by Kimberly Collins
J. California Cooper has plenty to say about life. She is, after all, the matriarch of the blues. A Berkley, California native, Cooper now lives in Portland, Oregon.
She began her writing career as a playwright. During that time, her work caught Alice Walker’s attention who suggested that she turn her plays into stories. Three novels and seven short story collections later, Cooper, who is in her seventies, continues to have characters waiting in line. She is currently working on her latest novel, Life is Short but Wide.
Known for planting life lessons within her work, critics have celebrated her writing as, “mesmerizing,” “transcendence,” “hypnotic,” and “deceptively simple.” Her stories have been called “intensely, explicitly moral tales.” A conversation with Cooper could be described similarly. For an hour and a half, I listened to her clear, no nonsense voice laced with a special wisdom. The experience of talking with Cooper about life, writing, and choice was similar to the experience of reading one of her books; I didn’t want the journey to end.
This interview originally appeared in Mosaic #20, Spring 2007
Kimberly Collins: By way of an introduction, I want to ask, what questions are you tired of hearing and what answers are you tired of giving?
J. California Cooper: It’s not the interviewers’ problem, it’s mine. I have tried to explain how I write. I am tired of doing that because no one ever understands and it leads to more questions they don’t understand.
K.C.: Maybe it takes one writer to understand another. To me, it seems simple. You like the rain and you like the music, and then the characters come to you.
J.C.C.: That is exactly right.
K.C.: Does music influence your writing?
J.C.C.: Well no. What it does is hit certain places in my mind and body and make [characters] who were sitting around doing nothing come out. Music is a feeling. If you get the right music it makes you feel certain things and you can express them. Music influences my feelings, not my speed, or style, or thoughts.
K.C.: Your work is often described as simple or plain. Do you think that description takes away from your work’s complexity?
J.C.C.: Listen, there are some people who have read all of my books and don’t understand any of the stories, yet they think they do. I had a woman tell me in Washington, D.C. that she doesn’t read [my stories] like she used to because, she said, “I don’t identify with these people anymore.” I thought to myself, how can you identify with every one of these [characters]? And do you identify with everybody in your house? Are we all that much alike? And if you don’t find someone different, how are you going to learn? I never answered her. You’re not supposed to identify with everybody. You’re supposed to learn, get yourself better. No, you can’t identify, but you can understand.
K.C.: You have said that you do not want to be considered a black writer. Does ethnicity confine you? Wouldn’t you say the vast majority of books you write feature black people and their history as with The Wake of the Wind?
J.C.C.: When someone’s talking about reality I don’t care what color they are. I have had people say that they only read black books. That’s a shame because this is a big world. Read black books by all means. But you live in a big world and it behooves you to understand. I love wisdom so I don’t want to know just one color wisdom. I want to know about life and everybody’s way of life. That is why every story I write can be put into any century, in any country. Like, “One Hundred Dollars of Nothing” (from the short story collection A Piece of Mine), it could be in Hong Kong, Sweden, or anywhere.
K.C.: I have noticed that places are rarely mentioned in your works.
J.C.C.: People act like these stories are in the south. Poor people are everywhere—California, New York—you don’t have to be from the south. Now I will admit there are different difficulties in New York, but basically the human being is the same. The same woman who yearns to be loved in Texas is yearning to be loved in New York, and the same woman who had a baby by a man who no longer wants her in Texas, is also in New York.
K.C.: So how do you manage to tell these people’s stories?
J.C.C.: My imagination, my Bible study. If you just take the Ten Commandments, you can write forever. Some people think I’ve lived these stories. If I did I’d be dead and ugly. I love wisdom. I’ve always loved thinking and I was fortunate to run into some people that had done some thinking. I used to sit at their feet and just listen.
K.C.: Who were these people?
J.C.C: Just people that I met through life—an old man or old woman—just people. I listened because sometimes they tell you things like, “Be careful now, think about this because this could happen to you.” All these things I write are like parables because I get my wisdom from God and I translate it.
I have had some characters where I have said, “Please don’t give him that money please don’t,” and they gave it to him anyway. Of course all the usual things happen, but that’s a lesson. I am hoping someone will pick up on it in the book.
I know teachers teach that you should have a diagram of your stories. I don’t ever know the ending of a story. And as I see the characters working it out, that’s my pleasure. I love to see them beat down and rise up, conquer and survive. It’s about survival. Some of them survive and some of them don’t.
K.C.: Like “Swimming to the Top of the Rain.” It reminded me of a time when African Americans took care of our own. It’s part of our legacy.
J.C.C.: It’s part of the world’s legacy. Chinese women, Japanese women and Swedish women. Everybody. There is only so much you can go through, and we are all going through it. Everybody has problems, even the rich. That is one thing I have tried to say: the rich are not happy. There is no one on this earth—this is what the Bible says and I believe it—you may have a grasp on happiness, it might almost be in reach, but you never quite reach it if you get a chance.
K.C.: When my friend Sam hears, “as quiet as it’s kept,” she thinks of your work. Why do you begin some of your stories this way?
