Marilynne Robinson: 2017 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize

Marilynne Robinson: 2017 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize


(applause) – He left a dime on the
stoop to pay for whatever we could find to steal, which
was always little enough. That was something to see, my
father in his shirt sleeves straddling a rickety old
garden fence with a hank of carrot tops in his hand a
fellow behind him taking aim. We took off into the brush
and when we decided he wasn’t going to follow us, we sat
down on the ground and my father scraped the dirt off
the carrot with his knife and cut it up into piece
and set them on the crown of his hand, which he put
between us like a table. And then he commenced to say grace, which he never failed to do. He said, “For all that
we are about to receive.” And then we both started
laughing ’til the tears were pouring down. So I wonder, how do you do that? How do you inhabit these
characters so beautifully and so realistically? You’ve never been a father,
you’ve never been a son, Housekeeping is about two
sisters, you don’t have a sister. How do you do this? – I have no idea. They inhabit me, that’s
more of the experience. I don’t actually invent a
character, I realize that a character is already in my mind. In the absence of that I
can’t write a novel and when that is true I’ve enjoyed
writing a novel, you know? It’s very much a feeling of
being alert to a voice that I hear in my mind that
is not my own voice. I wouldn’t believe it if it were. – The Guardian included
(mumbles) a list of books to give you hope. Do you set out to give people
hope with your writing? – I would hate to think that
anyone’s hope was diminished by anything I had written. I, um, I just do think that human
life and human society are beautiful things, poignant
things, things deserving of loyalty and attention and
I suppose that that does imply hope. But I think hope is appropriate. I think that the opposite
of hope is defeat. – Your newest book is
a collection of essays, The Giveness of Things and
these essays are lectures you’ve given, is that correct? They seem very (mumbles),
especially given our current political climate and
particularly the essay about fear and how it intersects with
Christianity and how the two, almost at times, exploit
each other, is that accurate? You don’t have a microphone. Well you say that, fear is
not actually a Christian habit of mind and you say, “As
Christians we are to believe “that we are to fear not
the death of our bodies, “but the loss of our souls.” – I think that’s absolutely axiomatic. I mean, I think I could
quote chapter and verse. But the things that bothers
me when I see fear becoming sort of a, it’s almost like
some kind of craze that has swept through the culture. And the thing about fear
is that it deprives you of the possibility of acting
generously toward anyone that you might fear, anybody
that has been described to you as being other from
you or hostile to your interests in some way, or
lacking in respect (mumbling). I don’t think, I think that a per– I mean you are supposed to
trust God, which includes trusting the fact that
if it’s your time to die, it’s your time to die. But then there is also
the fact that, you know, we become suspicious, we
become inclined not to accept anything no matter how
graciously intended as being meant in good faith. All these things are consequences of fear. And if you subscribe
to this habit of mind, you have completely disabled
yourself in terms of behaving in the way that
Christians are supposed to act. – You had told President
Obama in the interview that (mumbles) brought up, “I
think that the basis of “democracy is the willingness
to assume well about “other people.” So have we moved away from that? – Yes, I would say we
have moved away from that. This sort of polarization
that people talk about, which is antagonism really,
it’s moved beyond simply, “I really don’t agree with you,” to, “I have the deepest doubts
about your human worth.” Yes, I would say that that’s true. And there are all sorts of things, again, that are affected by that. For example, we’ve gone
into some sort of strange crisis about educating. Which is something we have
done passionately and well for hundreds of years, it’s
a defining trait in this civilization. Education, when it’s good,
is undertaken with the idea that the people are liberated, expanded, that you’ll open new
possibilities of pleasure and understanding to people. We don’t define it that way anymore. We talk about it in terms
of making you fit into the economy that needs
certain kinds of cogs. Even very highly developed,
high sophisticated cogs. I think that if we had a
more respectful attitude toward people in general we
would be much more generous and hopeful and energetic
in educating them than currently we are. – That reminds me of a
quote I wrote down that you said to the New York Times. You were talking about your
