As Marilynne Robinson and I waited to begin our digital conversation about her now novel, Jack, attendees logged in. They came from Wisconsin and Las Vegas and Oregon, and also from Singapore, Germany, Hungary, the United Kingdom—all to hear from a writer whose first four novels were set in rural Iowa.
The global attention comes as no surprise. It has always been Robinson’s project to illuminate the universal in the ordinary; by paying rapt attention to the mundane, she burnishes small details into glory. Robinson is religious, and it shows it her novels, but hers is a demonstration of religion so expansive, so human-centered, that it speaks to readers religious or atheist, Iowan or Singaporean. At the heart of her work is an assurance that all people are “intrinsically, spectacularly interesting phenomena,” as Robinson said during this conversation.
I had the honor of speaking with Robinson about Jack’s setting in a city and among graveyards, the complexity of having a body, the condition of anxiety, and more. It was a conversation marked by the same keen generosity as Robinson’s work, and one I won’t soon forget.
—C Pam Zhang
C PAM ZHANG: Jack is a book that fans of Marilynne’s work have been looking forward to for a very, very long time. In fact, for so long, that in a 2008 interview, someone at the Paris Review asked you if you would ever write about Jack and you said, “No. I would lose Jack if I tried to get too close to him as a narrator; he’s alienated in a complicated way. Other people don’t find him comprehensible and he doesn’t find them comprehensible.” So I just wanted to start off by asking, what changed between 2008 and when you began working on this new novel?
MARILYNNE ROBINSON: Well, I find that the characters of the books I write live on in my mind. The character of Jack sort of spontaneously developed itself in a way that made me feel that I actually could speak from his point of view. It wasn’t a decision on my part. It was just the realization that, in some way or another, I had reached a conclusion about that.
CPZ: Do you feel that he is a more complicated character than the narrators in your other novels?
MR: I would not make that comparison. Yes is the answer, but I hesitate to make the comparison. I think to the extent that I have captured plausible people, I’ve captured also a degree of complexity that I have not done justice to in every case.
CPZ: That note of complexity is really interesting because I think when I first entered into reading this novel, I thought, “oh, I understand, this is going to be a love story,” and like most love stories, that main point of tension will be between the two characters who are romantically involved. What is really fascinating to me is, I quickly realized that one of the greatest sources of dramatic tension, in the novel, was Jack himself. He is full of these contradictions where he calls himself the Prince of Darkness. He says he’s trouble, but at the same time, we only see him with the utmost gentleness and thoughtfulness towards Della, the woman that he’s in love with. So could you talk about this tension and this engine of Jack’s own identity that drives the novel?
MR: The experience that he has had of himself is this sort of attraction toward fragility, or vulnerability, or whatever. It seems like a test of experience or reality to him to break things, to steal things. This is something that’s been true of him as long as he can remember. And he doesn’t intend these things as acts of evil or anything. He’s somehow, as I understand him, strange and ill at ease simply in reality itself. Especially as it takes firmer and harder and more inscrutable, beautiful social forms. He’s somebody who is aware of his destructiveness, but the overarching subject of the book is that destructiveness is unacknowledged but pervasive in all kinds of situations and he is sensitive to it. But the more violent aspects of the culture, the more destructive elements of it, occur among people who would not think of themselves in those terms. The city fathers who will pull down the Black neighborhood and so on.
CPZ: Yeah, it is interesting because we see Jack more often the victim of acts of destruction than the perpetrator of acts of destruction. [We] see him beaten physically. I think a number of times we see him sort of insulted to his face because he is considered this outsider of society and looked down upon. That’s really interesting that you note that.
I think that what I got from Jack as a reader was not that he was this “prince of darkness” as he calls himself, rather that he was this really fascinating sort of self-defeating character. He has this litany of names that he calls himself, and it almost felt to me that he was driving himself towards this doom by naming himself in that way.
