This interview was conducted by telephone on Monday, February 3, 1997, between Charlottesville, Virginia, and New York City.
In your conversation with Toni Morrison published in The Southern Review (Vol. 21.3, July 1985), you said that, in your early years writing, you felt most complete when you expressed yourself through the written word.
I was shy as an adolescent. There was a lot I wanted to articulate that just never made its way up out of my mouth, because I found it difficult to say what I was really thinking. And that went back to the time when I was seven or eight years old. I would begin to write little poems, you know, with the aa bb cc rhyme, the kind of verse you would expect from a seven or eight year old. And even as an adolescent it was still difficult for me to speak my mind. I have no problem doing that now. I’m forty-seven years old. But when I was twelve or thirteen it was a problem. I was more of a brooder. And so the things that most troubled me in my home life or at school, I would write those things out. And indeed that made me feel complete for the simple reason that it is unnatural for one to just tramp down feelings. And that’s what I was doing a great deal.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be and could be a writer?
Those are two separate things for me: wanting to be a writer and then believing that I could be a writer. I had wanted to be a writer from the time I was twelve or thirteen years old. But whether that was going to be a probable goal for me didn’t come up as an issue for me until my college years. It was in my college years that I began to learn about writers like Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston. Ntozake Shange was extremely popular at that point, both for the feminist critics as well as for the public at large, because For Colored Girls was playing on Broadway when I was still in college. So having those role models around me helped when I began to feel that I could be a writer. Being a writer, then, was not an unrealizable dream; it was a very plausible goal, because these women were there. They had done it, and I could perhaps add my voice to that whole stream of consciousness that I was ignorant of before, because of the way the school systems were.
I was a gifted child, and I read voraciously. But very little that I read had anything to do with my specific experience. As a reader I can make believe, as all readers do [End Page 179] with good literature. So when I read Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre, I could make that leap from those personal pains to my pains. But there was a distinct difference in learning that right within my own home, “my home” meaning of course my home as a community, the African-American community. Within my own home there were books being written that were directed towards me, books that were especially about my experiences. So I didn’t have to take that sort of second step to get to the goal of understanding a work. It was just one step, one step to what was my reality, and from that going on to doing my own work, as opposed to taking that leap that I had to take before reading good literature. I still have a fondness for the Victorian novels, and just long, messy stories with loads of drama in them and different sorts of natural holocausts going on. I think that early cutting of my literary teeth with 19th-century literature is something that still lives with me, because it had such a profound impression upon me when I was younger.
What do you mean by “a profound impression”? What kind of impression?
It took me into the world of those characters, and you know they were...