own childhood and you said, “We were positively encouraged
to create for ourselves “minds we would want to live with. “I had teachers articulate that to me. “You have to live with
your mind your whole life. “You build your mind so
make it into something “you want to live with.” You said, “Nobody has
ever said anything more “valuable to me.” – Well that’s simply true. Those really are, I suppose
if there are words I have lived by, those are words I have lived by. The idea that, you know, that
there’s something special to you, for whatever reason,
that you really need to know. Not because it’s any kind
of necessity that would be recognizable to other
people, but because it would feel good to have that
resource in your mind. It would enhance your
passage through time. Simply, I made a promise to
myself at a certain point that I will certainly
crashingly break which is that I would not die stupid. And what that means to
me, as I nibble at this fantastically great problem,
is that I’m going to read everything I think I ought to have read. One of the things that’s
characteristic in this culture is if a book is very
important we don’t read it. Who’s read Capital, who’s read Marx? Marxists didn’t read him. You know, people actually
reading the bible in a meaningful sense, that’s
surprisingly rare. People that are actually
willing to take as it is, as a great ancient literature
rather than something that justifies prejudices
and narrow behavior, which it really doesn’t. This is the sort of thing,
I simply wanted to know what it is assumed that one
knows and then some more beside and I owe it all
to my english teacher in high school. – I’m attached to something
at this table so I’m not gonna move. So don’t feel like you have
to turn around and look at me, it’s okay, you can look
at the people who are here to see you. I want to talk a little bit
more about the fear essay. You touched on guns in that essay. You say, “Gun sales stimulate gun sales, “a splendid business
model, no doubt about that. “Fear operates as an
appetite or an addiction. “You can never be safe enough.” You write, “Our appetite
for weapons is one of those “vacuums nature hates,
that is to say fills.” So how in your mind did
God and guns get sort of mixed up together in the
minds of some Americans? – Well, you know, we’ve had
the development of a kind of group self-righteousness
that is very ready to find threat and to find enemies. And, you know, it’s just a
matter of American cultural history that people like to
think that God is on their side. And you know, the combine
effect of God and weaponry makes you a formidable
figure, I don’t know, I mean, it’s really appalling to me. That’s one of the things that
is hard for me to deal with, the fact that I find major
trends in the culture actually repulsive. The idea that people dressing
in the morning will put on a concealed weapon in case
the circumstance of maiming or killing should arise for them. That’s already such a huge
declension from civilized standards that I can
hardly believe it happens. – You talk about sitting,
you write about I should say, sitting on your porch at
home and hearing a neighbor talk about packing heat on
the way to the grocery store, I think. Talk about that moment a little bit. – It was very strange. I don’t think it was a neighbor. There are woods behind my
house, I think it was to someone who happened to be
taking a shortcut or something, although he was speaking
to someone he knew, someone who knew him, more crucially. Apparently this person had
carried a gun, a large gun, openly into a convenience
store and the manager had called the police. And given what we get as
a dose of reality in the daily news, it’s not
surprising the manager called the police. The man carrying the gun was
very upset because he said it was legally registered. But then, you know, Adam
Lances guns were registered, this fellow Paddock’s
guns were registered, that is obviously not an
effective criterion at all. – What do you think we get
wrong about the midwest or the middle west in the
way we speak and the way we write, what do people
misunderstand about the mid-west? – I think that, I think a
lot of middle westerners have bought into the idea that
everything has occurred elsewhere and that things of the highest
quality occur elsewhere. Either the east, the
west coast, or Europe. And this is a very strange thing. I looked up the Pulitzer
Prize, as a matter of fact, and I found that something
like nine of the first 11 Pulitzer Prizes went to
people from the middle west, writing about it. That’s a phenomenal
literary culture in a newly settled region. There was a very systematic
sort of migration into this part of the world
by people who wanted to start colleges, we can all
tell that by looking around. I mean, they themselves
were highly educated people with ambitious ideas of
what education is and what it can accomplish. I spent a lot of time
reading in the 19th century. It happened that a minister
