Let’s Talk Toni

For inspiration this week, I re-read The Paris Review’s 1993 interview with Toni Morrison.  You can find the entire interview here.

Here’s a sampling:

What are your tools? I’m not picky, but my preference is for yellow legal pads and a nice number two pencil.

Does your first draft idea come in a flash? No, it’s a sustained thing I have to play with. I always start out with an idea, even a boring idea, that becomes a question I don’t have any answers to.

What do you think of contracts? I never signed a contract until the book was finished because I didn’t want it to be homework. A contract meant somebody was waiting for it, that I had to do it, and they could ask me about it. They could get up in my face and I don’t like that.

Do you base your characters on real people? I feel the most intelligent, and the most free, and the most excited, when my characters are fully invented people. That’s part of the excitement. If they’re based on somebody else, in a funny way it’s an infringement of a copyright. That person owns his life, has a patent on it. It shouldn’t be available for fiction.

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13 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Toni

    1. Teri Post author

      MSB, no apologies necessary. The first time I read BELOVED, I didn’t get it. At all. Then I took a class where we read SONG OF SOLOMON and thank goodness I had a professor and peers to hold my hand through that one. SOS was great, but I would have had not idea without the class. The next time I was supposed to “read” BELOVED I listened to the audio — which Toni Morrison reads herself. Only then did I get the power of this book.

      What I love most about her is how unconventional she is. (which comes out in the interview) She’s a trailblazer. I love her spirit.

  1. Sandra Bell Kirchman

    Interesting person indeed. Noting one of her comments re using paper and pencil to draft her stories…I used to write that way, using a yellow lined legal pad and pens (pencils need sharpening too often). When I finished a novel, I would have reams and reams of yellow paper. Then I would laboriously type it all up on my electric typewriter. That was before computers (yes, I am that old).

    Once I got onto computers though, in the late ’90s, I was amazed at how fast you could type on them and how easy it was to revise. I had a hard time composing on a computer at first, but now I wouldn’t do it any other way (unless I was in the wilderness without a laptop :P).

    1. Teri Post author

      Sandra — check out this comment from Raymond Carver about how the WORD PROCESSOR changed how he writes. The way he said is is hilarious!

      “Up at school there’s a typist who has one of those space-age typewriters, a word processor, and I can give her a story to type and once she has it typed I get back the fair copy. I love it. It may seem like a small thing, really, but it’s changed my life, that woman and her word processor.”

      1. Sandra Bell Kirchman

        Um, yes, he is very passionate about it, isn’t he? I would have to say that the computer itself has made a huge impact in my life. I don’t really miss the electric typewriter, although it made its own impact at a time when the typewriter used by everyone was a manual. Still, the electric typewriter did not change my lifestyle. The computer did. I depend on it for my work, my entertainment, news & weather…everything. Carver had the right of it! 🙂

  2. Deb

    tap, tap, tap, ding! I too, remember the days of Selectric well. How cool it was when they started making them with built in correction tape. No more manually inserting one or waiting for the white out to dry.

    I haven’t read it either, MSB. I don’t feel too badly though because my life was about reading finance books and learning to run regressions. It’s more reading to add to my ‘growth’ list which is proving great fun.

    1. Teri Post author

      I miss the sound of the IBM Selectric.

      Remember the Wang? At my first real job, I thought it would be good to hide all the big, unsightly Wang equipment in the closet. It burned up about a week later. Who knew!

      1. Deb

        Haha!! My first work computer was an IBM. Remember cd:\? No one had a clue but I got my next job because I had ‘computer experience.’

  3. lisahgolden

    I would love to have a few typewriters of different vintages.

    Thanks for these highlights to Toni Morrison’s interview. I find it oddly inspiring in her simplicity as she answered the questions and her approach.

    I read Beloved on the train between home and work about ten years ago, but I should reread it because my retention skills are poo.

  4. Lyra

    Oh Beloved.
    I hadn’t read that until recently, I’d say it was within the last five years, and something about this book changed me. There is such a lyricism in her writing, and she writes so economically. The beauty, along with the sadness…some of the images, the horse bit, oh my God. When she describes the character and the taste of the metal in his mouth. It was so intense, so visceral.
    I couldn’t believe I had gotten through so many literature classes and I had never read it, and even now, thinking back on it, it is just such an important book in a way I am failing to do justice in explaining. I don’t know that I’ve ever cried so much as while reading Beloved.
    Toni Morrison is a force.

  5. glasseye

    I like the comment about copyright infringement when writing about a real person. It’s very true, I’ve felt that myself but never would have thought to frame it that way.

  6. erikamarks

    Thank you for posting these wonderful quotes, Teri. Talk about someone I’d love to sit with over a pot of coffee and just listen to. Like you Averil, I too like the idea that she won’t use real people for the simple reason that it’s like copyright infringement–to shape a character who is truly without any likeness to a person is a mighty challenge.

    1. Teri Post author

      Yes, her quote about “real people” even makes me look at my nonfiction writing differently. My people are all real — and now I have the right description of how I sometimes feel writing about them. FICTION, you’re sounding better and better.

      My favorite is that she doesn’t sign contracts because she doesn’t want people Up In Her Face. I’m loving her.

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