Two decades ago, while waiting on her sons to join her for Christmas in Provincetown, Mass., American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson suddenly “knew the voice of John Ames,” who would later become one of her most beloved characters.

“He just emerged. I was quite surprised,” said Robinson in an interview with Héctor Tobar for The Los Angeles Times 2020 Festival of Books. “I thought that, on the basis of my own very fragmentary record, that I would always write from a woman’s point of view, and there he was.”

For her own “psychological peace,” Robinson said she had been researching the history and landscape of Iowa to prepare for her stint to teach at the renowned University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was from this research that Ames was born.

The Reverend Ames made his debut in Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 historical novel Gilead, the first in a quartet followed by Home, Lila and, most recently, Jack. One of Robinson’s biggest fans, former President Barack Obama, said he “fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book.”

He expounded: “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 said in an interview he conducted with Robinson in Des Moines, Iowa, in 2015. Previously, Obama had bestowed Robinson with the 2012 National Humanities Medal for “her grace and intelligence in writing.” 

Immensely preoccupied with the concept of grace, Robinson said that concept is integral in all her works. 

“Grace is the freedom of God, the greatest of all variables,” she said. “By my lights, no conception or reality or of being can be true that does not, in some way, take it into account. It is more than justice, and is at work where justice is perfect enough to have all the qualities of mercy.”

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As important as grace is to her works, so too is her faith. 

“My faith informs my thinking,” said Robinson, who describes herself as a liberal Protestant. “It makes me a reader of history and theology and gives me an interest in contemporary science, which is a celebration of the brilliance of Creation, though it is too seldom described in these terms. Naturally, this influences my writing.”

During her stellar career, Robinson has won many awards and honors, including the 2016 Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award in American Fiction. Not only is she an accomplished novelist, she is also a celebrated writer of nonfiction, including The Givenness of Things, one of Time magazine’s 10 best nonfiction books of 2015; When I Was a Child I Read Books, a New York Magazine Best Book of the Year; and Mother Country, which was nominated for a National Book Award.

Meet the Author

Oklahomans will get the chance to meet Robinson and learn more about her life and works when she comes to Tulsa in December to receive the 36th annual Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, given by the Tulsa City-County Library and Tulsa Library Trust. 
The prestigious award consists of a $40,000 cash prize and an engraved crystal book. 
Robinson will receive the award at a black-tie gala on Dec. 3 and give a free public address on Dec. 4 at Central Library in downtown Tulsa. For more details, visit tulsalibrary.org/helmerichaward.