the name "Fingerbone"? There is one reference in the novel to a Native American tribe called the Fingerbone tribe.

MR: In Idaho, Pend Oreille means "earbob," then there's the Nez Perce and Flathead—all the Indian names in that part of the country seem to refer to fragments of a body in one way or another. When I was a very small child, my father was changing a tire and he dropped the tire iron on the frozen ground. It bounced from end to end, and it made three equal sounds, three equal syllables. I remember being struck by this. The ground was so cold that there was no diminishing of the impact. Fingerbone sounds to me like three equal syllables, along with a feeling of coldness and hardness.

DS: Was the line "Like a long legged fly upon the stream, his mind moves upon silence"—from Yeats's poem "Long-legged Fly"—in your mind when you were working on this novel?

MR: Yes. Remember, I didn't write the novel with the expectation it would be published. I studied English literature in graduate school, so Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were on my mind. I've often thought that Henry David Thoreau's Walden could be called Housekeeping.

DS: Housekeeping is such a lyrical book, particularly during some of Ruth's internal musings. Do you write out loud?

MR: I hear a voice that I would say is not my voice. When I read Housekeeping out loud, I hear it over again in my mind. I'm very interested in the musicality of language. I spend a lot of time just listening to Bach, just to hear how a sentence falls in a certain sense. So that's what I do: I hear what I write, but I don't speak it out loud. I hear it in my mind.

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