MR: I think that’s fair to say he’s certainly sealing himself in that doom. And then he’s also ironic in the sense that on the one hand he has impulses that he recognizes as destructive. On the other hand, he is, by his own choice, someone who is really without much possibility for doing serious harm. He secludes himself, so that he really doesn’t have serious harm as an option in any circumstance that he anticipates. But of course, as things develop that ceases to be true.
CPZ: We learned fairly late in this book that he did, in his past, perpetrate a pretty serious act of harm against another person, and it seemed to me, once I had that revelation, that he was punishing himself for that, and that was one of the reasons he had put society at arms length until he met Della.
MR: Yes. I definitely think of him as trying somehow to pay the cost of what he did and what he regrets having done.
CPZ: It’s fascinating that he was trying to pay penance to the wrong person. It’s not the first person he wronged [unintelligible] but he’s putting that into this new situation.
MR: But he can’t find the person he wronged!
CPZ: Very tragic. So, I want to speak for a moment about this idea of perception that I think the book is really fascinated with. Jack is deeply aware of how society sees him and how his self-image impacts the way people treat him. The very first time that Della meets Jack, Jack is wearing this black suit and she mistakes him for a preacher. He reacts to this so strongly that. He in fact goes out, sells the suit, gets another suit that makes him look more disheveled and more of a ne’er-do-well. Then there’s this hilarious moment where he’s sitting in the new, uglier suit, doing a crossword in the paper, and he knows that people are looking at him and assuming that he’s gambling. Jack is so obsessed with this idea of how he looks. What I was really interested in, as a reader, was trying to figure out, how accurate Jack’s awareness of his own self image was. Is he seeing himself realistically—indeed, other people make these assumptions of him—or is he once again such a cynic that he’s kind of bringing these negative reads onto himself?
MR: I don’t really know for sure. I mean, he is destitute, typically, and he creates any image of respectability, or anything that he has, with difficulty, understanding that he’s on the margin of real haplessness and so on. He’s in a very large degree, sort of the gentleman brought up by his father to be a gentleman. And at the same time he is himself unaware that there’s something ironic about what is pretentiousness or habit or so on. . . about what other people might take as his gentility and then that gentility is offensive to people because it is in a sense fraudulent, because he does nothing to support it in terms of how society views him, and all these things happen simultaneously within his self-consciousness.
CPZ: Jack has an extremely well-developed sense of humor and irony. That’s one of the things that I really loved about this novel, because I think it would be easy to tackle these topics with a heavier touch, but I do think that his sense of awareness and also Della’s sense of awareness—There’s that moment when he calls himself a Prince of Darkness again, and she says, no, you’re just someone that [unintelligible]—I really appreciated that throughout the novel there was this thread of awareness running through.
There’s this moment on page 74, in which Della says this really beautiful thing: “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see. The precious things should be looked to, whatever becomes of the rest of it.” Now we know that Jack doesn’t see eye-to-eye with what Della has just said in this moment, but he sort of lets her down gently. In his head he thinks, well, what she’s saying, it’s not harsh, but it’s something worse. I was really curious if you could shed any light on what he thinks of what she’s saying at that moment.
MR: The book is about the beauty of the interior experience, even when it’s painful, even when it’s ironic and self-satirizing. There’s just a sort of brilliance in the whole problem of a mind conceiving of itself as a self, and trying to understand the meaning of how it acts and all the rest of it. So, if you think of that as the major business of the world—if you think of these billions of people, all with their heads humming with attempts to articulate and understand and recall and retain and all the rest of it, that’s the major business of the world. That’s where most of the calories are spent, to put it crudely.
And so any conception of reality that excludes the whole phenomenon of human consciousness—it seems to me radically incomplete. The thing I hear—Della and I agree about a lot—but it seems to me as if what is missing from that understanding of reality is a perceiver. Someone to whom, what is beautiful is beautiful. I think that she’s probably making an argument that actually simply comes too close for Jack to be able to accept it. To act as though he does accept it. He knows she’s talking about him.
CPZ: Yeah, I think that’s what I sensed from him in that moment as well. There was discomfort, maybe a sense of shame at being seen too close. It was really, really interesting as I do believe that Jack comes closer towards the end of the novel to accepting what she had said, into agreeing with what she had said.
