NEW YORK — Toni Morrison has written 11 novels and won all the great prizes, but found herself struggling with her new book, “God Help the Child.”
Much of her work, from “Beloved” to “Jazz,” has been set in the distant past. But she placed “God Help the Child” in a time so close, the present, she wasn’t sure at first how to define it.
“It’s very self-referential. One of the major things that is going on is ‘Me. Me. Me, me, me.’ ‘Look at me. Look at my picture. Look at my novel. I write about myself. Look at my story,’ ” she said during a recent interview at her downtown Manhattan apartment. “Don’t get me wrong. Some of it is very good. But it’s not an invention of something you don’t know. It’s about yourself.”
There are no stand-ins for Morrison in her novel, no one who lives even remotely like the world famous, 84-year-old Nobel laureate. She has instead written a modern fairy tale, with one-name characters, magical traits and transformations and questions about race and love and how to lift the curse of self-involvement.
Bride, a blue-black woman so dark that her light-skinned mother, Sweetness, is frightened of her, is a cosmetics entrepreneur haunted by a terrible misdeed from childhood: With her mother’s encouragement, she wrongfully accused a schoolteacher of sexually abusing her. Meanwhile, Bride’s errant lover, Booker, has never recovered from the murder of his brother at the hands of a trusted adult, the presumed “nicest man in the world.”
Bride and Booker cannot escape their troubles, or themselves. Booker is too traumatized to sustain a long-term relationship, while Bride is so crippled by doubt and self-loathing her breasts disappear. “Memory is the worst thing about healing,” Bride observes.
Morrison believes her job as a writer is to upend conventional thinking, whether about race (a social construct, she calls it), or happiness. Romantic love or professional fulfillment is the ideal resolution for most stories; Morrison favors the “acquisition of knowledge.” Sweetness, for instance, has been an irresponsible mother, but at least she can acknowledge it.
“ ‘I was pretty once,’ she thought, ‘real pretty, and I believed it was enough,’ ” Morrison writes in the novel about Sweetness. “Well, actually, it was until it wasn’t, until I had to be a real person, meaning a thinking one. Smart enough to know heavyweight was a condition not a disease; smart enough now to read the minds of selfish people right away. But the smarts came too late for her children.”
Born in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931, Morrison has been a compulsive reader since childhood. She taught for several years at her alma mater, Howard University, before joining Random House in the mid-1960s as an editor when she was virtually the only black woman in the industry, a percentage that has hardly budged over the decades. She was also a single mother who worked in her spare time on what became her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” released in 1970.
Over the next 20 years, she rose to the very top of the literary world, winning a National Book Critics Circle for the 1977 novel “Song of Solomon,” a Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for “Beloved” and the Nobel in 1993.
One of her secrets, she says, is her “invisible ink,” the ability to convey a message without preaching, like withholding her characters’ skin color in “Paradise.”
Only by freeing herself from the “white gaze,” the “little critic that sits on your shoulder,” could the invisible ink flow.
“There was this language and this culture and these people, and I could speak to them in the same way Tolstoy wrote about Russians,” she says. “I’ve always thought this is not cutting out the white reader. This is just being the writer who can focus on this culture and these people and make everything in it relevant to anyone.”
Writing is Morrison’s path to outside of herself, but it’s undertaken alone, in her imagination: The Civil War era in “Beloved,” the 1920s in “Jazz,” Colonial times in “A Mercy.”
A professor emeritus at Princeton University, she remembers telling her creative writing students “I don’t want to hear about your little lives. You don’t know nothing.” Instead, she would assign them stories about other times, other people. One project was to write about slavery, not American slavery, but any kind of slavery.
“There was a girl from India who wrote about eunuchs,” she says. “And I thought that they were all advisers to the Romans or something. But she wrote about eunuchs in society and what they meant and where they had to put their sex, in a box that was buried with them with they died. And how people touched them for good luck.”
Stretch the imagination, she advised. Write about something you don’t understand.
“I signed a contract with Knopf to do a memoir several years ago,” she says. “And then I thought, ‘I’m not doing that. It’s not interesting. It’s not new.’ I mean, I know all that stuff.”