that I knew showed up with a book by Harriett
Beatrice Stow about our self-made-men. And so I read it and it
named a lot of people I had never heard of before who
came into the middle west or were born here and created
all kinds of interesting social reform and social
institutions and who were very, very, very effective
opposition to the institution of slavery. The middle west carried
the Union cause for years in the Civil War at great cost. It’s simply a rich area,
full of premier institutions with a very impressive history. And the fact that people
sort of act as if they are somehow less enabled
culturally than other people, and they do, they do, I watch that. I’m an outsider so I get to
say, “Yes, this is true.” In a way sort of reinforce
this myth that this is the place where nothing happened, this the place where
people are conventional and slow-minded, you hear that. That’s very– When I go somewhere people
only know I’m from Iowa, a writer from Iowa. They define complex words for me. (laughter) And then I fret about the
memory for years afterward, but you know, I’m not saying– No region has any exclusive
claim on anything, but there’s a lot we could
learn about American culture and institutions by being
aware that so many of them came from here, that they were
highly idealistic projects at the beginning, highly
fruitful, and very, very, very much worth remembering and retaining. – I want to talk about
something that President Obama said to you during his interview of you. “When I think about how I
understand my role as citizen, “setting aside being president,
and the most important “set of understandings that
I bring that position of “citizen, the most important
stuff I’ve learned I think “I’ve learned from novels.” So I wonder what are some
novels that have shaped your understandings? – Well when I, when I uh, think about to whom I am
indebted, the American 19th century is overwhelmingly
where my imagination came from. Then I hope I have
supplemented it variously. But things like Moby Dick,
there’s nothing like Moby Dick. Moby Dick and then people
like Emily Dickenson. And so that period where
they were working through what are really epistemological
questions about the relationship of language to
thought and the relationship of language to perception and so on. I think that we under-read
them because we assume that they’re not up to
anything quite so ambitious, but they are, and nobody’s
ever done it better. – What are you reading right now? – At the moment I’m reading
William of Ockham and the Nature of Tyranny. (laughter) I read widely. I’m very interested, I love– I’ve gotten farther and farther
into very old literature because I find that it’s
been a tendency in modern thought to narrow the
vocabulary of understanding. And when you go back,
even if people are making interesting mistakes, they’re
doing it with interesting penumbra of ideas around the
error and the rest of it. And I find that, I’ve had a
feeling for a long time that when I read contemporary
thinking on most subjects I feel as though I am being
taken down a narrow path that is growing narrower. And reading anything pre-modern,
sort of complicates the ecology of ideas in a way
that I find very pleasing. – I think we’re getting close
to the audience question time, I just want to read one more
quote of yours that I love and ask you to talk a little bit about it. “Abuse or neglect of a human
being is not the destruction “of worth, but certainly the denial of it. “Worth, we’re always trying to
anchor meaning in experience, “but without the concept
of worth there’s no concept “of meaning. “I cannot make a dollar worth a dollar. “I have to trust that
it is worth a dollar. “I cannot make a human
being worthy of my respect, “I have to assume that he
is worthy of my respect.” I love that and I wonder
if you could share your thoughts on how we move
more toward a culture that does that for each other. – Well, you know– I think that this society
moves collectively in an odd way. I mean, I think that the
more we adopt each other’s language, the more we adopt
each other’s assumptions, the narrower the whole
vocabulary of discussion becomes. So that there are these
binary oppositions and so on that are simplifications
of issues to which we are nevertheless loyal on one
side or the other and so on. I think that we have not
been doing much to remind ourselves of the importance
of human beings of the fantastic potential of
any human mind, you know? We speak of people en masse
and without great respect for them, even you know– Again, to return to what
I was saying before, the term heartland is pretty
well full of contempt. The heartland is where people
don’t think new thoughts, etc, you know? We have these terms, these
dismissive terms for talking about people in general. And if you do that you have
lowered your expectations of any person in particular. You’ve lowered your definition
of what a human being is. We have to, I think, realize
