A Strong Sense of Place

Lucia Berlin talks with
Peggy Pfeiffer and Richard Peabody

Lucia Berlin was born in Alaska, raised in Chile, and presently lives and works in Oakland, California. The varied landscapes of her life are pervasive in her fiction: a laundromat in Albuquerque, a girls’ school Chile, summer in El Paso with a cantankerous old grandfather, a detox in Oakland. Berlin's characters are as vibrant as the worlds they populate. In our talk with Lucia Berlin she spoke of her writing and teaching and her colorful life—the fuel for her fiction.

Her collections of short stories are Angels Laundromat (Turtle Island, 1981), Phantom Pain (Tombouctou Books, 1984), and Safe & Sound (Poltroon Press, 1988). Two stories have also appeared as limited edition chapbooks, Manual for Cleaning Women (Zephyryous Image) and Legacy (Poltroon Press). Her stories have appeared in City Lights Review, Atlantic Monthly, Noble Savage, Rolling Stock, ZYZZYVA, The Critic, The London Strand, Quilt, Volitlon, Berkeley Monthly, Folio, Giants Play Well in the Drizzle, Scanner, City Miner, Zephyr, Acts II, American Bystander, and Wild Dog.

Why are you such a secret? These days you seem to be a west coast treasure pretty much unknown on the eastern seaboard.

My books were published by small presses, with mostly west coast distribution. I hate rejection, and am very hesitant about submitting my work . . . usually just wait for publishers and editors to find me, like you did.

In what way do you think that the regional quality of your work—stories that are often set in places like Albuquerque, El Paso and Oakland—contributes to your regional reputation?

In a big way. We simply care more about place, the land, out here. John Kirch (who wrote Bump City, a great book about Oakland) actually said to me, ”You can have Oakland now." (To write about.) A big influence on my work has been Ed Dorn. No one has a greater reverence for the west than he.

Even in your most minimal stories like “Angel’s Laundromat,” “Maggie May,” . . . you create authentic worlds for your characters through the simplest nuances—and not just the obvious techniques like dialect or the odd reverence to local custom. In your stories the locale often becomes intrinsic to the decisions and motivations of your characters. Do you agree? Is this conscious?

It isn't conscious. It can't be because I don't know how to answer your question. But I think the main impetus for most of my stories is precisely that sense of oneness. When people seem to exist outside time, exist just where they are, belonging to their place and one another. Mexican divers, drunks in a detox, switchboard operators.

I think your stories possess a strong sense of place, as if the people and their scenarios couldn't exist anywhere else. They certainly seem true to what I know of the Southwest and the west coast. Do you think of yourself as a regional writer in any way?

There's that word again! Let me quote Eudora Welty: “ ‘Regional,’ I think is a careless term, as well as a condescending one, because what it does is fail to differentiate between the localized raw material of life and its outcome as art." No, I don't think of myself as a regional writer. Place is essential in my work. I often even see a place or a town or a house as an actual protagonist. Sometimes I'll read Hardy or W.H. Hudson or Cather’s My Antonia not just to read a book but to go to their places.

The difficulties of sharing a tri-cultural heritage between Hispanics, native Americans and whites in the Southwest recurs in your stories. You seem sensitive to racial and ethnic differences.

As a kid I lived in dozens of mining camps in Idaho and Montana and Arizona. The miners were Finns, Mexicans, Indians, Basques and Swedes, usually first generation. During the War (II) we lived with my Klu Klux Klan grandpa in Texas, the rest of my childhood was spent in Chile. I've been poor a lot, in cities, so naturally have lived in racial diversity. But I choose it, too, choose to live in Oakland, choose not to work in academia. I teach at the San Francisco County Jail, where my students are mostly young black crack dealers. I also work at Mt. Zion hospital with the elderly, taking oral histories. All kinds of old people.

That may help explain why many of your stories focus on the elderly: “Mama and Dad,” “Dr. H. A. Moynihan," “Phantom Pain.” The problems and eccentricities of the aged seem to enter into our current literature so rarely.

