Toni Morrison’s ‘Love’: A master probes deep emotional places

An AJC editor’s 2003 interview with the Nobel Prize-winning author

Teresa K. Weaver, an editor at the AJC at the time, interviewed Toni Morrison in October 2003. Morrison died Monday at the age of 88.

Toni Morrison alights slowly, a little stiffly, from the black car in front of the Hotel des Artistes. She quickens her pace across the sidewalk, though, to elude two women pushing baby strollers.

The women slow down, looking on with a mixture of surprise and reverence. After passing, one woman turns around and declares softly, almost apologetically, "We love you."

Morrison, 72, acknowledges it with imperial grace — a smile, a half nod, "Thank you" — and disappears into the storied old hotel, whose tenants have run the gamut from Rudolph Valentino to Norman Rockwell.

Inside, the Nobel laureate is escorted to a semiprivate alcove in the warmly lit, old-artsy cafe. Dressed in flowing black and silver, wearing strands of pearls around her neck and thick, salt-and-pepper (mostly salt) braided dreadlocks down her back, she takes her seat, surrounded by dark polished woods and deep carpet and 1930s murals of nude women cavorting in woods.

She orders a cosmopolitan — "You know, that sweet drink," when she cannot conjure the name right away — and settles in to talk.

Her eighth novel, "Love," is published this week, and that seems like a good place to start.

"I had great fear and trepidation in naming the book 'Love,' " says Morrison, "because it has become such a cliched, boring, meaningless word. But it is also the most forceful human emotion that drives us to do all sorts of things."

"Love" is the story of Bill Cosey, a charismatic black entrepreneur who ran a chic seaside resort for well-to-do African-Americans that flourished during segregation. When segregation ended, and black people were free to spend their money more widely, Cosey's business faltered and ultimately failed. As the novel opens, the long-closed resort is home to two feuding women — Cosey's widow and his granddaughter — who set the present action in motion.

The novel is typical Morrison in its scope and its complexity. On a grand scale, it's about the consequences of desegregation: Is assimilation good or bad? Should black people have kept what they had? Where does racial uplift end and nationalism begin?

"The argument still flickers today," Morrison says. "You know, you have the head of the snake, which we may have killed during the extremely important [civil rights] movement, but the tail is still wagging around in arguments about affirmative action and school vouchers. . . . It's all still there."

On a small and intimate level, though, this new novel really is about this thing called love— parental love, unbridled love, lust, celibacy, the deepest of friendships. Even hatred is a form of love in Morrison's universe.

Credit: AP Photo/David Bookstaver, File

Credit: AP Photo/David Bookstaver, File

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"Like friendship, hatred needed more than physical intimacy; it wanted creativity and hard work to sustain itself." — from "Love"

In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American and only the eighth woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. She already had won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and later picked up a National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Today, her work is taught routinely in high school and college English courses, and Oprah Winfrey introduced hundreds of thousands of new readers to her novels: "The Bluest Eye," "Sula," "Song of Solomon" and "Beloved" were all picked for Oprah's Book Club.

"Her stories are fiction, but nowhere will you find greater truths about life," Winfrey said on her show in the spring of 2002. "She laid the foundation of my love for reading. . . . There would have been no Oprah's Book Club if this woman had chosen not to share her love of words with the world."

Even before Oprah's Book Club, Morrison had achieved something remarkably few authors do in the United States: Her books are critically acclaimed and read by millions.

"Morrison's been able to do what probably every great writer wants to do, which is to achieve critical success and not distance themselves from the people they write for," says Carolyn Denard, an adjunct associate professor at Georgia State University and the founder of the Toni Morrison Society. "She's magnetic."

The society, which has about 300 members worldwide, celebrated its 10th anniversary in the spring. Made up of scholars and lay readers, the organization is devoted primarily to studying Morrison's work and encouraging readership.

"What attracts a scholarly audience to Morrison's work is certainly the quality of her writing, the expansive breadth of history and her willingness to address important cultural issues," Denard says. "For a more popular audience . . . it's the deeply emotional subject matter of the work."

Particularly in such novels as "The Bluest Eye" and "Beloved," Morrison explores the psychological and emotional pain that history and culture can inflict on an individual.

"I think that even though her work is specifically about black life in the United States . . . her journey to the deep emotional places allows her to speak in profound ways to many readers, across racial lines, across cultural lines."

Denard speaks with an almost palpable excitement about reading "Love."

