|This article's lead section may not adequately summarize key points of its contents. (August 2015)|
November 12, 1936
|Died||November 12, 2004
Marina del Rey, California
Lucia Brown Berlin (November 12, 1936 – November 12, 2004) was an American short story writer. She had a small, devoted following, but did not reach a mass audience during her lifetime. She rose to sudden literary fame eleven years after her death, in August 2015, with Farrar, Straus and Giroux's publication of a volume of selected stories, A Manual For Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson. It hit The New York Times bestseller list in its second week, and within a few weeks, had outsold all her previous books combined. The collection was ineligible for most of the year-end awards (either because she was deceased, or it was recollected material), but was named to a large number of year-end lists, including the New York Times Book Review's "10 Best Books of 2015." It was also a finalist for the Kirkus Prize.
Berlin was born in Juneau, Alaska, and spent her childhood on the move, following her father's career as a mining engineer. The family lived in mining camps in Idaho, Montana and Arizona, and Chile, where Lucia spent most of her youth. As an adult, she lived in New Mexico, Mexico, Northern and Southern California and Colorado.
Berlin began publishing relatively late in life, under the encouragement and sometimes tutelage of poet Ed Dorn. Her first small collection, Angels Laundromat, was published in 1981, but her published stories were written as early as 1960. Several of her stories appeared in magazines such as The Atlantic and Saul Bellow’s The Noble Savage. Berlin published six collections of short stories, but most of her work can be found in three later volumes from Black Sparrow Books: Homesick: New and Selected Stories (1990), So Long: Stories 1987-92 (1993) and Where I Live Now: Stories 1993-98 (1999).
Berlin was never a bestseller, but was widely influential within the literary community. She has been compared to Raymond Carver and Richard Yates. Her one-page story "My Jockey", consisting of five paragraphs, won the Jack London Short Prize for 1985. Berlin also won an American Book Award in 1991 for Homesick, and was awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 2015, a compendium of her short story work was released under the title, A Manual for Cleaning Women: Short Stories. It debuted at #18 on the New York Times bestseller list its first week, and rose to #15 on the regular list the following week. It debuted at #14 on the ABA's Indie bestseller list, and #5 on the LA Times' list.
Influences and teaching
Throughout her life, Berlin earned a living through a series of working class jobs, reflected in story titles like "Manual for Cleaning Women," "Emergency Room Notebook, 1977," and "Private Branch Exchange" (referring to telephone switchboards and their operators).
Up through the early 1990s, Berlin taught creative writing in a number of venues, including the San Francisco County Jail and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. She also took oral histories from elderly patients at Mt. Zion Hospital.
In the fall of 1994, Berlin began a two-year teaching position as Visiting Writer at University of Colorado, Boulder. Near the end of her term, she was one of four campus faculty awarded the Student Organization for Alumni Relations Award for Teaching Excellence. "To win a teaching award after two years is unheard of," the English Chair Katherine Eggert said later in an obituary. Berlin was asked to stay on at the end of her two-year term. She was named associate professor, and continued teaching there until 2000.
Berlin has been called one of America's best kept secrets.
"I would place her somewhere in the same arena as Alice Munro, Grace Paley, maybe Tillie Olsen. In common with them, she writes with a guiding intelligent compassion about family, love, work; in a style that is direct, plain, clear, and non-judgmental; with a sense of humor and a gift for the gestures and the words that reveal character, the images that reveal the nature of a place." —Lydia Davis, New Ohio Review, on the story A Manual for Cleaning Women
"[The stories] are told in a conversational voice and they move with a swift and often lyrical economy. They capture and communicate moments of grace and cast a lovely, lazy light that lasts. Berlin is one of our finest writers and here she is at the height of her powers." —Molly Giles, San Francisco Chronicle, on So Long
"Berlin's literary model is Chekhov, but there are extra-literary models too, including the extended jazz solo, with its surges, convolutions, and asides. This is writing of a very high order." —August Kleinzahler, London Review of Books, on Where I Live Now
"In the field of short fiction, Lucia Berlin is one of America's best kept secrets. That's it. Flat out. No mitigating conditions. End of review. Well, not quite… [It is] characteristic of all Berlin's stories, a buoyancy: however grim and 'unworthy' her characters, she enters and explores their lives with unfailing high spirits.... A drug rehab center in New Mexico; a story called 'Electric Car, El Paso' ('It was very tall and short, like a car in a cartoon that had run into a wall. A car with its hair standing on end.')... The Christmas party at the dialysis center. 'The machine makes a humming sucking sound with an occasional slurp.' Hundreds of bubble lights on the Christmas tree that gurgle and flow. The man who had had a cadaver transplant. The man who looks like a sweaty manatee. The girl who looks like an albino dinosaur, or an anorexic whippet.... And it goes on, relentless. We're in the West Oakland detox, the residents in the TV pit, watching Leave It to Beaver.... Dust to Dust: 'There are things people just don't talk about. I don't mean the hard things, like love, but the awkward ones, like how funerals are fun sometimes....' In more ways than one, this book is Lucia Berlin." —Paul Metcalf, Conjunctions: 14, on Safe & Sound
"This remarkable collection occasionally put me in mind of Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes, with its sweep of American origins and places. Berlin is our Scheherazade, continually surprising her readers with a startling variety of voices, vividly drawn characters, and settings alive with sight and sound." —Barbara Barnard, American Book Review, on Where I Live Now
Berlin was married three times and had four sons.
