Marilynne Robinson: 2017 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize

Marilynne Robinson: 2017 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize



he left a dime on the stoop to pay for whatever we could find to steal which was always little enough that was something to see my father and his shirtsleeves straddling a rickety old garden fence with a hank of carrot tops in his hand and a fellow behind him taking aim we took off into the brush and when we decided he wasn't going to follow us we sat down on the ground and my father scraped the dirt off the carrot with his knife and cut it up into pieces and set them on the crown of his hat which he'd put between us like a table and then he commenced to say grace which he never failed to do he said for all that we were about to receive and then we both started laughing till the tears were pouring down so I wonder how how do you do that how do you inhabit these characters so beautifully and so realistically you've never been a father you've never been a son housekeeping is about two sisters you don't have a sister how do you do this I have no idea I they inhabit me that's more the experience you know I don't actually invent a character I act I realized that a character is already in my mind in the absence of that I can't write a novel and when that is true I've enjoyed writing a novel you know it's very much a feeling of being alert to a voice that I hear in my mind that is not my own voice I wouldn't believe it if it were the Guardian included Gilead a list of books to give you hope you set out to give people hope with your writing I would hate to think that anyone's hope was diminished by anything that I had written I I just do think that human life and human society are beautiful things poignant things things deserving of loyalty and attention and I suppose that that does imply hope but I think hope is appropriate I think that the opposite of hope is defeat you know your newest book is a collection of essays the givenness of things and these essays are lectures you've you've given is that correct yeah they seem very prescient especially given our current political climate and particularly the essay about fear and how it intersects with Christianity and how the – almost at times exploit each other is that accurate you know well well you say that as fear is not actually a Christian habit of mind and you say as Christians we are to believe that we are to fear not the death of our bodies but the loss of our souls you know I I think that's absolutely axiomatic I mean I think I could quote chapter and verse but the the thing that bothers me when I see fear becoming a sort of it's almost like some kind of crazed that has swept through the culture you know and the thing about fear is that it deprives you of the possibility of acting generously toward anyone that you might fear anybody that has been described to you as being other from you or or hostile to your interests in some way or lacking in act I think sort I don't think I think that a person you are supposed to trust God which includes trusting the fact that if it's your time to die it's your time to die you know but then there is also the fact that you you know we we become suspicious we become inclined not to accept anything no matter how graciously intended as being meant in good faith all these things are consequences of fear and if you subscribe to this habit of mind you have completely disabled you yourself in terms of behaving in the way that Christians are supposed to act you're told President Obama and the interview that you stole brought up I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people so have we moved away from from that well guess I would say we have moved away from that they sort of polarization that people talk about which is its antagonism really it's moved beyond simply I really don't agree with you too I have the deepest doubts about your human Worth you know well yes I would say that that's true and there are all sorts of things again that are affected by that you know for example we've gone into some sort of strange crisis about educating with which is something we have done passionately and well for hundreds of years it's a defining trait in this civilization education when it's good is undertaken with the idea that the people are liberated we expanded that you give it you open new possibilities of of pleasure and understanding to people you know we don't define it that way anymore we talk about it in terms of of making you fit into the economy that needs certain kinds of cogs you know even very highly developed highly sophisticated I think that if we had a more respectful attitude toward people in general we would be much more generous and hopeful and energetic in educating them than currently we are that reminds me of a quote I wrote down that you said to the New York Times you were talking about your own childhood and you said we were positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with I had teachers articulate that to me you have to live with your mind your whole life you build your mind so make it into something you want to live with you said nobody has ever said anything more valuable to me well that's simply true I mean those really are I suppose if there are words I have lived by those are words I have lived by the the idea that you know that there's something special to you for whatever reason that you really need to know not because it's any kind of you know necessity that would be recognizable to other people but because it would feel good to have that resource in your mind it would you know it would enhance your passage through time simply I made a promise to myself at a certain point that I will certainly crashing lis break which is that I would not die stupid and what that means to me as as I nibble at this fantastically great problem is that I'm going to read to everything I think I ought to have read one of the things that's characteristic in this culture is if a book is very important we don't read it you know who's read