It's been a hot year for Toni Morrison. Her novel "Song of Solomon" has been hailed in all the proper places. Her characters are being compared to those of William Faulkner, her writing to that of Nabokov, Joseph Heller, and Doris Lessing.
But at 46, Morrison, once a Howard professor, says that for her the success seemed for a long time "as though it was happening to a friend of mine that I like a lot." Her book, the saga of four generations of black life in America, has received good reviews, dazzling comparisons, and a chorus of praise from Time and Newsweek magazines. The book was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times (Book Review) and is the main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club (the first by a black novelist since Richard Wrights "Native Son" in 1970). The impact of all of this, however, settled on Morrison in one of the most ordinary moments of life.
"I took my son, the oldest, to his piano lesson. It was only going to be for an hour, and that's not time enough to do anything. So I drove around, by the Doubleday bookshop at Third and Fifth Avenue (in New York) and there was the book in the window. I drove around to the other side of the store and there was this lovely array of my books. There was this huge sign in the window which said 'A Triumph' by Toni Morrison. I was by myself in the car. And I realized that was me they were talking about."
She arches her eye in amazement as she says this, this largeboned, substaintial, Sensual women. Setting in a chair in her L'Enfant Hotel room kicking her boots out of the way, lighting a cigarette, Morrison talks on, using words you don't hear in conversation very often, words like "gallant," "classy," "a giant killer." She talks like a storyteller and that's what she is.
Yet surprisingly, she became a storyteller relatively late in life.
Now a senior editor at Random House, Morrison started writing in 1962 when she was teaching English at Howard. She joined a writers group, not so much to become a writer, but because, she says, she liked the people who were in the group.
The only requirement of the group was that at each session, each member had to have something he had written to discuss.
"I remember it particularly, because there came a day when I had gone through all my high school stories. I had nothing to write, so I wrote a story about a little black girl who wanted blue eyes. They liked it and that was that I had written it: they liked it. But a couple of years later, an editor expressed interest in it and it became 'The Bluest Eye,' my first novel."
Both her first novel and her second. "Sula," were critical successes. Still, writing comes hard to Morrison, expecially, she says, the "Song of Solomon." Partly this was because it was a departure from the perspectives taken in earlier books. Instead of a book focused through women, this latest is about men.
"It was hard. Men were driving it (the book). And it was a bad time because my father had just died. And I didn't live anywhere the way I lived in my father. My eldest son was entering manhood and if they do that properly, they do it explosively," she pauses, arching her brows again. "He was doing it properly. Inflation had caught up with me as opposed to the newspapers. And it was a huge relief to me to have the novel to work on. Something had to go right.
"But I had only done vignettes of men before, never centered on their lives, the attraction of violence for them, the driving forces behind them."
Born in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison went to high school there, to Howard for and to Cornell University for graduate school. For nine years after, she taught college English courses, first at Texas Southern University, then at Howard.
She laughs when she recalls her undergraduate days at Howard, "I like Washington," she says, and you can tell she's going to tell you about all the things she didn't like.
"But I wsas unprepared for the impact of middle class values on the black people at Howard, Men," she pauses, savoring her next work, "boys chose their sweethearts on their color, the straightness of their hair, their father's money. I was astonished," she says, "I'm still astonished. I remember . . ."
She hestitates, and then, prodded, tells gleefully like a good girltaker like a woman with a piece of gossip as fresh and juicy as if it just happened yesterday, about a tall, black girl who went to Howard with her, a girl generally understood as unattractive.
"She was the straight man to the pretty girls. I like her a lot, but she had no dates, and wasn't popular. She didn't care, she had a boy back home whom she liked and eventually married. But during her senior year, her partents came to visit her. They turned out to be very wealthy, and, good God, she was overwhelmed. Suddenly all the dudes on campus, in their white jackets with their stethoscopes dangling out of their pockets, started coming around. They had a rush on that poor girl for the last six months."
Moorrison recalls her fellow female students with more kindness because "the girls were looking for a living" in the men they chose.
Morrison herself survived the strange juxtoposition of values, she says, by being "jolly and fun." There was, however, one place where, as she describes in an autobiographical sketch "hard work, thought, and talent was praised." It was in the Howard University Players.
