US President Barack Obama interviews Marilynne Robinson

In an historical first, the President of the United States sits down to interview an American woman writer about her life and work

From The New York Review of Books:

The President: Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation.

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Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (1980)

I first picked up Gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa. Because I was campaigning at the time, and there’s a lot of downtime when you’re driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning. And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because Gilead is actually set here in Iowa.

And I’ve told you this—one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book, and then you and I had a chance to meet when you got a fancy award at the White House. And then we had dinner and our conversations continued ever since.

So anyway, that’s enough context. You just have completed a series of essays that are not fiction, and I had a chance to read one of them about fear and the role that fear may be playing in our politics and our democracy and our culture.* And you looked at it through the prism of Christianity and sort of the Protestant traditions that helped shape us, so I thought maybe that would be a good place to start.

Why did you decide to write this book of essays? And why was fear an important topic, and how does it connect to some of the other work that you’ve been doing?

Robinson: Well, the essays are actually lectures. I give lectures at a fair rate, and then when I’ve given enough of them to make a book, I make a book.


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Marilynne Robinson and President Barack Obama. Photograph: Peter Souza/The White House

The President: So you just kind of mash them all together?

Robinson: I do. That’s what I do. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too. But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

The President: Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

Robinson: But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.

The President: We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.

Robinson: But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.


On Idaho and becoming a writer

The President: Which town in Idaho did you grow up in?

Robinson: [Coeur d’Alene] is where I really grew up.

The President: How big was the town when you were growing up?

Robinson: 13,500 people.

The President: All right. So that’s a town.

Robinson: Yes, the second-largest city in the state at the time.

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Marilynne Robinson and President Barack Obama

The President: And how do you think you ended up thinking about democracy, writing, faith the way you do? How did that experience of growing up in a pretty small place in Idaho, which might have led you in an entirely different direction—how did you end up here, Marilynne? What happened? Was it libraries?

Robinson: It was libraries, it was—people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice, right?

The President: Right.

Robinson: I followed what was for me the path of least resistance, which meant reading a lot of books and writing, because it came naturally to me. My brother is excellent in many of these things, you know? And I think we reinforced each other, he and I, but it was perfectly accidental.

With all respect to that environment, many very smart people do not follow the path in life that people like my brother and I did. You learn from them even if you don’t learn from them in a formal sense. But I always knew what I wanted to do in a sense—I mean, not be, but do. I didn’t really have the concept of author until I was in high school. But I was writing.

The President: But you knew you wanted to read and write.

Robinson: Yes, that’s what I wanted to do.

The President: Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?

Robinson: There was great tolerance in the house for quirkiness. No, it’s a funny thing because on the one hand, I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means. On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.

The President: Well, that’s why you have good sense along with sort of an overlay of books on top of good sense. What did your mom and dad do?

Robinson: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father was a sort of middle-management lumber company guy.

The President: But they encouraged it.

Robinson: You know what, they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed we were doing something—drawing or painting or whatever we were doing—then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.


These extracts are from a conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson that was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14 2015. An audio recording of it can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks.You can read the full version, in both parts, on The New York Review of Books website: Part 1 | Part 2.

You can also read Marilynne Robinson’s reactions to the interview, and her impressions of President Obama, over at The Daily Beast.

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