Lucia Berlin: Writing Advice and More in This Never-Before Published Interview
On Form, Style, POV and Whether or Not It Really Happened...
The life of Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) came in wildly varied installments. During one of the last, she taught writing at the University of Colorado. In 1996, two of her graduate students at the university, Kellie Paluck and Adrian Zupp, did this interview, published here for the first time. It was undertaken partly as course work for a class in poetics with the story writer and poet Steve Katz, hence the droll exchange that opens the interview.
Kellie Paluck: Okay, here’s the first, general question. What are your poetics?
Lucia Berlin: I have no idea.
Adrian Zupp: That’s good! [Laughter]
LB: Hmm… what’d you say?
AZ: I said that’s good, that’s interesting. So for you, poetics… I guess was something that you thought about once you ended up in academia, but…
LB: I still don’t think about it.
AZ: No? Why not?
LB: I guess I just object to putting whatever I do into a word called poetics.
KP: So would you object to someone writing a thesis about your poetics?
LB: No, people do it all the time and I’m always amazed. I’m amazed at how much poetics I have!
KP: But you don’t disagree with them?
LB: No, no. I just don’t write with that in mind. I don’t have a credo about writing, or about the suffering of the poor, single women, or the American underbelly, or something.
KP: Well, I know you don’t have a political agenda.
LB: No. I just write what seems to me to feel true. To feel emotionally true. When there’s emotional truth, there follows a rhythm, and I think a beauty of image, because you’re seeing clearly. Because of the simplicity of what you see.
KP: So it sounds like you don’t have a specific audience in mind either when you’re writing?
KP: Who buys your books?
LB: Not many people! [Laughter] No, but… the people who respond to my books are people who respond on a very emotional, very intuitive level.
KP: Do you think more women buy your books than men?
KP: And do they just come across your books in a bookstore? Or do they hear about you from someone?
LB: Usually they’ve heard about me from someone, or read a story in a magazine and then gotten my books. Actually, I think I have as many male readers.
AZ: Really? That’s interesting.
LB: Men like the cleanness of my writing, I think. And it’s not sentimental and it’s not super-feminist. I think I have about an equal number of men. Older women and younger males, I think.
AZ: You’ve probably answered this in other interviews, but I tend to think that with people who don’t write with an audience in mind—that they also don’t write with publication in mind, so much… What was your initial impetus for writing? Was it for catharsis, or is it just a joy to do it?
LB: It’s a joy to do it. It’s a place to go. It definitely is a place where I am…where I feel my honest self is. When I first started to write, I was alone. My first husband had left me, I was homesick, my parents had disowned me because I had married so young and divorced. I just wrote to—to go home. It was like a place to be where I felt I was safe. And so I write to fix a reality.
AZ: So if you’d never been published, would your personal bibliography be much the same?
LB: I think so.
AZ: That’s interesting.
LB: In fact, I have many stories that I can’t publish at all because they would hurt people’s feelings or embarrass my sons. I just write to fix a time or an event in my own head. As I said in the class it isn’t for therapy, but more for clarity, emotional clarity. To let me see what I really feel about something, to make it sort of acceptable in my head.
KP: How do you think you’d feel if you hadn’t gotten published or maybe just published in a few small journals, but nothing major? Would it still be okay that you’d spent all this time writing?
LB: Oh, well… there’s something else to that. No, when you write you want someone to hear it. You do. I mean I don’t write thinking, “Oh Adrian and Kellie are going to love this.” But it’s just that the act of writing comes from a feeling, for me, of connectedness, usually. Or figuring why do I feel at one with this place or with these people or in this job or in this situation. And so just the act of writing is a connection, a giving out. It’s like in telling a joke, you want somebody to laugh.
KP: Then you’re lucky because you sound like you haven’t had that struggle to get published.
