On October 17, 2014, Marilynne Robinson and the staff of The Nation had a conversation about her work, including her new novel, Lila. What follows is an edited transcript of portions of the conversation. Listen to the full conversation here:
TN: While reading your new novel, Lila, the other novel of yours that I kept thinking of was not Gilead, its narrative predecessor, but your first novel, Housekeeping, because its two main female characters, Ruthie and Sylvie (Ruthie’s aunt), are drifters whose hardscrabble lives seem to anticipate those of Lila and her guardian, Doll. Were you having a conversation with yourself about Sylvie and Ruthie while you were writing Lila?
MR: I have found that when you write a novel, a character never actually leaves you from that point on. It’s clearly true that Sylvie and Doll are sisters, are associated in terms of what is important to me about both of them. I’m very much drawn to the idea of an absolute self, someone who eludes social definitions. One of the things that bothers me is seeing people dismissed or trivialized on the basis of their not fitting into a favorable category, socially and so on. It’s very important for me to assert the sovereign self. I consider Lila to be, in her way, as much a theologian as John Ames [Lila’s husband] is. She’s just a natural theologian, as they would say.
TN: All of your novels are set in a time that makes them remote from the present, yet without turning them into historical novels: they are contemporary novels that are not set in a contemporary climate. Does this choice have anything to do with the kind of language you want to use when you write fiction? The language in your novels seems at once untouched by time and the times, yet remarkably attentive to the workings of time and the destructive workings of history.
MR: I like dealing with people whose vocabulary and worldview is less media-saturated than ours is. I think that there is an acceleration of a kind of slang shorthand that is very characteristic of our period but not especially beautiful. It is meant to be ephemeral, in a way that when you’re using language that you would consider “hip”—or whatever the present word would be—you are using it in the knowledge that in a year or two years, you would be embarrassed to use the same word. I like to use language that doesn’t have all these little signifiers around it, that seems to me more classic, in the sense of being unrecognizable in terms of a particular decade.