Pam Houston talks with Toni Morrison

Appears in Other Voices #42

Editors' note: Pam Houston originally conducted her interview with Toni Morrison on assignment from O Magazine, in which a short excerpt of their discussion first appeared. Other Voices wishes to thank everyone at O for making this interview happen.

We feel lucky if, during the course of our lives, we have a chance to sit and talk with one of our heroes. But when our hero not only lives up to, but overreaches our expectations, we feel something closer to chosen, even blessed. Such were my feelings a little over a year ago on a humid summer morning at Toni Morrison’s apartment in lower Manhattan, where we began an extraordinary conversation that would—to my surprise and delight—last all day.

Ms. Morrison is a person who gives you her full attention, who wants, even in the context of an interview, to have a conversation, who is entirely self-possessed without being the least bit self-obsessed, who is at every minute teaching and at every minute eager to learn. The occasion was the publication of her eighth novel which, like many of her other novels bears a one word title, Love. Love is built—“like a crystal,” Ms. Morrison said—around two women, Christine and Heed, best childhood friends, whose relationship disintegrated because of the internal pressures of desegregation, and the sexual shenanigans of one powerful man named Bill Cosey.

Originally from Ohio, Ms. Morrison has perfect elocution, and speaks more precisely, more articulately than anyone I have spoken to in my life. She is soft spoken and regal, except for the odd moment when she erupts into raucous laughter and throws herself sideways into an overstuffed chair. At seventy-three she is young in spirit, long in wisdom, as dedicated as ever to her craft. Her humor and authenticity put me so at ease it was hard to remember I was in the presence of a Nobel Prize winner.

“The award itself is fine,” she said, “but it is not going to help you with the things that really challenge you. You have to deal with your children and your friends, and that is what makes life original and interesting. I grew up with a group of people who were unimpressed with books and all that goes with them, and my greatest fear is that they might think I wasted my life. I don’t mean wasted it in the sense of not becoming a famous person, but that I just didn’t live right, that they would suck their teeth at me about everyday things.”

Ever since Ms. Morrison began her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1965, writing has always been her place of clarity, an “unsullied place of envisioning and imagining,” a place she has been totally free. Right from the beginning she saw her own project as ground breaking in its dedication to writing without what she calls the White Gaze. She was committed to writing like a Jazz or Blues musician, just for the people, an audience she knew would be demanding, honest and sophisticated, and once she got into that brand new space a whole world opened up for her. Out of that world has come Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise and Love, a body of work unequalled in American letters, the nearest thing America has to a national novelist, according to the New York Times.

Each of Ms Morrison’s novels rise to a greater narrative challenge. The identity of her narrators often remain elusive; sometimes they seem like no one in the book, sometimes they seem like everyone in the book, sometimes they are recently back from the dead, sometimes they seem to speak as the physical book you hold in your hand. Her novels are always complex, structurally demanding, and ask for, but do not require a second reading. Reading her novels teaches us how to read her novels, teaches us to trust her narrators, teaches us that if we just keep reading, if we give ourselves over to her spyrographic style, all the truth we need will be revealed. And yet to read Ms. Morrison’s novels more than once is to understand exactly what separates good literature from great literature, to see how on the third and fourth and fifth time through, these novels only intensify and deepen, offer up more of their secrets, remain true both structurally and thematically to themselves.

There are no villains in Toni Morrison’s books and no heros. The narrator of Love whose name is L., says of Bill Cosey, “you could call him a good bad man, or a bad good man, depends on what you hold dear….he was an ordinary man ripped like the rest of us by wrath and love.” This ability is what makes Toni Morrison perhaps the greatest writer of our generation. For all her fluency in the English language, for all her breathtaking flights of lyricism and song, for all her ability to create one structural masterpiece after another, to redefine the phrase “narrative tour de force” with each subsequent book, the greatest of her gifts is her insistence on honoring the complexity, the multiplicity of the human spirit—it is the steady and unflinchingly honest observer’s eye, combined with the unfaltering and deep compassion she brings to each of her characters, and by association each of her readers, and by association the whole world.

Please join me in welcoming to the pages of Other Voices…Toni Morrison.

PH: I was reading all the old books again, in preparation, and I couldn’t help seeing the relationship between this book, Love, and Sula—with a different ending. You know, this time the women have the conversation at the end. Was that a conscious rewrite?

TM: I think the idea of a wanton woman is something that I may have inserted in almost all of the books. A kind of an outlaw figure who is disallowed in the community because of whatever reason—her imagination or her activity or her status, whatever. That kind of anarchic figure has always fascinated me. Even in Paradise there is such a woman. In spite of the fact that they are either dismissed or upbraided, something about their presence is constructive in the long run. Sula being someone they missed terribly when she was gone; they lacked a kind of focus in their community after she died—even though she was the pariah. Then in Love, Junior is a poor, rootless, free floating young woman, the narrative cuts her loose from the ground. And what you get is a survivor, a manipulator, a hungry person; but nevertheless, she does effect a space where people can come with their better selves—not just Romen, but the two women. So the consequences of that female figure are frequently distinct improvement or some kind of personal progress for the characters that surround them.

[continued in Other Voices #42... order today...]