Last month, Barack Obama made an important visit in Iowa—but not only to discuss access to college. The US president also took a moment to interview author Marilynne Robinson, and for once the tables turned: Obama was the one who came loaded with questions and praise.
The president is known for his literary leanings, and has expressed admiration for Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. The two first met when Obama presented Robinson with one of the 2012 National Humanities Medals. “We had dinner and our conversations continued ever since,” says Obama in the interview, published Monday (Oct. 12) in the New York Review of Books.
What comes out of the conversation is a touching rapport between two people who seem to have been friends for decades. Obama begins by saying, “Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books,” and the fandom only gets more endearing:
Robinson: I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.
Obama: We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.
Robinson: But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.
Obama: You’re a novelist but you’re also—can I call you a theologian? Does that sound, like, too stuffy? You care a lot about Christian thought.
Robinson: I do, indeed.
Obama: But you’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an “us versus them,” and those are sometimes the loudest voices. But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes.
Obama: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?
Obama: It’s hard. And it’s supposed to be hard.
Obama: The issue to me, Marilynne, is not so much that those virtues that you prize and that you care about and that are vital to our democracy aren’t there. They are there in Little League games, and—
Robinson: Emergency rooms.
Obama: —emergency rooms, and in school buildings. And people are treating each other the way you would want our democracy to cultivate. But there’s this huge gap.
Obama’s reading habits have had a record of boosting book sales: In 2009 his mention of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland in the New York Times Magazine increased sales by 40%. In the past 24 hours, Robinson’s Gilead has shot from #816 to #645 on Amazon’s best-selling books list.
The first part of the interview between the two will appear in the review’s Nov. 5 issue and is available on their podcast in audio form. The second part will be published in two weeks.