With the repertory company formed by a few of the faculty, she "got to see the South - its roads, its shotgun house, its schools, its particular brand of segregation. The latter of course was not different from D.C."
Now withe success of "Song - of Solomon," Morrison says that she is reich. "Yes, I'm rich. Though its very remote cause I'm very accustomed to living close to the edge." She is animated again, recalling that one of the most exciting moments out of this new fame was the auction of the paperback rights to "Song."
"Rich, yes," she says mock-coy about the amount of money the peperback rights garnered. Confidingly, she says, "It's well up in the six-figure area."
And, yes, the movies are interested in her books as well "Nobody has brought the book," she says, pausing again, letting the actress that once traveled with the Howard repertory troupe come out again. "But all the right people have called" She laughs.
She says that for a time she would have lunch with these "right people." "I went to lunch with one and he told me that the book reminded him of 'King Lear,' I went to lunch with an other one, and he said, the same thing. I decided that must be what they're saying on the Coast this year. And now I let my agent, Lynn Nesbitt, handle that stuff."
Morrison keeps a hectic schedule through all of this. In addition to her job at Random House, she is the mother of two teen-age sons (Clade, 12, and Dino, 16). She is divorced.
She also teaches at Yale, courses in the technique of fiction and the writings of black women, and spends a lot of time on the lecture circuit. How she keeps it all balanced it easy, she says.
"Darlin', some of it just falls on the grownd. I just can't be intimidated by a sink full of dishes. The worst thing is not being able to nurture friends. I can't make dinner parties and anybody who's a friend of mine just can't need too much nuturing."
Morrison say that she laments not being more organized and she says that she has no special time to write. She also says she used to worry considerably over her writing.
"Yes, I used to fret, but that was out of fear," she laughs, tossing her hands out from her body. "Now, though, i have enormous confidence because I know that I can always rewrite it."
Morrison draws heavily on her family background in her writing, though, she says, she doesn't write directly about the people she has met. But it is not because her family and her childhood aren't rich in characters waiting to be mined in the future.
Reminiscing about her childhood and her family's household were people are always coming and going. Morrison gazes out of the hotel window, her voice softening, as If she is stepping through the view into another time and place, back to Lorain.
Her family lived a marginal life, her mother staying at home and her father working three jobs. She had an older sister, and two younger brothers.
"We lived in a lot of houses." she says. "But best of all was to go and visit my grandmother's house.She would let us dust the piano . . . if we were good. She was giant-killer of a woman.
"I knew my great-grandmother, too. She was a black woman, a very dark lady, with white hair. ANd I remember my grandmother sitting on a bureau, swinging her feet like a little girl in the presence of this woman, it seemed strange to me. And the men, they were interesting, very very competent, very resilient. And the roomers, you always had a roomer in those days. You could go out and get yourself a room then." She laughs, this big, expansive, honey-brown woman. Then she reminisces about her father again.
"In the heart of the Depression, he had Florsheim shoes, wore natty clothes, even gambled. He was the kind of man who was at home anywhere," she says, laughing. "Even in joints. He knew the kind of men that didn't belong to my mother's church, but he mellowed and eventually became a church member. And I remember one tale. You know how the churches sell dinner, for years," she makes a comic's face, "to build a new church. Well, if the church didn't sell all the dinners, my father would take the leftover plates and go sell them in the joints. It was in one of these joints that my father went to sell some barbecue dinners, a joint on Vine Street in Lorain, and these two dudes were getting ready to shoot one another.
"My father walked in and said 'You niggers, put those guns down and you buy this barbecue. And so they did. Bought the plates and proceeded to eat the barbecue."
Morrison is laughing again now, recalling her family's neighbors fighting over who would cut the family's lawn after her father died, mimicking the characters of black men in a small town, rough, and brusque in their love.
It could be a replay from a scene in any of her novels, this strange interaction between generations, between men and women, over survival and dignity, over love.
But Morrison, who doesn't like to talk about her Jamacian architect ex-husband, says she doesn't know a thing about the topic of love.
"I know about passion," she says, "but not love."
She changes her mind. "Yes, I know about that," she muses. "I know these people, knew these people once."
It is the beginning of another story, a story that Marrison is already at work on.