Home was only half-done when Slade died, around Christmas 2010. Morrison says it was pancreatic cancer—“and recklessness. He was one of those Chinese medicine–type crazy people. Brilliant writer.” He also collaborated with his famous mother on clever children’s books like Peeny Butter Fudge and Who’s Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? “But [he was] very careless,” she says. “When they get grown, you can’t smack ’em.” The sadness still weighs her down, and lately she’s been dwelling on her regrets, what she calls “the fallout from not being able to save my son.” After Slade’s death, Morrison put Home away for months. It’s the closest she’s ever come to writer’s block. But she would never use the term herself.
“I’m getting a little better,” Morrison says now. “It’s spring, and my forsythias are out. What is saving me from narcissistic wallowing is the book I’m writing, where I spend the liveliest, most confident part of my day.” Her next book is a special comfort at the moment, but writing has always been a solace. “All of my life is doing something for somebody else,” she says—though her children are long grown and she’s been divorced for almost 50 years. “Whether I’m being a good daughter, a good mother, a good wife, a good lover, a good teacher—and that’s all that. The only thing I do for me is writing. That’s really the real free place where I don’t have to answer.”
Morrison’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb, can attest to the divide between the private writer and the public figure—a persona famous enough for its ego that Gottlieb brings it up without prompting. “To people who don’t know her, she might appear to be a diva,” he says. “But in the work and personal relationship, there is nothing of that.”
Morrison considers humility a handicap. “It works against you,” she says. She is fond of testing journalists who ask either too little or too much. “You’re writing a little piece, aren’t you?” she asks me. No, in fact; she was told it’s a feature. “Oh, this is too much. Can I approve it?” That’s not really done, I say. “Can I edit it?” I tell her I’ll be nice. “You’ll be nice! You’re gonna tell all these funny stories!” She laughs. Then she tells a few more stories.
“She has an incredibly adorable side,” says Claudia Brodksy, a Princeton colleague and a close friend. “Which I shouldn’t be talking about, because she’s not gonna show it. She’s told me: ‘For the public, I have to be very severe—just keep it at bay. Otherwise they just devour you.’ ”
It was during the fifties that Chloe became Toni Morrison. At Howard, people began calling her “Toni,” and in 1958, she married the Jamaican-born architect Harold Morrison. She got her master’s in literature at Cornell, with a thesis on suicide in the work of Woolf and Faulkner—clear stylistic influences on a novelist who has little truck with the hard realism of her peers in the post-sixties pantheon. She was discouraged from writing on her first chosen topic: the black characters in Shakespeare.
In 1964, pregnant with Slade, Morrison split from her husband. She hasn’t said much publicly about the marriage, except that Harold wanted a more subservient wife. “He didn’t need me making judgments about him,” she once said, “which I did. A lot.” Soon she took a job in Syracuse, editing textbooks for a division of Random House. She began rising at four in the morning, long before daylight obligations intervened, to work on turning a short story, about a black girl who prayed for blue eyes, into a novel.
The Bluest Eye was published in 1970. Decades later, after everything from The Color Purple to the works of Sapphire, the novel’s plot—11-year-old wretch impregnated by father—might seem trite. At the time, though, the tragic story was an important break from the didactic, uplifting black novels that ruled the day. “All of the reviews I had, in the black press and in mainstream media, were silly,” Morrison says now. The former complained about her negative portrayals while the latter dismissed her for trying too hard. But just as The Bluest Eye was on the verge of disappearing, the City University of New York launched a black-studies department and put the novel on its reading list. “Required reading,” Morrison once said about it. “Therein lies the success.”
The political and academic tide was lifting her boat—in writing and also in publishing. She had transferred to Random House’s New York offices in 1968, but was still editing textbooks years later, when Random House president Bob Bernstein found The Bluest Eye in a bookstore. He insisted Morrison publish under their umbrella, and so she met the legendary Robert Gottlieb at Random House–owned Knopf. He would end up editing all but one of her subsequent novels.