Lucia Berlin: A Master of Catholic Fiction, Part 1

By Jenny Shank

Lucia_Berlin

In September, Lucia Berlin’s posthumous collection of selected short stories A Manual for Cleaning Women hit the New York Times Best Seller list for hardcover fiction.

Vice called Lucia Berlin “the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of.”

Marie Claire predicted that this “highly semiautobiographical collection will catapult [Berlin] into a household name.”

And John Williams wrote in the New York Times, “She put much of her roving, rowdy life onto the page in vivid stories that garnered the respect of a modest audience and now could be on the verge of making her posthumously famous.”

I count myself as part of that “modest audience” who was lucky to know Berlin and her work before her death in 2004. I met Berlin when she was my teacher in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Colorado, and I was immediately taken by her as a writer and as a person. [Read more…]

While My Pen Gently Weeps

6742625959_af858306f8_mMy daughter Gracie was helping me prepare dinner one evening. We were doing the bœuf bourguignon from Virginia Willis’s amazing cookbook Bon Appetit, Y’all, which puts a southern spin on every recipe—this one, by adding bacon.

As Gracie stood on her cooking stool and crisped the bacon at the stovetop, the aroma filled the kitchen and mixed with the onions I was cutting at the counter. She talked over the bacon’s hiss and sizzle about being a chef someday, quitting cross country, girls at school she liked and didn’t like, boys.

I drifted as she chattered, but snapped back to attention when she said, “And if you’re going to be a writer—”

“I am a writer,” I cut in. I wasn’t sure how we’d come to this. [Read more…]

Fiction is Truer than Fact

img_4595In Jill Lepore’s extraordinary biography of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane, Book of Ages, a short chapter near the end sketches the rise of the novel as a genre. Prior to the eighteenth century, “history” was the genre for telling the stories of lives, and they were always the stories of famous men. Then in the eighteenth century, novels began to be written, but at first they called themselves “histories”: Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy are two that Lepore names. Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela also purported to be real letters that Fielding had discovered.

Soon, though, novelists dropped pretense of writing history, because they were convinced that their new genre was truer than history. It was a new kind of biography—of ordinary people—and its truth was founded not in documentary evidence but in human nature.

I was reminded of this while recently reading Kent Haruf’s novels Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, all set in his fictional town of Holt, Colorado, on the high dusty plains east of Denver. The small events of very ordinary lives are Haruf’s subject. In a spare, understated style, Haruf creates characters who surprise themselves with a generous gesture, who suffer from depression or loss or the meanness of others, who settle into habits of sadness or of gratitude.

Reading along, I would often stop and think: “this is life as it really is.”

Lepore’s terms helped me understand why I keep reading fiction: because fiction connects me with the truth of other lives. And so with the truth of my own. [Read more…]

Stories that Clamor for Attention

A few weeks ago, early planning started for this summer’s Fiction Intensive at UC Berkeley Extension, a week-long fiction program with workshops and craft talks, readings and lectures.

I’ll be giving a talk: What Is Fiction? Yes, it’s a question both daunting and exhausted. Nothing I can say here that’s particularly new. And I’m wary of definitions that suggest fiction is any one thing. Escapism? Moral duty? Truer than truth? Totally amoral? A pack of lies? All of the above.

But the more I keep thinking about it, the more excited I get. Examples tumble out like toys from a cupboard, begging my attention—and they surprise me. I’ve taught fiction long enough to have the anthologized standards at the ready.

You know, those classics with clear, dramatized change manifested in action or image: “Barn Burning,” “Araby,” “Roman Fever,” and, for a more contemporary example, a terrific Dagoberto Gilb story called “Uncle Rock.” Great examples, all. But the stories clamoring for my attention right now fall into another category. [Read more…]

To Live by the Light of Fiction

“In the end, a story is never going to make a damn bit of difference to the dead.” —The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon

When I’m gone, son, tell me the story of the day you collided with the opponent’s keeper, his knee to your temple, and collapsed, face down, on the pitch until the EMS crew rolled you off the field on a gurney.

Tell me the story of how, during the month you waited to play again, you tried to rally the flagging team and inspire them to turn around their season.

Tell me the story of the coach who failed to recognize your talents and dedication—as player and leader—so I can rally to your defense—if the dead can come to the defense of a good son. [Read more…]


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