Portrait of Toni Morrison by and © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders by kind permission.
Born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Toni Morrison is a Nobel Prize in Literature winning novelist, an editor, and a teacher. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, and Toni Morrison’s novels are known for their epic themes, exquisite language and the richly detailed African-American characters who are central to their narratives.
Toni Morrison lives in a sun-filled house by the Hudson River. On a Saturday afternoon Victoire Bourgois and I took a ride 45 minutes up the Hudson River with a driver who had lived his whole life in New York and pointed to us all the different areas of New Jersey, Upstate, Yonkers, Connecticut. When we arrived she greeted us warmly, and when talking about her writing process she said: ‘My desk does not face the river, otherwise I would not do a thing all day but watch the river. Here there is a mixture of salt water and tidal movements and fresh water, because it is so close to New York City.’
Have you lived in your home on the Hudson River for many years?
In the county for about 35 years, in this place maybe 15 or 20 years. This house burned down one year, and we all moved to New York City until I rebuilt it.
How long did you work in New York City as an editor at Random House?
I don’t know! I will tell you a big secret. I am 87, so I don’t remember anything! But I liked working there at Random House with Jason Epstein, my “boss”. Of course I never did anything he said. I did not have the luxury of not editing other peoples’ work as I was raising two sons, so I kept the editing job, but I was an author at the same time. My book The Bluest Eye was written in 1970, but it was necessary for me to have an income, always.
How did your books sell?
They sold well, but no one makes money with a nice elegant novel. For money it’s crime novels or sex novels. The good thing was, when they paid me an advance the books sold enough so that I didn’t have to pay them back after the book was published, which isn’t always the case with a writer. Sometimes they made money.
When do you write?
Whatever season it was I would wake up in the dark, and I would always beat the sun up. I am very smart in the morning, but as the day goes on it just goes away. Those six hours until lunch were pretty fruitful, though sometimes you have to go back over what you already write, and correct it or cross it out. I was the editor of myself.
As editor of yourself were you impartial, as if it was someone else who had written the book?
Yes, another person very like me. I wasn’t perpetually pleased with everything I wrote. That never happened. I write with a pencil on yellow lined paper. That’s the way we were taught, with a pencil because ink sounded a little arrogant and pencil shows you knew what you are doing but are willing to erase!
Do you still write early in the morning?
No! Now I can’t do it. I wake up that same time, but the physical stuff is so different now. I write in the evening, at 6 or 7pm.
Do you write every day?
No. I think every day. Sometimes I can do three pages, sometimes I do half of one. It’s not so much the amount as what’s clear in my mind, or what I want to develop.
In books like Home you describe the difficult condition of African-Americans?
Yes. The difficulty was white people. The difficulty of being black was that we were not “people”, we were “black people”. I don’t remember being unhappy about that, but there was this separation, and certain things we were not able to do and certain places we were not able to go, so we made our own neighbourhoods. We lived on the shore of Lake Erie, and there was a Lake Erie Park that the city supported. No black people were allowed in there, so we went a mile down the shore and made our entrance to the lake there. We just made our own park.
Did all minorities have difficulty at that time?
The group that was acceptable was middle to upper class whites who lived on the shore, doctors and dentists who thought they were kings and queens and everyone else was below them. It affected the grown-ups more than the kids; because we all went to school together. In my 4th grade my teacher made me sit with two Italian kids who were fresh off the boat, so they could learn English. I liked teaching those little punks, and one turned out to be the mayor of our little town when he grew up.
“I am a black writer. No hiding. It’s different.”
A selection of images of covers from around the world of Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved’, a 1987 novel set after the American Civil War and inspired by the story of an African-American slave.
Do you like to teach?
I love teaching because you learn so much. It’s not just me telling them, it’s what you get back which I really like. It’s the conversation. I just left Princeton, where I taught for something like seven years.
How long does it take you to write a book?
Three years is the shortest time I have spent writing a book, most of them take six or seven. Bob Gottlieb, my editor at Knopf, is harassing me because I owe him a book!
Your most famous book is Beloved, for which you won the Pulitzer Prize. Is it your best novel?
No. My best novel is Jazz, but nobody cares about it but me.
Why is it the best?
Because I never use the word jazz, but I designed it the way jazz music is created. It has that quality of “you never know”. It’s inventive, and it changes. It’s about the jazz period, the 1920s in a big city like New York.
Did you do a lot of research on Harlem?
Harlem sounds like the most exciting place at the time, and the only one that was close to it was New Orleans. New York was a very hip city then. Because of the music there wasn’t even much segregation.
Would you have liked to play an instrument?
I write because I can’t play. My mother sang all the time, a beautiful voice, a natural singer; and she never took any lessons. Neither my sister nor me were any good at playing the piano, so she made us take piano lessons. We had to go to school to do what she did naturally.
Why did you become a writer?
Why not? I am very good at it. I know how. I always knew how. I was in grade school, and I remember by mother came to visit the teacher on one of those days when parents come and talk to the teacher about their children, and my teacher told my mother to be very careful with me because I was very talented in the writing. I was smart in school. I mentioned earlier the little Italian boys that they put next to me so they could learn the language.
Did you start by writing short stories?
I don’t remember writing in high school, I didn’t write a story until during college. I went back to the university three years ago and met one of my colleagues, who was teaching. He used something I wrote when I was there as an example of good writing that he gave to all of his students. It wasn’t very good I didn’t think, but he did. I had a spelling mistake!
