Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Lucia Berlin: Literary genius who transformed my life—in Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair: Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author.

Lucia Berlin
Lucia Berlin, Albuquerque, 1956
Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin
Eleven years after her death, Lucia Berlin become an overnight literary sensation. The reviews I kind of expected, but it was the ravishing photos of the young Lucia that caught me off guard. How my life might have changed if I'd known her then.

If I had the chance, to meet her then, I'd be wildly tempted, but I'd decline. For ten wonderful years, Lucia lit up my life, and transformed my work. She made my book Columbine possible. And he was helpful on my next book on gay soldiers, too. She taught me how to love myself—or a start, anyway.

It's been quite the whirlwind this month. Three gushing New York Times pieces in four days, then a smaller entry when she hit their bestseller list, and a fifth on the website, calling her a long-lost genius. All in two weeks, that also brought rave reviews from every imaginable quarter, from the New Yorker to Entertainment Weekly and Paris Review.

Lucia Berlin feature in New York Times Arts
Lucia sold more copies of her bold, gritty story collection A Manual For Cleaning Women in the first  week or two of September than all the books in her entire life.

Lucia never felt the excitement of a royalty check. She died destitute. Her three surviving sons will receive the first royalty from Farrar Straus and Giroux next spring. They earned it. They lived most of these stories. They are very funny, but not pretty, and 98 percent of it is true. Often, she didn't even change the names.

That debt to Lucia, I can never repay it, but one small attempt was to capture what she did for me, and to me, in this Vanity Fair piece: Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author.

A taste:

 “You better get over your looks before you lose them,” she told me. “Once they’re gone, it will be too late. You’ll never get over it.”
Lucia Berlin, Albuquerque, 1963
Buddy Berlin/Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin
Lucia had been a dazzling beauty, but I knew her as the kindly grandmother out of a children’s fable. She was permanently tethered to an oxygen tank after that hospital stay: wheeling a mobile tank behind her on a little cart, fumbling with the plastic tubing in her nostrils when she got anxious, ripping it out when I truly exasperated her. She would make her point, smile again, and settle it back in.
I was closing in on 40 by then, repeating her mistakes. Sleeping around frantically, to prove someone wanted me. Hot guys, preferably: desired by the desirable. My self-doubt riddled my writing, Lucia said. She cut to the heart of my problems—with men, with friendships, my work. She was brutally honest, yet compassionate, the way she was with her characters.
She instilled candor, but went further in her own work, to audacity. “Cleaning women do steal”—but not what you might expect. Lucia calls female characters fat and hefty and a boy retarded. Because he was. Same page, she describes the victim of a public sex crime as “an ugly, shy little girl.” Because the charismatic boy with the luxurious eyelashes and gold crucifix glittering against his smooth brown chest was vicious enough to pluck the saddest kid to humiliate. The callous brutality of the abuser is revealed.
El Paso family reunion, 1952. Lucia Berlin is far right, on the ground. Damn, she looks happy. / Literary Estate of Lucia Berlin

Lucia had contempt for bigots, homophobes, or anyone trying to sanitize her descriptions. Some girls were ugly, some were whores. Some predators were gorgeous and intoxicating. Grime could be alluring. In my favorite story, “My Jockey,” . . . {Continue reading at Vanity Fair: Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author.}

A Manual For Cleaning Women — Lucia Berlin

Bobby Sneakers reading Lucia.
Dave Cullen


  1. Dave, I am really looking forward to becoming familiar with Lucia's work. it's a shame I'm ignorant thus far. Thank you for posting this. I'll have to read the VF article next. And, I think I am already on the notification list for your new book. Looking forward.

  2. I have a feeling Lucia would have loved Bobby Sneakers as much as you do, Dave. How it had escaped my memory that you still have this blog, amazes me, but I'm back on board now. Looking forward to reading this book you've been touting so much, and of course your own forthcoming one as well.

    1. Thanks, Carroll. Yeah, she would have loved Bobby.

      I let the blog go idle for quite awhile. But I'm back. Thanks for wandering back. :)

    2. Well, for whatever reason I'm highly averse to commenting on posts that are public on FB, yet have no trouble at all spewing forth all sorts of comments on equally public blogs. Feels good to have a legitimate reason & venue in which to say howdy to you here again :-)

      I pretty much assumed that your blog hiatus was part of the necessary process of distancing yourself from the whole Columbine "thing", which I know well-and-truly "got to you" after a while. Glad you are feeling whole enough (or sufficiently distanced if either of those assumptions were accurate) to come back. I have so greatly enjoyed (although "enjoyment" certainly wasn't the appropriate word there for a while) observing the paths your life has taken, as a writer and as a person, thus far, Dave. Have a feeling the next several chapters at least are going to be really good ones for you!

    3. Interesting. No, I left the blog behind to concentrate on my next book, primarily.

      And because people don't read blogs too much anymore. There seemed better places to use my energy. But I miss it, for some things. As long as I can avoid spending scads of time on it.