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Babel: Marilynne Robinson

Dignifying the voices in her head


March 18

Kleinhans Music Hall, 1 Symphony Circle.

justbuffalo.org, 832-5400


In 2012, President Barack Obama awarded Marilynne Robinson, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her novel Gilead, a National Humanities Medal, citing her “grace and intelligence in writing.” Spree caught up with the multiple award-winning novelist and essayist via email, as she was mid-move to New Haven, about to start teaching at Yale University.


All your writing is deeply philosophical. Do you try to convey certain messages?

Sometimes I just feel like writing a novel. I’m engrossed by a voice and a character. Beyond this, anything I might say about my reasons for writing fiction would be misleading. I try to be fair to my characters, including the very minor ones. I am careful of their dignity. I grant them souls. I feel as though if I violate the terms of our relationship, they will abandon me. I think of these terms as fundamentally esthetic. Of course, I hope they will find a good reception in the world.


Gilead is a letter, to be read after the death of the main character, a minister. The book is dedicated to your parents. How did you put yourself in the head of a dying old man?

My parents were not ministers. I have no clergy relatives. Frankly, I feel less as if I got into his head than as if he got into mine. One day his voice was there, and a general sense of his situation.


Your characters provoke thought, a challenge for readers in a world that doesn’t seem to value such. Do you think we are in a moral crisis in this country?

We are in a crisis, certainly. It has been my own experience that people need help to think deeply. The institutions that have traditionally supported this ability, and have, crucially, taught societies to value it, have largely defaulted. The churches, the universities and schools, the press. They have all treated people at large as a market, rather than as old humankind, creatures all caught up in the same great mystery. A kind of dull cynicism has set in, depriving us of the pleasures of giving and receiving the best of the world’s goods, respect, first of all.


Robinson speaks at 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 18 in Kleinhans Music Hall, as part of Just Buffalo Literary Center’s BABEL lectures series.



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