Transcript for Marilynne Robinson on Being a Writer from the West

Jim Fleming: You can take a writer out of the West, but you can't take the West out of the writer. That, in a nutshell, is how Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Marilynne Robinson feels. She grew up in Idaho, lived on the East Coast for a time, and now teaches at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. She talked with Steve Paulson about her new collection of essays called "When I Was a Child, I Read Books" and read him a passage from the title essay.


Marilynne Robinson: I went to college in New England and I've lived in Massachusetts for 20 years, and I find that the hardest work in the world, it may in fact be impossible, is to persuade Easterners that growing up in the West is not intellectually crippling. On learning that I'm from Idaho people have not infrequently asked, "Then how were you able to write a book?" Once or twice when I felt cynical or lazy, I've replied, "I went to Brown," thinking that might appease them. Only to be asked, "How did you manage to get into Brown?" One woman on learning of my origins said, "But there has to be talent in the family somewhere."



Steven Paulson: That is wonderful. Why do you think there, there has been this assumption that, uh, Idaho is an intellectual backwater?



Robinson: Well, I have no idea really. I think that, um, this is just a theory of mine, um, I think that many people who have come to this country never left one coast or the other and they brought with them the assumption, that might be appropriate in other cultures that people who lived in the countryside tended to be, you know, non-literate or, you know, at least outside the stream of things in ways that there was nothing to compensate them for. Uh, but it's not realistic for the settlement of this country or for the, for the life of what we've had very efficient, uh, distribution of information for a long time and we've had, uh, you know, books that were relatively cheap and accessible for a long time. And actually if you look at literacy rates and levels of reading and so on, they're higher in places like Iowa than they are in the country at large and the readership of books is higher in the Western states than it is in the East and I mean the interior West, you know.



Paulson: Mm hmm



Robinson: These assumptions are ones I think that are maybe carried over from the history of other cultures and the demographics of other cultures and are not appropriate here.



Paulson: Now you write that you were a bookish child, and you were especially drawn to writers from previous centuries. As you put it, uh, your own literary style is more indebted to Cicero, than even to Hemingway. Um, do you think this has something to do with growing up in the far West?



Robinson: I think it did have a great deal to do with it. I was, uh, growing up you know in the part of the country that was not at that time particularly influenced by progressive impulses from either coast, and so I had a very old-fashioned education. By old-fashioned I mean progressive in an older style and perhaps a more effective one. Because there was a lot of, uh, the romance of learning the importance of knowing things for the sake of knowing them a very, very non-utilitarian idea of learning that I think I benefited from very much and that I think was a sort of dying ember of 19th century idealism.



Paulson: It almost sounds like you were perhaps not as subjected to intellectual fashions as perhaps people on the coasts might have been.



Robinson: I think yes, or in any case, strong old intellectual fashions you know that I think were more optimistic about what the joys of education were. Much less likely to treat us as, uh, people that were outside the history of world civilization. Oddly enough, I mean I was taught living in Idaho that there was a great deal of value about knowing about the Roman Republic, for example. The idea being that we really were still rooted deeply in civilization from, you know, from early periods, and the more you get into other fads that swept later on the less you find this to be assumed. I think it was incredibly valuable because, uh, history is what human beings can know about themselves, you know, and it is interesting to know about the Roman Republic.



Paulson: Mm hmm. Now this essay that we've been talking about, "When I Was a Child..." is, is partly a meditation on your own experience of growing up in Idaho, and also a reflection on the cultural values of the West, and, and you've kind of a fascinating discussion of various words that I guess have different associations for Westerners. For instance, you say, "lonesome" has a very positive connotation, which may not be the case for people on the East Coast.



Robinson: Yes, I, I think that's true I mean I, I, felt as if in a certain way I was being groomed in my family and also in my education to have a great capacity for loneliness, and the pleasure in it, you know? I mean it was as if, um, I remember one of my teacher saying "You must make yourself into someone with whom you will want to spend time because you will spend the rest of your life with yourself," you know? I just took that to be human life. I felt that was a kind of universal description of what was to be desired and, um, and I've always therefore entered into loneliness with a great deal of optimism and pleasure.



