J. California Cooper's 'Wild Stars'
ED GORDON, host:
Now from high-tech gadgets to very low-tech veteran writing. Even after publishing 11 books and winning an American Book Award, J. California Cooper still prefers writing in bed with a pen and pad. Her latest work, Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns, is a collection of short stories that highlight Cooper's ability to spin simple tales filled with wisdom and insight.
J. California Cooper, so nice to have you. Welcome to the show.
J. CALIFORNIA COOPER (Author, Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns): Thank you. I'm pleased to be here, honestly.
GORDON: My pleasure. Let me ask you this: so many African-American female authors have been able to make their way, but so many of them point to you as inspiration. When you were out there in the beginning, there were so few of you, did you even think about, boy, maybe I shouldn't even be doing this?
Ms. COOPER: No, because I do what I--you know, what you feel. And I like to write. And Alice Walker walked into my life and made it possible for my book to be published. But before then, I had only done plays. But I never thought I could write.
GORDON: Let's start with the Alice Walker story, that Alice had seen some of your plays and said, my goodness! You are a terrific--a wonderful storyteller, and encouraged you to do so, so you could reach a larger audience.
Ms. COOPER: Well, she just said if you turn them into stories I'll publish them.
Ms. COOPER: So she must have liked them a little anyway.
GORDON: What was it that you think she--and I'm sure you all have had this discussion--found in these characters and the way you told a story that she was so impressed by?
Ms. COOPER: Well, actually, you know one wouldn't ever know, but I--here's what I think. I think people see a lot of, they think--most people think they're from the south, so people see some of their family in it. They're very honest, so I try to tell the truth, because what I'm basically trying to do is help somebody make some right choices.
You know, I'm not writing up--and I'm trying to write to people who don't know. That's why the language is simple, that's why the stories are simple. Sort of like parables, because these people who are out here struggling, this is no game out here in life. They call it a game, but this is serious. This is survival.
GORDON: What's the difference in trying to put a book together that is a book of short stories versus writing a novel? One harder than the other?
Ms. COOPER: Well, novels, you just stay with them longer. I like shorter stories. They're over quicker and you get to meet more people in your mind, you know?
GORDON: With a novel, you have the breath of three, four, 500 pages to make sure that that story's told. When you talk about telling a short story, you've got to figure out how to get to A to Z in a way that you finish and complete that story.
Ms. COOPER: Well, you know what? I don't often talk about this, but I'm just gonna tell you the truth. I don't have to figure it out. The people do it themselves. If I do one or two paragraphs at the beginning and I turn it over to the characters, they gonna take that story and run off with it and I have to keep up with them. But when I write, I talk about what's really important. Respect, for one thing. And I'll tell you one more thing and then I will hush. The thing is, that women and men think that--can I say nookie?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. COOPER: Okay. Women and men think that getting a little nookie, you have done something. You really did it. But the thing is, you're missing the best part, you know, the warmth? Somebody get up…
Ms. COOPER: …and fix something for you when you're sick. You're missing that. That's what life is about. Not that stuff you do in some corner. You know what I mean? And I can't say it like I feel it, but you got it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GORDON: We got it. We got it. Had you not received the attention, the adulation, the critical acclaim, do you think you'd be able to continue to write? Is writing that much in your blood that had you not received the applause back--do you think you'd still be a writer?
Ms. COOPER: I didn't write for applause. I'm glad it came, no doubt about it. But I wrote because I've been--I was telling stories before I could write. I played with paper dolls 'til I was 18 and nobody even knew my stories except my mother. You know, you do what you do…
GORDON: Did you--have you ever thought that strange?
Ms. COOPER: I still don't, because my best friend was a tree once and the next one was a rooster.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. COOPER: S, I don't think things are strange and I was just explaining to my PR that--person that I just noticed I have two snails and I saw them fall in love. Now somebody would say, this woman is crazy. But if you look at things and listen, lots of things are going on around you that you're not paying attention to…
Ms. COOPER: …and I happen to see that.
GORDON: Do you have a story in you that you haven't figured out how to translate yet?
Ms. COOPER: Yes, about three or four of them. I've got the first thing--I heard someone say once, be careful who you lie to, they may believe you. Now, that's really heavy to me, because some people get killed about believing what someone --and there's another one. I've been seeing this woman about--at least 10 years, sitting in this doorway with a pair of man's shoes on and the--you know how they used to cut the toe out for your corn not to hurt?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. COOPER: But she's sitting there. She has on a flowered skirt and a kind of a blue blouse. She's sitting on this step and it's in a doorway in a building, but she hasn't said a word in all these years.
GORDON: How do you think that you've been able to find these universal appeals? Because when you talked about cutting the toe out, I saw my Uncle Adolph(ph) because that's what he did…
Ms. COOPER: See? See?
GORDON: I mean, we all knew it, but it's so universal, so many of your stories. Is it just life?
Ms. COOPER: It's just life and they're just human beings, and they can be any color.
GORDON: Now, you knew that this question, I guess, was coming, because you pulled out a piece of paper in your purse. But talk to me about what's on that piece of paper.
Ms. COOPER: No, no, no. It's not obligatory; you don't have to do it. But I'm trying--when I'm telling people about their choices, this--it's very brief.
Ms. COOPER: This is a caliph in Spain and he put this on his tombstone. Now you know when you die that you're not going to get any benefit from anything you lie about, so there was no reason for him to lie about what he put on his tombstone. But he said: (Reading) "I have now reigned above 50 years in victory and peace. Beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honor, power and pleasure, have waited on my call." Did you hear that? "Nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting in my years. During this life of wonder, I have kept count of the days of happiness, which have been given me. They number 14."
Fourteen, and he had everything the world tells you…
Ms. COOPER: …you need to be happy. So, it's not money, it's your choices. How you build your mind and what you desire to do with your life. That's why, sometimes--I'm quite content, to be honest with you. I'm quite content and I sure need some money, but that is not the whole thing, you know what I'm trying to say?
Ms. COOPER: It's being able to be content with that spring in back of my house and my frogs and my stuff and--but I never, never, never want to have to worry about utility bills and things.
GORDON: J. California Cooper, it's so wonderful to have you with us. The latest book, Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns. And also, we should note that your novel, Some People, Some Other Places, is now a soft cover book…
Ms. COOPER: I love it, yeah. I love it.
GORDON: …as they say. That is out there, as well. Thank you so much.
Ms. COOPER: No, thank you.