Being Both

On Discovering the World of Lucia Berlin

Emily Bell

In the fall of 2013 I received a submission from one of the smartest, loveliest agents I know, Katherine Fausset at Curtis Brown. At first glance it seemed unlikely—a posthumous story collection from a little known writer. But then I saw her name: Lucia Berlin. Boy, did that have a pretty ring to it. And then I saw that many of the stories were set in the West—specifically Oakland and Berkeley, California, where I was born. And El Paso, Texas, where my mother was born and my grandmother still lives today, a place I visit often. Home, I thought. And then I read the stories. I would say, “and the rest is history,” but I have a feeling Lucia would hate that. And I do not want to disappoint her.

By now Lucia’s work has been reviewed by some of the finest critics working today. I won’t embarrass myself by trying to match them. But I will tell you that when I read her stories I knew in my gut that her work was in conversation with the kind of contemporary women writers I feel called to publish. Who is paying more attention than the woman? Who is watching closer than the mother? Her ear, her eye—the sharpest. But her touch is still soft. When reading her stories there is the feeling that you are discovering something and someone new, and yet somehow you’ve known it, her, all along. She draws you in with familiarity, then spins you around and spanks you. In my own work and life I am moved and motivated by the challenge of holding two seemingly oppositional forces at once. Time and time again, Lucia’s work embodies that very concept: classy and bawdy; critical and generous; mother and artist.

There are many friends and fans of Lucia’s work who are responsible for this overdue revival. We are indebted to them for keeping her work alive. I feel particular warmth and gratitude for her sons who, it seems, have always had to share their mother with the world. I feel lucky they have shared her with me, lucky to share more of her with you with the publication of Evening in Paradise and Welcome Home.

At some point during the publication of A Manual for Cleaning Women one of Lucia’s friends informed me that the hospital that appears in a handful of her stories is Alta Bates in Berkeley, California, the hospital where I was born. And that Lucia was working there the year I was born. I know I am not the only one who feels a cosmic connection to the life and work of Lucia Berlin. Nevertheless I’m protective of it. The way I imagine Lucia to have been protective over her own instincts, her own convictions. If we met today I’d like to think we’d be fast friends. But wouldn’t we all.

—Emily Bell, Senior Editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Read the other features from Lucia Berlin Week:

A Writer’s Business, an essay by August Kleinzahler

Lost in the Louvre, an excerpt from Evening in Paradise

Welcome Home, from her Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters

Recommended links:

Enter our Lucia Berlin Tote and Collected Works Sweepstakes here.

Lucia Berlin Special on WYPR

Lucia Berlin’s son Jeff shares some touching home movie footage in this window into the life of Lucia and her family.

An event on November 14, 2018 Celebrating the Life and Work of Lucia Berlin, at City Lights Bookstore