A.J. Verdelle. Photo by: Asia Goffin
The year after she published her first and much lauded book “The Good Negress,” A.J. Verdelle journeyed from her New Orleans home to New York City for the express purpose of meeting her hero — the literary giant Toni Morrison.
Morrison’s pronouncement that “The Good Negress” was “truly extraordinary” had appeared on the book’s cover. So, when she got a call that Morrison wanted to meet her, Verdelle assumed they would talk about her book and part ways forever.
Instead, the two-hour meeting started a decades-long friendship that Verdelle, a faculty member in our MFA in Creative Writing program, has now documented in her memoir “Miss Chloe: A Memoir of a Literary Friendship with Toni Morrison.”
“What I tried to do was write a book that would communicate how much of a gift I felt like it was to listen to her talk, to be able to follow her around a little bit,” says Verdelle, who is still in awe of her relationship with the “Beloved” author, who died in 2019. “I had never expected that she would be somebody in my life.”
The book, published this week by HarperCollins, is “juicy” says Verdelle, but is by no means a tabloid tell-all. Instead, she writes in some detail about their conversations, explores how their lives intersected, the ways Morrison mentored while recounting her personal history.
“Although the axis is our friendship, part of the reason we could have a friendship is because we have a baseline orientation. I want the memoir to parallel what we valued in each other,” she says.
There is both reverence and respect in the way Verdelle sees her friendship with Morrison, who was almost 30 years her senior. It’s also why, early on, she began to call her Miss Chloe, referencing Morrison’s given name Chloe Wofford.
“No one else called her that. That was the reason I wanted to call her that,” says Verdelle. The moniker is also how people in the predominantly Black neighborhoods where both Verdelle and Morrison grew up would have referred to a respected elder. “By choosing Miss Chloe, it was reaching into history, which is what both of us do in our work.”
‘It was my job to call.’
This hierarchy extended to the structure of their relationship.
“It was my job to call, it was her job to invite,” says Verdelle, who always initiated their phone conversations and always traveled to Morrison for their visits.
One day, Verdelle called to discuss a problem with her supervisor at Princeton University, where she worked after being recommended by Morrison. An increasingly pregnant Verdelle had been denied a semester-long leave to give birth to her daughter in New Orleans.
With a nearly perfect imitation of Morrison’s deep, gravelly voice, Verdelle recounts her friend’s declaration: “They can’t tell you where to have your baby.” The simple sentence gave her the extra boost she needed.
“I don’t know that I would have acquiesced, but I absolutely wasn’t going to acquiesce after her remark,” Verdelle says.
‘Two and a half spats’
While her writing is lush, Morrison was anything but verbose in their conversations, verging on curtness at times. That quality sometimes lent itself to tension between the two women, and even “two and a half spats.”
“I would have loved to not have any spats, but it was a real relationship and it lasted quite a bit of time. We were both grown so we didn’t agree on everything,” says Verdelle.
Those valleys in their friendship are far less prominent in the book than the ways Morrison enriched Verdelle’s life and writing.
“Morrison will make you understand the limitlessness of language. That wasn’t something that I had a good sense of before I started to write,” says Verdelle, whose writing workshops are often cited as a highlight by Lesley’s creative writing students.
Influenced by Morrison’s command of the structure of writing fiction, Verdelle began a systematic study of novels.
“There is an architecture, there is a toolkit when you’re writing fiction,” she says. Adding, “My specialty is revision.”
‘Imagining a hero’
Revision is a bit of a sore point in the book, however. Since the 1996 publication of “The Good Negress,” Verdelle has struggled to get another book published. “Miss Chloe” is her second book to hit shelves, but not for a lack of trying.
For 12 years, prompted by several white female editors, she made multiple revisions on her second novel centered on a Black cowboy. Verdelle worried about hitting the infamous sophomore slump that has been known to plague writers, but eventually began to question the source of the criticisms.
“I finally decided they don’t know how he should be,” says Verdelle, who put the book in a drawer, instead publishing several essays while raising her daughter and teaching. “It’s so hard for our society to envision a regular Black man with a regular income and a regular family. Imagining a hero is way beyond that.”
A decade later, she is revisiting her cowboy story with the hopes that the publishing world may finally be ready for it and a prequel, too. A third book in the works codifies her writing advice into a manual focused largely on revision.
Verdelle is also taking time to revel in her new book and fondly remembering the friendship upon which it is based.
“Once in the process of grieving, I started to write about what the experience actually was, I want to pass forward the things she taught me, especially about writing.”