Toni Morrison: Love at the last resort

Nobel laureate and the star of Oprah's book club, Toni Morrison is a global figure whose fiction still grows from small-town passions. John Freeman meets her in Manhattan

Every day, Toni Morrison awakens when the garbage trucks in New York are still collecting rubbish, when the morning newspapers' ink still smudges the fingers. If at work on a novel, she sits down with a pencil and yellow legal pad and writes until her hand hurts. "I don't like the act of writing for long periods of time," the 72-year-old author says, half-reclining on a divan in her lofty Manhattan pied-à-terre, but she finds the intimacy of the stylus hard to give up.

The same goes for the early hours. "Some people think, Oh she's so virtuous to get up that early," Morrison says, letting loose a raspy smoker's cackle. "It has nothing to do with that. I get up because a) the sun's up, and b) I'm smart in the morning. I just can't get it together in the evening."

This month, Morrison has got it together yet again to deliver one of her best novels yet, Love (Chatto & Windus, £16.99), a slim but powerful story of five women and the charming man who obsesses and possesses them from beyond his grave. As with William Faulkner's infamous epigraph, "The past is not dead. It is not even past", these women marinate in memories of old slights, recriminations and sexual imbroglios. "They are just entangled," says Morrison, flashing the wicked grin of a puppet-master who enjoys putting her cast through hell. "They are totally entangled in this man who helped them or hurt them, whom they permitted some of these outrages because of the largesse accompanying it."

Each character gets a unique voice and set of grievances, angles of influence in their claim over the deceased Bill Cosey, a self-made millionaire who owned a once-posh complex called Cosey's Hotel and Resort. There's Heed, his widow, an arthritic but whippet-tempered woman who wants to tell her family story; Christine, his granddaughter, a former prostitute determined to get her inheritance back. Vida used to work for Cosey and now her grandson is helping out Heed around the house, that except he's backing into trouble with Junior, a woman recently out of "Correctional" with a dangerous past and a yen for kinky sex.

Overlooking the action is L, a cook who worked at the beachfront resort near the town of Silk, where all these women cross paths at one time or another. L is a Greek chorus to Morrison's rotating cat-fight. "If I wanted to, I could have stayed with her," Morrison says, speaking in slow, precise English, pronouncing every "t", rolling her enunciation like a preacher: "L could just tell that story without any characters. But I wanted her to function as a witness, as someone with judgement."

Speaking about her work, Morrison has no qualms about being critical, nearly academic. She leaves no doubt that she is the master of this text, and that she holds its keys. The effect in person is slightly disjunctive. Short of stature, with a grandmotherly softness, Morrison appears nearly sweet, but when fixed with an intellectual question her speech slows, her voices dips to a whispery gravity. As she has for the past number of years, she wears her hair in long, somewhat knotty braids, which sprout from her skull like sentences.

Love, too, sprung entirely out of Morrison's head, which is unusual. Most of her past four or five novels grew out of news stories. The germ of Beloved (1987) was a newspaper item about Margaret Garner in Cincinnati, a black slave who murdered her own daughter. Paradise (1998) emerged from the old black newspapers in Oklahoma that encouraged freed blacks to settle there in the 19th century. And Jazz (1992) emerged from a photograph that Morrison saw of an 18-year-old woman murdered at a party by her lover out of jealousy.

This life-and-death brand of jealousy is everywhere in Love, the title of which grows more layered as one reads deeper. The love Morrison writes of both warms and devours, and her characters have yet to find the balance between the two. As a result, the language is taut, but passionate, full of spoken idioms and the whirl and whoosh of hurricane weather, which ravages the part of Florida where the novel unfolds.

Morrison takes great pains to achieve this symphonic quality to her prose, working in longhand, then typing the manuscript on to her computer and going through endless revisions. A former editor who spent two decades at Random House (until the mid-Eighties), she professes to know the value of editing and relies on hers to achieve polish. "The language has to have its own music - I don't mean ornate because I want it to work with no sound, while you read it. Still, it also has to have that spoken quality: it's oral: a blend of standard English and the vernacular, street language."

