Thursday, May 13, 2010

day 1: i met a pulitzer prize-winning author

Having spent nearly a decade trying (and largely failing) to write character-driven fiction, I was struck by Marilynne Robinson’s live interview at the Kansas City Public Library when she said that after finishing Housekeeping in 1980, she mourned the loss of the characters she had spent so much time getting to know.

Similarly, the characters in Gilead, her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, stuck with her long after the book’s completion, so she had to continue telling their stories in her most recent novel, Home.

“If these characters want their lives,” she said, “I should give it to them.”

My signed copy of Gilead is awesome.

While I am looking forward to reading all of Robinson’s novels, last month I read Housekeeping as part of the National Endowment for the Arts' Big Read series. In this poetic, observant novel, the characters are fully realized in an organic way that seems effortless and inspires a great degree of admiration and envy in my cold, cold heart.

After losing their mother to suicide when she drives her car into the same lake that swallowed their grandfather’s derailed train years earlier, young sisters Ruth and Lucille fall under the reluctant care of their eccentric, train-hopping aunt Sylvie.

The haphazard family lives in the fictional town of Fingerbone, Idaho, which is a character in itself – located in a valley alongside a temperamental lake that is always flooding or freezing, the town’s difficult climate threatens its mix of residents and transients and rattles its already shaky foundation.

Like Fingerbone, Sylvie is unstable. She sits alone for hours in the dark, fills rooms from floor to ceiling with newspapers and tin cans, “borrows” unattended canoes, and doesn’t know the whereabouts of her husband, whose very existence seems to occasionally slip her mind.

While Lucille rebels against Sylvie’s strangeness, Ruth seems almost intrinsically a part of it. The inherent similarities between Ruth and Sylvie and their inability to conform even when faced with loneliness and isolation raise questions about how much people are capable of change and how much certain tendencies such as transience and privacy (or in Lucille’s case, conformity and propriety) are simply hardwired.

On an unrelated note, Robinson teaches fiction writing at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is a self-assured, competent product of a lifetime spent in quality educational institutions. Though she claims not to think of herself as such, she is a capital "W" Writer, part of a group very few people successfully infiltrate.

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