Is it different to be a writer today in America, in the sense that now people read less?
The response to writing is different, because people don’t read as much and they do not want to read certain kinds of things. Teaching at Princeton all those years I could feel what the atmosphere vis-à-vis important books was.
“My best novel is Jazz, but nobody cares about it but me.”
What is good writing?
I wish I knew. I can do it but I can’t describe it.
Is there a great writer who has been very important to you?
No, it wasn’t like that. The people that I felt intimate with were actually white women southerners who wrote in a way that was very personal to me. I am from the north, but I could feel a relationship with people like that.
Did you want to be equal with white people?
I wanted to be “better than”. My mother was always “better than”. She was the best singer in the church. White people from other parts of the state came to hear my mother sing, her voice was so beautiful, so I had an entirely different perception of what being on the edge of society meant. But that was in Ohio. It probably wouldn’t have happened in Georgia. There is a lot of suffering in my book Beloved, but that’s not confined to black people. White writers do the same thing. They go into the places that are most hurtful in their youth and their families, and they pull the unhappiness in their writing. There are very few writers who just write happy stuff. They all think they are Edgar Allan Poe!
Are you a “black writer” or a “writer”?
I am a “black writer”. No hiding. It’s different. The quality, the music, the sound, the texture and the subject. James Baldwin, another famous black writer, wrote about black life, but it was distant, as though it were separate from him. Baldwin lived in New York, and if you were a writer and also black you didn’t get reviewed in the New York Times and you didn’t get positions in the universities. My first book to be reviewed in the New York Times was by someone who thought he was doing something beneath him by reviewing my book. That was The Bluest Eye. Since then a lot has changed, but, I have to say, when I won the Pulitzer there was some negativity in the press.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993 was awarded to Toni Morrison.
Toni Morrison featured on the cover of Time Magazine, January 19, 1998.
‘Sula’ is a 1973 novel by author Toni Morrison, her second to be published after The Bluest Eye.
Toni Morrison was named by President Barack Obama a 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.
‘Jazz’ is the 1992 historical novel by Toni Morrison that she rates as her best.
Toni Morrison, a single mother of two sons, wrote ‘The Bluest Eye’ in 1970 while she taught at Howard University.
“I think all novels should be elevated.”
You have lived through a period of big change for black people. When Obama became President what did you feel?
I love Obama. That’s my feeling. There was Martin Luther King and then there was Obama, and he had two terms. I love Obama, and he loves me. He invited me to the party, and my son Ford and I went. His daughter was interested in writing, and his wife suggested she come here to talk to me, and she did and she’s lovely. Then she got an internship with Harvey Weinstein. She’s at Yale now, and I want to speak to her about that: “Tell me about Harvey!”
But nowadays the USA has Trump, a very different President from Obama?
What a humiliation he is. I didn’t think that was possible. He didn’t win. Hillary got three million more votes than Trump, but the Electoral College, which was designed in the south to make sure that whoever became President was beholden to white southerners, overrides the popular vote.
Is America in danger with Trump as President?
Yes. It’s a kind of corruption; and corrupt without embarrassment. Normally when you get a bad leader a whole lot of people are embarrassed. Some people are embarrassed about Donald Trump, but not enough. He lies every minute; everything he says. He is so ignorant, so vile, so shallow, so self-centred, egocentric, vengeful. Donald Trump is an old man, he’s 72, and he should stop being president. When I read Bob Woodward’s book Fear I said: “O God, it’s worse than I thought.” And I thought bad things.
Is he a racist?
It’s not important to him. Money is important to him. I suppose he likes rich black people.
Did winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993 change your life?
No, how could it? They gave me some money, which I spent. It made a lot of people mad, some people angry. They wrote close-to-insulting articles, saying: “What did they give it to her for?”
Do you think there is more freedom and less prejudice now?
Yes, I do. My life has changed because I am well known, but the real test is my grandchildren, who never think about the things I thought about at their age. They feel superior as people. One is in Jordan studying Arabic, not as “a black girl”, but as “a person who wants to study Arabic in Jordan”. That would never have occurred to me at that age. I was a person, but I was “a very proud black person”. It was a category, like being “a very proud gay person”.
Does it become more difficult to write when you win awards and gain recognition?
No. Look at that (she points to a pile of yellow paper pages). That’s my new novel. I spent the morning talking to my editor Bob Gottlieb about that. The working title is Justice. I like a one word title that sums up something in the book, either a character or a person, somebody who lives there, or an atmosphere.
Is black literature still alive today?
It has moved. The music of black people was the most important thing, and then finally it moved and the black writing and literature became important. Now it’s nothing to single out.
Are there any particular writers you admire?
William Faulkner was a great favourite of mine. I met him a couple of times, even went to his house. He wrote very well, but there are a lot of good writers. What I liked was his mind. He had a close language and personal feeling for people. He was a boring old man, although I am sure not to his friends, but his characters were extraordinary.
Do you read new writers?
I do. Some young women are like a new breed of writer, with different things they are interested in. Women have made big progress.
Do you consider your writing to be poetical?
A lot of people have said so. What they mean is I have elevated language. I think all novels should be elevated. I don’t like journalistic prose for a novel.
Have you had a good life?
I have lived a long life, and it’s good.
Will you keep writing?
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