I really love old people. Two of my favorite books are The Poorhouse Fair by John Updike, and Fade Out by Douglas Woolf. I work now with people in their 80's and 90's, helping them write poetry, doing oral histories. One Spaniard, Severiano can't use his hands at all, so I'm helping him write the story of his life. He was a cabin boy when he was 12 and spent 57 years in the merchant marine. It's embarrassing to be paid to listen to these people.

Tell us about your work with the inmates at the San Francisco County Jail and the magazine of their writing that you publish called Through a Cat’s Eye. What kind of a release is writing for them?

It’s a tremendous release. Most of them haven’t been to high school. It's the first thing they’re writing. Their response is just incredible—their feeling of accomplishment. And it's fun. It's a great job. The idea is to have each student see his work in print. I should note that Clifford Lane, who wrote “Material things do impress" [in Through a Cat's Eye] was 19, died of an overdose a week after he was paroled. Raymond Hearne, who wrote “Weight Lifting" is a paraplegic—deals crack from a motorized wheel chair. He can only watch guys working out.

Do they have any preconceptions about poetry?

Oh, yes. At first it's all rhymed and in some cases that's fine because the poetry that they can identify with is rap. I think rap is great, so I don't have any problems with that. I do with rhymes like "June" and “moon" though. I bring in poetry for them. It's almost a graduate seminar in contemporary poetry and prose. Anything from Chekhov to Creeley, Jim Harrison, Fielding Dawson, Gary Soto and Carver stories. They love Carver stories. We read a lot. And they respond on such a gut level . . . in such a visceral way. They respond to what's true.

Do they have any trouble getting started? I noticed that some of the pieces in the recent issue of Through a Cat's Eye seemed to have grown out of specific exercises, like those lively pieces called “Conversations."

They were exercises. I don't know if you noticed the ones called, "Feet,” and “Hands" . . . that was from Baudelaire. That was from a piece of Baudelaire’s, "A Hemisphere in Your Hair.” He just does this beautiful thing on hair described it in terms of the sea. So I put a bunch of scraps on the table and each of them drew a piece of the body—feet, lips, hands, eyes. In the conversations, I said write a conversation—mostly street conversations. They all did it off the top of their heads.

How did you end up in Saul Bellow’s magazine Noble Savage?

I was a ”promising young writer” then, had finished two novels, (since destroyed). Henry Volkening was my agent. He was a dear, wonderful man. He and Diarmud Russel were agents for Bellow, Eudora Welty, Joseph Heller and many other good writers, so I did get stories accepted and was known in New York. My friends and idols then were Dorn and Creeley and Levertov. Ginsberg and Kerouac had just happened. John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman were playing in the village. An exciting time.

But that was 25 years ago? Did you stop writing?

Well, yes, I stopped writing, I married three times, had four sons. I was last divorced in 1970. Raising four kids alone, teaching school, becoming more and more alcoholic.

Do you write slowly? I think of Tillie Olsen's Silences.

Silences. I want to write my own version . . . called Black Out. No I write fast, like a madwoman. The actual writing time is short, but that's because the story is usually written before I pick up a pen. A line will come to me, or a piece of dialogue or an image and then the story will come. I'll think about it constantly, for weeks, months, writing and rewriting in my head.

I'm surprised that no New York publisher has picked you up.

I’m not surprised, since they keep putting me down! I'm disappointed though. Maybe once a year I'll mail something out and it will get rejected so I won’t try again.

Tell us more about the novels.

One was a really gothic version of the story ”Andado,” set in Chile. I think it was good and am sorry that it is gone. Mostly because of details about place, which are lost to me now. The other was “A Peaceable Kingdom,” about El Paso, Texas in World War II. That one was bad. Lots of sorrow. Incest, violence, alcoholism, Baptists speaking in tongues.

I have just finished a novel, or something like one. Ten very long chapters or stories, with the same characters. It is called “Homesick.”

