A Roundtable on Lucia Berlin, the Greatest American Writer You've Never Heard Of
We spoke with Lydia Davis, Stephen Emerson, August Kleinzahler, Dave Cullen, and Berlin's son Jeffrey about the fantastic yet underappreciated author.
It is quite possible that Lucia Berlin was one of the great American prose writers of the 20th century, but until this year, you wouldn't have known it. Berlin passed away in 2004, and in her short lifetime she published only 77 short stories, spread across a handful of books. Her first published story appeared in the early 1960s, and she worked primarily with small publishers and even smaller presses. The peak of her career was in the 90s, when three collections of her short stories were published, but her writing has been hard to track down since then. Thankfully, today brings A Manual for Cleaning Women, a collection of Berlin's short stories that showcases some of her most vibrant work (including "Friends," which was published last week on VICE.com).
Berlin's stories crack open small and specific worlds. She travels amongst those caught in the folds of cities and institutions, from the streets to darkened highways to the hallways of hospitals and hotels and private homes. The writing is tender and blunt; it curves and whips around itself. Berlin was acutely aware of the way language is deployed in the world, from signs to gestural phrases, to the things people say when they don't realize they're saying anything at all.
Both a sly sense of humor and a deep compassion run through the work in A Manual for Cleaning Women, capturing the irreverence of small miracles, the unhinged rhythms of romance and addiction, and the comedy inherent to human fallibility, to pride and pretense and disappointment, to vanity and shame. Many of these stories are semi-autobiographical; all of them reveal an uncanny understanding of human behavior and the human spirit.
Berlin had a life so colorful and varied—and painful, and unlucky—that her biography reads almost as if she had traversed time and space to sample freely from a cascade of potentialities: a childhood amongst Santiago's high society; an abusive family; a series of tumultuous relationships with men and alcohol.
To better understand Lucia Berlin, I interviewed and corresponded with a small group of her close friends and family. Over the course of these conversations, a picture of Berlin herself emerged: one of a deeply compassionate, maternal figure, liberal with both straight talk and insight; a woman who swung between periods of darkness and light, all largely of her own creation; a wild and exuberant writer with a reverence for literature and language, and little concern about the literary establishment or her own place in it.
Writer and translator Lydia Davis, who corresponded with Lucia Berlin for years, though they never had an opportunity to meet in person
Lucia and I began corresponding in probably the very late 80s. Our correspondence proceeded by fits and starts, with sometimes a flurry of letters and sometimes fairly long silences. There was good, warm sympathy between us, and mutual admiration. We talked about our families—we both had sons, and only sons, no daughters. We talked about other writers. I don't think we disagreed about the authors we admired or did not admire. She did not like being negative, though, about other writers—or, rather, she didn't like being what she called "catty." And if she slipped and said something catty she would sometimes apologize in the next letter.
I really don't know how I first acquired [her story] Angel's Laundromat [which was published as a one-off]. But I imagine it was because I was teaching at UCSD and meeting a lot of West Coast writers. Maybe someone mentioned her and said I should read her. That is the most likely, rather than either browsing or being given the book. Maybe someday I'll find a journal entry of mine that answers that question.
I think her most loyal community was on the West Coast. For decades I would mention her name to other writers here in the East, but no one knew her work. I tried for decades to bring up her name and interest other writers in seeking out her stories, but without any luck. So I'm very glad that FSG is publishing this selection. She is that unusual combination of compulsively readable and a very fine writer. So I think this book will do well and maybe at last she will gain that place that I always thought she should have.
Stephen Emerson, editor of A Manual for Cleaning Women and a close friend of Berlin's for 25 years
This is all Lucia Berlin territory—Oakland and Berkeley. She lived in countless houses and apartments all around here. These buses still have the route numbers they did in A Manual for Cleaning Women. "502" takes place a half-mile from here.
I'll tell you, I never looked at her work even once between her death and when I started on this, early in 2013. I also didn't re-read her letters. It was too sad. The fact is, I had a lot of trouble getting over her death. And then, throughout putting the book together, I'd keep getting blindsided by forgotten and hidden aspects of Lucia.
Mallarmé had this idea that the poet morphs into his or her work—they become synonymous, the work and the writer, the work and the person—at death. Hence, death is the ultimate moment in the writer's life. So with Lucia, when I reread the work, it was a joy. The delight that's present in her work is completely reminiscent of her spirit.
The work turned out to be even better than I'd thought. Which meant the whole process was completely invigorating. Lucia the person, the friend. Our conversations—all of them were right there.
