A Teacher and Her Student: Marilynne Robinson on Staying Out of Trouble

Thessaly La Force in Vice:

RobMarilynne Robinson was my fourth and final workshop instructor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is an intimidating intellectual presence—she once told us that to improve characterization, we should read Descartes. When I asked her to sign my copy of Gilead, she admitted she had recently become fascinated by ancient cuneiform script. But she is also generous and quick to laugh—when she offered to have us to her house for dinner, and I asked if we ought to bring food, she replied, “Or perhaps I will make some loaves and fishes appear!” Then she burst into giggles. After receiving my MFA this May, I left Iowa believing that there’s no good way to be taught how to write, to tell a story. But there is also no denying that Marilynne has made me a better writer. Her demands are deceptively simple: to be true to human consciousness and to honor the complexities of the mind and its memory. Marilynne has said in other interviews that she doesn’t read much contemporary fiction because it would take too much of her time, but I suspect it’s also because she spends a fair amount of her mental resources on her students. Our interview was held on one of the last days of the spring semester. The final traces of the bitter winter had disappeared, and light filled the classroom, which now felt empty with just the two of us. My two years at Iowa were over, and I selfishly wanted to stretch the interview for as long as possible.

VICE: You recently told the class you had discovered the ending to your new novel—or so you hoped. How does that happen for you? How do you know?

Marilynne Robinson: A lot of the experience of the novel—after the beginning—is being in the novel. You set yourself with a complex problem. If it’s a good problem or one that really engages you, then your mind works on it all the time. A novel by its nature is new. The great struggle, conscious or unconscious, is to make sure that it is new. That it actually has raised issues that deserve to be dealt with in their own terms. They’re not terms that you have seen elsewhere. It’s sort of like composing music. There are options that open and options that disappear, depending on how you develop the guidelines. You think about it over time. And then something will appear, something that is the most elegant response to the question that you’ve asked yourself. And it can absorb the most in terms of the complexities that you’ve created.

More here.