ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Novelist Toni Morrison, who has received the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, is on the bestseller list again this month with her new novel Paradise. It's set in an all-black Oklahoma town called Ruby, population 360. It's a place with a complicated history, going back to slavery and haunted by incidents of prejudice among ex-slaves, themselves.
It's also the story of a former convent just outside Ruby, where a group of women gather to heal their broken lives and in the process seem to threaten Ruby's very existence.
Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. She's also the author of Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved, among other works. She teaches literature at Princeton University. Thank you for being with us. Is Ruby a place that's based in history? There were all-black towns in Oklahoma formed by ex-slaves, weren't there?
TONI MORRISON, Novelist: Absolutely. It's my invention of the all-black town that might have lasted until now, until at least the 80's. It's based on towns that did exist and some that are still there.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And did you come to the idea through reading the history of those towns and reading about the migration of slaves from Louisiana or Mississippi to Oklahoma?
TONI MORRISON: Part of my idea came precisely from that research and thinking about that whole period when ex-slaves, freed men, left plantations, sometimes under duress, because Southerners frequently wanted them to stay but managed to take advantage of the land that was offered in places like Oklahoma and to build whole towns, churches, stores, banks, many houses. And some of them are still there to see.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Explain the idea of separation. It's almost a utopia that's built in Ruby. It's very separate, and in some ways I felt that the book was a meditation on this idea of separateness. This is a place, after all, where nobody dies until the end of the book. Tell me about that, about the separateness.
TONI MORRISON: The isolation, the separateness, is always a part of any utopia. And it was my meditation, if you will, and interrogation of the whole idea of paradise, the safe place, the place full of bounty, where no one can harm you. But, in addition to that, it's based on the notion of exclusivity. All paradises, all utopias are designed by who is not there, by the people who are not allowed in.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And am I wrong to consider it a meditation on the dangers of exclusivity? This was a place that was very beautiful in some ways but very dangerous in others.
TONI MORRISON: Well, isolation, you know, carries the seeds of its own destruction because as times change, other things seep in, as it did with Ruby. The 50's, that was one thing; the 70's, that was another, and they refused to deal with the changing times, and simply threw up their gates, like any gated community, to keep everything away. And, in fact, that was the necessary requirement for the destruction of their paradise.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Morrison, is there something in African-American history that makes you especially interested in this separate place?
TONI MORRISON: Yes, because only American--only African-Americans were not immigrants in this rush to find a heaven. They had left a home. So they're seeking for another home, while other people are doing the same thing, except the other people were leaving a home that they didn't want to be in any longer, or couldn't be in any longer.
Native Americans were being moved around in their home. African-Americans were looking for a second one and hopefully one that would be simply up to them, their own people, their own habits, their own culture, and to contain themselves in that. So it makes the motive for paradise a little bit different.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Then there's the convent outside of Ruby, which is another sort of paradise, at least that's the way it seemed to me.
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Women--Ruby's ruled by men, the convent is all women, and there's this dichotomy: The convent that is ruled by women who have been hurt and the town that's ruled by men. Tell us, how did you think about that dichotomy and come to that idea?
TONI MORRISON: Well, Ruby has the characteristics, the features of the Old Testament. It's patriarchal. The men are very protective of their women, very concerned about their role as leaders. The convent, as it evolves, becomes a kind of crash pad for some women who are running away from all sorts of trauma, and they don't seek the company of men.
They have been hurt profoundly by men, so that even though they quarrel and fight most of the time, they're in what they consider a free place, a place where they don't have to fear that they are the people to be preyed upon, but the values are different. You have a very profound Protestant religion in Ruby, and you have something that verges on magic that is non-institutional religion in the convent. The values are entirely different. The women are--you know--examples of the 70's. And the conservative black community is affronted and horrified by that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read the first couple of paragraphs from the book for us from the book.
TONI MORRISON: I'd be happy to.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: From the book.
TONI MORRISON: "They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are 17 miles from a town which has 90 miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the convent, but there is time, and the day has just begun.
They are nine. Over twice the number of the women, they are obliged to stampede or kill, and they have the paraphernalia for either requirement--rope, a palm leaf cross, handcuffs, mace, and sunglasses, along with clean, handsome guns."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I was struck by this for many reasons, but that first line, "They shoot the white girl first," I have read the whole book, and I don't know who that was. And I imagine you did this on purpose. It doesn't matter what color the girls in the convent are. Was that your point?
TONI MORRISON: Well, my point was to flag raise and then to erase it, and to have the reader believe--finally--after you know everything about these women, their interior lives, their past, their behavior, that the one piece of information you don't know, which is the race, may not, in fact, matter. And when you do know it, what do you know?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you work? What are the rituals for getting started? To me, this book is almost in a--it's in a different consciousness. It's like at a high level of kind of poetic prose. How do you get yourself there?
TONI MORRISON: Well, I try to write when I'm not teaching, which means fall and most of the summer. I do get up very early, embarrassingly early, before there is light, and I write with pencil, yellow pads, words, scratchings out, but, you know, long before that, I've spent a couple of years, probably eighteen months, just thinking about these people, the circumstances, the whole architecture of the book, and I sort of feel so intimately connected with the place and the people and the events that when language does arrive, I'm pretty much ready, I don't have to discard so much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is next for you now? Your books have plumbed the history of African-Americans in this country. Do you plan to stay--to keep writing about that?
TONI MORRISON: I don't know. I have no ideas now. I am about to fall into a very dark melancholy if something doesn't happen soon.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You kind of wait until the ideas come to you.
TONI MORRISON: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you so much for being with us.
TONI MORRISON: You're welcome.