Once again utilising her fictional town of Gilead, Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Marilynne Robinson has produced a moving tale of displacement, fate, suffering and occasional delight in Lila. (Virago, £16.99).
Did you re-read your previous novels set in the same town?
No. I trust myself to remember the things that I consider the most important, but I don’t want to be dragged down by trying to respond to another book in too much detail.
Was there a particular reason behind revisiting Gilead? Is your fiction trapped there forever?
“Forever” is not amongst my options. It seems the characters have been very active in my mind – sometimes as if they ought to have another book, that they had stepped out of a book that I hadn’t yet written. I find that lots of people want me to write books that will clarify things or pick up other characters that they feel have to get more attention, but I don’t know in advance what I will do. I just wait until this actual impulse to write a book becomes strong.
You talk about Lila’s saviour, Doll, coming to her like “an angel in the wilderness”, but she is an extremely conflicted character. Did you enjoy writing her?
I did – I’m very fond of Doll. When you’re writing a character you try to suspend what would be conventional judgement – or at least I do – but there are things about Doll. She’s driven to homicidal imaginings by this feeling of being under siege all the time. But, given another roll of the dice, she’d have been a very gentle, goodhearted woman.
Scripture features strongly in your novels. Do you shape your narrative around biblical verses or employ parts of the Bible that reinforce your story?
It’s hard for me to know which comes first. The strange little parable in Ezekiel that is so important to Lila is something I noticed because I often teach Old Testament to my students. I didn’t consciously form the narrative around it but I was certainly aware of it all the time. I would not have departed from any other impulse I had in order to accommodate the parable.
You’ve said that when you began to write, as a child, it was purely for pleasure. Do you continue to get a similar sense of enjoyment?
I don’t think I can do it if I’m not enjoying it. People ask me why I chose one subject rather than another, or why I don’t create real evil characters, but when you write a book you’re spending a minimum of two years, sometimes ten years, and I have to have some sort of aesthetic pleasure from the company of the people I conjure.
This interview first appeared in Big Issue North 1 December 2015