Paulson: Whereas nowadays when, when people talk about loneliness, or, or being lonesome you know, it's the kind of, it's the kind of thing that people go to therapy for and try to get rid of.



Robinson: Exactly.



Paulson: There are other words too that you, that you say had a similarly positive connotation, "melancholy", "regret".



Robinson: Yes. Again I, I think that is quite 19th century, you know, but also the understanding that there is a, an aesthetic quality to the experience that you have evaluating your life even if what you are given to evaluate is sad, is loss, you know. When you look at poetry from every culture, this is always a big subject and a lot of beautiful thought surrounds it, you know? I think that we have become very much afraid of experiences that have anything of the quality of, of pain because we think they're symptoms perhaps, you know, for which there must be a cure. When in fact, the human situation simply involves these things and if we are to appreciate the wholeness of human circumstance, we have to appreciate them too.



Paulson: So what was it about, um, coming from the West that, uh, gave more meaning to those kinds of sentiments like loneliness?



Robinson: Well, seeing the example of people around me, you know my great-grandparents homesteaded and they lived in a house that was extremely isolated and that was the norm, that was the thing to be desired. And when some sort of cousin actually built a house close enough so that at night they could see a light, they were disturbed. That was a major intrusion. And the, you know, it's

a, a privilege, a strange maybe diminishing privilege to be in a place where all the lights go out and there are no sounds, but the sounds of wind and, animals and so on, you know? It has an aesthetic authority that is all its own, um, that one would not need to explain to anyone who had felt it, I think.



Paulson: Now if there's one value I think that we associate with the West, it's individualism, and we've seen it in all the Western movies that we've seen. Do you also embrace that value?



Robinson: Well, I think it depends on what you mean by the word. I don't think most Western movies were probably made by Westerners. That's a theory of mine. That, that sort of dime novel imposition of, uh, myths and so on, on this beautiful landscape, you know, has been very influential. But if you think of individualism as being responsible for the integrity of your own behavior, and I think that, that was the prevailing model of putting the word individualism was spoken, then certainly I think that absolutely invaluable, absolutely invaluable. It has been transformed to have something closer to a sort of European meaning, which is to proceed on the basis of one's own sense of self-interest, without, you know, without a great deal of concern for, for other people, and um, that's not at all what I mean by the word. I think that, you notice that I tend to be critical of prevailing ideas in many cases and so on, and I think that that's maybe, uh, a reflection of the fact that the other kind of individualism was encouraged in me, which was to test things against my own sense of true or false, right or wrong, whatever, and then try to articulate and understand the meaning of that response.



Paulson: We've talked about how you grew up in Idaho, um, of course you've actually lived in the Midwest now for a number of years teaching at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Do you still consider yourself a Westerner at heart?



Robinson: I think there are ways in which I actually am a Westerner at heart. You know I, I um, my older son, who grew up in Massachusetts, went to Reed College, and um, I ask him how he liked it, and he said, "It's the first place I've ever been where my manners were appropriate." I, you know, I, I think that within little households, you know, these ethnicities and regionalisms and so on sort of abide, persist, you know, among people that aren't even aware that they're preserving them.



Fleming: Marilynne Robinson is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novels "Gilead" and "Housekeeping". She teaches writing at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Steve Paulson spoke with her.

Comments for this interview

interview w/Marilynne Robinson (Melissa C Williams, 03/11/2012 - 3:14pm)

I just listened to this interview, whilst driving home from church. I was thrilled by Ms Robinson's portrayal of her Idaho upbringing - me too !! I was raised in Caldwell, which was both a very small town and a college town, in the 1950's. I too was raised with books and the radio and conversation and stories....and quiet. It was glorious. My school years offered me intelligent teachers who expected excellence and respect as a matter of course - and they succeeded. What a delightful interview. I look forward to reading her work.