Remembering Toni Morrison

In a 2014 interview, the late Nobel Prize laureate explains why she began writing: She couldn’t find the novels she wanted to read.

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Studio 360 is a smart and surprising guide to what’s happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt introduces the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy—so let Studio 360 steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life. Produced in association with Slate.

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Episode Notes

Toni Morrison, the author of books including Beloved and Song of Solomon, died Aug. 5 at the age of 88. Her novels won the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize, and in 2012, Barack Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Morrison’s work inspired countless readers … and writers, like New Yorker critic Hilton Als.

When Als guest-hosted Studio 360 in 2014, Toni Morrison was his first choice of interviewee. They spoke at Morrison’s home, and she started by telling him about her writerly habits.

Born in 1931, Morrison continued to get up early in the morning and write. “I get up before the light,” she told Als. “I’m really smart in the morning.” Morrison didn’t write her first novel, The Bluest Eye, until she was 39 years old, after some years working as an editor. “I wanted to read a book about the most vulnerable person in society—female, child, black—and it wasn’t around, so I started writing it.” That first experience hooked her. “I found that when I finished that book I went very deep into a sadness, and I realized that I don’t really like it around here if I don’t have something to write.”

In 1977 she published what many consider her masterpiece, Song of Solomon. The impetus to write the book came from her father’s death, Morrison says. She decided to write a story set before the civil rights movement, but she worried that “I don’t know a thing about these men.”

Morrison recalls wishing she knew what her father knew. Born in Cartersville, Georgia, Morrison’s father left in his teens after witnessing the lynching of two black men. He settled in a steel town in Ohio, where Morrison was born and raised. She learned from him valuable lessons about work and self-worth. When she had a job in her teens cleaning houses, she complained about a mean employer. He told her, “Go to work, get your money, and come on home. You don’t live there; you live here,” she remembers. “I have never had an employment problem since.” But she confesses, “The lady was right—I did not know what I was doing. I had never seen a vacuum cleaner before.”

This podcast was produced for Studio 360 by Julia Lowrie Henderson.

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