Good housekeeping

With her Christian background, novelist Marilynne Robinson is as much looking forward to visiting the Holy Land for the first time as she is to participating in the capital’s literary event.

Marilynne Robinson. ‘Some of my very earliest childhood memories are of wanting to be able to read.’ (photo credit: KELLY RUTH WINTER)
Marilynne Robinson. ‘Some of my very earliest childhood memories are of wanting to be able to read.’
(photo credit: KELLY RUTH WINTER)
No one could call Marilynne Robinson a prolific writer. In fact, the 70-yearold Iowa City resident’s novel output amounts to just four, and she has published the same number of nonfiction tomes. But what she lacks in quantity, she amply compensates for in quality.
Robinson – who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead and who received the National Humanities Medal from US President Barack Obama last year – is one of a talented array of writers who will be participating in the fourth International Writers Festival next week.
As usual, the event, which takes place at Mishkenot Sha’ananim and other locations across Jerusalem, will be jam-packed with lectures, workshops, shows, discussions and exhibitions from across a wide swathe of genres, styles and cultures. The roll call of writers and other artists from abroad includes French-born Swiss author Alex Capus; French author and movie director David Foenkinos; Canadian screenwriter Michael Konyves, whose works include a short based on Israeli bestselling writer Etgar Keret’s short story “What, of This Goldfish, Would You Wish?”; award-winning Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le; and best-selling American writer Nicole Krauss.
Robinson’s debut novel, Housekeeping, which came out in 1980, was a finalist for the 1982 Pulitzer Prize; Gilead won the award in 2005, and Home brought Robinson the British 2009 Orange Prize for Fiction. Not a bad haul for such a relatively slim body of work.
Christianity plays a major role in her writing, as it does in her life. She was raised as a Presbyterian and later became a Congregationalist, worshiping and sometimes preaching at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Iowa City. Her Congregationalism and her interest in the ideas of 16th-century French theologian John Calvin have been important in her works, and Gilead centers on the life and theological concerns of a fictional Congregationalist minister.
So it comes as no surprise that Robinson is delighted to be making it, finally, over to this part of the world.
“It hardly seems real that I am coming to Israel,” she says. “I am very much looking forward to seeing Israel, and especially Jerusalem.”
And she could hardly have picked a better spot to spend her time here, with the principal festival venue affording an unparalleled view of the Old City walls.
The author says there was never any doubt in her mind about her eventual career path.
“Some of my very earliest childhood memories are of wanting to be able to read,” she recalls. “I was aware of my fascination with words, because I have a brother who was fascinated with painting and drawing, and so I considered the strength of my inclination by the measure of his.”
Still, getting seriously involved in writing was not even a twinkle in Robinson’s eye back then. “I had no thoughts about becoming a professional writer, and I had no idea how to go about it. I just wanted to write and read.”
While not claiming to have divine attributes, she feels there is something inherently spiritual to the creative process. “I think that is true for many, many writers. There is something about the degree of concentration, and about saying something that is true. That is a very special discipline. It’s like meditation, only, I think, much more disciplined, because it’s an attempt to articulate to someone else in a way.”
That can, of course, apply to any artistic discipline, and Robinson sees parallels between creating a literary work and playing music. “Language is like a musical tradition, with many genres and so on. If you are alert to language in the first place, you know how to nuance it because the nuance is something that is already potential in the language. So the interaction between the language you speak and the way you write is like you are reproducing something that you first see.”
While she is delighted that her books have done so well, she says she has no thoughts of her future readership or how her work-in-progress may eventually be accepted – or rejected – when it finally sees the light of day. “When I was writing Housekeeping, I thought of my brother and my father and mother as my readership, simply because they would know the places I was writing about – even though the book was not autobiographical – but after that, basically I write for myself. I would be distracted by the idea that I had someone else’s expectations to meet.”
If Robinson works from her own cocoon, she is certainly not bashful about declaring her intentions from the word go. Housekeeping, for example, opens with the startlingly simple and refreshingly direct line, “My name is Ruth.” We are immediately introduced to the narrator, and Robinson plunges us straight into the thick of the storyteller’s formative circumstances.
“I consider that first line to be a statement of method,” she says.
Another striking component of her work is the important role that water plays. “I was the fourth generation of my family to live in a rather underpopulated part of the country [in Idaho], and there were wonderful lakes there. In a way, they really dominate the landscape, and I spent a lot of [my] childhood just looking at water. It is a very beautiful, elegant thing to ponder.”
But not everything in her written output reflects passages of her own life. Community and family, for instance, appear to pop up in or run through her books regularly, even though she doesn’t recall experiencing those things much as a youngster.
“People lived on ranches, and even though they enjoyed each other’s company, they also enjoyed an enormous amount of privacy, and I think that is something I have inherited,” she observes.
For someone who claims to spend a large proportion of her time in seclusion, much of her written work feeds off the characters, rather than being plot-driven. There is also a palpable poignancy in her writing, and some humor, too.
That should come through in Robinson’s literary tête-à-tête with local writer Avirama Golan when the two share a discussion session on May 22. Titled “Writing Here – Writing There,” the session will look at how their work filters through their respective cultural and social prisms.
The International Writers Festival runs from May 18 t 23. For more information: *6226 or