the poverty of a lot of our thinking and, you know, discover a way back to a
fuller sense of what we are. One of the things that
is, I read a lot of, I read cosmologies and so
that are accessible to me, new science, new physics and all that. And more and more I have
become aware of what an utterly exceptional thing
it is to have this tiny livable planet that is
minute, it’s inconsiderable by the scale of the universe,
and at the same time knows the universe and that haunting way, sends out these little sort
of surrogate eyes and senses to understand this utterly
other reality that we are a tiny little jewel in the middle of. Not in the middle of, on the
peripheries of, who knows. But in any case, given the
utter uncanny strangeness of the human circumstance
and the fact that even though we’re continuously talking
about how many people there are, they are nothing by the
scale of the universe. We’re a tiny fragile little group. I think we have to remember
that there’s a brilliant strange reality around us
that, if you think about it, has the effect of incredibly
enhancing our wonder at the human presence. And then, of course, we
do wrong and get on each other’s nerves and pose
terrible danger to ourselves. Nothing else threatens us the way we do. But I think the change
would be realizing the utter preciousness of human
beings, of what’s possible, what is true. So– I’m in a pulpit, I can’t help it. (laughter) – I think that’s a lovely way
to end our portion and throw this over to the audience,
who I’m sure is itching to ask you questions. I think someone’s gonna
walk around with the mic, is it the mic I’m holding? So hang on one second. – Thank you so much for writing. The biggest difference that
I see between Housekeeping and the Gilead trilogy
that I can pin down is that in Housekeeping there is some
people like Lucille and Ruth, up store neighbors at
their mother’s house, or some of the more
conventional people around Finger Bone that seem
maybe a little bit absurd, maybe a little bit petty,
maybe a little bit silly. In the Gilead trilogy, even
the people in that tunnel and the horse falls into it
and the people that kind of annoy Lila because they
keep coming around, all of them seem to have
this really great intent where they seem to be genuinely
kind, but maybe mislead, or just not thinking. I was wondering if, did
something change between Housekeeping between– (mic cutting out) I was wondering if anything
changed between (mumbles) Gilead trilogy about how you
think about human dignity in general or how you
relate to characters and how you try to represent them? Because even the small
people in the Gilead trilogy seem to have a dignity
that I can’t quite think of another author that can capture it. – I think that the people, you
know, the Fingerbone people get misread. I spent quite a bit of time
in that book saying that they understood absolutely
why (mumbles) would be inclined toward the dark woods. That they understood the
transiency of their, you know– I mean it’s because they
understand how transient their little society is that
they cling to it the way that they do, you know? I’m sorry if that seemed to
be true, it wasn’t anything that I would’ve thought
of doing intentionally. I thought of everything on
a spectrum in Housekeeping. And that the settled-ness
is a reaction to the transiency, which is a
reaction to the settled-ness. I think that most people
feel their lives in terms of what they have decided against. If you are domesticated
you realize you’ve given up freedom and if you’re free
in that way you realize you’ve given up comfort. And the complexity of the
mind comes from the fact that possibilities that were rejected
remain live as thoughts, as impulses. – Hi Marilynne, welcome
from another Iowan. In the vain of belief, I
think it’s really important to have belief in ourselves
as people and I’m wondering if you always believed in
your talent or if at what point you gain that belief? – You know, I never
really thought about it. I mean, when I was a kid people
told me that I wrote well, or I did well on standardized
tests that involved language. I have no conception of becoming a writer. I always assumed that
I would write things. I thought Housekeeping was un-publishable, which was a part of the joy of writing it. I don’t think in terms of
those categories particularly and I didn’t, nobody ever, you know– Nobody particularly pushed
me in one direction or another, I just like to
write and so I write. – Hi, thank you. When the character Jack in the
novel Home wants a blessing from his father and he
asks, “Bless me also,” were you intending to have
him anticipate that his father would respond the
way that he did and is that part of a meditation on your
part about predestination? – Ha. Well, you know, I’ve been
interested in predestination because I think it misstates reality. I think that it’s an idea
that, which occurs from St. Augustine on, it’s a
very characteristic idea in Christian theology. And I think it’s because
