Toni Morrison laughs a lot. Not skimpy little chuckles but serious mirth, often coming so forcefully at the end of a sentence that her final words are lost. Even in the course of a conversation on the most serious topics, she will laugh.
Does this mean, one wonders, that she is an upbeat, optimistic person?
"No, I'm a depressed person," she says. And laughs.
And then she tells how she learned the importance of a sense of humor. The odd thing is, it's not a funny story at all.
Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature yesterday, was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. It was a classic steel town, dominated by the mill, a shipbuilding plant and The Shovel, which manufactured industrial cranes. One day, when she was about 2, her parents fell behind with the $4-a-month rent, so the landlord set fire to the house. While they were in it.
"It was this hysterical, out-of-the-ordinary, bizarre form of evil," she says. "If you internalized it you'd be truly and thoroughly depressed because that's how much your life meant. For $4 a month somebody would just burn you to a crisp.
"So what you did instead was laugh at him, at the absurdity, at the monumental crudeness of it. That way you gave back yourself to yourself. You know what I mean? You distanced yourself from the implications of the act.
"That's what laughter does. You take it back. You take your life back. You take your integrity back."
She doesn't remember the fire, she said in an interview last year, just her parents telling her about it. But the lesson stuck, and eventually she would pass it on to her characters. "Song of Solomon," her 1977 masterpiece, opens with an explanation of how a street in the city of Mercy got its name.
A century ago, she writes, the city's only black doctor had moved there, so his patients naturally took to calling it Doctor Street. Later, other blacks moved to the street, and mail with that address began arriving for residents. The name became quasi-official.
But the city legislators fought back, posting notices that said the street "had always been and would always be known as Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street. ... It was a genuinely clarifying public notice because it gave Southside residents a way to keep their memories alive and please the city legislators as well. They called it Not Doctor Street."
That book was the one that made Morrison a star. Her first two novels -- "The Bluest Eye," about how Pecula Breedlove wants nothing more and nothing less than to be a blue-eyed blonde, and "Sula," the story of an evil woman who inspires goodness -- were well received, but "Song of Solomon" catapulted her onto the cover of Newsweek (The headline: "Black Magic").
"Tar Baby," the follow-up, is universally considered her weakest book, but Morrison consolidated and extended her standing with "Beloved" and 1992's "Jazz." Last year also saw the publication of "Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power," an anthology of essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas and "the Construction of Social Reality." Along with a book-length literary essay, "Playing in the Dark," it made clear some of the theoretical underpinnings of her fiction.
"Black people and black things and Africa-type things are understood to be a blank space for white imagination," she says. "It's the 'Heart of Darkness.' No Africans talk in there. It's just some place to go. Like Isak Dinesen said: The Africans were like forms of nature. We're this fantasy world of otherness."
Part of what the anthology was aiming for was an opening up of discourse. "I know my students are almost desperate for a language in which to talk about race," she says. "All they do is what we normally do -- call names or talk about little anecdotes that happened to us or say we have to be tolerant. That's not an intellectual proposition, a call to be a nicer person."
It's hard to get her philosophy across in sound bites, so she's not a regular television fixture. She avoids extensive book tours as well. Interviews are relatively uncommon, and the disclosure of personal facts -- the name of her ex-husband, the date of her divorce, the professions of her two sons -- downright rare.
It was during the '70s, when Morrison worked at Random House editing such writers as Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara and Leon Forrest, that she mastered the art of staying behind the curtain. "It's the only privacy I have."
She commutes between a home in Princeton and one north of New York City, and frequently visits Lorain. "My mother's still there. My sister. My nieces. My aunt. Everybody. I'm the only one who left."
The Writer at Work
Most novelists start a book by concentrating on an image or an event or a character. Morrison begins with a question. The point of departure for "Jazz": What is the rogue element that makes jazz so totally unexpected, so full of surprises that when you think it's all going to end badly, for instance, it ends wonderfully?
