"If we arrived at a town where the faculty had made arrangements to spend the night and either the place we thought was nice, wasn't, or they didn't want the students to stay there, one of them would go into a phone booth. They would check the yellow pages for a black church and then call up a minister and say, 'We're from Howard University and we're a little chagrined because we don't have a place to say,'" Morrison says. "And the pastor would say, 'Call me back in 10 minutes.' And in 10 or 15 minutes he had rounded up his parishioners to take us in. We would go into these houses. And the women, they just fed us, took care of us, put us on these sweet-smelling sheets and cooked, and wouldn't take any money. We had to slip money under their pillows.
"And that happened everywhere. 'Where do we eat in this town that has no places where blacks can eat?' And somebody would say, 'Here is a man who was a chef at the Waldorf Astoria, but he's retired and he cooks sometimes for visitors.' And you go to his house and get the best meal of your life. But that was within the community. There really was a community, there really was a neighborhood."
Morrison has spent much of her life in the North. After graduating from Howard, she worked for years as an editor for Random House, then debuted as an author with "The Bluest Eye," published in 1970. Her breakthrough came in 1977 with "Song of Solomon," a Book-of-the-Month Club selection praised by New York Times critic John Leonard as a masterpiece akin to music. Her name reached ever higher. "Beloved" won the Pulitzer in 1988. The Nobel came five years later.
As she gets older, Morrison says, the world becomes more interesting and more distressing. She is appalled at some of the remarks about Obama and the speculation that he was not an American citizen. But nature, and its mysteries, she responds to more than ever — the water, mountains, her garden. She watches "Planet Earth" on the Discovery Channel and marvels how it took "millions of years" for humans to evolve from "that thingy down there at the bottom of the sea."
Saying that her writing process was unchanged by the Nobel — after a "few mental tricks" cleared the fog of success from her mind — Morrison tries to challenge herself with every book. In "Home," she has Frank Money speak directly to the author, admitting that he has not been honest about his story. For her next novel, she wants to write about a black intellectual, a break from the uneducated characters who usually appear in her work.
"When I'm not thinking about a novel, or not actually writing it, it's not very good; the 21st century is not a very nice place. I need it (writing) to just stay steady, emotionally," she says.
"When I finished 'The Bluest Eye,' ... I was not pleased. I remember feeling sad. And then I thought, 'Oh, you know, everybody's talking about "sisterhood,'" I wanted to write about what women friends are really like. (The inspiration for "Sula," her second novel). All of a sudden the whole world was a real interesting place. Everything in it was something I could use or discard. It had shape. The thing is — that's how I live here."
"I guess that's home."
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