The Hudson River extends like the sun from the back of Toni Morrison’s house, illuminated and infinite, undimmed by an unseasonably drab spring afternoon.
“It’s interesting and soothing, and it changes constantly,” she says from the comfort of a white armchair in her living room. “And at night, with the stars and the moon …”
The Nobel laureate has lived in this converted boathouse since the late 1970s, when she spotted a “For Sale” sign while driving by and soon agreed to pay the then-impractical sum of $120,000. Her commitment was tested, then confirmed, after the house burned down in 1993, destroying everything from private letters to her sons’ report cards. But she had the house rebuilt and upgraded and so enjoys a setting both spacious and personal, with bookcases and paintings, plants and carvings, a patio and private dock.
It’s Saturday and the 81-year-old Morrison is in a relaxed, informal mood, wearing a gray blouse and slacks and dark slippers, a purple bandanna tied over her gray corn rows, her laugh easy and husky with a pinch of “Can-you-believe-this?” You might mistake her for an ordinary neighbor ready for gardening until you see the pictures of her with James Baldwin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Elie Wiesel among others, or learn that the low, wooden table by her chair was a prop from the film version of “Beloved,” her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.
Morrison does not need to worry about recognition in her lifetime. Nobel judges have honored her, and so has Oprah Winfrey, whose book club picks have helped Morrison’s novels sell millions. A Toni Morrison Society organizes conferences about her work and sponsors a Toni Morrison Book Prize. She not only has written children’s stories, but has been the subject of one, Douglas Century’s “Toni Morrison.” Two presidential contenders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, sought her support in 2008 and Obama will soon present her with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Her play “Desdemona,” a collaboration with director Peter Sellars and the Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore, will be staged in London during the Summer Olympics.
The legend gets the glory; the real person works. Morrison has a new novel out, “Home,” a brief, poetic story of Frank Money, a traumatized Korean War veteran who returns to the states in the 1950s. Morrison has long used fiction as a private and alternative history, whether the Civil War (“Beloved”), the 1920s (“Jazz”) or colonial times (“A Mercy”). With “Home,” she wanted to add some truth – about war, about racism – to the standard ’50s narrative.
“I was really trying to take off that scab, or that veil, or whatever it is off the ’50s,” she says. “We’re told that it was good times, post-war, GI Bill, people had jobs and the television was full of happy stories and so on, and that’s it.”
Like “Beloved,” ”Song of Solomon” and other Morrison novels, the book is a journey and a reckoning. Using bus money given to him by a pastor, Money travels from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago to his dreaded hometown, Lotus, Ga., “the worst place in the world,” where nobody “knew anything or wanted to learn anything.” Warned from the start that the North is no less racist than the South, he encounters violence and segregation and the lawlessness of police. Once in Georgia, he is almost relieved. At least the pace is “human,” Money observes, there was “time to instruct one another, pray for one another, and chastise children in the pews of a hundred churches.”
Morrison, a native of Lorain, Ohio, never lived in Georgia. But for “Home” she drew upon stories from her father, a native of Cartersville, Ga., and from her memories of the South when she was an undergraduate at Howard University, based in Washington, D.C. She was on tour with fellow theater students in the early ’50s and was moved by how blacks took care of her and each other, a bond dramatized in “Home” and many of her works. She knew what to expect from the whites in the South, but the revelation was how “lovely and generous and capable” the blacks were.
“If we arrived at a town where the faculty had made arrangements to spend the night and either the place we thought was nice, wasn’t, or they didn’t want the students to stay there, one of them would go into a phone booth. They would check the yellow pages for a black church and then call up a minister and say, ‘We’re from Howard University and we’re a little chagrined because we don’t have a place to say,’” Morrison says. “And the pastor would say, ‘Call me back in 10 minutes.’ And in 10 or 15 minutes he had rounded up his parishioners to take us in. We would go into these houses. And the women, they just fed us, took care of us, put us on these sweet-smelling sheets and cooked, and wouldn’t take any money. We had to slip money under their pillows.
“And that happened everywhere. ‘Where do we eat in this town that has no places where blacks can eat?’ And somebody would say, ‘Here is a man who was a chef at the Waldorf Astoria, but he’s retired and he cooks sometimes for visitors.’ And you go to his house and get the best meal of your life. But that was within the community. There really was a community, there really was a neighborhood.”
Morrison has spent much of her life in the North. After graduating from Howard, she worked for years as an editor for Random House, then debuted as an author with “The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970. Her breakthrough came in 1977 with “Song of Solomon,” a Book-of-the-Month Club selection praised by New York Times critic John Leonard as a masterpiece akin to music. Her name reached ever higher. “Beloved” won the Pulitzer in 1988. The Nobel came five years later.
As she gets older, Morrison says, the world becomes more interesting and more distressing. She is appalled at some of the remarks about Obama and the speculation that he was not an American citizen. But nature, and its mysteries, she responds to more than ever – the water, mountains, her garden. She watches “Planet Earth” on the Discovery Channel and marvels how it took “millions of years” for humans to evolve from “that thingy down there at the bottom of the sea.”
Saying that her writing process was unchanged by the Nobel – after a “few mental tricks” cleared the fog of success from her mind – Morrison tries to challenge herself with every book. In “Home,” she has Frank Money speak directly to the author, admitting that he has not been honest about his story. For her next novel, she wants to write about a black intellectual, a break from the uneducated characters who usually appear in her work.
“When I’m not thinking about a novel, or not actually writing it, it’s not very good; the 21st century is not a very nice place. I need it (writing) to just stay steady, emotionally,” she says.
“When I finished ‘The Bluest Eye,’ … I was not pleased. I remember feeling sad. And then I thought, ‘Oh, you know, everybody’s talking about “sisterhood,’” I wanted to write about what women friends are really like. (The inspiration for “Sula,” her second novel). All of a sudden the whole world was a real interesting place. Everything in it was something I could use or discard. It had shape. The thing is – that’s how I live here.”
“I guess that’s home.”