So there are quite a few times in the book that really jumped out at me where, when Jack is under distress, he thinks of himself as a naked man. Could you talk a little bit about that?
MR: I think I have always been most interested in characters when I could take them down to their sort of essential, [unintelligible] humanity. Within all the layers of accoutrement that we can surround ourselves with—embalm ourselves in—there is the essential, the Adamic simplicity of a human being. Because he’s so aware of the artificiality or the dubious origins in the sense of every accommodation that he makes to society, he is thrown back again and again, on this awareness of himself as Adam, as the naked man at the beginning of—the Man uncomplicated in a certain sense, complex as he is, but that essential human, human being, human presence.
CPZ: And that’s really beautifully said, but I got the sense that Jack is actually afraid of looking straight on at his essential humanness. The way he thinks of his body. There’s so much discomfort. He’s always sweating and then wondering where the handkerchief is, so he can wipe the sweat off his face. He’s deeply aware that there’s a scar on his face at some point again. Sort of the awkwardness of his physicality in different areas. I think with Jack being so uncomfortable with looking straight at that kind of core humanity, there is the sense for him that the body itself is betraying him.
MR: The body is part of his problem, you know? I mean, it’s what anchors us to the earth after all. When I use the allusion of Adam in those contexts, from the narrative that a large part of the world has told itself repeatedly, it’s that there is an anxiety about that primal moment. About being naked, about making some crucial, not entirely comprehensible error. I think that if you talk in those terms, about what is essential, you already have the sense of the body and the human presence as something complicated, something not easily dealt with or lived in or whatever.
CPZ: There’s this really beautiful moment in which Jack, in his desire to sort of divest himself sometimes of a physical body, imagines he and Della as “mixing irradiance” like the angels in Paradise Lost. There are sometimes these sounds. I think that he wishes that he and Della could just be out of this world.
MR: That’s really true. I think that graveyard-influenced thinking, but this society creates these bizarre obstacles and potential insults and potential injuries and so on that they live among all the time. If they could simply be themselves in some essential way without the encumbrance of readable social identity—that’s what he’s thinking about, what they think about.
CPZ: Yeah, absolutely. I had that same thought when I was stepping back and thinking about the structure of the book, which is really, really fascinating. I think we’re just thrown immediately from the introduction into the middle of a conversation. We, as the readers, don’t have the full context for how these two people came into this conversation—actually, it’s a little bit of a fight, right? How they came in, what happened right before. I think, in fact, we don’t even learn until, maybe two thirds through the book, the exact factual details of how these two characters originally met. I think my first experience was a little bit discombobulated by it. It was lovely. It was beautiful. But I was wondering about that—and I think later I realized the book, to me, sort of had two parts. The first part is that initial conversation where Jack and Della—it’s not that they’re completely in a bubble because there are still other people, but it feels like the conversation truly gets to be about the two of them as human beings, as pure souls, and things are kind of quiet and dreamlike. They move a little bit slowly and in a good way. Then in the second half of the book, there’s this really fascinating picking up of pace, where suddenly the two of them are barraged with big event after big event. Like external obstacle after external obstacle. There is a leader at the local church who objects to their relationship. Della’s family objects to their relationship. She goes to Memphis, he goes to Chicago. So, I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the structure.
MR: For weal or woe, I tend not to think of those things much. I have a feeling a critic or two may have pointed that out, but I always write what seems to me to be suggested by what has come before. Their earlier contact is very tentative. They were not sure of each other. When he happens to find his way to that pastor in the Baptist church, it’s the first time that he’s actually said out loud “Della,” to anyone else. He realizes, because of the minister’s response to him, the real seriousness of what they are engaging in—not only serious because it disrupts things that other people value, but serious in the sense that no matter what anyone says to him, this is the great—this is the fact that he, that he cannot give her up. And with the awareness, I think, that she would not give him up, even then. When that happens, then there is—I think necessarily—a kind of an acceleration.