LB: No, but also I never tried that hard. I never learned how to work at it properly, so I never got good publishing habits, like sending off my work. And since I have a publisher, I’m not as ambitious as I should be about getting work done and sent off. Because I never have done it for money and I’ve found that the times that I did have a contract, I just got all mixed up. Because, for instance, they wanted me to change things. I couldn’t do it. So I never count on it for income.
KP: You started to talk about how you write to have a place to go, on account of your past, and your family, and moving around. I’m curious: What if you’d had the perfect upbringing in Iowa, with two loving parents, and then the perfect marriage? What would you write about?
LB: Well, I don’t think I’d need to write! [Much laughter] I think Proust is quite right saying that only neurotic people write. [Laughter] You know?
I think Proust is quite right saying that only neurotic people write.
KP: But are you serious? You wouldn’t need to be a writer?
LB: I probably wouldn’t! [Laughing] I think writers want to change their realities in some way. You want to show what’s lovable and beautiful and so you sift through your life and you can look at it one way, or you can look at it another. And writers, I think, are people who need to affirm, need an affirmation about their life. And to me, it’s a way to make things positive, not in a corny way, but to make beauty out of negative things or difficult times, or just to make sense.
AZ: You’ve never worked from a change-the-world or make-a-big-statement sort of impulse?
AZ: So it really is a very personal thing for you?
LB: It’s personal.
AZ: So if it’s that personal, do you ever get deeply hurt by reviews or harsh criticism?
LB: No. No, I don’t because if it’s been what I honestly feel is true and I have done it as well, written it as well as I could, then it’s mine. If someone says I have spinach between my teeth, I’m suicidal. But if someone criticizes my writing I’m fine, because it’s mine. So I’m all right. Even if a magazine editor complains that my story is “too small,” then I may get cross, but it’s still my story.
KP: How did you learn how to write?
LB: [Silence for 15 seconds] I don’t know. I read and read and read. I had good models.
KP: But many of the people you talk about that you’ve read don’t really seem to have influenced your writing.
LB: No, influences were young poets like Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley. In the years when I was young, the emphasis was on writers like William Carlos Williams, writing in the clearest, simplest American speech. Writing out of real life, and taking from real life, not embellishing but being as open-eyed and level as possible. I think that was the biggest influence, that was how I learned. It helped me as a young writer to not show off and not try to be romantic, or try to be funny, but to let the story be itself. And I did write to him [Williams] in my head for a long time, questioning whether he’d think something was arch or cute or showing off.
KP: So you knew most of your influences.
LB: Sure. But also William Carlos Williams, in his prose, his short stories. And the Black Mountain poets, whom I did know, had that clarity and simplicity that I looked for.
KP: How has your writing changed over the years? I know you stopped for a long time and then started again. Did you approach it differently the second time around, or did you just pick up where you left off?
LB: Sometimes I write a story and look at it and I’ll think, “Wow, this is great, my writing is going to change totally.” But then I don’t see that much difference. I think my younger writing was… was looser and more fun. And probably more lyrical also. I think my later work is… understandably more reflective, more about death and more about character. It’s sort of gloomier, as a matter of fact. [Laughing]
KP: Are there certain techniques that you like to use, or certain techniques you stay away from… like dialogue?
LB: No, my problem is that every new story actually is a different problem. When I finish a story, I’ll think, “Wow, this really works for me, this third person, mostly dialogue.” But then the next story has to be told differently. One recent story I wrote had no dialogue at all and it was just all in someone’s head… it was just this third-person narrative. I don’t usually do that, and I didn’t plan it, but it seemed the only way to tell the story—to stay completely outside.
KP: You seem to go on instinct when you’re choosing the narrator?
LB: Yeah, but I’ll enter in many different ways. The last story, I wrote first person, third person, second… no, not second person. But practically every way I could think of, and now I just have this third strange voice… a lawyer… someone who’s commenting—he’s the narrator. Somebody I made up totally. It just seems an easier way to get an objectivity to it.
