10 Questions for Toni Morrison
by Andrea Sachs
She’s won the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes and recently received the PEN/Borders Literary Service Award. A new collection of her nonfiction, What Moves at the Margin, is out now. Toni Morrison will now take your questions
How did you discover your passion for writing? —Roderick Yang, Seattle
My deepest passion was reading. At some point—not early, I was 35 or 36—I realized there was a book that I wanted very much to read that really hadn’t been written, and so I sort of played around with it in trying to construct the kind of book I wanted to read.
Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite? —Sarah Henderson, Loma Linda, Calif.
No, I always am most deeply impressed with the one that’s going on at the moment.
What is your prewriting process like? —Sarah McLaughlin, Berkeley, Calif.
Different books arrive in different ways and require different strategies. Most of the books that I have written have been questions that I can’t answer. In order to actually put down the first word—I don’t really have a plan—I sometimes have a character, but I can’t do anything with it until the language arrives.
Song of Solomon should be required reading for all African-American boys. How did you know what is in our heads? —Ira Levi, Tulsa, Okla.
That was a leap for me. I really wanted to do that book, about the education of a middle-class black man, about his ancestry, and I couldn’t. And then my father died, and it was earthshaking for me. I remember saying to myself, I wonder what my father knew about these men? And I have to tell you, I felt access. I knew I could get there if I thought about him.
Do you think that young black females are dealing with the same self-acceptance issues today as your character was in The Bluest Eye? —Francesca Siad, Calgary, Alta.
No, not at all. When I wrote the book, the young women who read it liked it [but] were unhappy because I had sort of exposed an area of shame. Nowadays I find young African-American women much more complete. They seem to have a confidence that they take for granted.
Do you regret referring to Bill Clinton as the first black President? —Justin Dews, Cambridge, Mass.
People misunderstood that phrase. I was deploring the way in which President Clinton was being treated, vis-à-vis the sex scandal that was surrounding him. I said he was being treated like a black on the street, already guilty, already a perp. I have no idea what his real instincts are, in terms of race.
Why did you endorse Barack Obama for the presidency? —Chris Francis Lightbourne, Long Island, N.Y.
I thought about voting for Hillary at the beginning. I don’t care that she is a woman. I need more than that. Neither his race, his gender, her race or her gender was enough. I needed something else, and the something else was his wisdom.
My 15-year-old daughter lives to write. What advice do you have for aspiring writers? —Darren Wethers, St. Louis, Mo.
The work is in the work itself. If she writes a lot, that’s good. If she revises a lot, that’s even better. She should not only write about what she knows but about what she doesn’t know. It extends the imagination.
If you had not chosen to share your gift of writing, what else would you have done? —Michelle Patrick, New York City
When I started teaching, I was absolutely thrilled. There’s nothing more exciting to me than to read books, to talk about books with students—generation after generation—who bring different things to them. I loved that. I would stay there.
Are there any dreams or goals that you have yet to fulfill? —Janie Crawford, Syracuse, N.Y.
I have two. Well, three, really. Two involve novels that I’m going to write and haven’t written. The third is immortality. [Laughs.] I don’t mean my work. I mean me.
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