CPZ: And whether or not it was a plan going into it, I think there is something really lovely about that, that they have—Della and Jack are sort of allowed the dignity and the intimacy to form those initially tenuous bonds without being known about by the outside world. And I think that is it to me—it’s absolutely necessary to the way that the book functions. So I think it’s brilliant
MR: Thank you!
CPZ: On that note, it just occurred to me that, speaking of Jack and Della being just the two of them without other people being aware of their relationship, it’s really fascinating because the first good fifth of the book, that first conversation, it happens in the dead of night, right? In the most secret of environments. And they actually have a lot of conversations, a lot of meetings at night. That first scene is actually in a graveyard as well. And I was sort of curious, because I think that those tropes of a graveyard, of nighttime, of a man following a woman—which is how the book starts out—are typically coded as scary, as potentially violent, as ominous. But these aspects are not coded in that way, in this novel. So I was wondering. . . well, I don’t know. Do graveyards mean something different to you than they perhaps might to others?
MR: Well, Della and Jack are both the children of clergy. They’ve both attended more funerals than average, so they’ve heard the narrative of human mortality and these meanings over and over again. They know that love is embodied in the attentions that people give to the dead. Just as they live in my mind, they would’ve had a. . . perhaps less Gothic sense of a place like that than most people would. But aside from that, they can be together, without being disturbed, without being overheard. There are not many circumstances under which that would be true for them. And they have lots and lots of time to get to know each other.
CPZ: That’s really lovely. And I will admit that I did not grow up religious, so my reading of graveyards is perhaps more Gothic.
Just speaking on that fact, that both Jack and Della come from these religious families, I was curious if you could speak a little bit about the role of religion in their relationship. I think initially it served as a bond between them and indeed, I don’t know if that first interaction between the two characters would have happened, had Della not mistaken Jack for a preacher. But later the church hinders them, arguably, much more than it helps them meet initially. So, could you just talk about the role of the church and their relationship?
MR: Well, both of them feel very deeply that the love that they have between them is inviolable. It deserves immunity from arbitrary disruptions, from contempt, and from the other things that threaten it. I would say that in both cases—the Baptist church and then the AME church at the end of it—they take the form of society in a certain sense. They take the form of either endorsing society or making defensive arrangements over against society. Della’s a treasure from their point of view. The school she talks about, Sumner, is the first Black high school West of the Mississippi. These things are incredible. There was a law against teaching Black children at the high school level. So finally, a minister in St. Louis, a Black man, anchored a raft in the middle of the Mississippi river, because it was illegal in both Missouri and Illinois to be teaching these kids algebra basically. So he would row students out to this—and apparently the moral authority of the act turned the minds of St. Louis and they built quite a lovely and impressive high school. But she [Della] is teaching in a situation where something really new has happened and she has—I take her to be from Spelman College or somewhere like that. . . and she’s a treasure. She’s somebody who can animate this wonderful new institution that’s been created. And she’s leaving. She’s doing exactly what will get her fired. So the objections that people like the Baptist minister have are, I think, highly understandable, and Jack understands them too. They fall solidly into the category of harm as far as he’s concerned, that would affect even his own child, as he considers it. Then her father is simply the mirror image of the Baptist minister. He’s trying to create a new positive statement about Black culture within the larger culture. His daughter would be a treasure in that context, and again, she’s being lost to him. So, the churches are interfering in one way. And in another sense they’re trying to defend something that you can see as being truly worthy of defense. I’m not dismissive of either of them.
CPZ: It almost seems, from what you’re saying, that it might be that the churches are sort of—they’re institutions, they’re, in some ways, reflections of society. So it feels like their aims are almost larger than individuals’. It’s not like, “what does Della want?” It’s “what does Della contribute? What does she mean? What does she signify?” I think there’s something Della says near the beginning of the novel about that, about her father, sort of having less time for his family, his individual family members, because of his role in the church and in the community.
Did you ever live in St. Louis where the book takes place?