AZ: When I read your work, more than just about anyone I’ve ever read, it seems to me you tend to write the way you speak. I don’t mean word for word, but when you speak, you often lead up to some kind of punch line or humorous moment. And your stories seem to often hinge on an encapsulating line. Do you think you write the way you’d like to speak to people?
LB: Oh yeah.
AZ: So could we count that as a device, or a trademark?
LB: Yeah, but it’s deceptive sometimes. Like with “My Jockey,” I was just telling about the jockey, exactly as if I were talking to you now, but no, because there are artifices in there: he’s an Aztec god and Cinderella. So it’s contrived. But with some stories—I don’t know if you’ve read a story about addicts in the desert, a story called “Strays.” It’s about a woman addict, and she’s in a recovery program in the desert, with a bunch of hard junkies. I was a counselor in this place, but I write from her point of view, this young, female addict. But I use my voice and my sort of joking, so people believe that it’s true because I’m telling it the way I talk. “And Bobby and me made love in the refrigerator room.” Sometimes it’s a device, to get people to buy the story.
AZ: Do you ever go for a radically different voice—like have you ever tried to write a Bukowski-esque voice, like a mad drunk or a male drunk or a grizzly old man?
LB: Yes, a couple of times. I did it in the story about the lighthouse and I did it in “A Rainy Day,” that story about the detox. It’s a guy talking.
AZ: Do those stories come harder?
LB: No, not really. They’re fun—I wish they’d come more often.
AZ: But you don’t force them? What comes comes?
LB: I wish I could force those. Because I have tons of stories. You know?
AZ: That brings me to another question. Are you someone who needs a certain environment and a certain amount of time to write? Can you write under pressure well? Are there certain conditions that you know you need to be able to write?
LB: Well, I’m afraid so. I need a lot of dream time, just goofing-off time, to just think about it. Being sick has not helped because it’s kept me so much in my own head. And I thought it was teaching, but I think teaching has been very good for my writing. What’s been hard lately is that I’m thinking about my aches and pains and my oxygen*, and so I just don’t get out of myself.
My stories seem to be about me, but usually it’s when I feel love toward other people that the story comes. And just the joy of being alive. So [I can’t write] if I’m thinking about myself all the time. Say, about my backaches. I think it’s a very spiritual state. It’s almost like a religion. It sounds corny, but it’s like saying a prayer or singing a hymn or something. And if I’m feeling sorry for myself, I’m not going to write. I have to be pretty much in a positive state. Does that answer your question?
My stories seem to be about me, but usually it’s when I feel love toward other people that the story comes.
AZ: Yes, yes it does. There are just a couple quick little questions now. You said before that you write in a plain style and you appreciate that and never pursued an embellished one. Have you ever forced yourself to experiment with things like an embellished style, or something that’s truly experimental? Or something that’s far from what you generally do?
LB: A few times. Like in the book you read, the story “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” was an experiment. And I don’t think it worked very well, but it was fun. The most experimental I got was in “Point of View,” when I actually worked at playing with points of view. And that was fun, I enjoyed it, but that’s really not my intent, to play with the language. I usually am more concerned with the personal or with interpersonal relationships.
KP: Have you ever made a story completely up?
LB: Yes, that “Mama and Dad” story. I made it up. But this one mother-in-law of mine used to give those tea parties, and then an old man I knew was sick all the time and his wife had a heart attack. And I said, “Huh, how’s it going to feel for her to be sick?” So, yeah, I made that one up.
KP: But it was still about what you knew.
LB: Yes, but it was from different people. And the story itself I made up. But no, I don’t know if I could make one up completely.
AZ: Steve Katz talks about the idea that he never feels he finishes a story, there just comes a point where you surrender it to the public. Are you one of those writers who feel confident that yeah, that’s pretty much as good as it’s going to get, it’s finished? Or do you always feel like, maybe in a couple of years it’ll become a better story? And you’re just giving it up at this stage of completion?
LB: No, I feel it’s finished. And then I don’t go back for a couple years. Once I write a story, it’s gone, it’s like it’s not mine anymore. And I’m not tempted to edit it or change it.
