Q: You endorsed Barack Obama for president—you said he was not just smart, but wise. Can he bring anything to the table on this issue of race? I don’t really care about his race. You can’t go there. Race and gender are distractions. It’s not enough you’re white. It’s not enough you’re black. You can’t just rest on your victimhood or your shame or your privilege or your religion. You have nothing but you and your human response.
Q: And is that the big lesson of your book? Yes. You have to be a human being. You have to learn. And when you do learn, it’s [deciding] what stuff you have to give up—like gender, race.
Q: We have a way to go. We had better hurry up. The icecap is separating.
Q: Let’s talk a little about aging. Okay, I’m sitting here with all these Advils [for her achy hip]. [Laughter.]
Q: Do you find you’ve become more creative as you’ve gotten older? Oh, yes. I’m much, much better with creative things—people generally get better. They just know more.
Q: Your mind certainly seems to have stayed fertile. Yes, but what’s really important is humor—the way you see through things. And I don’t mean just “Ho, ho, ho!” but real irony about the diabolical nature of things. If you don’t have that, you just collapse.
Q: Except most people probably don’t think “funny” when they think of Toni Morrison and her books. Well, let me tell you what the deal is about the happiness in my books. I do not write about people who are just going to live a happy life, because it’s not compelling, there’s no angst. But if people have had an epiphany, that is called happiness. Some way they are improved. It may be a hard lesson, but to me a good idea and realization is the best thing there is for the mind.
Q: You yourself certainly seem happy. How do you reconcile the desire to stay this way with the realities of aging, of loss? I can’t. I don’t reconcile. I’m unreconciled. Completely. I’m not even reconciled to my own death! What kind of outrage is that?
Q: So what does that mean—are we, you, approaching aging all wrong? No, no. We should be as active and cared for—in health terms—and busy as possible. The bad thing is regret.
Q: You have regret? Oh, yes. Full of it— everything I did right, I didn’t do well enough. I’m not morbid at all. It’s just that I would like to do it again.
Q: But you won the Nobel Prize! That made you happy? It made my mother happier. And it got me a lot of money.
Q: Did it change you? It changed other people—they look at you differently. And then people use you—nicely, but that’s okay. It’s like there’s a person who won the Nobel Prize, and her name is Toni Morrison. And then there’s a person right behind her named Chloe [Morrison’s birth name], and that’s me.
Q: Are they a contradiction? No, just a separate persona. I had to create a persona in order to protect the person I am—the writing person.
Q: When exactly did you begin thinking of yourself as a writer? When I wrote Song of Solomon [in 1977]. Before, I only thought of myself as a teacher and editor. Writing was just something I did. It’s a way to be in the world for me. I don’t think I could have managed this place without it—it’s too melancholy.
Q: And the writing did what? Made sense, meaning. And it made me a much nicer person. [Laughter.]
Q: What inspires you to keep doing it? Well, the inquiry is so fascinating to me. It’s called the life of the mind. That’s what I live.
Q: How do you get into the heads of your characters so convincingly? You have to be able to enter the skin of another person. You may have noticed that I don’t describe people physically very much. Because people make judgments if you’re tall or short or fat or thin.
Q: So you go inside. It’s like what an actor does. You get a sketch of a character and then step in and look at the world the way that character looks at it.