MR: No, no, I’ve never lived there. I’ve traveled there a few times. It’s simply because I knew Jack, so to speak, lived in St. Louis and I had to look at the place. It’s very interesting in the way of old American cities, old industrial, heroic-scaled American cities.
CPZ: I was actually going to ask you since this, I believe, is the first of the Gilead series to not be set in Iowa. Did you have to do any special research in order to create this book that you didn’t before?
MR: I read quite a bit about St. Louis. You know, that’s an actual cemetery, Bellefontaine, it’s there, it’s magnificent in a kind of funerial way. It’s also true that St. Louis was an important city in the middle West in the 19th century. There were things about it—for example, the fact that it was a union city. It was very largely German. There were German surnamed generals who were very important because they could mobilize St. Louis. So I was aware of it as an ethnically quite distinct and, at the same time, powerful, vital, necessary city that was in a union state, but nevertheless had regions in it that were very strongly pro-South. It’s moving into another cultural environment from the point of view of Gilead.
CPZ: Yeah, [there’s] an urban feel to a lot of it. I mean, I think that the night scenes in particular that we talked about earlier—it feels so different in the context of the city than they do in a rural environment, and there is such a large cast of colorful secondary characters in the novel that begin to exert those external forces on Jack and Della’s relationship that I don’t think you could have gotten in exactly the same way, had it not been an urban setting.
MR: I think you’re very right about that!
CPZ: Yeah. They’re drawn with a very deft hand. Some of them only appear for a few paragraphs, but they’re very memorable.
I wanted to ask about the importance of Hamlet to this book and to Jack and Della’s relationship. It’s brought up a lot. They discuss it a lot. I do believe that you were a scholar of Shakespeare at some point?
MR: Yes, of an obscure early history play. [But] not Hamlet; I’ve approached him carefully over years of time.
CPZ: That was actually the question: which came first? Were you always interested in Hamlet or did you find these characters, and then these characters sort of informed your interest in Hamlet?
MR: Well, I’m always interested in Hamlet. I had been teaching at Yale Divinity school—had been teaching Shakespeare and Hamlet was one of only three plays that we discussed in the class, so he was very much on my mind. It was very much on my mind from that point of view. If people had cultural aspirations, however institutional or autodidactic, if they wanted to follow out these aspirations, they would read Hamlet. It seemed to me, as if somebody looking at it from a little greater than usual distance would notice these gaps and anomalies that run all the way through the play. And so, it was simply a good way for them [Jack and Della] to talk together about something that they shared, as something they were aware of.
CPZ: Yeah. I love what you said about someone seeing these anomalies that you might not, if you just studied it in a classroom environment. I think one that really struck me was when Jack has this moment where he has a bit of a perverse rereading of Hamlet, and he’s, I think, thinking about himself and Della. He wonders if Hamlet is in fact, just a love story between the usurper King Claudius and the queen, and is it a love story where in fact, it’s just these two people in love who are overcoming every societally-prohibited obstacle to be together. And that—it’s still kind of ringing in my head cause I’ve never… I first read Hamlet way too early, in like elementary school at some point. I’ve never thought of it that way. Is that reading one that you agree with or that you find interesting?
MR: I find it surprisingly plausible. Part of what’s so interesting about the play of course, is that it will propose different solutions to itself over and over again. But the only real love relationship in that play is between Gertrude and Claudius. You have to take it on as a major fact.
CPZ: That’s true because certainly the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is not a great love story.
MR: No, No! That is snuffed out early and badly.
CPZ: Yeah, that was just very fascinating to me. So thank you. Thank you to you and to Jack for putting that idea in our heads. Now I kind of wish that someone would do one of those modern day retellings of Hamlet, but maybe from Claudius’s point of view; it would be very interesting.
MR: It would be very interesting! It really would.
CPZ: I’m going to take a moment and ask a few of the questions that the audience has left for you. Someone says: Marilynne, your work makes a beautiful case for seeing people in the reflections of their attachments. We may not love a person, but someone does. We may not imagine their laughter, but someone’s heard it. Gloria knows Jack one way, Ames another, etc. Is this emphasis on partial knowledge in your novels an encouragement to reflect on the idea of possibility? Do we love others better when we prioritize our imagination of others’ attachments above our own (assuming the person is hard for us to love)?
