Toni Morrison at a luncheon honoring her work at the Hay-Adams hotel during the National Book Festival in Washington this weekend. Photograph by John Wilwol
Toni Morrison says she grew up telling stories and reading insatiably in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio, but she traces her roots as a writer back to an evening in DC during the 1960s when she was teaching literature at Howard University and working on her first novel, The Bluest Eye.
After dinner, while holding her infant son and working on the manuscript, the child suddenly burped and spit-up all over the page. “I just wrote around it,” she told a delighted audience during a luncheon at the Hay-Adams on a rainy afternoon last Friday. “Then, you know you’re a writer.”
Morrison was in town to receive the 2011 Library of Congress National Book Festival Award for Creative Achievement. The Hay-Adams Author Series hosted Friday’s luncheon to celebrate Morrison, who hotel president Kay Enokido calls “a true living legend.” Guests included Librarian of Congress James Billington and Washington Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli.
After an elegant lunch inspired by early 17th century America, the setting of Morrison’s 2008 novel, A Mercy, guests were treated to an engaging Q&A session between Morrison and Marie Arana, writer at large for the Washington Post and a member of the Scholars Council at the Library of Congress. Morrison then fielded a few questions from guests and signed copies of her novels.
Arana covered a range of topics with Morrison, who charmed the audience with her breezy sense of humor and her candor. “My life is either reading, teaching, editing, or writing books,” she said. “I don’t ski.” She talked openly about the emptiness that followed her first project. “When the Bluest Eye went out, I was so sad. Not depressed, but hollow.”
The aim in her writing, Morrison said, has always been to, “write the books I wanted to read.” Some of those books have been censored, which she takes as a compliment. “All students know that the banned books are the real ones,” she said. Her next novel, Home, will be published in May of 2012. “It’s set in the ’50s. My time.”
Morrison taught creative writing courses at Princeton University, where she was the Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities until 2006. She said she challenged her students to go after big, ambitious subjects in their work. “I used to tell them, ‘I know everyone is telling you to write what you know. But I don’t want to hear what you know because you don’t know anything,’ ” she said, laughing. “Please, write what you don’t know.”
Morrison is now 80, and although she gets around slowly, she hasn’t stopped living it up from time to time. On Friday, she wore a dashing hat, which one audience member admired so much that she used her question to ask Morrison where she might find a similar one. “I guess I gotta tell you where I got it,” she said with a wry grin. “I have this big house in Princeton on Nassau Street, and we throw a lot of parties. One night, somebody left a hat.”