12/02/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
TOUCHED BY AN OPRAH
TONI MORRISON IS NO STRANGER TO success. She won a Nobel Prize in 1993, a Pulitzer (for 1987's Beloved), and three of her six novels have been bestsellers. But the author, 54, hadn't seen anything until she crossed paths with Oprah
. Since TV's talk queen announced on her Oct. 18 show that Song of Solomon, Morrison's 1977 story about a black man's discovery of his roots, would be her next Book Club pick, the novel has catapulted to the Top 5 of The New York Times bestseller list. "I knew there was this appetite for challenging books," says Morrison, whose Song had been selling 50,000 copies a year until October orders exploded to 500,000 in hard, paper and audio versions. "But Oprah
's being able to make people get up off the sofa and actually buy it—'phenomenon' is not a big enough word to describe that."
Seeing the "jump-starting of a 20-year-old book," as Morrison puts it, is gratifying given its laborious birth. Four years in the making, Song was written "at 4 in the morning or late at night" since its author, now a professor at Princeton University, was then an editor at Random House and a single mother raising two sons. She wasn't surprised when the National Book Critics' Circle Award of 1978 failed to give a commercial kick to the novel, which never ranked among the Times bestsellers. "This isn't a how-to book or a detective story," she says. "It's not an easy read."
But then Oprah
—whom Morrison doesn't know well—is not on an easy mission. "She's making reading not a nerdy thing to do," Morrison says. "Oprah
is doing something important."