An Evening with Marilynne Robinson

Each year, my library partners with University of Kansas Libraries for Read Across Lawrence, which is where everyone in town is invited to “get on the same page” and read a book as well as attend related events, and culminates in a visit from the author at the end of the month. The 2014 selection was Housekeeping by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson.


I struggled with reading this novel. It was perhaps more a matter of timing and my own attention span than the actual book that made it difficult for me. The prose is simply gorgeous, and more importantly, insightful, but the plot is slow. Because I’m so busy with school and all the reading my classes require, and because I feel obligated to keep up with reading new young adult titles and graphic novels for work, I simply didn’t have the mental energy necessary to devote to a close reading of Housekeeping.

Though I hadn’t finished reading the book, I still went to the author event last week, and I am so glad I did. Marilynne Robinson was enchanting, funny, and oh, so enlightening. Her discussions not only of writing, but on life and what it means to be human, were amazing. I’m now committed to finishing Housekeeping.

Marilynn Robinson

On Writing

Marilynne Robinson wrote Housekeeping, her first novel, as a way of reconnecting to her ancestral home in Idaho. She penned it in a dark house in France, where she was supposed to be teaching after graduating from college, but due to constant strikes, found herself with a lot of free time on her hands. Bits and pieces of imagery she had been collecting began to coalesce into what would become a novel, though she never imagined anyone besides her mother and brother would read it.

A writer friend sent the manuscript to an agent without telling her. The agent’s response was “this will be hard to place, but I’m happy to represent it.” The first editor who read it said, “I’m happy to publish this, but it won’t get any reviews.” It was reviewed in The New York Times, but the critic said, “No one else will, but I’m going to write about this book.”

I think there’s a lesson an aspiring author such as myself can learn from this story.

Write first and foremost for yourself. Tell the story you want to tell in the best way you know how.Don’t worry about whether or not a book will be published, and don’t worry if it doesn’t have an audience.

I often find myself drawn to novels that have a strong sense of “place,” where the setting seems as much a character as any person in the novel. Hearing Marilynne Robinson describe how she fixated on the landscape of her story as much as the voice of her characters. She wanted to share this “emotionally charged setting that no one knew about” and introduce this part of the country to those who knew so little about it.

On Reading

Many Lawrencians had questions about the dark, somber, and even bleak story.  “Why couldn’t the sisters ever see each other again? and “Why wasn’t the ending more uplifting?” they asked. Marilynne Robinson’s response was that readers often are “literalizing” her work “in a way I had not intended” and that she doesn’t “see the events in a tangible reality as readers often do.”

Even readers accustomed to literary novels are often still looking for story, for resolution. They desire a specific emotional experience from the act of reading. Without at all seeming condescending, Marilynne Robison made it clear that is not at all what she is about.

In Her Own Words

On one’s sense of self:

People are so much more plural than they realize.

On identity:

Every woman is her own sister.

On solitude:

People are just bad company.

On “housekeeping”, as title and metaphor:

The great human artifice is the making of shelter. Everything else is secondary.

On endings:

The book finally comes to a point where it says ‘its been real…or unreal.’

Marilynne Robinson was an absolute delight meet, and I came away from the evening with a renewed dedication to my own writing, and with a new commitment to read literature-with-a-capital-L on occasion. Perhaps even Moby Dick. That is if I can take her seminar on it at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.


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