Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Phil Yakushev, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Marilynne Robinson about her book Lila (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), which is among the final five selections, in the category of Fiction, for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Phil Yakushev: Lila, as you write, “lives for Doll to see.” After everything that happens, what do you think Doll sees?
Marilynne Robinson: Doll sees Lila safe and happy, within the limits of her capacity for happiness and of her awareness that things might change at any time and must change in not too long a time because of the Reverend’s age. She sees Lila also as fundamentally loyal to her memories of her life with Doll despite the fact that her new circumstances and the influences she feels, interesting as they are to her, are not always easily reconciled to these memories.
PY: For most of the novel, Lila is in conversation, at least an imagined one, with Doll and Mrs. Ames. In the scene in the cellar, the Lila-Doll conversation becomes explicit. For Lila, as well as for you, how much of the appeal of a religious life comes from a closer connection to the dead?
MR: This is an interesting question. Lila is not at all religious, at least in any conventional sense, when she talks with Doll in the cellar. For all of us I think the experience of a connection with the dead reflects on their importance to us while they lived. Doll has an importance to Lila that her loneliness makes absolutely singular. She has given her her identity and in all likelihood even her life. And Doll is simply not like other people. When, in effect, Lila goes to herself for comfort and counsel, it is Doll she is speaking with.
PY: Post-Doll and pre-Gilead, one of the only moments of comfort that Lila seems to find is in the movie theater, where everyone becomes ghostly in the dark. Doll, too, shields her body and face from light. For these women, is there any solace that can be drawn from their own bodies? Does Ames’ (or Boughton’s) brand of religiosity allow for such a solace?
MR: Lila in her loneliness enjoys the physical sensations of her own body, when she bathes in the river and then warms up afterward, when the sunshine falls on her lap. She enjoys hard work. She enjoys slipping her hand under Ames’s jacket, creeping into his bed. Sensation is the life of the body, and its solace, and she is very much alive. As for Ames and Boughton, their religious tradition had put a special blessing on marriage for four hundred years. The strictures of other traditions that made marriage of lesser value than celibacy or virginity would not have been felt by them.
PY:Some of the most powerful moments in this trilogy occur when the narrators’ perspectives intersect, like at the church when Lila and Ames first see each other. Did you already know Lila’s arc and her thought process when you were writing Gilead? Did you enjoy having such a far-reaching gaze, or did you find it trying?
MR: I really did not plan to write another book about Gilead after the first one. Home and then Lila were not in my mind as I wrote it, though all characters do have an overplus of imagined reality that might not appear on the page. There was simply more of this kind of presence, and it was more persistent than I anticipated, in the case of Jack and Lila. So I gave them their books.
PY: Much of the Biblical imagery and allusions in Lila are presented in a feminine light. Hagar’s angel in the wilderness appears as Doll; Lila identifies with Ezekiel and Job, among others. Were these choices necessary to the voice of the novel? What doesn’t a natively Gileadite, masculine voice (like Ames’s) grasp about her experience?
MR: I was interested in thinking how the Bible might seem to someone who came to it as an adult, without active or passive instruction in its interpretation — someone without the socialization that comes with holidays, for example, or with even casual talk about religion. A great part of Scripture is taken up with the problem of suffering. Its writers look very directly at the lives and deaths of the most vulnerable, and at the crimes and injustices to which they fall prey. These are the great themes of the prophets. Someone like Lila might see the Bible as about the hewers of wood and drawers of water, the kings and priests of the passing moment tested and failing in the degree that they neglect or exploit the everlasting vulnerable. She knows what it is to feel the brunt of a storm, so she can read the parts of the Bible most readers avoid.
PY: Two books earlier, John Ames refers to Gilead as a fire that will “make a dark husk for itself and settle in on its core.” Does that hold true for Lila’s experience of the town? For yours?
MR: To my mind, Gilead is a small model of American history, vastly simplified, as any model of the kind must be. Our history is too brief to accommodate the word “cyclical,” but there are recurrences, of generous, expansive reform followed by retreat and contraction. Some sort of forgetfulness sets in that prevents us from keeping a lively sense of the fact that we have been hopeful and generous, and also that we have abandoned real achievements so completely that when, in course of time, we attempt the same things again, we do not have the benefit of memory or precedent. This has happened along the whole front of civil rights, however this concept is applied. The image of the ember is striking to me because it means that a fire is alive, concealed in the husk that, for a while, at least, preserves it.
PY: Lila offers her thoughts about her and her son’s future. We get to see some of that future, but only from John Ames’s and Glory’s perspectives. What do you think the future holds for Lila, for her son, and for Gilead?
MR: I’ll know, if and when I write the book.
Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Home, Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize), and Housekeeping, and four books of nonfiction, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Mother Country, The Death of Adam, and Absence of Mind. She teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Phil Yakushev is a first-year fiction student in the New School's MFA program. He is currently writing a novel that explores memory and trauma across multiple generations of Russian nationals and immigrants. He lives in Brooklyn with his girlfriend and his cat, Hal.