Rife with flashbacks and L's teeth-sucking voiceovers, Love has a structure to match its complex language. Information leaks out like clues in a murder case; it's not until some time into the book that the characters' precise roles come clear, a deliberate strategy. This "deep structure" is where Morrison finds the art in novel-writing. "Plots are interesting, characters are fascinating, scenery can be totally enveloping," Morrison says, "but the real art is the deep structure; the way that information is revealed and withheld so that the reader gets to find out things appropriately, or in a time frame that makes it an intimate experience."

In this sense, Morrison's hide-and-seek game with key information forces a reader into Silk's fetid atmosphere, where people think that they know about one another, where envy and avarice and passion mix but find no release. As the product of a small town 25 miles out of Cleveland, Ohio, Morrison finds this rich territory, natural territory. In small towns, she says, "the hatreds are severe, ancient, the passions and extraordinary silences are deeper, because they matter so much because you can't get away".

While she writes much of small communities, Morrison's community of readers has been expanding exponentially, especially since the talk-show host Oprah Winfrey choose a book of hers not once, not twice, but three times as a book club selection. Each selection reportedly sells one million books.

Add to that the Nobel prize, the Pulitzer prize, college course adoptions, movie tie-ins (Beloved starred Danny Glover and, again, Oprah Winfrey) and the general avidity of Morrison's base of fans, and you have an author selling in historic numbers for an African-American.

Unlike Jonathan Franzen, who thumbed his nose at Oprah and her viewers when The Corrections was chosen for her club, Morrison, who teaches literature at Princeton University, was entirely open to selection, never felt like it comprised the seriousness of her work. She is most impressed by Oprah's transformation of a downmarket show into America's most powerful bookselling tool. "I think her impact has been positive, really powerfully positive, just lassoing people," she says. "It's just amazing to me that here's a television personality who says, in effect, turn off the television and read a book."

Morrison is touchy on the subject of her Nobel prize, not because she didn't feel it was deserved ("I never thought that my work didn't deserve it") but because she wishes critics would stop measuring her work on the before-and-after time-line of a prize that she won 10 years ago. "It can't authenticate me; it can simply say that they thought that my work was extremely good, that's all it can say. And then there's the fact that there will be another one next year. It's important, the money is fabulous, but let's go on."

Morrison says that, 25 years ago, she would have felt that such sales and prize visibility would have compelled her to remain in the spotlight and speak for the "black community". She doesn't feel that way now. "They pretty much speak for themselves now," she says. "As an editor I felt that responsibility; to go out an find new writers that the agents didn't have, and I wanted to help publish and acquire books by activists so that their voices, their opinions, their narratives, their analyses could be distributed, unfiltered." Now, at her level of publishing, Morrison seems sort of eager to throw off some of the attention, looking hopefully to the future of American literature, which she regards as reaching a new dawn.

She talks eagerly of the work of writers who are expanding the notion of the American novel: writers such as Chang Rae Lee (Native Speaker), Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake) and Colson Whitehead (John Henry Days). While she stops short of calling them multi-cultural, she does applaud their broadening of the palate of American life represented in fiction. As always, what she loves most comes back to language. "English is a polyglot language, that's what makes it exciting to write in; there are so many other languages in it, so many levels. When you get novels that pull from that, or another tradition, for me it's a delight, an absolute delight."

Biography

Toni Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Ohio in 1931, attended Howard and then Cornell universities, where she studied English. After lecturing in Texas and at Howard, she worked as an editor for Random House in New York for almost 20 years. Married until 1964 to the architect Harold Morrison, she has two sons. From 1984, she was Albert Schweitzer professor of humanities at New York State University and, since 1989, Robert Goheen professor of the humanities at Princeton University. Her first novel was The Bluest Eye, in 1970, followed by Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992) and Paradise (1998). Love, her new novel, is published this month by Chatto & Windus. She has also written children's books with one of her sons, the critical study Playing in the Dark, a song cycle and a play, Dreaming Emmett. Toni Morrison won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1988 and the Nobel prize for literature in 1993.

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