Books: Paradise Found

The Nobel Prize changed Toni Morrison's life but not her art, as her new novel proves

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She credits her parents with the drive and self-confidence that took her through college at Howard University, an M.A. from Cornell, a teaching post at Howard and editing jobs that eventually landed her in Manhattan. Jason Epstein, now a Random House vice president and executive editor, was Morrison's boss in those days, and he has remained a friend ever since. "She was a wonderful colleague," he says, "always bright and apt and funny. I used to love to go sit in her office, just for the pleasure of it; it was full of plants, I remember. It was clear that her heart and soul were in her own writing." Morrison stopped working on other people's manuscripts when she found she could support herself by producing hers.

"There were plenty of roadblocks along the way," she recalls of her career and her life. "The world back then didn't expect much from a little black girl, but my father and mother certainly did. She was still alive when I won the Nobel, although she died three months later. She was delighted but not surprised."

And Morrison laughs at a subsequent event that has, in terms of mass recognition, affected her life more dramatically than did the Nobel Prize: the selection, in December 1996, of her 1977 novel Song of Solomon as the second offering of the Oprah Book Club. "I'd never heard of such a thing," she says, "and when someone called, all excited, with the news, all I could think was, 'Who's going to buy a book because of Oprah?'" The answer came fairly quickly and astonishingly. "A million copies of that book sold," she says, again shaking her head. "And sales of my other books in paperback jumped about 25%." Morrison seldom watches television--"I think of it as one of those fake fireplaces, always moving and always looking just the same"--so she had no idea of Oprah Winfrey's clout. She does now, and she has another reason to be grateful to the queen of daytime TV. Winfrey bought the screen rights to Morrison's novel Beloved, and the film, directed by Jonathan Demme, will appear in the fall.

Morrison naturally welcomes the commercial windfalls such recognition brings, but she is not terribly comfortable with being recognized in that way. She faces her upcoming publicity tour for Paradise with a certain dread, although she feels she owes the effort to her publisher, which has a large investment in the novel. "I get cranky and depressed on the road," she says. As a Nobel laureate, she has a little more cachet than struggling first novelists, so she has been able to set certain limits on how she is displayed. "I've refused to do the morning TV shows. I just can't handle those two-to-five-minute snippets. I'm not good at it, and I sort of don't think much of the people who are good at it."

Even without the upcoming tour, Morrison's life seems hectic. She rents an apartment near Princeton University in New Jersey, where since 1989 she has held a university chair in the humanities; another apartment in lower Manhattan; and a stone house in Rockland County, N.Y. Plus, she is having rebuilt the house she owned on the Hudson River just north of New York City, which burned to the ground on Christmas Day 1993. Three residences? Or four, counting the house in progress? "I was a child of the Depression," she shrugs and laughs. "I have bad dreams about eviction."

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