MR: That’s very interesting. I do think that we have to assume—I mean, when you see someone walking down the street that’s somebody’s child grown-up. Probably somebody who people have earnestly prayed for, tended to, all the rest of it. And if you see them as a sort of repository of the meaning of love that being a human being necessarily involves—on the other hand, there are people for whom nothing of this kind has been done, and you have to love them for that fact. I think we take people as if they have no history. And by history, I don’t mean credentials; I mean that they are invested with love and care and hope by people around them, or they are not, sadly enough. But in neither case, this is the primary thing about them. This is what they are made for. Then we all grow up and we become difficult and all the rest of it, but we’re still that human being. I think we should be—there’s a great presumption. I think that respect and gentleness are appropriate in every case.
CPZ: That’s very beautifully said.
Another person says: first of all, I would like to thank you for inspiring every Christian like me, with the demonstration that great fiction dealing with Christian matters can still be written and widely acclaimed. What I’d like to ask is if you have ever thought of writing a probable final Gilead novel, in which the son of Pastor John Ames gets to grow up to be the letter that is the novel Gilead and what kind of life he would lead, having his father’s wisdoms passed onto him.
MR: Well, of course these characters flicker across my mind as potential narrators. I think the odds are small, but then I once said I would never write one from Jack’s point of view. So I’m really not an authority on the subject, I’m afraid.
CPZ: Yeah, I feel like that’s the truest answer most writers can give!
You were quoted recently as saying you don’t get anxious. Do you think people are encouraged to define themselves as anxious rather than to accept and reflect on the meaning of their emotions?
MR: Yes, I do. I think, frankly, that people are for some reason. . . we’re driving each other very hard. . . and a million things in the economy, especially, encourage anxiety in people that can override many, many other considerations.
The best outcome is the worst that I fear didn’t happen or something like that, whereas anxiety is always outwardly directed, and the things that we can actually give to society, give to one another, have to come from our own resources respectfully consulted. Not put in the position of comparison, with others, expectation in social or material terms. I used to always tell my students that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and you have one. And this, what does this mean? Well, obviously that you are intrinsically very interesting and very enjoyable, if you make proper use of yourself. We’re not encouraged to exploit the fact that we are intrinsically spectacularly interesting phenomena. There are some billion of us and we act like that’s a big thing. It’s perishingly small by this scale of the universe. We’re a tiny little flicker of light. We have to value ourselves more and value ourselves in a way that makes us value other people, because we’re astonishing. We need the space and the time to live out the fact that we are astonishing.
CPZ: Thank you for that answer. I think every one of your novels sort of has that at its heart, and that’s part of why they’re so extraordinary.
Someone else asks: for a newcomer to your work, in what order should we read your books?
MR: I really hoped to make the books all free standing so that any one could be read first. So, I don’t give that particular kind of advice. I think people usually start with Gilead, but I did not intend that that should be necessary.
CPZ: This one is for both of us: what have you been reading lately that you might recommend?
MR: Well, I’ve been preparing for a lecture I was invited to give, on the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante. And this is a pretty new area for me. I accepted simply so that I could educate myself to be worthy of the invitation. I’ve been reading literature that surrounds him, other poets, and philosophers. It’s very interesting. It really is another view of many things. The art of courtly love or Scipio’s Dream. I mean, what—Scipio’s Dream of. . . my goodness, I’ve forgotten the title! In any case, you might be able to recommend things more immediately to hand.
