I got to go hear Marilynne Robinson in Orem last night. Her book, Gilead, which won the Pulitzer prize, and its companion novel, Home, have moved me deeply, and I was eager to hear from her, to see what kind of person, what kind of mind, these books came out of. One thing that made me especially curious was the fact that she was a woman, because those two books are so predominantly male. Home’s main POV character is female, but the voice does not feel very female, and the true focus of the book is not Glory but her brother Jack. How does a female writer feel so confident writing so much about men? I was also curious about how Robinson even got the nerve to write these books, because they are so very literary (in that there is hardly any outward plot at all) and so unlike the kinds of things that get published. I wanted to know about her background in fiction, what kinds of things she reads and what her goals were as she wrote, to help me understand how a writer can so thoroughly throw out all the rules you hear from agents/publishers about keeping the action going, having conflicts on every page, etc. I wanted to listen to her as a writer, as someone who might, potentially, want to write like her someday, with similar subject matter that is so heavily internal.
First of all, I was a little disappointed that she took a large portion of the time to read to us from Gilead. I wanted to hear her speak, not hear her read words that I had at home and could read to myself any time. I wanted to hear so much about how she could come to sit down to the endeavor that was these two novels. I was selfish, I know. The question-and-answer period helped me get some ideas, anyway. Here are some of the notes I took:
On the subject of how she came to choose Reverend Ames’s story to tell (or any of her novels): “The voice just comes to me, I don’t know from where.” This is interesting and disappointing to me. Disappointing because I NEVER GET VOICES. I have had friends tell me they hear voices, or are haunted by their characters, and I am so very envious. How can I get that? All my characters really turn out to be me in different disguises, and that is my greatest weakness. I am too cerebral, left-brained, controlling, conscious, whatever. I want to loose that need to always be in control and get tap into the world of the other, the Jungian cloud above us that is full of ideas, or my own subconscious. But I don’t know how! Can I pray to be haunted?
She talked about how, during the writing of Gilead, she would spend her day working (at something else) but have in the back of her mind the happy thought that she would get to go home and spend time with John Ames. This must have been an amazing feeling.
Her idea for the novel began with her own interests. She had a great interest in 19th century culture, especially vernacular hymns. So I ask myself, where are my interests? What am I very interested in that could lead to an idea for a novel?
I asked her about Jack’s story (Home), and at what point in the construction of Gilead she had realized that Jack had his own story that needed to be told, and whether she knew that story as she wrote Gilead. She answered that “The characters [in Gilead] just wouldn’t go away. So I figured that if they were that strong, perhaps I should give them some attention.”
Again, the haunting.
In response to a question about how she had the courage to write about religious life and believing characters, she quoted statistics about how surprisingly many Americans are actually religious. Then she said, “I have to write what is on my mind. I lecture on and study theology, so that’s what I write about. Courage doesn’t really come into it.” It reminded me of something Wallace Stegner once said to Jerry Johnston when Jerry asked about whether a great Mormon novel was possible (as reported in an AML meeting many years ago): “Just tell it true.” I believe this very strongly—that a Mormon writer who writes a Mormon novel but skillfully and very, very true (meaning no propaganda or whitewashing) could succeed nationally.
Someone asked her what she reads. She mentioned Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Emerson. VERY interesting. No novelists? I wonder whether that made it possible for her to write what she did. If she were constantly reading what’s being produced these days, maybe she would have told herself that no one would publish what she was writing. There may be something to be said about isolating oneself in order to keep one’s own voice and passions pure.
About craft: “Always keep something in front of the reader’s eyes. You are leading them through a world they are unfamiliar with.” I think Robinson does an amazing job of this, considering how very internal her books are. Scene, scene, scene is where it’s at. Again, I feel myself hampered by my inability to visualize.
So it was a really enjoyable evening, but it served to make me lose confidence in myself as a novelist. Is this ability to be haunted, and to visualize, something that can be learned? Should I just give up and decide to be a great appreciator? That wouldn’t be a bad life . . . And there is always my poetry, which comes so much more naturally to me, even as it also relies on scene.