Marilynne Robinson Q&A: “Obama was full of respect for American law and tradition”

The US novelist on great American heroes.

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Born in Idaho in 1943, Marilynne Robinson is the author of four novels and six other books. She won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for the first book in her “Gilead” trilogy.

What’s your earliest memory?

I remember an orange cat named Rusty, tensely on her hind legs, trying to catch dragonflies. All my early memories are about the woods and the creek and mud and a heroically vast old tree stump.

Who was your childhood hero?

Abraham Lincoln. When I was a child I would read books about him, always hoping the next one would end differently. Since then I have given a lot of attention to him as a historical figure. He bears up.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

I like to read books by early writers – Marsilius of Padua, Jan Hus, William Langland – to feel the continuity of human thinking. Astronomers seeing stars as they were eons ago, the brilliance of ancient light. This is how it feels to me to read old books. I am unlearning a prejudice which encouraged me to think of the past as quaint and discredited. My mind is changed continuously.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Barack Obama. He is a brilliant man, a good man. He was also a classic president, imbued with American law and tradition and full of respect for them.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m just so happy to live now that I can’t flirt with the thought of another period. It’s wonderful to see children grow to adulthood. There is so much available to be known. Of course we should do much better on every front, but the potential for doing better is in our hands.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Edward VI. He greatly expanded education, gave freedom to the press, sponsored the English translation of Magna Carta. He died in his teens, and the poor kid has no tomb.

Who would paint your portrait?

My brother. He has painted me any number of times, because when we were growing up he always needed a human subject and I could sit very still. So he could do one more, no trouble at all.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

“You’re not dead.” From my late colleague, the writer James McPherson, whenever I complained about anything that could be changed. These are words to live by.

What’s currently bugging you?

The decline of the West. There’s a definite war of attrition among the countries of the West against their own best institutions.

What single thing would make your life better?

I would like to see a revival of interest in truth. There is no easy definition of this word, but this is exactly why there should be a good, sound conversation about it.

When were you happiest?

I believe I was happiest yesterday, with some spillover into this morning. I have great hopes for tomorrow. In all seriousness, I do enjoy my life more and more, which could reflect an awareness that scarcity enhances value, and the days dwindle down, as the old song says.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Idleness. Which means I would be doing what I do now, but I wouldn’t call it work.

Are we all doomed?

Sure, depending on definitions. 

Marilynne Robinson’s latest essay collection “What Are We Doing Here?” is published by Virago

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Who sunk Brexit?