President Obama interviewed author Marilynne Robinson, and it's pretty sensational
Marilynne Robinson is a phenomenal author who has the awards to prove it. In 2005, her novel Gilead was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Then, seven years later, she received the National Humanities Medal for “her grace and intelligence in writing.” As for President Obama… Well, he’s POTUS. And when you bring these two impressive human beings together for an interview, what you get is something that’s equal parts wonderful and fascinating.
When you hear that President Obama is involved in an interview, you would think that he’s the one being interviewed – but not this time. “[O]ne of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in,” he explained in a conversation with Robinson, published in the New York Review of Books. “And so we had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue…”
What results is a discussion that is surprisingly down-to-earth and casual, yet immensely insightful. Here are some of our favorite observations:
President Obama is a top-notch interviewer.
During their interview in Des Moines, Iowa, Obama asks all the right questions. He genuinely respects and admires this author, which is shown through his thoughtful and knowledgeable queries. In short, he makes curious readers want to know more about this remarkable woman by effortlessly putting the spotlight on her work.
Honestly, we hope the President considers a career as an interviewer after his term is up.
Libraries helped Marilynne Robinson blossom.
It’s no secret that libraries are magical places that can help us learn, grow, and embrace the world around us. The proof? Ms. Robinson, her work, and her literary upbringing.
“And how do you think you ended up thinking about democracy, writing, faith the way you do?” Obama asked, after Marilynne revealed that she grew up in a small town. “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?”
“It was libraries, it was…” she responded. “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.”
The takeaway: libraries are the places where Pulitzer Prize-winning authors are born.
One of Obama’s favorite fictional characters is in Robinson’s Gilead.
“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,” the President explained. “And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because Gilead is actually set here in Iowa.”
Hey, everyone has certain books that affect them during specific times in their life and the President is no different.
“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,” he continued. “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.”
If you haven’t gotten your hands on Gilead, now would be a great time to add it to your list.
Robinson’s creative process is pretty free-flowing.
Alright, Marilynne Robinson is a poetic magician.
“The Midwest was still a very new thing for me. I got a voice in my head. It was the funniest thing. I mean, [I’d] been reading history and theology and all these things for a long time. And then I was in Massachusetts, actually, just [waiting to spend] Christmas with my son[s]. They were late coming to wherever we were going to meet, and I was in this hotel with a pen and blank paper, and I started writing from this voice,” she explained, after Obama asked about how his favorite book came to be. “The first sentence in that book is the first sentence that came to my mind. I have no idea how that happens. I was surprised that I was writing from a male point of view. But there he was.”
Robinson offers even more nuggets of wisdom about the writing process, just as Obama reveals his exceptional knack for interviewing authors.
This interview, which is broken up into two parts (the second part is forthcoming), is definitely worth reading in full. You can read the first part here.
[Image via Twitter]