they did not understand the nature of time, or they
used shorthand for it. But his father, Jack’s
father really loves him and has spent his whole theological
career forgiving him. But he misses, he misunderstands Jack. And that means that there’s
sort of an awkwardness and ineptitude in his most
generous and refined efforts to assure Jack of the
fact that he is accepted. That’s just a moment where
things just kind of went wrong. People misread, also, Jack’s father, they read him as being rigid
and unforgiving and in fact he’s only forgiving. There is never a moment in
which he condemns anything that Jack does. – As a former high school
english teacher I was curious about your statement of
the impact of your english teacher. Can you share with some
of her words of wisdom or strategies or methodologies
that inspired you? – You know, frankly, she
wasn’t such a great teacher. (laughter) I’ve thought about her because
she was a very tentative presence in the classroom. It always seemed like if
you said boo she’d run out the door. But she did say things, I
mean she said another thing that impressed me very much. She was a very pious woman and she said, “America is rich because
God can entrust us to “share wealth and the moment
we stop sharing wealth “we will cease to be rich.” And I think that those might
be words that one could well ponder. – [Narrator] My question’s very simple. What’s the state of your
hopefulness in our current predicament? – I’m trying to figure that out. I mean, I’ve read enough
history to know that history takes some very disturbing turns. How collective behavior relates
to individual behavior– I mean I’m reading in the
14th and 15th centuries now, which were absolutely appalling centuries. I mean, warfare, famine,
plague, everything that you can think of. And the people writing then,
who’s works have survived in any case, are the
sweetest spirits you could ever imagine, you know? I mean, they tend toward some
kind of ecstatic tendency toward mysticism, but
it’s not really mysticism. They tended to be people
that were speaking to uneducated people in their own language, German or Czech or whatever. And I think it would be
very hard for me to look at the period during which
America felt fortunate and find anything so humane
as you find among these people who were writing in
conditions of unbelievable difficulty. So one thing that my hope is
based on is that the people who gave lasting gift to the
world were always hopeful. Under circumstances that I
hope we will never see anything that would compare. I mean it’s human beings that
are the impressive thing. Even though, collectively they go
haywire from time-to-time. – I have a question about Iowa. Just wondering is there
something special about it as a place in the midwest
when it comes to themes that you write about? Or is that just the place
you know so your novels could be set anywhere? – Well, there’s a special
history behind Gilead. I mean, president Grant
did indeed call Iowa the shining star of radicalism. It was extremely reformist,
extremely abolitionist. The reason that Jack
comes home is because Iowa never had laws against miscegenation. The only other state that didn’t is Maine. And so, you know, he’s
deeply in love with, had made a family with a woman that– You know, he can’t marry legally. And the cohabitation of
unmarried people was also illegal at that time. So his life is completely
disrupted by these things that should not be true. If he went back to Iowa
it should be true that he could live there with his
family as a married household and so on. When he goes home, and this is
historically how things were, that culture had made
concessions to, you know, Jim Crowe that made it so
what was true on the books was not true in fact. And so no one can guarantee
that yes indeed his family can live as an intact family. So those are special
circumstances for Iowa. The memory of a very radical history, as far as abolition and
reform are concerned, and that layered over by
a broader conventionalism that people are not, you
know, they’re not entirely at ease with an not free from at all. – There’s so much in your work about the relationship between parents and children. And the love of parents,
which is peppered by brutality and misunderstanding and
absence and struggle. And some it, some of this
difficulty seems incredibly generative and some
seems destructive in very complicated ways. And I’m just wondering how
your own parents live in your novels, where they appear as ghosts. – That’s an interesting question. You know, Housekeeping is
set in a place like the town where I was born and a
house that was oddly like my grandmother’s house
where my mother grew up. But aside from physical details like that, it’s not autobiographical. Nothing that I’ve written
was every intentionally autobiographical. If it is, it is so oblique
that my own brother doesn’t recognize it. I don’t understand, I don’t