KP: So even stories you wrote when you were 19…
LB: No. I mean, I may see them in the drawer, and they’re almost embarrassing. But I just leave them, they’re just there. And I like that… just because they weren’t always there. It’s like babies, you know, they weren’t there before.
AZ: You never had any formal education in writing along the way?
AZ: So would you call yourself a natural writer? Do you think of yourself in those terms?
LB: No, because I think I read enough and I hung around with writers. I was conscious enough of wanting to do it. When I first started writing, it was because I was homesick for Chile, and it was magic because the more I wrote the more I would remember. And I would write about a field and I would remember the flowers, so it was personal. But then… I’m trying to see how to answer your question properly.
AZ: It’s just a question about how you see yourself. For instance, you didn’t become a painter, or you didn’t…
LB: Oh, I see what you’re asking. Yes, in that sense I am a natural writer, because I always… I’d tell myself stories as a little girl. Or I’d write poems about hermits in the woods. [Laughter] And tell stories to myself, basically. So, yeah, I do feel like I’ve always been a writer. And I tell stories. The quote in high school about me from my yearbook is “Let me tell you my adventure.”
KP: I’ve heard and read a lot of people who say that your writing sounds natural. Do you try hard for that? What makes your writing read that way? Is it just because you’re being honest?
LB: Yeah. When I’m trying to think too much or put too much in, when I’m trying to be intellectual or thinking of my poetics, let’s say, I lose that. And the more I’m just telling the story, the more rhythm comes in, the more natural images—the images are just naturally more beautiful, because I’m seeing things for what they are.
AZ: Just two quick questions and then we’ll go. Does it matter to you how your work is going to be looked at decades hence?
LB: Yes. For some reason it seems like I’m very modest—because I don’t care about money or fame or New York Times reviews or any of that stuff. But I love the idea that I’ll be read a long time from now. I think more of that than I do of fashionable opinion. It’s—Is this story part of the whole world? And I’m finding myself, as I’m getting older—this probably will be my last book—thinking, Do I want this in my last book? This kind of a story? Like for my sons to see, or my grandsons to read. I toss out a lot of ideas which might seem too harsh or too bare.
For some reason it seems like I’m very modest—because I don’t care about money or fame or New York Times reviews or any of that stuff. But I love the idea that I’ll be read a long time from now.
KP: So you’re writing more for your family now?
LB: Yeah, but I love the idea of some little girl going into the library one day [and discovering one of my books]. So in a way I’m really ambitious.
AZ: One last question, a cliché, but really pertinent to us. What would be your advice to young writers—just anything at all, if you can leave us with one sentiment that you think is important for us, what would it be?
LB: Oh, the most important—because this is one I didn’t follow. I let myself be discouraged by other people’s opinions at one point. I would say, Take what you can of criticism, but stick with your own gut feelings. That’s really, really important. I was discouraged for a long time before I came to that point, where I realized, “Hey, I’m writing for me,” and I didn’t care about [the rest]. I think that’s the most important—especially with all these workshops and all these people telling you different things about your work and what you should do. Sometimes I feel really sorry for students in workshop because everyone has a different take. Just keep on writing and take what you can get, but when you feel good about a piece, keep that and remember that. Don’t let anybody take it away. That’s the most important thing, and the one I’ve seen people go down under. They didn’t stick it out through one more rejection. That little cleaning lady story got 13 rejections, and somehow… I love that story, and I let myself feel good about it. And just that fact kept me writing more stories.
KP: Thirteen doesn’t even seem that bad. [Laughter]
LB: No! [More laughter] Exactly! It’s not that bad! That’s a lovely way to end it.
KP and AZ: Thank you again, we’ll leave you in peace.
LB: You guys are so sweet.
*Due to a punctured lung, an oxygen tank was obligatory during Lucia’s later years.
Copyright © 2016 Kellie Paluck and Adrian Zupp.