Toni Morrison is the Nobel Prize-winning author of Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and other works. Her new novel, A Mercy (Knopf; $23.95), tells the story of the makeshift family formed by a Dutch trader, his wife and their slaves in several North American colonies during the 1680s. —Christine Smallwood
Last year, in your letter endorsing Barack Obama, you specifically cited his "creative imagination." What do you think of him as a writer?
I think my introduction to him was the speech at the Democratic National Convention, you know, back in 2004. And then I read his book Dreams From My Father, and I was amazed because he writes so well. Really well, with really nice big, strong, artful sentences. But equally important was his reflection. You know, I’m not accustomed to that. I’ve read memoirs where people talk about their lives, and sometimes they’re modest. Sometimes they excuse themselves–you know, the big ones, like My Life by Bill Clinton. They’re very interesting books, but nobody was a writer, with reflection and change and meditation and strength. Dreams From My Father was very, very compelling. So I got interested in him.
What are your thoughts on the state of African-American literature today?
I’m not terribly up on it, but my impression is that it is thriving. Really thriving. You have everyone from Edwidge Danticat to Colson Whitehead. And of course, the literature of young Asian writers is also very interesting to me. The range is what is so fabulous. For me, the thing was to write a book, a work of fiction, that was as good in its field as, say, black music was in its own. Which is to say, to write to that high critical standard that African-Americans have about everything. In athletics, music, art, whatever they were doing, people have had to face a highly critical African-American audience. I wanted to write a book that would have the same high standards. And if that worked, then the rest of the world would be interested as well, because it wasn’t a protest novel! It would be about something else. And done in a manner that was worthy of the genre.
What kind of reading and research did you do for A Mercy? Was the process different from what it was for other books you’ve written?
A little bit more than usual because the novel is about such early stuff. I had a lot of help because historians and anthropologists and biologists have been writing about the era for years. The first thing I had to do was find out what was there–the plant life, the tree life, the weather. One book that was most helpful, which I read over and over, was Changes in the Land [by William Cronon]. I could find out if there really was lettuce or dandelions or how big the trees were. So that gave me a grounded sense of the places that I had chosen, which were upstate New York and down in Maryland and Virginia.