STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
The novelist Toni Morrison says most of the characters in her books are not the kind of people who would read those books. But if they did, they might thank her for giving them a voice. Five of Morrison's best-known novels have been re-released in a paperback collection. MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne paid a visit to the author in New York City.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When it came to accepting her Nobel Prize 11 years ago, Toni Morrison conjured up her ancestors, the literary ones. To the glittering assembly in Stockholm's grand City Hall, she began, `I entered this hall pleasantly haunted by those who have entered it before me.' When I sit down with Toni Morrison in her Manhattan apartment, I ask her what she meant by pleasantly haunted.
Ms. TONI MORRISON (Author): I think of ghosts and haunting as just being alert. If you're really alert, then you see the life that exists beyond the life that is on top. It's not spooky necessarily--might be--but it doesn't have to be. It's something I relish rather than run from.
MONTAGNE: The book that came out right before Toni Morrison's Nobel was "Beloved." That novel has a ghost as a central character: a slave child who escaped in her mother's arms only to be killed by her mother so she wouldn't be retaken as a slave. In Morrison's apartment, there's a doll bound in chalk-white yarn pinned high on a wall...
Ms. MORRISON: Most of the pieces around here...
MONTAGNE: ...and other artwork that could have inhabited her novels.
Ms. MORRISON: Those figures that I got in Barcelona.
MONTAGNE: She points out a jazz ensemble made of papier-mache that she kept nearby while she was writing "Jazz."
Ms. MORRISON: But there's something so--the movement of these figures, those ladies singing and their dresses, plum figures.
Ms. MORRISON: I like their little microphones.
MONTAGNE: Toni Morrison says for this new paperback collection of her novels, she was asked to write new forewords, and she was surprised to discover how much of her own life she found in the books.
Ms. MORRISON: Because I loathe people who'll say, `Is this you? Is this your life?' And I always get very annoyed about it and say, `Oh, please. This is fiction and I'm inventing.' But somehow I had not recognized the haunting alertness to certain events which instigated or colored the novel that I was writing at the time, and it happened with "Beloved," it happened with "Jazz." It was this moment when I looked in my mother's trunk...
MONTAGNE: As a child.
Ms. MORRISON: ...as a child, a very--I must have been four. And what I saw in that trunk, all these glittery jazz-age, fringy, flapper clothes, and then the trunk fell, and I fainted.
MONTAGNE: The lid of the trunk smashed your hand.
Ms. MORRISON: Yeah. My hand. That was somehow kind of a secret between me and my mother. I had this glimpse into her life as a girl, and it was out of that sense of trying to re-create all those feelings I had in "Jazz," but I didn't know that when I began to write those forewords how much of my efforts dwelt in memory.
MONTAGNE: Your father--there was something very touching in the new foreword that you've written for "Song of Solomon." You say that after he died, you mourned your father, but you also mourned the good girl...
Ms. MORRISON: The girl he had...
MONTAGNE: ...who he had in his head, who was you.
Ms. MORRISON: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: That he saw you as a unique...
Ms. MORRISON: Yeah. And after he died, I felt closer to him because I didn't have all those other people around that I had to talk to or share him with. But what I didn't have was that girl that he was so convinced that I was, and that girl was really clever and so much fun to be around.
MONTAGNE: Well, so...
Ms. MORRISON: That was the other thing. My father thought my books were wonderful. My father was not a reader. He read the newspaper. He didn't read books. But I eavesdropped once when he was reading "Sula," and he was laughing. That was so fantastic.
MONTAGNE: Well, you write about talking to him about writing "Song of Solomon," which is...
Ms. MORRISON: Oh, that was extraordinary, yeah. I had this contract to write this book, and I just couldn't do it, and then he died and then I really couldn't do it. And I remember saying, `Oh, if only I knew what my father knew about these men.' I'd never had male figures central to a narrative, and you feel a little strange and inept trying to look at the world through male eyes, and then I suddenly felt totally knowledgeable. No information came at that moment. I mean, I didn't hear anybody say, `Well.' It was just this sudden competence from him that when I needed him for some information in my imagination, it would be there. It would be right on time.
MONTAGNE: A less kindred spirit visited Toni Morrison a few years later as she struggled to begin a novel about the daunting subject of slavery. One day at her country home overlooking the Hudson River, Toni Morrison looked out and a woman walked out of the water. This apparition led Toni Morrison to her main characters in the novel "Beloved," two slaves who dared to love.
In the book "Beloved," there's a moment when Halle marries, if you will...
Ms. MORRISON: Sethe.
MONTAGNE: ...Sethe, his beloved.
Ms. MORRISON: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: The two are in a cornfield.
Ms. MORRISON: The language moves from what she thought and what he thought so that in the end, you don't know who's thinking what, which is the way of describing their union, their physical union and their love. `What he did remember was parting the hair to get to the tip, the edge of his fingernail just under so as not to graze a single kernel, the pulling down of the tight sheath, the ripping sound always convinced her it hurt. As soon as one strip of husk was down, the rest obeyed and the ear yielded up to him its shy rows, exposed at last. How loose the silk, how quick the jailed-up flavor ran free. No matter what all your teeth and wet fingers anticipated, there was no accounting for the way that simple joy could shake you. How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free.'
MONTAGNE: Love generally can be dangerous.
Ms. MORRISON: Yes.
MONTAGNE: There's always a risk if you give yourself over to love. But in "Beloved," it is always dangerous, by definition dangerous, because to love something is almost inevitably to lose it because these people are slaves or ex-slaves.
Ms. MORRISON: Yeah, which is why it's dangerous. It's so satisfying and so complete, and you are gonna lose it.
MONTAGNE: When it is time to say goodbye to Toni Morrison, I have one lingering question. There's a portrait on the wall of a young woman, slender, dark, wavy hair '50s style. She's pretty and she gazes out at you as if any hopes you have for her she could fulfill. `Yes,' Morrison says, `that's me.'
Ms. MORRISON: Somebody did that charcoal of me and I liked it because we were talking earlier about my father thought there was this girl that was really smart and whose company was really interesting, and that's what that looks like to me. That's just my fantasy about the kind of girl he thought I was.
MONTAGNE: But as you say that, of course, I can't imagine that anyone listening wouldn't be thinking, `But you are that girl.'
Ms. MORRISON: You think? Yeah, after 73 years.
MONTAGNE: And seven novels. Toni Morrison, speaking at her home in Manhattan. Five of the novels are now available in a new paperback collection.
INSKEEP: And you can hear Toni Morrison reading a passage from "Beloved" by going to npr.org.
It's 11 minutes before the hour.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.