Perhaps the most incredible and unlikely fact about Toni Morrison, one of the most important and insightful writers in the world, English-speaking or otherwise, is that she has published fewer than a dozen novels during the course of her career. Her power partly lies in this precision, the distillation of an idea from mind to page, a skill reflected in the titles of her work: Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, A Mercy; God Help the Child, her 11th and latest novel, has the longest title by far. The only living American Nobel Prize-winner for literature, an honour bestowed more than 20 years ago, her life's work totals little more than 2,500 pages – a couple of fat Stephen King paperbacks – yet hers is a career that's impossible to measure and one that few will match.
And one that is still being written.
"I don't plan on stopping," says the 84-year-old Morrison, laughing, early one March afternoon, on the phone from her Tribeca apartment. The conversation has drifted toward her next novel, which she reveals will be set in the aftermath of the Second World War, despite the fact that at the time of the interview, God Help the Child wouldn't be in bookstores for another six weeks. "Listen, I'm just hoping I can [finish] because it takes me a few years to do these things. Okay, so what am I going to be? 88?" She laughs once again, this time loudly. "Oh God! I might not know how to spell by then!"
God Help the Child, a slim, lyrical exploration of the meaning of beauty and the lingering, corrosive effects of childhood trauma, focuses on Lula Ann, a striking young woman who has rechristened herself as "Bride." She works as a high-powered exec for a booming cosmetics company, drives a Jaguar and shops at Louis Vuitton – not the sort of character native to Morrison's fiction. (This marks the first novel she's written that is set in contemporary times since 1981's Tar Baby, with which God Help the Child shares some similarities. "The difficulty in writing about the contemporary world is that whatever you think is happening at that moment, six months later it's different," she says. "I tried to take universal themes, which would matter no matter where I [set] them.")
As the novel begins, Bride has been left by her lover, Booker, a failed academic and talented trumpeter haunted by the childhood murder of his brother by a sadistic serial killer. Bride's own troubles – and there are many – can be traced to a court case from her childhood in which her testimony sent a teacher away to prison for 15 years. Soon after Booker's leaving, Bride confronts the teacher, who has just been paroled, a decision that results in her being brutally attacked, her once-stunning face rendered scarred and swollen. She is also still struggling to come to terms with her relationship with her mother, Sweetness, from whom she has long been estranged, a stern, light-skinned woman horrified by her daughter's "terrible" skin colour, which was "so black she scared me." (In that way, Bride recalls Pecola Breedlove, the protagonist of Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970 when she was 39, who dreams of having white skin.)
"I knew I wanted to work with the trauma of race slash colour, and to see what it did to children if it's not understood," she says. In the case of Bride, says Morrison, "I wanted her to come away from the trauma of being that ugly and repulsive to her own mother to using the very thing that made her mother hostile to her advantage, and make a success out of being beautiful."
Sweetness would argue her strictness was a necessity: "I wasn't a bad mother, you have to know that, but I may have done some hurtful things to my only child because I had to protect her," she says; at another point she claims, "If I hadn't trained Lula Ann properly she wouldn't have known to always cross the street and avoid white boys."
"She's a protective mother, given the circumstances," says Morrison, then proceeds to tell a story that might explain Sweetness's rationale. "My grandmother lived in Alabama on a little farm, and her husband left the farm and went to Birmingham to play the violin and earn some money, which suggests to me he was a street musician. At any rate, at some point his wife, my grandmother, sent a message to him. The message was: 'White boys are circling and I have to leave.' Her girls were reaching puberty, and she could see, every now and then, a white boy. And so she fled. And they caught up with one another and moved to Ohio and lived, I suppose, happily ever after. But that awareness of the danger of, particularly, white boys stayed with me. And I know of other encounters like that. So [Sweetness] is of that – not quite my generation, but that would be something that she would feel she had to protect her daughter from."
At this moment, the conversation is interrupted by someone arriving at her apartment – it's her lunch, Morrison thinks, and she calls to her personal assistant to answer the door. There's time for one last question, so I ask Morrison about Booker's parents who, every Saturday morning before breakfast, ask their children the same two questions: What have you learned that is true? And what problem do you have?
"I should have thought of that," she says, laughing once more. "Let me see." A pause. "Do I have any problems? Yes, age." Another short pause. "What have I learned that is true? There is no life for me outside of art."