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Remembering Writer J. California Cooper On The Writers Studio

by Anne Bothwell 3 Oct 2014 5:30 PM

Listen to Cooper interviewed by Kim Malcolm and Randy Gordon in 2006 on The Writers Studio.


Author J. California Cooper died in Seattle on Sept. 20. She was 82. Cooper wrote plays and novels, including 1989’s American Love, which won an American Book Award in 1989.  Born in Berkeley,  she lived and wrote in Marshall, Texas in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Many thanks to Thea Temple of The Writer’s Garret, who reminded me that Cooper had appeared on The Writers Studio , recorded at Theatre Three on April 4, 2006.

“A hard worker in literature and in life, she paid the bills through a range of jobs as varied as Teamster on the Alaska Pipeline to manicurist. Her “folksy” and “colloquial” approach to writing expressed the power and humanity of her many life experiences,” Temple wrote. “Ms. Cooper did not want a funeral and requested instead that she be remembered with personal acts of kindness or charity.”

“Cooper first made her mark as the author of 17 plays and “Black Playwright of the Year,” when she caught the attention of Alice Walker, who encouraged Cooper to explore writing fiction. Her first collection of short stories, A Piece of Mine, received accolades for being “rich in wisdom and insight.” Her other acclaimed works include the novels Family and In Search of Satisfaction and five other collections of stories: Homemade Love, winner of the American Book Award; The Future Has a Past; Some Love, Some Pain, Sometime; The Matter Is Life; and Some Soul to Keep. She received the James Baldwin Writing Award and the Literary Lion Award from the American Library Association. A highly dynamic and warm speaker, she and the audience enjoy one another in this interchange that touches on the value of writing, reading, church, and the social glue of gossip.”

Temple tracked down the recording that was co-produced by and aired on KERA. Take a listen:


Cooper told interviewers Kim Malcolm and Randy Gordon that she loved, and was deeply moved and inspired, by the natural world. She told a snail love story to the audience and expressed her attachment to clouds and frogs.

“Trees have a spirit to me,” she said. “I don’t make friends with all trees, but I have some favorites.”

J. California Cooper. Photo: Ellen Banner

J. California Cooper. Photo: Ellen Banner

Here are some more excerpts from the conversation:

On the importance of education…

“Education is very important to me because I didn’t have one,” Cooper said. “I didn’t go on to college because I got married and had my daughter, Paris. Nobody talked to me about college. Nobody said you gotta get your degree. So half the time I wasn’t at school. If you said math, I was going to cut that class…

“You don’t know what you’re going to do later in life. I wanted to be a veterinarian. You had to know math. And I failed every test I took. And this was just the last two years. Because I love animals. If you’re in school, take everything they offer you.”

On heroines who are transformed by love and revealed to be truly beautiful

“Love does things for you. Somebody like you, it changes your whole life, your whole mind. The thing is, there are a lot of people who think they are ugly; there are a lot of people who think other people are ugly.   Why are you wasting so much time thinking about other people being ugly? You know youngsters now 15, 20 years old are getting cosmetic surgery. Why?

“I like Michael Jackson, but look what he did to himself.

“The greatest work of art to me is natural one.”

“Suppose this person really is ugly. Do you know, their life is entirely different.  They can walk down the street  40 years and not one person turns to look. When I grew up I was the one who was crazy…’You ‘aint never gonna have any sense.’ My mother called me bird brain. And she loved me. I was ready to go outside and talk to my friends the tree or the dog.”

Those are wounding things. How did you protect yourself?

“I knew that my mother loved me. And I didn’t care what my sisters said.  It affected me for a while, and then you forget it. If you have more important things. I had friends, my pets. I  really truly do love the things I love and they become beings to me. These people in these books, I talk about them and I talk to them like they’re real. I beg them not to do certain things. It was in my hand, I have the pencil. But I beg them not to do it. Because they were real and when they made their mind up, I let ’em do what they decided. Because it’s their life.   I don’t think you can plan a whole book out from beginning to end. Because you don’t know what you’re going to do half the time. How can you tell these people what to do?

On spending time in Marshall, Texas.

“That’s where my father is from.  So I was looking at roots. And they had this house there. And it was $4,000 for 7 rooms! On a half acre of land! So I bought this house and I think I put about $35,000 into it…  But it was still worth $4,000. There was nobody there who could afford it if it was more than $4,000. Poverty makes people a lot of things, and sometimes it makes them dangerous. I don’t care what color they are.  I did not enjoy being in Marshall Texas with all that poverty, with all those black people that I had grown to know and love, I didn’t enjoy the things they went through, or they put me through, because they were poor.  Oh nothing like a gun or a knife. The danger is that you can’t relax. When somebody’s broke and hungry, how dangerous can they get? Should you wait and see? So I was ready to come back to California.  It was too hot.”

 On writing….

“Listen to your heart. Read….Trust yourself. First of all, put something in your head. And then trust yourself when it gets ready to come out. And don’t write for other people. You know when I’m writing, I’m writing for me.  And if I don’t say ‘Get it girl!’ or ‘Hey now!’  then I’m not doing the right thing with this person. What do people know. Thank god they like my books. But there’s only because there’s something in there from the Bible. It’s not me they like. It’s because there’s a truth in there.”