J.C.C.: It’s like I’m telling you something special that everyone doesn’t know. It’s just over the fence talk. I do that because I cannot write without a narrator. I have very few stories where I tell the story. I need to know there is some truth to what I am saying. As a writer, how can you know what happened to Gloria in her house next door? Somebody has to tell you, you don’t live there. When I have a narrator she tags all that on her and nobody will say, “well how does she know?” Because that is the person who tends to people’s business; so I have a narrator.
When I wrote Some People, Some Other Place, I didn’t know what I was going to do because these [characters] were in China, England. Then this child showed up who hadn’t been born yet. So she was able to tell the story of all these other people up to the present. But then most of my narrators do show up and somebody says, “Let me tell you this,” and I listen.
I think Alice Walker said, “You always write about poor people,” so I said let me write about somebody with some money. I pulled up this dentist and his wife and I let his wife tell the story. She lasted about two pages, and then she would just go off and I would say, “Let’s do it again.” And then the voice spoke up and said, “This is not her story; this is my story.” It was the maid. So I said to the dentist’s wife, “Go ahead and start it again,” and [the wife] just fizzled out. [The maid] said, “Listen, it’s not her story. It’s my story.” When [the maid] started, it was “Love and Money.” The dentist’s wife was in it, but she wasn’t the storyteller. So you never know. You just have to listen to your brain.
K.C.: You just have to be open to the voices.
J.C.C.: Yes. Then that man showed up in “No Lie” and I said, “I don’t want hear it. You keep saying ‘no lie,’” (I talk to my characters) and I knew he was lying like a dog. But he wouldn’t go away. So finally I said “Go ahead tell it and let’s get it all over with.” When he told it, it turned out to be a really good story for boys who don’t know how to be fathers. I liked it. I didn’t like him. He wasn’t a likeable person, but his story was valuable. It is one of my best stories.
K.C.: Do any of your dreams become stories?
J.C.C.: No, it’s hard for me to write anything that really happens. If I took [a situation] from life I’ll wonder if it really happened. If I make it up, it doesn’t matter because it’s fiction. Sometimes I think of a line I like and write it down because I will forget it before the next day.
K.C.: So do you do any research for your stories?
J.C.C.: I had an interview with this white woman after I wrote Family and she asked me what kind of research I did to find out about the slave girl. I said, “I didn’t do any research,” and she said, “None?” I said, “If you were a slave what would you want?” There are some things you have to have sense enough to know. I did some research for The Wake of the Wind, but it was really reading about the history of these black people. So I learned it, but I didn’t research it to tell the story.
K.C.: Was your first book comprised of some of the seventeen plays you wrote when Alice Walker was introduced to your work?
J.C.C.: Oh no. I told her I had people waiting in line. After that [first] book I thought that was the end of it. I said surely there’s no more, but there was more. Each time I finish a short story collection there is more. I notice as time goes by the method changes. I get different people talking, but they come quicker to the point now. They used to tell you a whole thing; now they come to the point. I think it’s because I am getting older and tired.
K.C.: Did your mother or father influence you to become a writer?
J.C.C.: I never talked about how my mother influenced me. She just read a lot and didn’t want you to be a fool. All of my family just lived and they were honest about it. I loved my father dearly. He loved food and took care of us. He would never get a job because he wouldn’t work for a white man. He always worked for himself. So I learned independence from him. He always kept money in his pocket and always bought houses. And my mother was an independent woman also, and didn’t like to take anything from anybody. So neither one of them had anything to do with my writing, they had things to do with my character.
K.C.: What do you believe is the greatest love story ever written?
J.C.C.: I like Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I have read so much. I am really not a believer in best or better. I know some are lousy and wouldn’t read them or read them again. But as to better, who knows?
Taylor Caldwell is one of my favorite writers and Pearl Buck, Edith Wharton, Alice Walker, and Morrison’s early books. I like books that deal with life. I did love Octavia Butler.
K.C.: You once said that June Jordan was one of your favorite writers.
J.C.C.: And she’s one of my favorite people. She stood up for the helpless. She liked helping those who were down.
K.C.: What advice would you give to emerging writers?
J.C.C.: If you are a writer, just write. Nobody told me how to write, I just write. If you’re a writer, you don’t sit and wait for your work to come to you. In fact, if you are a writer, you want to do some reading and thinking.
K.C.: I love the title Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns. It sounds like the beginning of a poem.
J.C.C.: I had it for about two years and I didn’t have a book to go with it. But my titles do that—they come before the book sometimes. You can tell by the title what kind of book it’s going to be. That’s why I enjoy writing because it’s always a gift. I knew when this title came that the book was going to be sad because there are all these stars seeking the midnight sun, and there is only one sun. I knew somebody was going to be disappointed—some thousands of them. So it’s not a happy book, but I don’t write happy books anyway. There is some joy in them because the ones who are doing right will inevitably find some joy.
K.C.: There always seems to be some sort of redemption.
J.C.C.: You cannot tell a problem without a solution. I always put the solution in the book. It’s just a matter of doing the right thing. That’s all it is. Those Commandments are really important. They do teach a lesson. Everything that brings us trouble is in those Ten Commandments.
K.C.: It comes down to choice?
J.C.C.: That’s what life is, a matter of choices. You get the test in life before you learn the lesson. In fact, for most of my characters, I take them from the hardest place to show people how they might get out.