CPZ: Oh, man. I’m trying to remember what I’ve been reading. I’ve actually been reading a lot of short story collections of late. I think it’s just a little bit easier for my mind to focus on them. I recently read this wonderful collection called A House Is a Body by Shruti Swamy. It came out very recently and it’s just—I dunno how to describe it because it’s not trendy. It’s not necessarily about current issues, but it’s just everything I look for in a short story. They’re elegant and strange, and I think in a way that’s similar to your work, Marilynne, very deeply attuned to what makes each human life, if you look hard enough at it, very special and odd and like vibrating with its own energy. It’s a great collection. And then there’s this other [unintelligible] collection by Mary South that came out earlier this year, it’s called You Will Never Be Forgotten, that actually kind of goes the other direction where it has these wonderful stories about living in the internet era and the strange fallout of that. I highly recommend both of them.
Another question for the both of us: what has been your favorite comfort food throughout the pandemic?
MR: Ice cream!
CPZ: I like how quickly that answer came! As opposed to the other answers.
MR: Well, I’ve noticed a certain pattern in my behavior, let’s say that.
CPZ: My answer is actually similar. I’ve been eating a lot of dairy products, which is bad because I’m lactose intolerant, so I have to take those little pills every time, but I’ve been eating a lot of mac and cheese, also a lot of frozen desserts.
Many of your essays discuss faith or politics, and some of them explore their intersection as well. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has regularly used her faith to advocate for issues like healthcare and anti-discrimination. Do you see her as a good example of someone making a case that Republicans don’t own Christian values? What’s your impression of her?
MR: Well, I admire her very much. I’m very reassured by the emergence of young people who are articulate and devoted and, one might say, patriotic, against other examples that claim that category, which I would not concede to them. Being religious myself, I cannot imagine anything more obviously true than that we are supposed to treat one another with reverence, and we are supposed to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit the prisoner and all the rest. Where this other thing comes from, I simply can’t doubt, I can’t imagine. It’s a terrible loss. Christianity in this country, I think historically, has encouraged reform and has encouraged an optimistic dream of a better society, the kind like President Obama talks about. This stupid name “socialism” has become affixed to everything that we do that amounts to a generosity toward ourselves—everything that works virtually, in terms of sustaining the society. I admire her.
CPZ: Does Iowa continue to inspire work in you, or do you feel you’ve exhausted it or become too accustomed/ near to it to inform you further?
MR: I don’t know. I would like very much to be able at some point to go back to Iowa, I feel a little bit estranged here. I would be surprised, frankly, if my fiction drifted too far from that landscape because I’ve just thought about it for so many years and looked at it for so many years. It grows on you.
CPZ: And it does feel like there’s always something new, right? I mean that in one sense; I also mean it in the sense that—were you there, Marilynne, when it flooded? Last year? Or was it this year? I can’t even keep track of time anymore.
MR: Me either, but I’ve been in the East for months and months. I missed all the major events, even that crazystorm. It makes me feel guilty. I’m having survivor guilt.
CPZ: I think we all are. It’s like that time in the world where I feel like every person I talk to who has like any ounce of empathy has to start with like, “I’m very privileged, and also I feel these things and anxieties.”
CPZ: Another question: I’m curious about how you develop the world of Gilead and where this story grew from. Did one particular character come to you first?
MR: Well, so I wasn’t really thinking about writing fiction during the period when I know now that Gilead was forming. I was very interested in the middle West, how it was settled and that it was settled by abolitionists, which has had a very important effect on American history. That is true, and it is also true that people have been talked out of that heritage. They have forgotten it. And so I’m fascinated by that whole phenomenon of historical amnesia. I think we forget vastly more than we ever retain, even with all our careful archives and the rest of it. People in Iowa, which was once the shining star of radicalism, have this idea that their being there makes them conservative. That they’re loyal to something that is deeply Iowan. And the fact of forgetting—in effect never consulting—the very great liberality of their original founding. The Supreme Court of Iowa, before it was a state, outlawed segregation in schools. The university has never been legally segregated, all that sort of thing. It’s very important to Gilead. There was never a law against racially mixed marriage, which was unbelievably rare in the United States at the time, that there should be no law against miscegenation. So Jack should be able to go home. He should be able to have his home be his son’s home, so they both know the same oak trees. And he can’t because whatever is true legally is not true culturally. He can’t assume they would be welcome or safe there.