Some of your very short stories remind me of my favorite pieces from Robert Shapard and James Thomas’ collection Sudden Fiction. In that work several writers comment on this relatively new genre. Alice K. Turner, for example, says that short-short stories “have more to do with the art of anecdote than that of writing. Pacing has everything to do with it—and the snap at the end.” I guess I think of them as prose haiku: highly condensed forms of fiction that in their final sentences suddenly crystallize the imagery, the characters, everything that came before. Do you have any feelings about this genre? Are they easier or more difficult for you to write than longer stories?

I love that genre, and use that collection in my classes, as I do Baudelaire's prose poems. He has some great things to say about this form in New Notes on Edgar Poe: 1857. I wish I were a poet, closest I've come is in those short pieces. I haven't written any in years. They are easy to write in that they have simply appeared, full blown. ”My Jockey” flowed out onto the paper and not a word was ever changed. My biggest problem is that I write very little, and can't force the process. I just have to hang out and wait around for a story to show up.

How do you relate to the new minimalism?

I don't. And language poetry, ach. I like the clarity of the language, but I react to what seems a certain meanness of spirit. I love Raymond Carver who once said that his favorite writer was Chekhov. Two of Chekhov’s rules for the short story were extreme brevity and compassion. It is the compassion I respect in Carver as much as the purity of his prose. His death is a big loss.

One of the qualities that brings me back to your work as a whole is its versatility. You don’t seem caught in a narrow genre. “Emergency Room Notebook" and “Carpe Diem" are purposefully sterile, minimal, raw. “Todo Luna, Todo Ano" is full of lush, gorgeous detail. Yet both are distinctly Lucia Berlin stories. Both look at how we have to learn to deal with even the most natural things, how we have to re-learn what should be intuitive.

That's nice . . . re—learning what should be intuitive. Re-learning how simple everything is. Thanks for seeing my versatility as a positive quality. I agonize about having an inconsistent style, too many voices.

In the new collection especially your stories seem to revolve around characters taking risks.

Risks? I'm not conscious of that, either. As for risks . . . I once wanted to write a piece for Cosmopolitan called ”Perfect Lovers Aren't Necessarily the Best Lays." Same with writing. People like Updike, Oates, Beattie, etc. take no emotional or spiritual risks at all. But heroes, Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, they go so far. I rented Hamlet last week, watched it three times, kept saying “Damn!”, like in the scene with his mother. Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was uneven, flawed, embarrassingly bad at times, but what courage, what a risk.

The title Safe & Sound, is ironic?

It is if you look at stories like ”Andado” or ”Strays." But it's for real. It was how I felt at the time the book was finished, when the last story, “Luna Nueva” was written.

Alcoholism—the problem and its treatment—figures into several stories: "Noel, 1974,” “Her First Detox," “Strays,” “Step."

I’ve only dealt with my alcoholism superficially. Maybe one day I'll write the real ghastly story. God, what a terrible idea, scratch that. I was in serious trouble for a long time . . . jails, hospitals, psych wards. I'm grateful to be alive now, to have a reprieve.

How do you think your writing has been affected by the frequent geographical changes in your life?

I have a lot to write about! But there is an episodic, impressionistic quality . . . sort of like snap-shots or postcards. This is becoming less true. I'm settled now, have found my place.

In a number of your stories you use your own name for the main character—“The Musical Vanity Boxes,” “Emergency Room Notebook.” It’s as if, unlike many fiction writers, you don’t want to distance yourself from your audience, as if you want them to know that these things were personal experiences. What effect do you think this has on your readers? Are these stories pure autobiography?

Everything I write is autobiographical. Sometimes, though, like with a “A Foggy Day” and “An Adobe House with a Tin Roof,” I will write totally different versions, or takes, of the same reality. I've only made up two stories: ”Mama and Dad" and ”The Maiden," which was actually a re-write the first three chapters of Hardy's Tess of the Durbervilles.

I don’t know why I have my name in some stories and not in others. Come to think of it I don't know why I don't have my name in all of them. I can't imagine what effect this has upon readers . . . I hope they feel that the story is true.


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