There's no posturing. She doesn't care how she's coming across. But she does know how to be funny. –Stephen Emerson
Her letters were by far the most painful thing to go back to. Plus late emails stored in antediluvian applications that don't run anymore. Most of it very intense. Her sister's dying—she's writing to me from Mexico City about that. She's moving to her trailer in Boulder. She's carrying her oxygen tank around. She's getting radiation treatments. Hard things.
She stopped drinking in the late 80s. We met in the 70s, but by the time I knew her well, she was heading out of the abyss and becoming a new person. Picking up self-confidence as she wrote more and more. Then she gained further confidence as she got off the sauce. These things all led right to the job at the University of Colorado and to leaving here, both of which were good for her.
When she'd call me up in a shaky state, not sure what she was doing or whether she could, I'd tell her, "Well, you know that you have the power to do anything. Because when you went on the wagon and stayed on, you did the hardest thing in the world." And she'd say, "You're right." And that seemed to work. It's a kind of silver bullet you don't get with many people.
The reason her stories appear openhearted is that she's such a skillful writer. There's so much work behind the scenes. There's great artfulness. But also there's no posturing. She doesn't care how she's coming across. But she does know how to be funny.
Out in the halls of literature, there's work that's forbidding; there's work that's written in long sentences; there's work that alludes to other writing; there's work that's literary in a lot of obvious ways. And Lucia is a very sophisticated writer, but she doesn't do any of those things. That's one reason the work is accessible.
She was the person who got me to read Thackeray—Vanity Fair. I didn't read it until I was in my 40s. And it was a fabulous experience. Vanity Fair was one of her favorite books. I have no trouble at all seeing the influence of Thackeray upon her.
I got her to read Trollope, Glenway Wescott, Merrill Gilfillan—she loved them all. Then I gave her Dreiser's The Titan. I thought she'd love it. Not one bit. "He writes like a guy." Obviously that was a damning criticism.
I would just like to see A Manual for Cleaning Women find the audience that can connect with it. This work is accessible to just about anybody. But it's also very, very smart. It has elements to it that you don't run into often at all: speed, and joy, in addition to boundless compassion. If the kind of people who read Grace Paley and Alice Munro and Jane Bowles and for that matter Frank O'Hara—if a lot of them could find her stories—that's what I'm hoping for.
She was absolutely passionate about the work. Lucia is gone, but I think we've managed to do something here that serves her work. That's as close as I can get to doing something for her. I think it's pretty close.
Lucia with her son Jeffrey Berlin, who is now an art director and graphic designer in the Bay Area. Photo by Buddy Berlin. Courtesy of the Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin LP
Art director and one of Lucia's sons, Jeffrey Berlin
I have two living brothers; I'm the oldest living brother. We have always struggled with it. A lot of these stories are about things that we lived through. They're some of our worst memories. It has always been a weird thing to deal with. We're really proud of her, and we think a lot of the stories are fantastic. But it's still personal memory, or not exactly the way things happened. I think we separate the truth from the stories. But none of us are not happy about this. There are none of these stories I don't want told.
I remember reading her stories when I was a little kid in the 60s. The first stories she wrote weren't extremely personal or anything that would have bothered me, but I read her from early on. Whenever she was writing, she would show me what she was working on. I think I had pretty intelligent opinions from early on, but sometimes it was like, "No, Mom, that's too much." I remember reading "The Musical Vanity Boxes" when I was maybe ten.
Sometimes it was like, 'No, Mom, that's too much.' –Jeffrey Berlin
"A Manual for Cleaning Women" did spring out of a terrible period for her. She had been writing all through the 60s and early 70s, and she hadn't really finished anything. That was the first story that she really finished. It got her started writing again; it got published a couple times. She started to take herself seriously.
We knew her, and we knew what the situations were. She wasn't writing to explain things to us. I think she was writing to clarify things for herself, and for other people. As we get older, and our memories fade, these stories are sort of mixed in as part of our memory. So it all sort of merges together.
Poet and essayist August Kleinzahler
We had a very close friendship, but it was almost exclusively an epistolary friendship: We exchanged letters between 1994 and 2000. It became a very significant correspondence for me. Prior to that I only met her two or three times, rather briefly, in company. I didn't really know Lucia in the flesh, as it were. It was really in the letters that we let our hair down and got to know each other. We talked about things we cared about, which were mostly literary, and talked about our respective lives. The letters got more open-hearted and interesting and intimate. She was a great reader, and that was a treasure, to have someone that bright.
She really had a feeling for poetry. Some of the people she was closest to in her adult life, and in her writing life, were people like Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley. She spent some real time around real poets, and could distinguish not just what was good or bad, but what was alive on the page.
Her letters were as good as her stories. And she tells stories in the letters, which are very much in miniature, almost indistinguishable in style from her formal writing. They were quite ravishing.