CPZ: Oh man Marilynne, I wish I could talk to you just for days about this. I think it’s really been on my mind, that whole notion of, as you call, historical amnesia. And I think for me, the book that I wrote is historical fiction, but I’ve just been sort of recently using the words “history” and “myth” in the American context, more or less interchangeably, ‘cause I think that’s often what we get instead of history, is just this myth. This idea that whatever Iowa is, this conservative Heartland—as you said, it’s not real. Well, it’s not in the roots, but it is this myth that gets perpetuated and gets distributed in this almost freakishly viral way.
MR: It becomes one mode of reality because it controls behavior and thought— unbelievable! And people don’t even know how it happened, or why it happened. And of course it’s true in many ways, in many places.
CPZ: Someone wants to know if you think that Grace is more embodied in the novel Jack than in your other novels.
MR: Probably, I think that’s probably true. I am always veering around this question of predestination, which is associated with the theology that would have laid behind the ministers in Gilead that I describe. I think that the grace of God is the freedom of God, and that if you assume that God is free, you do not assume that you know the fate of any soul, including your own. Increasingly, Jack experiences the reality of grace, even in the fact of experiencing the reality of unavoidable harm. I think that there’s incompatibility between the idea of predestination and the idea of grace and that any conception of God that I can entertain means that grace is the actual reality.
CPZ: That’s beautiful. Someone else asks, they know that you’ve had conversations with Barack Obama, and they’re wondering if you can talk about your relationship with him?
MR: Well, we exchanged letters through most of his presidency. Wonderful, treasured letters, and then he left office and I started writing a book and he started writing a book. I had a wonderful conversation with Malia. Somehow, I just sort of lost confidence in the way in which we had exchanged letters because so many of other things had changed. He was very, very kind to speak about me in the profile that was done by the New Yorker, a little while ago. He made a DVD so that he could speak at my retirement. He has showered me with kindnesses and I just think he’s a wonderful man.
CPZ: Well, I have no doubt that he’s going to be meeting Jack if he hasn’t already.
MR: Well, I’ll be fascinated to hear what he thinks.
CPZ: There are two more questions here. One of them is: what other works, TV, film, or books do you feel like your book is in conversation with?
MR: Well, in a way, I think that [this is] my attempt to have a part in the conversation about race relations in the United States. I’ve read enough history to be very impressed by how many really remarkable things were done by Black people during the period when every obstacle was raised against them. I have a book that’s a translation of Philip Melanchthon’s major work, done by a Black scholar published in 1945. And it’s still the book of its kind. It’s still the translation of Melanchthon, a very, very important document. That’s no small thing, it’s amazing. I don’t know under what circumstance he did it, but what a thing to do! The most sympathetic cultural imagination of [regarding] Black people basically eliminates the whole top stratum of their achievement. For example, making this AME bishop a character in the novel—there were great clergyman, they seem to be unacknowledged. The greatness, the importance of things that were done by that culture, despite every obstacle, is something that ought to be known and honored and is ignored. So I wanted to create a world in which the assumed power relations were inverted. So that. . . well, you can see why.
CPZ: Yeah, I do think there’s just so much film, literature, art books that are about that nowadays, which is just wonderful.
Do you see Jack as part of yourself or quite exterior?
MR: He’s part of myself. There’s no question.
CPZ: Do you think that about every main character that you’ve written?
MR: Yes, I would say that about all of them. With Jack, one of the things that is striking to me—I’ve had a very fortunate life in the sense that I have always fallen into a niche where I could flourish, but I think if I had to live another kind of life, I would have starved to death or gone crazy. I have a fairly keen awareness of the fact that a lot of people are better at many aspects of life than I am. That strange sort of discomfort: How does the city work? How does this all hang together? All that sort of thing. I definitely identify with that.
CPZ: Yeah, I think we can all identify a little bit with that part of Jack.
Thank you so much, Marilynne, for just showering us with your wisdom and your insights about your novel.
MR: Well, thank you. Well, you’re a great interviewer. I’ve enjoyed it very much.