"I'm in this delicious moment of waiting for a new Morrison novel," she says. "I have my grandmother's quilt and a stack of firewood set aside, and I've blocked off the first week of November . . ."

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"Nowadays silence is looked on as odd and most of my race has forgotten the beauty of meaning much by saying little." — from "Love"

Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford, but legally changed her first name in college, opting for a shortened version of her middle name over the troublesome Chloe. "Nobody could ever pronounce it," Morrison says, still exasperated. "Cha-low, Klow . . . It was Klo-ee."

She grew up in Lorain, Ohio, a working-class town half an hour west of Cleveland. Segregation didn't exist in her one-school town, she recalls, and she didn't experience racism until she was grown. Leaving Ohio for Howard University in Washington was a major culture shock.

"It all had to be a learning experience for me," she says. "How does it feel to hate yourself? I didn't know anything about that powerful self-loathing."

Morrison graduated from Howard, got a master's from Cornell University, married an architect, had two sons and then divorced an architect.

As a single mother, she worked full time as an editor at Random House, influencing and publishing prominent black authors including Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara. And in her spare time, she wrote a novel called "The Bluest Eye," about the devastating impact of racism on a fragile little girl.

Morrison was 39 when that first novel was published, and complicated issues of race, culture and gender have wound themselves through all of her work since. The journey in each of her novels is hard, the language demanding, and the emotions raw.

"It's easy, I suppose, to talk about the oppressor," Morrison says. "But I'm not all that interested in it — or him. I'm interested in the impact that oppression has on people. Who survives? How? What are the strategies?"

One of the things college students often struggle with is the sort of moral universe that Morrison expects readers to accept and understand, says Emory professor Michael Awkward, a specialist in African-American literature.

"It's difficult to get undergraduates to think about subjects like incest and intraracial violence and killing babies during slavery," Awkward says. "Ultimately, the power of the work and the quality of the writing tend to bring even the more skeptical students around."

Awkward, 44, remembers his first brush with the writer's books, when he was a college sophomore.

"The first novel by a black person that I engaged very deeply and energetically in --- and probably the novel that was responsible for me thinking that I should at least consider the possibility of pursuing literary studies as a career --- was 'The Bluest Eye,' " Awkward says. "That book has moved me and frustrated me and fascinated me for as long as any other book has. . . .

"Probably the Morrison novel that I have the most fun teaching is 'Song of Solomon,' which is . . . humorous and expansive and just marvelously rendered --- and accessible and inaccessible at the same time. Every time I read it I feel like I've been on a quest, although I don't exactly understand what I've been questing for."

Credit: AP Photo/Guillermo Arias, File

Credit: AP Photo/Guillermo Arias, File

"Up here where the solitude is like the room of a dead child, the ocean has no scent or roar." — from "Love"

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Morrison's agile use of the language depends not on difficult words or showy narrative devices but on meticulous choices.

"I don't write it until I hear it," she says.

And she expects — no, demands — a lot from her readers. In much the same way that a composer relies on a lyricist to bring his music to life, Morrison assumes that every reader will bring his own experience to her books.

In an oft-repeated story that has become part of the Morrison lore, a reader says to the writer, "Miss Morrison, I find your books difficult to read." And she says to the reader, "Good. I find them difficult to write."

She doesn't apologize for setting the bar high.

"You know, the sexual scenes almost never use overtly sexual language," she says of "Love," expounding on her theory of full reader engagement. "I know that a reader's sexuality or sensuality is more potent than mine. Because it's theirs."

There are elements of myth and magic in Morrison's work. In "Love," demons spring up out of the ocean to harm "loose" women and eat disobedient children. A wise and benevolent mentor — another common element in Morrison's oeuvre — known only as "L" begins the narration of "Love," ends it and is interwoven throughout. Sometimes "L" is a living presence, and sometimes she is looking down from somewhere beyond death.

There are biblical touches as well, not least among them the name of one of the principal characters, Heed the Night Johnson. (Her relatives include Solitude, Righteous Morning, Joy and Welcome.) There are moments of startling violence and cruelty, and there are phrases that demonstrate Morrison's pure and utter delight in language and imagery: Clouds are "tall, raggedy," for instance, and simple traffic becomes a scene of "black, square-topped automobiles, bleating."

