Marilynne Robinson on Lila

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist again stuns readers with her quiet brilliance

Marilynne Robinson on Lila

In Gilead and again in Home, Marilynne Robinson took readers to the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, and into the life of beloved John Ames. In both, she unfolded graceful stories of the simultaneous simplicity and richness of any life and interwove the relatable mundaneness of a family’s history with an earnest spirituality unseen in most contemporary storytelling. In Lila, Robinson charts the life of Ames’ wife, a drifter who, despite her limited education, engages with questions of existence and piety as adeptly as her husband.

In a world where creative endeavours are getting louder and more extreme, clamouring for attention amid a flood of other works, Robinson’s success defies trends. A stunning continuation of her thoughtful oeuvre, Lila falls into its own genre: profound consideration of a life, without any fanfare. Time Out caught up with the author to talk about her latest classic.

Why did you decide to continue the Gilead story from Lila’s perspective?
Lila opened some interesting questions for me. I knew that she would be entirely outside Ames’ world, and would be a sensitive woman who has no received account of life or of the meaning of things, but wonders about it all with severe honesty. Ames sees this in her.

You’ve previously said that Ames originally came to you as a voice, and that you were surprised to have a male narrator. How did you find Lila’s voice? Did you find it more natural to write in one voice over the other?
If I have a voice in my mind, I am at ease with it. Lila’s voice has a comparatively limited vocabulary, but I wanted her to be very expressive within the terms that are available to her. Both Lila and Ames are quite haunted by their pasts, by the lives they haven’t led.

Why do you think it’s so difficult for these characters to live in the present moment?
I really don’t think it’s usual for people to live in the present moment, not very fully, in any case. Experience is always shaped by previous experience. The lives of both Lila and Ames have made them very aware that happiness is shadowed by potential loss. Ames is elderly; Lila is distrustful, deeply a stranger. They are aware of the instability that all this implies and they feel their happiness sharply.

Despite talking about their loneliness with each other, we don’t really see Lila and Ames’ relationship, their love, dissolving that state of being. Why not?
Whether the pleasures of the dearest company can sink into the bones, alter the sense of the world in someone who has been habituated to loneliness, this I doubt. What Ames and Lila have in common is the knowledge that solitude has its own comforts, its own pleasures. They
are the best of companions, in this sense.
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