• Birth—November 26, 1943
• Where—Sandpoint, Idaho, USA
• Education—B.A., Brown University
• Awards—PEN/Hemingway Award;National Book Critics Circle Award; Pulitzer Prize; Orange Prize
• Currently—Iowa City, Iowa
Marilynne Robinson was born and raised in Idaho, where her family has lived for several generations. She recieved a B.A. from Brown University in 1966 and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Washington in 1977.
Housekeeping, her first novel, was published in 1981 and won the PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction and the American Academy and Institute's Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award. Mother Country, an examination of Great Britain's role in radioactive environmental pollution, was published in 1989. Robinson published Gilead in 2004 and Home in 2008. Home won the 2009 Orange Prize. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, with her family. (From the publisher.)
For someone who has labored long in the literary vineyard, Marilynne Robinson has produced a remarkably slim oeuvre. However, in this case, quality clearly trumps quantity. Her 1980 debut, Housekeeping, snagged the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Twenty-four years later, her follow-up novel, Gilead, won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize. And in between, her controversial extended essay Mother Country: Britain, the Welfare State and Nuclear Pollution (1989) was shortlisted for the National Book Award.
Robinson is far from indolent. She teaches at several colleges and has written several articles for Harper's, Paris Review, the New York Times Book Review, and other publications. Still, one wonders—especially in the face of her great critical acclaim—why she hasn't produced more full-length works. When asked about these extended periods of literary dormancy, Robinson told Barnes & Noble.com, "I feel as if I have to locate my own thinking landscape... I have to do that by reading—basically trying to get outside the set of assumptions that sometimes seems so small or inappropriate to me." What that entails is working through various ideas that often don't develop because, as she says, "I couldn't love them."
Still, occasionally Robinson is able to salvage something important from the detritus—for example, Gilead's central character, Reverend John Ames. "I was just working on a piece of fiction that I had been fiddling with," Robinson explains. "There was a character whom I intended as a minor character... he was a minister, and he had written a little poem, and he transformed himself, and he became quite different—he became the narrator. I suddenly knew a great deal about him that was very different from what I assumed when I created him as a character in the first place."
This tendency of Robinson's to regard her characters as living, thinking beings may help to explain why her fictional output is so small. While some authors feel a deep compulsion to write daily, approaching writing as a job, Robinson depends on inspiration which often comes from the characters themselves. She explains, "I have to have a narrator whose voice tells me what to do—whose voice tells me how to write the novel."
As if to prove her point, in 2008, Robinson crafted the luminous novel Home around secondary characters from Gilead: John Ames's closest friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, his daughter Glory, and his reprobate son Jack. Paying Robinson the ultimate compliment, Kirkus Reviews declared that the novel "[c]omes astonishingly close to matching its amazing predecessor in beauty and power."
However, the deeply spiritual Robinson is motivated by a more personal directive than the desire for critical praise or bestsellerdom. Like the writing of Willa Cather—or, more contemporaneously, Annie Dillard—her novels are suffused with themes of faith, atonement, and redemption. She equates writing to prayer because "it's exploratory and you engage in it in the hope of having another perspective or seeing beyond what is initially obvious or apparent to you." To this sentiment, Robinson's many devoted fans can only add: Amen.
• Robinson doesn't just address religion in her writing. She serves as a deacon at the Congregational Church to which she belongs.
• One might think that winning a Pulitzer Prize could easily go to a writer's head, but Robinson continues to approach her work with surprising humility. In fact, her advice to aspiring writers is to always "assume your readers are smarter than you are."
• Robinson is no stranger to controversy. Mother Country, her indictment of the destruction of the environment and those who feign to protect it, has raised the ire of Greenpeace, which attempted to sue her British publisher for libel. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)
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