Berlin was plagued by health problems, including double scoliosis. Her crooked spine punctured one of her lungs, and she was never seen without an oxygen tank beside her from 1994 until her death. She retired when her condition grew too severe to work, and she later developed lung cancer. She struggled with radiation therapy, which she said felt like having your bones ground to dust. As her health and finances deteriorated, Berlin moved into a trailer park on the edge of Boulder, and later, a converted garage behind her son’s house outside Los Angeles. The move allowed her to be closer to her sons, and made breathing easier (Boulder’s elevation had exacerbated her lung problems). Lucia died in her home in Marina del Rey, on her 68th birthday, with one of her favorite books in her hands.
Works and publications
- A Manual for Cleaning Ladies. Illustrations by Michael Myers. Washington, D.C. [i.e. Healdsburg, California]: Zephyrus Image, 1977. OCLC 6148887
- Angels Laundromat: Short Stories. Berkeley, CA: Turtle Island for the Netzahaulcoyotl Historical Society, 1981. ISBN 978-0-913-66639-5 OCLC 7532068
- Legacy. Berkeley, CA: Poltroon Press, 1983. Illustrated by Michael Bradley. OCLC 10869572
- Phantom Pain: Sixteen Stories. Bolinas, CA: Tombouctou Books, 1984. ISBN 978-0-939-18028-8 OCLC 633368020
- Safe & Sound. Berkeley, CA: Poltroon Press, 1988. Illustrated by Frances Butler. ISBN 978-0-918-39505-4 OCLC 123106761
- Homesick: New & Selected Stories. Santa Rosa CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0-876-85816-5 OCLC 22597395
- So Long: Stories, 1987-1992. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1993. ISBN 978-0-876-85894-3 OCLC 27381091
- Where I Live Now: Stories, 1993-1998. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1999. ISBN 978-1-574-23091-8 OCLC 475160702
- A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories. Edited by Stephen Emerson. Foreword by Lydia Davis. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. ISBN 978-0-374-20239-2 OCLC 898433447
In periodicals (posthumous)
- Berlin, Lucia. 2005. "Letters to August Kleinzahler." The London Review of Books. Vol. 27, No. 15: pp. 33–34. ISSN 0260-9592 OCLC 99818133
- Berlin, Lucia. 2015. "B.F. and Me." The Paris Review. No. 213: Summer 2015. pp. 269–269. ISSN 0031-2037 OCLC 5858374865
- Berlin, Lucia, Yasunari Kawabata, and Amy Hempel. Lucia Berlin: Summer 1991. Naropa Institute, 1991. 3 audio cassettes. Audio of two classes held at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado during Summer 1991. Naropa Audio Archive: 20051107, 20051111. OCLC 63682481
- Berlin, Lucia. Lucia Berlin Reading 12 Nov 93 at Lincoln Lecture Hall, Naropa. Naropa Institute, 1993. 1 audio cassette. Lucia Berlin reading at Naropa Institute November 12, 1993. Naropa Audio Archive: 20051208. OCLC 62873090
- Berlin, Lucia, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Molly Giles, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. W&P Reading Cervantes; Hawkins; Giles, Berlin. Naropa Institute, 1997. 2 audio cassettes. Writing and poetics reading featuring Lorna Dee Cervantes, Bobbie Louise Hawkins, Molly Giles, and Lucia Berlin. Naropa Audio Archive: 20060118, 20060119. OCLC 70077867
- Berlin, Lucia. Rigorous. Oakland, CA: Mark Berlin, 1992. OCLC 651063912
- Berlin, Lucia. From Luna Nueva. Boulder, CO: Kavyayantra Press at Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, November 1993. OCLC 441842670
- Berlin, Lucia. The Moon: There's No Moon Like on a Clear New Mexico Night. Boulder, CO: Kavyayantra Press at Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, 1997. OCLC 794174724
- "Lucia B Berlin - United States Social Security Death Index". FamilySearch. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
- Williams, John (16 August 2015). "Lucia Berlin’s Roving, Rowdy Life Is Reflected in a Book of Her Stories". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
- "Best Sellers - The New York Times". www.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2015-09-12.
- Cullen, Dave. "11 Years After Her Death, Lucia Berlin Is Finally a Bestselling Author". Retrieved 2015-09-12.
- "The 10 Best Books of 2015". The New York Times. 2015-12-03. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
- "2015 Finalists: fiction | Kirkus Reviews". Kirkus Reviews. Retrieved 2015-12-05.
- Davis, Lydia (12 August 2015). "The Story Is the Thing: On Lucia Berlin". The New Yorker. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
Adapted from the foreword to A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories, by Lucia Berlin
- Ensslin, John C. (18 November 2004). "Lucia Berlin, 68, acclaimed fiction writer". Rocky Mountain News. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
- Franklin, Ruth (12 August 2015). "‘A Manual for Cleaning Women,’ by Lucia Berlin". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
- "A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories (starred review)". Publishers Weekly. 6 April 2015. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
- "Best Sellers - The New York Times". www.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
- "Best Sellers - The New York Times". www.nytimes.com. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
- "National Indie Bestsellers - Hardcover Fiction | American Booksellers Association". www.bookweb.org. Retrieved 2015-09-22.
- "Bestsellers". Retrieved 2015-09-22.
- Winsted, Elizabeth (17 November 2004). "Former CU instructor dies". The Daily Camera. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
- Greenblatt, Leah (7 August 2015). "A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin: EW Review". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 17 August 2015.
- Meanor, Patrick, ed. (1993). American short story writers since World War II. Dictionary of Literary Biography. 130. Detroit, MI: Gale Research. ISBN 9780810353893.