I've been telling people for over 25 years that she's one of the best American prose writers that we have. –August Kleinzahler
[In her stories] she finds something compassionate to say, even among the most brutal and depraved behavior. It's remarkable, because she was brutalized as a child, and had a very rough life, at least intermittently. It's easy to become embittered and angered. But she remains very open and curious about the human condition and human behavior. She has a devilish sense of humor and is capable of all sorts of sarcasm and satire, but she did have a buoyant and optimistic soul in many ways—trusting. She was punished for her trust, I think, throughout her life, but she seemed to be resilient that way.
I think in a number of romantic pairings she was treated very badly. Did she make good choices? I don't know. For the most part, probably not. I think she was let down. Was she setting herself up for a letdown, as many people do who make bad choices? Perhaps... probably. Was she attracted to situations or individuals who were dangerous or unreliable, potentially explosive? Perhaps, probably. Was it conditioned by her childhood experience in El Paso? Possibly, probably. And of course, a theme going through her entire adult life: fearsome bouts of alcoholism. Which, you know, can blow up any situation.
She could be rather difficult and combative. Had she been alive, I don't know that this could have come to pass. She was very conflicted about becoming famous, and I think probably in a lot of ways undermined herself periodically. I think that was part of her nature. But a lot of us loved her, and if it has to be done posthumously, it's done posthumously. I've been telling people for over 25 years that she's one of the best American prose writers that we have. Everybody, particularly in New York, thought I was a crank. And now they'll eat their words. Lucia's an extraordinarily original, powerful writer.
[The correspondence] was one of the great treats in my life. All good things come to an end. Well, they can evolve. So not everything comes to an end. But regrettably, the letters did.
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Columbine author Dave Cullen, who studied under Lucia Berlin at the University of Colorado
There was a big waiting list for her workshop, but Ed Dorn, a mentor of hers, told me I had to work with her. He said, "Just go the first day and beg her to let you in." She let me in.
We stayed close friends after I finished the program. When she moved to California, we talked on the phone once a week. She was a mentor: definitely for my writing, but constantly about my love life—just everything. My all-in-one life advisor. She had a very wild ride in her own life, but I never saw all that. She was sober and sweet, a wonderful, wise woman. She collapsed and was hospitalized about a month into our semester. She was never without the oxygen tank for the rest of her life. It aged her, made her look much more like an old lady, wheeling that shit around. I remember her that way.
She married and divorced three times and had four boys, all within like six years. One husband was an addict; one jazz musician, and she was an alcoholic, a big lush. They were crazy years—and rough on the boys, which she always felt guilty about. I came after, all in her past. She didn't really like talking about all that too much. But I was living some version of that, without the kids, and she knew how to guide me, gently.
With my writing, it was a combination: guidance and critiques, and endless encouragement, but so much of it was also just her work, the stories. They were just extraordinary in their... I was going to say simplicity, but it's the opposite. They're really complex. They're masquerading as quick, easy reads. They seem really simple, but there's so much going on. I was really impressed. I wanted to do that.
If I really liked a guy, and he stayed overnight, I would read 'The Jockey' to him in bed. –Dave Cullen
She was exactly like the stories: so honest, and so candid. In her stories, it's like she could see right inside of her characters and understand them. That's how she was in life. It was uncanny, the way that she could read people. Almost like social X-raying, seeing right inside us. She just spilled herself onto the page, and made it look effortless, instead of trying to make it look gaudy, or gilding it.
My favorite story is "The Jockey." I always read it to guys, especially during my big slutty phase. If I really liked a guy, and he stayed overnight, I would read it to him in bed. If he didn't like it, or didn't get it, that was pretty much the end of him. It was like, "OK, really? You're an idiot then."
She doesn't pull any punches. It's not a mean bluntness; just honesty. Like kids will tell you the fucking truth. It works because she's incredibly compassionate, and tender, and cares so much about her characters. Her hero was really Chekov, specifically because he was so nonjudgmental about his characters. To me, she's at the same talent level as those great writers [Nabokov; Faulkner].
Lucia had different approaches to different people. I was the one she would call to bring over cigarettes, because she was on oxygen, and had like half a lung left. She wasn't supposed to be smoking. But she still loved them, had such a burning taste. She would smoke a couple cigarettes a week. The first time she called and asked if I would bring over two or three, I thought she meant packs. I had no idea you could buy individual cigarettes in Boulder. She just laughed hysterically. She said I was one of the few people left who would do it without judging her. She wasn't Saint Lucia. I mean, she was—to us.
I don't know what the chances are that I stumbled into this program, and she was there—just when I needed her in my life. That was one of the great lucky things in my life. Just that.
A Manual for Cleaning Women is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.