IT'S THE voice that stays with you. Soft, not as in hard to hear, but as in velvety. A voice flecked with decades of menthol cigarettes, edged with smoke and molasses: soft, measured, magisterial, compelling.
In all the profiles of Toni Morrison, all the interviews with the only living American Nobel laureate for literature, it's rare to find any mention of her voice. Interviewers fixate on her face, and it is indeed the face of a strong, handsome woman. She has the reputation of not suffering fools gladly, this 77-year-old Princeton professor and revered editor who also just happens to be, as the New York Times puts it, "the nearest thing America has to a national novelist".
So there's a good bit of trepidation at the start of most Morrison interviews. The world has, after all, only a handful of authors whose work has broken new ground and become part of history. Even before 1987, when she wrote her masterpiece, Beloved – based on the case of an escaped slave in 1855 Cincinnati who killed her baby rather than return her to captivity – she was part of this elite. So awestruck are many of her US interviewers, indeed, that their words turn to mush on the page.
She first made her mark as an editor committed to publishing the fiction of black Americans and great African writers such as Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. And while there were other black American women writers before her, in books like The Bluest Eye, Sula, and then her great stream of historical novels, she blazed a trail for a new generation. As early as 1982, Newsweek magazine was putting her on its cover – the first time in four decades it had picked a black American woman for the front.
But it was Beloved that brought her worldwide readership. Suddenly all other novels about slavery seemed anaemic, unfelt: this was a book that took its readers into the heart of darkness, that graphically showed what slavery felt like from the inside. Meanwhile, America – the United States of Amnesia, as Gore Vidal branded it – was busy forgetting the traumas of slavery, its shattering of every natural family bond, its full bloom of organised violence, torture and rape. There wasn't a single memorial to the "Sixty Million and more" to whom Morrison had dedicated her novel, "not a plaque, or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There is no 300ft tower, no small bench by the road ..."
It's not an easy read – Morrison regularly puts the stitches of plot a long way ahead or behind the reader – but perhaps Beloved was that missing monument. Half-way through, she told me, she thought it would be her last novel: the enormity of the tide of oppression, the sheer scale of families being ripped asunder, was almost drowning her. Generation after generation, century after century: the weight of slavery on the minds of its victims was as real as that of the shackles on their ankles. So too was desperation to forget. "What everyone was doing," she says, "was trying not to remember."
It's 21 years since she wrote beloved and Toni Morrison is sitting opposite me in her suite at Claridge's, talking about her latest novel. These are changed days for black America. Days of triumph. Back in 1989, she used to say that blacks united the States because every other immigrant group could unite in looking down on them. Now that's getting harder. In fact, it's impossible. Beloved tops writers' polls as America's best novel in the last 25 years; Oprah Winfrey is its highest-paid TV star, Colin Powell its most admired general-politician; above all, of course, it's Barack Obama who is its chosen leader.
Morrison came out for Obama back in January. He was the first politician she'd ever endorsed. The colour of his skin was as irrelevant to her choice as Hillary Clinton's gender. It was his wisdom America needed: even at 34, when his autobiography was published, he displayed it. "At that age," she says, "I thought 'Ha! Everyone's wrong, I'm right.' But he was just so young, so young to have that level of reflectiveness and meditativeness and candour and sorrow. And I thought, there's a kernel of wisdom there which is more than just the accumulation of knowledge."
The first demonstration of that wisdom will be in his choice of advisers, which she expects to include Republicans as well as Democrats. But an Obama presidency has far greater potential than that.
"People teaching black teenage boys in junior high school, normally they'd struggle to get them to take math or history, say, seriously. Now studying is suddenly very cool. That's a 180-degree turn. I've heard that story four or five times now."
The even bigger prize is an end to racism. "It's visible," she says. "Old wounds heal. I think one of the nice things that will happen will be that white America will have an enormous weight lifted off its shoulders. And that's one thing about Obama: he can't have this basic 'Whites Are Evil' notion because he was raised, breastfed and nurtured by white people – his mother, his granny – so he can't arrive in the world with this secret distrust that, say, I might have. Not that I do..."
With exquisite timing, just as America is seeing the remote outline of a future free of racism, along comes Morrison with a novel that looks at the brief moment when America came close to a racism-free past. A Mercy, her first novel for five years, was sparked off by a single, simple thought. "What I was really wondering," she says, in that soft, sure voice, "was what it must have felt like to be a slave without racism."