capital who's read Marx you know Marxist didn't read him you know who's you know people actually reading the Bible in a meaningful sense that's surprisingly rare people that are actually willing to take it on as it is as a a great ancient literature you know rather than some that that justifies prejudices and narrow behavior which it really doesn't this this is the sort of thing I wanted to know what it does assume that one knows and then some more beside and then I owe it all to my English teacher in high school I'm attached to something at this table so I'm not going to move so don't feel like you have to turn around and look at me it's okay you can look at the people who are here to see you I want to talk a little bit more about the fear si you you touch on guns in that si you say gun sales stimulate gun sales a splendid business model no doubt about that fear operates as an appetite or an addiction you can never be safe enough you right our appetite for weapons is one of those vacuums nature hates that is to say fills so how in your mind did God and guns get sort of mixed up together in the minds of some Americans well you know we've had the development of a kind of group self-righteousness that is very ready to find threat and deveined enemies and you know it's just a matter of American cultural history that people like to think that God is on their side and you know the combined effect of God and weaponry makes you a formidable figure I don't know I mean it's it's it's really appalling to me that's one of the things that it's hard for me to deal with the fact that that I find major trends in the culture actually repulsive the idea that people dressing in the morning will put on a concealed weapon in case the circumstance of aiming or killing should arise for them that's already such a huge declension from civilized standards that I can hardly believe it happens you talk about sitting you write about I should say top sitting on your on your porch at home and hearing a neighbor talking about packing heat on the way to the grocery store I think talk about that moment a little bit it was very strange you know I don't think it was a neighbor I there are certain woods behind my house I think it was to someone who happened to be taking a shortcut or although he was speaking to someone he knew someone who knew him more crucially apparently this person had carried a gun a large gun openly into a convenience store and the manager had called the police and given you know given what we get as a dose of reality in the Daily News it's not surprising the manager called the police the man carrying the gun was very upset because he said it was legally registered you know but then you know Adam Lanza's guns were registered and this fellow paddocks guns were registered it's it's that is obviously not an effective criterion at all what do you think we get wrong about the Midwest or the Middle West in the way we speak and the way we write what do people misunderstand about the Midwest I think that I think a lot of middle Westerners have bought into the idea that everything has occurred elsewhere and that that you know and the things of the highest quality occur elsewhere either the east the west coast or Europe you know and this this is a very strange thing I looked up the Pulitzer Prizes a matter of hacking and found that something like nine of the first eleven Pulitzer Prizes went to people from the Middle West writing about it that's an a phenomenal literary culture in a newly settled region you know I hadn't there was a very systematic sort of migration into this part of the world by people who wanted to start colleges we can all tell that by looking around the only time I mean they they themselves were highly educated people with ambitious ideas of what education is and what it can accomplish I spend a lot of time reading in the 19th century it happened that huh it happened that a minister that I knew showed up at the door with a book like Harriet Beecher Stowe about our self-made men and so I read it and it named a lot of people I'd never heard of before who came into the Middle West or were born here and created all kinds of interesting social reform and social institutions and who were very very very effective opposition to the institution of slavery the Middle West carried the Union cause for years in the Civil War at great cost it's it's simply a rich area full of premier institutions with a very impressive history and and the fact that people sort of act as if they are somehow less enabled culturally than other people and they do they do i watch that I'm an outsider so I get to say yes this is true and you know in a way sort of reinforced this myth that this is the place where nothing happened this is the place where people are conventional and slow minded you hear that it's very you know when I go some her people only know I'm from Iowa a writer from Iowa they define complex words for me and then I've read about the memory for years afterward but you know this I'm not saying no region has any exclusive claim on anything but there's a lot we could learn about American culture and institutions by being aware that so many of them came from here that they were highly idealistic projects at the beginning highly fruitful and very very very much worth remembering and in retaining I want to talk about something that President Obama said to you during his interview of you when I think about how I understand my role as citizen setting aside being president and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen the most important stuff I've learned I think I've learned from novels so I wonder what are some novels that have shaped your understandings well when I when I think about what to whom I am indebted the American 19th century is overwhelmingly where my imagination came from you know then I hope I have supplemented it variously but things like Moby Dick you know well there's nothing like Moby Dick Moby Dick and and then people like Emily Dickinson and so I'm at that period where they were working through