TIME: You're amazingly prolific. What's the secret?
JCO: I don't feel as if I'm amazingly prolific. I always feel as if I'm working very slowly, and it's not going as well as it could. Probably I just work more hours than other people.
Do you ever experience writer's block?
I definitely do. If I don't do the background work-I guess it's called pre-production in film-I am paralyzed. I have to assemble a lot of notes, some of them just scraps of paper, before I can even write that first paragraph.
The two main characters in your new book-Minette, a black woman, and Genna, a white woman-don't understand each other. Is that a metaphor for the U.S. racial situation?
It's been an ongoing metaphor. I think that maybe black people are more aware of it than white people. White liberals, with all the best intentions in the world, sometimes just don't get it. They don't grasp the fact that for a black person existentially, ontologically, it's a different experience. Minette really isn't defining herself in terms of white people. She's not defining herself in terms almost of anything except for her strong Christianity and her family. And I think it's very confounding to many white people when black people say, I don't really care about you. I don't really care if you like me.
What makes you empathetic to the black experience?
I grew up in upstate New York and went to school in Lockport, where there was a sizable black contingent of students. They lived-it sounds so awful-in a place called Lower Town. The white people tended to live in Uptown. Quite literally, there was a long hill, a really steep hill. Those kids to me, they were just very fascinating. Very vivid personalities, very strong definite personalities. They were obviously living in a segregated city, and yet I didn't know that. Children don't really know those things.
A death is central to this book as in many of your others. Why so much darkness and violence?
People are always asking me that, but they seem not actually to have read the books. There isn't much really-maybe 1% of a novel. Much of my writing is about the aftermath of violence, especially when women and children are involved. It's about dealing with violence and becoming stronger.
You teach at Princeton. Do you believe people can be taught to write literarily?
We don't teach writers to write. They are already writers when they come into our workshops. Basically, we act like editors. I don't think people can be taught to write literature. You can't teach an Emily Dickinson or a Shakespeare. That's natural genius.
Are you a political person?
Politically I'm a liberal. But I'm not overtly political in my writing. I have written work like Black Water, which would seem to be very critical of our Senator [Ted Kennedy], who left the girl to drown at Chappaquiddick. This person in my novel had excellent political credentials-he was a liberal. I wasn't concerned with his politics, but with his moral behavior.
I hear you're a runner.
I like to run every day. It's part of my writing. It helps me think. I get so many wonderful ideas when I run.
You've been married 45 years. Is your husband your first reader?
I don't have a first reader. I sometimes put my work away for a couple of years to gain a distance on it. When I reread it, I'm operating more like an editor and reader than the writer. Black Girl/White Girl was written a few years ago. It was in a drawer. Writing is often written in emotion, but it has to be read and edited very coolly.
What else is hiding in that desk drawer?
[Laughs.] Well, I have manuscripts. I have a fair number of things.