Marilynne Robinson: 'America still has a democratic soul'

Julian Coman
·5 min read

Marilynne Robinson is an American novelist and essayist. One of Barack Obama’s favourite authors, she won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 2005 for her novel Gilead. This was the first in a trilogy of books that chronicle the spiritual journeys of two families in a fictional mid-western town. Her new book, Jack, returns to the most enigmatic character in the series, as he embarks on an interracial relationship in segregated St Louis. Robinson lives in Iowa, where she set her Gilead novels.

Your new book reacquaints us with the sad and troubled world of Jack Boughton, the wayward son of a small-town Presbyterian minister. What made you decide to revisit his story?
Jack was still on my mind. When I am writing a novel I find that characters become well known and important to me out of all proportion to their place in that particular fiction. And it seemed to me also that the world of the novels would be stabilised, in a sense, if this absent central figure, whom they all love, were known, given his own life. He characterises the place and the times by what he has to deal with, and the culture of his family by what in it he is, after his fashion, loyal to.

Did Jack surprise you by the tenacity with which he fights for his relationship with Della, a black teacher, in the midst of so much adversity and hostility?
No, he didn’t surprise me. I knew from writing Gilead and Home that he loves her and is loyal to her for years to come. When they meet, he is lonely and bewildered and about to hurt his father again by not turning up for his mother’s funeral. She is gracious and interesting, and they have background in common. And she likes him, which is not a thing he takes for granted. The world is a problem for him. She brings more problems, of course, and charm and elegance – and love.

Would you say Della helps Jack find his faith at last? At least in his own capacity to do good, and perhaps even in a religious sense?
I think the state of anyone’s faith is too complex to be known certainly, even by that person himself. We know the feeling only by reports we may not always credit, or that acknowledge the experience as rare or fleeting. Jack’s habit of mind could be called prayerful, which might reflect a deeper faith than one consciously espoused, however sincerely. Certainly, his finding Della gives him a definition of the word grace.

The novel appears as the Black Lives Matter movement has assumed a new prominence. How do you judge the current moment in US racial politics? Are there grounds for hoping the killing of George Floyd was a turning point towards a more just future?
Vast crowds of every kind protested everywhere in the country. This is good grounds for hope. The very irresponsible people running the country now are treating the demonstrations as criminal disorder, turning the focus away from the criminal police violence that provoked the protests. This is ugly, the intentional defeat of progress.

There is the great popular revulsion against police violence and systemic racism

Donald Trump is at the heart of that response. How shocked have you been by his presidency and why do you think he seems to hold on to his core support? What does that say about America right now?
I am deeply shocked. His “base” is not an America I recognise. I have no idea how this will be resolved.

The election of Joe Biden would be a start. Or is the country becoming irredeemably divided, dominated by a politics of fear and loathing? You voiced fears that this might happen in a conversation five years ago with Barack Obama, the transcript of which was published in the New York Review of Books.
The election of Biden would or will be an excellent beginning. Our Great Leader has been using the phrase “herd mentality” where he means “herd immunity”, perhaps a spillover from another conversation. He does have his herd, and it seems disturbingly large and truculent.

So there might be problems around Trump’s continuing influence if he loses the election. Without question there are things going on in our politics and culture I don’t understand and certainly don’t admire. Then again, there is the great popular revulsion against police violence and systemic racism, a proof that America still has a good heart, a democratic soul.

Social media seems to have coarsened and polarised public debate to a dangerous degree. Maybe we all should log off more?
I don’t really understand the phenomenon of social media. People seem to escape the constraints of reasonableness and decency in that environment. I know there have always been toxic rumours that become settled beliefs about well-poisoning and child murder and so on, and that some of them were catastrophically important into the 20th century. The internet seems to be a fertile environment for them. Sanity may require that we log off unless we have a good, specific reason to log on. Our humanity might be at stake.

What was the first book you fell in love with?
As a child I fell in love with The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which my mother read to my brother and me. As an adolescent, everything by Louisa May Alcott, Mark Twain or Charles Dickens. In college, William Faulkner and the American naturalists.

What are you reading at the moment?
Dante’s Paradiso.

Which novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you most admire?
It’s a vibrant period. There are too many to name.

Which works of theology would you recommend to an interested agnostic?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.

• Jack by Marilynne Robinson is published by Virago (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15