what are really epistemological questions about the relationship of language to thought and the relationship of language to perception and so on I think that we under read them because we assume that they're not up to anything quite so ambitious but they are and nobody's ever done it better what are you reading right now at the moment I'm reading William of Ockham on the nature of tyranny I read widely I'm very interested I loved I've gotten farther and farther into you know very old literature because I find that that it's been a tendency in modern thought to narrow the vocabulary of understanding and when you go back even if people are making interesting mistakes you know they're doing it in with you know with interesting penumbra of ideas around the error and the rest of it and I find that I I've had a feeling for a long time that when I read contemporary thinking on most subjects I feel as though I am being taken down a narrow path that is growing narrower you know and reading reading anything pre-modern sort of complicates the ecology of ideas in a way that I find very pleasing I think we're getting close to the audience question time I just want to read one more quote of yours that I love hmm and asked you to talk a little bit about it abuse or neglect of a human being is not the destruction of worth but certainly the denial of it worth we're always trying to anchor meaning and experience but without the concept of worth there's no concept of meaning I cannot make a dollar or the dollar I have to trust that it is worth a dollar I can't make a human being worthy of my respect I have to assume that he is worthy of my respect I love that and I wonder if if you could share your thoughts on on how we move more toward a culture that that does that for each other well you know that I think that this society moves collectively in an odd way I mean I think that the less the more we adopt each other's language the more we adopt each other's assumptions the narrower the whole vocabulary of discussion becomes so that there are these binary opposition's and so on that are simplifications of issues to which we are nevertheless loyal on one side or the other and so on I think that we have not been doing much to remind ourselves of the importance of human beings of the fantastic potential of any human mind you know we we speak of people on Mouse and without great respect for them even you know I mean the the again to return to what I was saying before the the term Heartland is pretty well full of contempt you know it's the Heartland is where people don't think no thoughts etc you know we have these terms these dismissive terms we're talking about people in general and if you do that you have lowered your expectations of any person in particular you've lowered your definition of what a human being is we have to I think realize the poverty of a lot of our thinking and and you know discover a way back to a fuller sense of of what we are one of the things that is you know I read a lot of I read you know cosmologies and so on that are accessible to me you know the new science in physics now that and more and more I have become aware of what an utterly exceptional thing it is to have this tiny livable planet that not I mean is minut is inconsiderable by the scale of the universe and at the same time knows the universe in that haunting way you know sends out these little sort of surrogate eyes you know and senses to to understand this utterly other reality that we are you know a tiny little jewel in the middle of not in the middle of on the peripheries of who knows but in any case you know given the utter uncanny strangeness of the human circumstance and the fact that even though we're continuously talking about how many people there are they are nothing by the scale of the universe or a tiny fragile little group you know I think we have to remember that there's a brilliant strange reality around us that held that if you think about it has the effect of incredibly enhancing that our wonder at the human presence you know and then of course we do wrong and get on each other's nerves and post terrible danger to ourselves nothing else threatens us the way we do but I think that the change would be realizing the utter preciousness of human beings you know of what's possible what is true so I mean a Pope that I can't help it I think that's a lovely way to end our portion and throw this over to the audience who I'm sure is itching to ask you questions I think someone's gonna walk around with a mic is it the mic I'm holding okay so hang on one second hi sorry thank you so much for writing I think it's difference that I see between housekeeping and the delegate trilogy that I can pin down is that in housekeeping there are some people like Lucille and Ruth's up store neighbors at their mother's house or some of the more conventional people around finger-bone that assume maybe a little bit absurd maybe a little bit petty maybe a little bit silly in the Gilead trilogy even the people that tunnel and the horse falls into it and the people that kind of like annoy Lyle of because they keep coming around all of them seem to have this really great aunt her they seem to be genuinely kind but maybe misled or just not thinking I was wondering if did something change between a house any ill and house keep I'm I was wondering if anything changed between Ilia trilogy about how either think about human dignity in general or how you relate to characters and how you kind of like try to represent them because even though all people in the Gilead trilogy you seem to have a dignity that I can't quite think of another capture oh well I think the people the you know finger-bone people could misread I spend quite a bit of time in that book saying that they understood absolutely why Silvie would be inclined toward the dark woods you know that they understood the transiency of their you know larlie I mean it's because they understand how transient their little society is that they are cling to it the way that they do you don't I'm sorry if it