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Marilynne Robinson
Why did you decide to return to Gilead for your third novel?
I found that Jack and his father remained very strongly in my mind. So, though I had not intended to, had even resisted the idea, I decided finally that they needed a novel of their own.
Were you germinating GILEAD for the 23 years since your first novel, HOUSEKEEPING, was published?
Only in the sense that any writer is germinating fiction more or less continuously. I read and pay attention to whatever interests me, and over time fiction or non-fiction emerges as a consequence. In the case of the Gilead novels, I read what I could find about the settlement of the Middle West, and I made an inward and informal study of the esthetics of this landscape, which are subtler than other landscapes I have been accustomed to. I did this in order to make myself at home here. Then it all precipitated in GILEAD.
Your book, MOTHER COUNTRY, exposed the UK’s practice of dumping nuclear waste into the sea. As someone who clearly engages passionately with environmental issues, what role do you see for fiction, if any, within a socio-political debate?
My fiction is about the strangeness and loveliness of perception, emotion, thought, custom, the flow of generations--the fragile scrim of human being that is utterly dependent on the life and health of the planet. Behind all socio-political debate lies the question of what is to be valued, what is at risk. We know how much depends on peace and mutual respect and material sufficiency. Every injury to the earth is an injury and an insult to humankind--which is its own shrewdest adversary, tragically deficient in loyalty to itself.
HOME is partly concerned with the question of predestination. I know very little about theological argument but I wondered, since the book is set in the 1950s, whether scientific advancement in the area of genetic determinism (I’m thinking particularly of a predisposition to alcoholism) will have changed the tenor of that argument.
I think the argument about predestination has worn itself out, having reached no conclusion whatever. The extent to which anyone is to be praised or blamed for behavior to which he or she may be predisposed, genetically or otherwise, is a question so embedded in individual circumstance and character as to be unanswerable. In any case, the doctrine of predestination implies that what one does in life does not determine ones ultimate fate, which God has known from the beginning. Old Boughton can believe that Jack might be beloved of God despite all. This is why he is upset when Jack says he has never felt that grace was intended for him. Jack can entertain the thought that the painful consistencies of his life mean that he is condemned to perdition. Both of these are perfectly available interpretations of predestination, which makes an utter mystery of the phenomenon of salvation. It is interesting that the traditions with which it is associated are themselves associated with exceptional ethical rigor.
Although flawed, Jack’s sharp intelligence, self-deprecating wit and kindness to his father and sister, make him a sympathetic character. In their treatment of him, Ames and to some extent, Boughton, come across as judgemental and narrow-minded. Is this a reflection on the Christian church in general?
I would not generalize about the church. It can be singularly gracious and broad-minded. If the preponderant institutions of religion disappoint, there is always another voice insisting on a better understanding. Grace as it hovers as a presence in these novels is known through the thought and customs of the church. It is not only hypocrisy when religion perpetuates its best values in its culture, in Scripture and music and ceremony, even when it is grossly inadequate to them.

In the character of Jack I was interested in the idea Ames alludes to in GILEAD, that God might enjoy the beauty of a life, the performance of it, not simply concern himself with the toting up of acts and omissions--which does seem an awfully pedestrian occupation for the Creator of heaven and earth. Calvin considered beauty the signature trait of a divine act--creation, for example. And there are people one loves as old Boughton loves Jack, not because they are virtuous or strong or reliable or a source of comfort, but because there is an unnameable beauty about them. It is not so difficult to imagine that God might be of the same mind.

Old Boughton knows that Jack is miserable, poor, solitary, drinking, secretive as ever and deeply at odds with himself. He knows also that only trouble could have brought him home. He has always been the pillar of the family, generous and protective, and now he is too old to have any hope of helping his son, or seeing him into a better place in life. His anger and impatience are baffled love. There is also regret--Jack fathered a child by a child. Boughton tried to make the best of the situation for Jack's sake, to alleviate the guilt Jack must sometime feel, and he failed in this. And he did love that baby, which, as Ames says, looked just like Jack. I'm not sure what forgiveness is, but by my lights it cannot mean forgetfulness of those whose lives are devastated. I cannot agree with those who fault Boughton for his undiminished grief.

Ames is afraid that Jack has designs on his family because of his history of inflicting perverse damage. This is how he interprets Jack's attempts to be ingratiating. When he sees him sitting with his family in church, he loses his composure and wanders into the narrative of Hagar and Ishmael, humiliating Jack with the apparent allusion to his past. But he concludes the sermon by saying that while some people seem to be wildernesses unto themselves, that wilderness is also the Lord's, and there are angels there, too. In other words, he does not put Jack beyond the reach of grace. This is not the aspect of the sermon that is most striking to Jack, of course, but it does mean that Ames, disturbed as he is by Jack, does not venture judgment of him.
Was Boughton’s disappointment with Jack inevitable?
Yes, in the sense that Boughton sees a beauty in Jack (at peril of overusing the word) that Jack cannot realize in his own life or discover in himself. It is as if Jack has wanted to defeat his father's hopes for him, benign as they are, to end the anomaly of his father's devoted love. A little theology in play here. Now he has come back to Iowa, where, because of the state's long-established ethos of equality, he could marry Della and live with his wife and son unmolested. Iowa was one of two or three states at the time without laws against interracial marriage. Jack hopes also that the high regard in which his father is held will protect them. His unsavory history and the disruption of his own family by legal and social pressures have made Della's family urge her to come home with their child to her father's house, as she finally does. Gilead is Jack's last hope to regain his wife and son, but he is afraid to broach the matter with his frail and anxious father, whose views on racial issues are disheartening. Jack sees the rising racial friction in the south, which will further alienate Della's family and have repercussions for his own child. What has been best in his life has turned against him, more bitterly than the worst. Since his father can't know the source of his misery, he interprets it as Jack's intractable nature, in which he has always seen loneliness.
I am hoping that you aren’t going to let the ‘old gent’ die without making his peace with Jack. Is there going to be a third novel about Gilead?
Well, the old gent is really dying, and Jack is really gone. There will be no reconciliation "in this life," as the Boughtons say. The Reverend does have the comfort of mistaking Teddy for Jack and feeling vindicated in the hope that Jack could not leave him. This is a very melancholy comfort, of course. I am very fond of Teddy. But he won't get a book.
Marilynne Robinson

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