It's hard to imagine, but there was a time in the 17th century when the living conditions of indentured white servants and imported black slaves differed little, when whites didn't think of themselves as white and blacks weren't defined by race, and slavery might – just might – have been as commonplace (and as relatively painlessly removed) as serfdom and peonage in Europe.
In other words, unwind America. Skip past the horrors of mid-19th century slavery, forget about Beloved, and follow Morrison almost two centuries further back, when the foundations of the House of America were being laid, in Maryland and Virginia.
"The idea of slavery," says Morrison, "is just so ..." Her face twists into a wince ... "Ordinary. It wasn't this that was peculiar – it was the other thing that was added, deliberately planted, cultivated, constructed and is maintained to this day – which is racism as the loathing of the Other."
In 17th-century Maryland and Virginia, racism hadn't yet got a complete hold of the colonial mind. It soon would, but Morrison's white protagonist, Jacob Vaark, is repulsed by the trade in "flesh", and only reluctantly accepts an eight-year-old slave girl as payment for a bad debt, the only way he'll see the money he is owed. This transaction is the "mercy" of the title: Jacob isn't, the girl's mother can tell, a man who will sexually abuse her daughter. If she stays on the Maryland plantation, that's an inevitability.
Because already attitudes are hardening. In some puritan settlements, like Salem in Manhattan, tales are spreading of black witchcraft. A black skin might be a mark of the Devil; start thinking like that, and you could anaesthetise your conscience to the slave trade. Invest in that, and you are soon casually accepting full-blown racism and the morality of the lynch mob. Just for a moment, though, that future hangs in the balance – just as, altogether more optimistically, it now does as America's first black President waits in the wings.
So yes, I can see the changes between the two novels, and I can hazard a guess at how they mirror changes in America. That's where the story of this interview has to lie, because these are days of triumph in Black America.
But I want to talk to Toni Morrison about something I've never heard her talk about; not the years of success, Jessye Norman singing to her on her 70th birthday, Marlon Brando talking to her on the phone about her novel Song of Solomon – or rather, I do want to talk to her about all of that, but not half as much as I want to see the woman in front of me as she once was, before she determined never to "write white", before fame came running.
She grew up in Lorain, a small industrial town on the shore of Lake Eyrie, the bookish daughter of a welder who wanted nothing to do with whites, and a mother who wanted to push for integration on such things as desegregated swimming baths. When she got the chance to go to university, she opted for the all-black Howard University in Washington DC.
It's her time there (1949-53) that I wanted to ask her about. Because only at Howard, she said, did she become aware of racism. The odd thing was, it was black-on-black: lighter-skinned students were thought more beautiful. On the positive side, she loved performing with the Howard University Players. In the summer holidays, they'd tour the southern states, three faculty members and nine students.
Ah yes, I'm thinking to myself, as she's telling me this. That's what it is. The voice: it's an actress's.
"I was good. I was an English major and a classics minor, and I'd studied Greek tragedy and Latin comedy and so on. I read books, that's all I was doing in life. But in the theatre you read plays in a different way."
So, she tells me, she'd play Medea – thematically not too far removed from Beloved, I can't help noticing – to the black audiences in church halls and on black college campuses. It was her first time in the south, and when I ask if she felt like a Jew travelling to post-war Germany she shakes her head. "No, no, it was just lovely. You say, 'I'm in the south, the white people are mean.' True. But the black people were wonderful.
"You'd maybe be staying in a parishioner's house. She's gone out and washed the sheets, put them on the bushes so they smell like juniper, and she puts them on a feather bed. And these are people of modest means. Not cabins, but not much more. And you are sleeping in these fresh, washed sheets that smell like the fairies, and they fix you gumbo and you try to give them money and they won't have any of it.
"All this time I learnt a lot without knowing that I was learning anything. I was just having a good time. I could kinda stand outside it, because I had to acquire a kind of sensibility ... and sensitivity."
There's a load of things I meant to ask Toni Morrison. About Mohammad Ali (she edited his autobiography); about Richard Gottlieb, her octogenerian editor; whether she still writes before dawn; about Zoe Wicomb, the Glasgow writer whose work she so admires. I wanted to ask her about dispossession and moving out of the way of sexual exploitation (two features of both her family history and her fiction).
But the interview is drawing to a close and there's only time for one question, so I ask her one of unmitigated mushiness. What is it like to be revered?
She raises a quizzical eyebrow, so I blunder on. "I mean, there's such a level of expectation ..."
She cuts me off with a smile.
"I think I can take it," she says.
I think she can too.
• A Mercy by Toni Morrison is published by Chatto & Windus, priced 15.99.