seemed if I'm sorry if that seemed to be true it wasn't anything that I would have thought of doing intentionally I thought of the of everything on a spectrum in housekeeping and that the settled mess is a reaction to the transiency which is a reaction to the settled us you know I think that most people feel their lives in terms of what they have decided against and in if you are domesticated you realize you've given up freedom and if you're free in that way you realize you've given up comfort and the complexity of a mind comes from the fact that possibilities that were rejected remain live as thoughts as impulses hi Marilyn yeah I'm welcome from another Iowan and in the vein of belief I think it's really important to have belief in ourselves as people and I'm wondering if you always believed in your talent or if at what point you in that belief you know I never really thought about it I mean wouldn't people when I was a kid people told me that I wrote well you know and I did well on standardized tests that involve language I had no conception of becoming a writer I always assumed that I would write things I thought housekeeping was unpublishable which was a part of the joy of writing it I don't think in terms of those categories particularly and I I didn't want nobody ever you know nobody particularly in pushed me in one direction or another I just like to write and so I write oh thank you when the character Jack in the novel home wants a blessing from his father and he asks bless me also were you intending to have him anticipate that his father would respond the way that he did and is that part of a meditation on your part about predestination well you know I am interested in predestination because I think it misstates reality I think that it's an idea that which occurs from st. Agustin on you know it's a very characteristic idea in Christian theology and I think it's because they did not understand the nature of time or they used shorthand for it you know but his father Jack's father really loves him and has spent his whole theological career forgiving him but he misses he misunderstands Jack and that means that there's a sort of an awkwardness and aptitude in his most generous and refined efforts to assure Jack of the fact that he is accepted you know that's just a moment where things just kind of went wrong you know people miss Reed also jagged mountains father who they redeem was being rigid and unforgiving and in fact he's only forgiving there's never a moment in which he condemns anything that Jack does as a former high school English teacher I was curious about your statement of the impact of your English teacher can you share with us some of her words of wisdom or strategies or methodologies that inspired you well you know frankly uh she wasn't such a great teacher she I've thought about her because she's she it was a very tentative presence in a classroom it always seemed like you if you said boo she'd run out the door you know but she did say things I mean she said another thing that impressed me very much she was a very pious woman and she said we America is rich because God can entrust us to share wealth in the moment we stop sharing wealth we will cease to be rich and I think that those might be words that one could will ponder my question is very simple what's the state of your hopefulness in our current predicament I'm trying to figure that out oh I don't I mean I've I've read enough history to know that history takes some very disturbing turns which how collective behavior relates to individual behavior you don't i mean i'm reading in that in those 14th and 15th centuries now and that which were absolutely appalling centuries I mean warfare them and plague you know everything that you can think of and the people writing then whose works have survived in any case are this the sweetest spirits you could ever imagine you know and how they I mean they're they they tend toward us some kind of ecstatic tendency toward mysticism but it's not really mysticism they tended to be people that were speaking to uneducated people in their own language with German or Czech or whatever and I think you know it would be very hard for me to look at the period during which America Felda was fortunate and find anything so humane as you find among these people who were writing in conditions of unbelievable difficulty so one thing that my hope is based on is that the people who gave lasting gift to the world we're always hopeful under circumstances that I hope we will never see anything to that would compare I mean its human beings that are the impressive thing even though collectively they go haywire from time to time I have a question about Iowa wondering if there's something special about as a place in the Midwest when it comes to teams that you write about or is that just the place you know so your novels could be sent anywhere well there's a special history behind Gilead you know I mean President Grant did indeed call Iowa the shining star of radicalism it was extremely reformist extremely abolitionist it the reason that Jack comes home is because Iowa never had laws against miscegenation the only other state that didn't as Maine and so you know he has he he's deeply in love with had made a family with a woman that it is a you know he can't marry legally and the cohabitation of unmarried people was also illegal at that time so so his life is completely disrupted by these these things that are should not be true you know and if he went back to Iowa it should be true that he could live there with his family and as a married household and so on when he goes home and this is historically how things were that culture had made concessions to to you know Jim Crow that made us so what was true on the books was not true in fact and so no one can guarantee him that yes indeed his family can live as an intact family so those are special circumstances for Iowa the memory of a very radical history as far as abolition and reform are concerned and that layered over by a broader conventionalism that people are not you