want to make a case for it or anything, but I have what
is simply a temperamental resistance to seeing
myself on my own pages. – What is your reflection
on the racial dynamics of our society today? Black lives matter, identity
politics, and kind of most important, how to move
forward and truly make greater progress in that area? – You know, I think that
the standard the needs to be applied is fair is fair. I mean you read about things
that in the Jim Crowe period, the person that comes up
in Gilead, Bud Fowler, he was a fantastically
skillful baseball player. One of those people you
just wish you could see. And this is not, I think,
accidentally related to the fact that he ended up
in the negro leagues. That the negro leagues
functioned as a catch man for people like him who
were simply so conspicuously great at what they did. I mean, when you read the
racial history of the states after the Civil War especially,
during reconstruction, after reconstruction what
happens over and over again is that the, you know, the gifts of non-white people
are resisted and dismissed and unvalued. And the way, I mean I’m
old so that I can say when I was a kid you virtually
never saw or you never heard the voice of a black person
speaking on the radio. The culture was so suppressed
that people did not have any realistic notion of
what people were actually capable of. And as in the case of Bud
Fowler and other people who lived in that period
before Jim Crowe and after the Civil War, you see them
being in effect excluded for all appearances on
the basis of having gifts and enviable skills. So I think, you hear black
lives matter, you know. If it’s true that black
people are disproportionately likely to be shot at
traffic stops and so on then the simple standard of
fairness is not being applied and that old tendency is not gone. The amount of mobility that
is denied to people who can’t assume their safety
is a huge loss and the kind of thing that necessarily
embitters relations, how could it not? I mean, there’s no magic
wand, but there is that final standard. If somebody does something
well, means well, is not violating any norm that
you would find offensive in your children or your
brother, respect that. I mean it’s almost too simple a formula, but it’s too consistently not honored. I remember when Maryanne
Anderson could not sing in the White House, that was Eisenhower. I mean, just bizarre. – Thank you Marilynne for
sharing your stories and helping so many people feel warm in your midst. My question is, here in
Evanston I work as a mental health therapist in our
public school working with elementary kids. And we have a college ready
gap that’s been around for 30 years between our
white students and our students of color. And my question is, any
thought or reflection on how we could in Evanston
help minimize that gap and to help some of our
middle school students of color really feel warm in
literature and get excited about reading and writing? – Well, you know, one thing
that I think is hopeful at the workshop in Iowa
where I have been teaching, we have a lot of black and
Caribbean writers coming through who are just excellent. And I think, I mean we couldn’t, we couldn’t diversify our
student body for a long time because we didn’t get any applicants. You can’t accept people that don’t apply. Now we have a lot of
applicants and we have a lot of these students and residents,
many of them from the Caribbean, from anywhere,
and I think that one of the things that will make
future minority students more receptive to literature
is that literature has been more receptive to them. I think we have to be
very, very cautious about things like college readiness, you know? Because so often we can be
picking up signals and so on that we interpret in inappropriate ways. I think that, you know, things
like the over population of students of color in special
education courses and so on, I don’t believe that that’s
legitimate by any means. And I don’t know how
this entrapment occurs. But I think that things like
that, not to give the kids ahead of time the idea
that they don’t belong in higher education or that
they wouldn’t understand literature. It’s a terrible thing. One of the interesting
experiences that I’ve had was being taken home in a taxi
by a black fellow who said that he had spent years in Attica. It was a long ride and I thought, “That’s interesting information.” But in any case, he was
a wonderful fellow though and he said he did not know
the world was anything he could be interested in
and then he read a book. And I think we absolutely
have to develop any means we can to take people,
all kinds of people, over that threshold. People don’t know what
books are until one of them has been claimed by a book. I don’t think, you know,
I just don’t think that the problem is insoluble,
I think that we’re locked into cultural patterns that
we can’t find a way out of. (applause)

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