Morrison, who holds an endowed chair at Princeton University, does little actual teaching nowadays, instead running the university's inventive and popular atelier program, which is French for "workshop." Instead of lecturing, she gets cellist Yo-Yo Ma to play and talk to students about classical music. Or she invites the American Ballet Theatre to perform a new piece of choreography, including students in minor roles. Or she brings in novelist-screenwriter Richard Price, who listens as students read parts of his script-in-progress.

Morrison is an arts enthusiast and a very public intellectual. She casts a huge shadow in African-American literature and in American literature: "I'm not prone to making these sorts of claims," says Emory's Awkward, "but I can't imagine that anyone would say there's been a more important American writer . . . for the last 20 years or so."

But the connection is often more emotional than that.

Tayari Jones, the author of the novel "Leaving Atlanta," teaches literature at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. She can recall in sharp detail her first encounter with Morrison, at a brunch at Spelman College when Jones was 18: "I watched everything she ate --- a fruit cup and a croissant. I was just pleased to be breathing her air."

But more significantly, Jones can recall the moment two years later when she heard that Morrison had won the Nobel. Jones was an unhappy graduate student at the University of Iowa at the time.

"I had grown up in Atlanta and had never been in an environment where there were very few black people," she recalls. "I felt so marginalized, and I felt like my work wasn't being taken seriously. . . . Then I was driving on Dubuque Street in Iowa City when I heard on NPR that Toni Morrison had won the Nobel Prize. I had to pull over to the side of the road. I put my head on the steering wheel of my dilapidated Toyota Corolla and I just wept.

"It was as though the world had said that Toni Morrison was the greatest writer. . . . When she won the Nobel, it made me a citizen of the world."

"No matter what your place in life or your state of mind, having a star-packed sky be part of your night made you feel rich." — from "Love"

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Nearly everybody who enters the Cafe des Artistes does a double-take when they pass Morrison's table. Even from behind, she looks famous — or at least important.

"She has that very warm, sweet, approachable, down-to-earth side," says novelist Edmund White, who runs the powerhouse creative writing program at Princeton. "And then she has her empress side, too.

"She is very grand, and she knows what she's worth."

Morrison has a fiercely subtle wit, a sly smile and a hearty laugh that is surprising at first. She chooses her words carefully and places a strong emphasis on unexpected syllables. Occasionally she cracks herself up with a joke, and it takes a minute or two for her to recover.

She keeps "farmer's hours," she says, rising every day at 4:30 or 5 a.m. to write, in longhand on a yellow legal pad. When asked about hobbies, she can't come up with much.

"The real independence, the real freedom and the real license is in the work," she says.

She has an idea for her next novel, but she won't talk about it yet. She has toyed with the notion of writing a memoir, but never seriously pursued it.

"I tried once," she says. "It was not good. First, it was boring. I mean, it was nothing new. So what was the point? And second, suddenly I couldn't remember anything anyway."

She laughs.

At this stage of her life, she confesses to being scared of "everything" and happy to have reached another milestone that few writers ever do: financial security.

"It's nice," she says. "Don't let anybody tell you it's not. Particularly for somebody who's been really poor, it's great. Nouveau riche is the best riche there is."

Credit: AP Photo/Guillermo Arias, File

Credit: AP Photo/Guillermo Arias, File

"We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives." — from the Nobel speech, 1993

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Winning the Nobel, the Pulitzer and all the assorted other high literary honors has little or no effect on the work Morrison does today, she says.

"I don't know if it hurts," she says, "but I know it doesn't help. Nothing helps. Every book is like you never did it before."

"Love" reunites Morrison with legendary Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, who has worked with authors ranging from Joseph Heller to Bill Clinton (whose much anticipated memoir will be published next year). He edited several of Morrison's earlier books, including "Beloved" and "Song of Solomon," but left publishing for several years to edit the New Yorker. He wasn't around to edit "Jazz" and "Paradise," and some critics found his absence notable.

At 72, he is a good match for Morrison, whom he describes as "a formidable writer and a formidable presence on the literary scene." She speaks of him with a comfortable, teasing affection befitting old friends, and she credits him with persuading her to name the new novel "Love." She had wanted to name it "L."

Gottlieb finds "Love" a powerful addition to Morrison's body of work.

"She's such a strong writer, a unique writer, and people care about her work so much," Gottlieb says by telephone from Paris. "What she does makes a great deal of difference."

Morrison is proud of "Love," too. But when asked if she thinks she has written her masterpiece yet, the author does not hesitate.

“Not yet,” she says. And with a smile that might be impish on another face, she adds, “It’s coming up.”