Pam: Once you've begun the actual novel, are there specific things you do to invite these images? Do you build a kind of structure for them to fall into?
Toni: Usually there is a "what if" that might resolve the narrative, but the narrative is less interesting to me than the architecture, the language, all the other things that I can bring into the so-called story. For Paradise, I had heard this story in Brazil. There was a school, a convent for black nuns—young girls—and they were found to be secretly practicing candomblé [an Afro-Brazilian religion based on the anima, or soul, of nature] in the basement. The story was that the police shot all of these girls, when they were found not doing the Catholic thing. I saw them in my mind running away from the convent, running through the fields, running away from the bullets, running from men...so I recast it as a question: Who would shoot a bunch of women and why?
For Love it was wondering about what year fashion models began opening their legs for the camera. A fashion historian told me it was 1975. He knew the name of the model, the photographer, the designer, and the dress.
I have an ongoing interest in outlaw women. They can be wild or they can be ordinary women who learn something fresh. I like very much to see them under duress. I like to see who survives this awful mess, who makes the best decisions, who is left and under what circumstances. If your character knows something at the end of a book she didn't know at the beginning, she is in a better position. Everybody wants a happy ending, but the real happy ending is when somebody really figures something out.
I gave a commencement address at Princeton where I told the graduates that I wished them happiness but they shouldn't settle for that—it wasn't good enough, it wasn't important enough. I am always accused of being too bleak, too sad. I thought the end of Paradise was transcendent! Beautiful! Everyone got to see who they were mad at. What could be better than that?
Pam: David Mamet describes writing as an attempt to "lessen the unbearable disparity between the conscious and unconscious mind and so to achieve peace." Do you think your horses "standing up like men" came from the deep recesses of your subconscious, or from some other place, some artistic collective unconscious that is always whispering out there, waiting for the writer to figure out how to hear?
Toni: What I feel most is that because I am open and available, the universe—the idea—comes to me. It feels a little like being called. I felt it very strongly with Song of Solomon. I had agreed to write the book and I was intimidated because I had never written about men—I'd written about a man, but not about men and how they really think. Then my father died, and I was sad about that, and I remember sitting down and thinking, "I wonder what my father knew about those men." And this feeling of assurance came over me that I would know—I didn't know all of it then, but I felt suddenly certain that whatever I needed to know was going to be there.
It's that being open—not scratching for it, not digging for it, not constructing something but being open to the situation and trusting that what you don't know will be available to you. It is bigger than your overt consciousness or your intelligence or even your gifts; it is out there somewhere and you have to let it in.