ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. Toni Morrison returns to familiar territory for her new novel. Like her bestseller "Beloved," this one centers around mothers, daughters and slavery. It's called "A Mercy." The story is set in the early colonies during the 1600s. A slave mother begs a Dutch trader named Jacob to buy her daughter, a young girl named Florence. The transaction is meant to help pay off a bad debt. The story unfolds through the eyes of that young girl as she enters a strange, brutal, and at times, beautiful world filled with settlers, servants, slaves, and Native Americans. This is Morrison's ninth novel. I asked her where the title came from.
Professor TONI MORRISON (Nobel Prize-Winning Author): It developed because I was looking for a single word that would describe the denouement, a kind of solution to the plot. And I fiddled around with the word mercy. It wasn't compassion. It wasn't pity. It wasn't grace even. But then with the help of my editor, we just put the article in front, "A Mercy," suggesting not the large world of people doing nice things for other people or even religious versions of God's mercy, but a human gesture, just one - one mercy. And that worked for me.
NORRIS: And that human gesture really goes toward something specific that happens in the book, a mother giving up her daughter to a stranger in hope of a better life.
Professor MORRISON: Yes.
NORRIS: Throughout the story, we meet several characters. You've got the immigrant Jacob and slaves, like Florence. And you have other people who are involved in a kind of servitude even though they might be assumed to be free. And I'm wondering what was particularly appealing about that aspect, the notion of servitude or some kind of slavery that's not based on race or identity.
Professor MORRISON: Well, that was, I suppose, the central project of the book. I wanted to see what it might have been like to remove race from slavery, because slavery was not this strange thing. Every civilization in the world relied on it. But the notion was that there was a difference between black slaves and white slaves. And there wasn't. The difference was in what they set white slaves up as. They called them indentured servants. And the suggestion has always been that they could work off their passage, in seven years generally, and then they would be free.
And many times they were offered or promised something called a freedom fee. But in fact, you could be indentured for life and frequently were. The only difference between African slaves and European or British slaves was that the latter could run away and melt into the population. But if you were black, you were noticeable. So I'm looking at slavery as a universal phenomenon.
NORRIS: This is very interesting because for many people of color, particularly African-Americans, there is often an assumption that if they reach back into their family history that they would touch upon someone who was a slave at one point, but not true for people of European descent.
Professor MORRISON: Oh, I know. There's an extraordinary book I read called "White Cargo." And there is a sentence in that book that says many white people in the United States are descendants of slaves.
NORRIS: That will be a surprising statement for many people who are listening to this conversation.
Professor MORRISON: It was very surprising to me as well.
NORRIS: I found an interview where you once said that you didn't particularly like writing about slavery.
Professor MORRISON: Oh, no.
NORRIS: And now with "Beloved" and "Paradise" and now "Mercy," that seems to have changed.
Professor MORRISON: Yeah. It was so big. I mean, you know, was it three hundred years? And to enter into that arena just seemed to me like entering into the Atlantic Ocean on a tiny little raft. But when I did "Beloved," I realized that I could do it if I had a single narrative about people. If I simply entered the minds and the bloodstream and the perception of individuals, then it was manageable.
NORRIS: So interesting, you said that you needed to enter the mind of the character and also the bloodstream...
Professor MORRISON: Yeah.
NORRIS: Of the character to really get inside that person. In this story, "A Mercy," where did it begin? Which character came to you first?
Professor MORRISON: The girl, Florence. She came first because I was saying, what would it be like to be a slave girl at that time, the middle of 17th century, without being raced? Because there were so many kinds of slaves.
NORRIS: And you're using race there as a verb?
Professor MORRISON: Yes, without being - she finds out that she is so-called unworthy because some people are frightened of the color of her skin.
NORRIS: When you talk about writing in the first person - in that case, in the present tense of all that she sees and all that she feels - there's a passage I'm thinking of. It begins on page 108. If I could get you to read...
Professor MORRISON: Sure.
NORRIS: From a portion of that. I think it would be wonderful.
(Soundbite of novel "A Mercy")
Professor MORRISON: I need shelter. The sun is setting itself. I notice two cottages. Both have windows, but no lamp shines through. There are more that resemble small barns that can accept the day's light only through open doors. None is open. There is no cook smoke in the air. I'm thinking everyone has gone off. Then I see a tiny steeple on the hill beyond the village, and I'm certain the people are at evening prayer. I decide to knock on the door of the largest house, the one that will have a servant inside.
Moving toward it, I look over my shoulder and see a light farther on. It is in the single lit house in the village, so I choose to go there. Stones interfere at each step, rubbing the ceiling wax hard into my soul. Rain starts soft. It should smell sweet with the flavor of the sycamores it has crossed, but it has a burnt smell, like pin feathers singed before boiling a fowl.
NORRIS: It's too bad that you can't read to me every night.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: It has been such a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much for your time.
Professor MORRISON: It was a delight, certainly.
NORRIS: Author Toni Morrison. Her new novel is called "A Mercy." There's more of our conversation at npr.org. You'll also find over the next four days an NPR exclusive, Toni Morrison reading excerpts from the book, which is out next month.