Though her books are imbued with an old-fashioned Protestant ethic, Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, is uncomfortable with too much talk about morality. It is, she says, a word that can be easily misused, and Robinson — whose writing has been described as "beautiful, shimmering, precise" — is nothing if not careful with words.
Robinson first won literary fame with her novel Housekeeping, which was set in Idaho where she grew up. But for most of the past 20 years she has been teaching at the University of Iowa's famed writers workshop, and during that time she has fallen in love with the rolling fields and small towns that are sprinkled throughout the Iowa countryside. Her latest novels, Gilead and Home, are both set in the same small town.
"There is a definite Iowa aesthetic," says Robinson. "It's sort of modest and optimistic. I think people forget in the metropolitan areas of the country that the country really is largely made up of small towns that function well for the most part."
Robinson's fictional town is called Gilead, a name fairly common among early 19th century American towns because, as Robinson says, people settling this country "had these Utopian intentions. They were going to create a place where there was balm ... the pain of other civilizations would be answered."
The biblical overtones inherent in the name Gilead are no accident — Robinson's writing is strongly influenced by her own faith. Raised a Presbyterian, she became interested in Congregationalism while studying about 19th century American writers in college and is now a longtime member of the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City.
But though Robinson sometimes refers to herself as a "Christian writer," she adds, "I wouldn't necessarily start to write books that are 'Christian' in the sense that they wouldn't be meaningful to any other category of people." Instead, she says, "when I draw on my own deeper resources, this interest of mine certainly emerges."
Gilead and Home focus on two ministers who have been best friends since childhood and are now close to death. Both books tell the story of a prodigal son from different perspectives. Robinson says she chose the parable of the prodigal son as the central theme of the novel because it is so powerful. She sees it as story about love.
"It's about the fact that love is not earned," she says. "[It] is one of Jesus' most radical parables because it completely overturns all notions of deserving, all notions of how you are scoring relative to other people in life."
Robinson says that although she enjoys exploring theological questions in her work, she doesn't need — nor does she set out to find — the answers. Instead, she's content to ponder the mysteries of faith from her quiet perch in the nation's heartland.