"You listen to Coltrane or Jarrett or Miles," she says, "you don't know what's going to happen. Even he may not know what's going to happen." A love song set in Harlem during the 1920s, "Jazz" has the same giddy effect. Plot gives way to music.
Although the books make no mention of it, "Jazz" is the middle volume of a trilogy that started with "Beloved." "The conceptual connection," Morrison explains, "is the search for the beloved -- the part of the self that is you, and loves you, and is always there for you."
At the end of "Beloved" the escaped slave Sethe is told, "You your best thing." Very tentatively, Sethe responds: "Me? Me?"
"She can barely form the words, she hasn't thought about herself," Morrison says. By the era of "Jazz," five decades later, things have progressed to the point where the characters "are very busy reclaiming their bodies -- bodies which have been owned by other people. The way they expressed this new ownership of the physical self is to fall in love."
The characters in "Jazz," unlike many who populate historical novels, don't seem haunted by premonitions of what's to come -- the Depression, another war. "I don't want political forces, history, slavery, racism, any of these concrete things to have the last word," Morrison says. "People have imaginations, they relate to the world on a very personal and wonderful level. It's what makes life human, and humane."
So in "Beloved," she was careful not to let the subject of slavery overpower the individual reality of Sethe. In "Jazz," the word itself isn't used because "these people never would have called it that."
The concluding novel in the series will take place in the 1970s, a decade the writer feels has gotten a bad rap. "Something important happened then. People thought maybe men should talk to women and women should talk to men, blacks thought they should talk to whites. Maybe they didn't have the right words. But the impulse was there, and that was very, very important."
That novel probably won't be published anytime soon. While the speed of Morrison's ascent is remarkable -- 23 years from first novel to Nobel is incredibly short, and perhaps even a modern record -- she's basically a slow writer. You can't force these things.
"There's something called 'novel time,' " she believes. "It takes as long as it takes. If it's three months, it's three months. If it's three years, it's three years. It has no respect for deadlines, or for seasons -- 'Now I can write, it's summer.' Well, it may not be there, and then you find yourself writing wrongly, or writing against the book, or writing stupidly. I would rather wait for the book to arrive."
The Nobel will increase the demands on her time tremendously, and may further slow down the next book. Meanwhile, perhaps the prize will cheer her up. During this particular conversation -- it was when "Jazz" was published -- she said she felt bleak about "the future of practically everything."
The sole consolation: "I know things will only be made better by some single human being saying 'No' or 'Yes' or 'I'm not doing it that way' or 'You and I are going to talk about this' or 'Let me touch you.' If that's not what human beings do, we will join every other species that just didn't make it."
The lengths to which lost love drove men and women never surprised them. They had seen women pull their dresses over their heads and howl like dogs for lost love. And men who sat in doorways with pennies in their mouths for lost love. 'Thank God,' they whispered to themselves, 'thank God I ain't never had one of them graveyard loves.' Empire State himself was a good example of one. He'd married a white girl in France and brought her home. Happy as a fly and just as industrious, he lived with her for six years until he came home to find her with another man. Another black man. And when he discovered that his white wife loved not only him, not only this other black man, but the whole race, he sat down, closed his mouth, and never said another word. Railroad Tommy had given him a janitor's job to save him from the poorhouse, workhouse, or nuthouse, one.
-- From "Song of Solomon" (1977)
There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up; holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind -- wrapped tight like skin. Then there is a loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive, on its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.
-- From "Beloved" (1987)
I'm crazy about this City.
Daylight slants like a razor cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it's not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons. Below is shadow where any blase thing takes place: clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women. A city like this one makes me dream tall and feel in on things. Hep. It's the bright steel rocking above the shade below that does it. When I look over strips of green grass lining the river, at church steeples and into the cream-and-copper halls of apartment buildings, I'm strong. Alone, yes, but top-notch and indestructible -- like the City in 1926 when all the wars are over and there will never be another one. The people down there in the shadow are happy about that. At last, at last, everything's ahead.
-- From Jazz" (1992)