know they're not entirely at ease with and not free from at all there's so much in your work about the relationship between parents and children and the love of parents which is peppered by brutality and misunderstanding and absence and struggle and some of it some of this difficulties seems incredibly generative and some seems destructive in very complicated ways and I'm just wondering how your own parents live in your novels where they appear as ghosts that's an interesting question um you know housekeeping is set in a place like the town where I was born and the house that was oddly like my grandmother's house where my mother grew up but aside from physical details like that it's not autobiographical nothing that I've written was ever intentionally out of biographical if it is it is so oblique that you know my own brother doesn't recognize it I have a you know I don't understand I don't want to make a case for it anything but I have a what is simply a you know temperamental resistance to seeing myself on my own pages what is your reflection on the racial dynamics of our society today black lives matter identity politics and kind of most importantly how to move forward and truly make greater progress in that area you know I think that this the standard that needs to be applied is fair is fair you know I mean you read about things that in the Jim Crow period there that person that comes up in in gilead Fowler he was a fantastically skillful baseball player you know that you know is one of those people you just wish you could see and this is not I think accidentally related to the fact that he ended up in the Negro Leagues that the Negro Leagues functioned as a catchment for people like him who were simply so conspicuously great at what they did you know I mean when you read when you read the racial history of the states after the Civil War especially you don't have to during reconstruction after reconstruction what happens over and over again is that the the you know the gifts of non-white people are resisted and dismissed and unvalued you know and the way I mean I'm old you know so that I can say when I was a kid you virtually never saw or you never heard of the voice of a black person speaking on the radio you know that the culture was so suppressed that people did not have any realistic notion of what people were actually capable of and as in the case of bud Fowler and other people who who lived in that period before Jim Crow and after the Civil War you see them being an affect excluded in for all appearances on the basis of having having gifts an enviable skills so I think that I mean you you hear that black lives matter you know if if it's true that black people are disproportionately likely to the shot and traffic stops and so on then the simple standard of fairness is not being applied and that old tendency is not gone the amount of mobility that is denied to people who can't assume their safety is a huge loss and the kind of thing that necessarily embitters relations how could it not you know I mean there's no magic wand there's no but there is that final standard you know if somebody does something well means well is not violating any norm that you would find offensive in your children or your brother respect that you know I mean it's almost too simple a formula but it's to consistently not honored I remember when Marian Anderson could not sing in the White House that was Eisenhower I mean just bizarre Thank You Marilyn for sharing your stories and helping so many people feel warm in your midst my question is here in Evanston I work as a mental health therapist in our public school working with elementary kids and we have a college ready gap that's been around for 30 years between our white students and our students of color and my question is any thought or reflection on how we couldn't Evanston to help minimize that gap and to help some of our middle school students of color really feel warm in literature and get excited about reading and writing well you know one one thing that I think is hopeful at the workshop and I override where I have been teaching we have a lot of black and Caribbean writers coming through who are just excellent and I think I mean we couldn't we couldn't diversify our student body for a long time because we didn't get any applicants you know you can't we can't accept people that don't apply now we have a lot of applicants and we have a lot of of these students and residents many of them from the Caribbean from anywhere and I think that one of the things that will make future minority students more receptive to literature is the literature has been more receptive to them you know I think we have to be very very cautious about things like college readiness you know because so often we can be picking up signals and so on that that we interpreting in appropriate ways I think that I mean you know things like the overpopulation of students of color in you know special education courses and so on that I don't believe that that's legitimate by any means and I I don't know how this entrapment occurs but I think that things like that not to give the kids ahead of time the idea that they don't belong into higher education or they wouldn't understand literature I you know it's a terrible thing I thought one of the interesting experiences that I've had was being taken home in a taxi by a black fellow who said that he had spent years in Attica it was a long ride but I thought well that's interesting information abut in any case no he was a wonderful fella learned and he he did not know the world was anything he could be interested in and then he read a book and I think we absolutely have to develop any means we can to take take people all kinds of people over that threshold people don't know what books are until one of them has been claimed by a book you know I don't think you know I just I just don't think that the problem is insoluble I think that we're locked into cultural patterns that we can't find our way out of you

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