DONNA GORDON BLANKINSHIP, Associated Press
SEATTLE (AP) — Prolific writer J. California Cooper, who was writing plays until Alice Walker suggested she switch to short stories and novels, because they were an easier path to a paycheck, has died at age 82.
Cooper died early Saturday after experiencing several heart attacks over the past few years, her daughter Paris Williams said Tuesday.
She lived most of her life in northern California and wrote more than a dozen plays and had about a dozen books published after switching to prose fiction.
She met Walker after the Pulitzer Prize winner came to see one of her plays.
“Her advice to my mother was you should write short stories or novels because it was easier to get paid. She went home and wrote 12 stories,” Williams said.
When Cooper asked Walker to write an introduction to her first story collection, the writer who had just been honored for “The Color Purple” asked to publish the book at her own publishing house. Walker also helped Cooper get one of her stories published in Essence magazine and the book took off from there, Williams said.
Williams called Cooper a hard worker who worked a variety of jobs from a teamster on the Alaska pipeline to an escrow officer and a manicurist to pay the bills.
She went to the pipeline to work as a secretary and switched to bus and truck driving after she realized she could make a lot more money, her daughter recalls. She drove welders up to their work site and then panned for gold while waiting for the return trip, Williams said.
“My mother tried a lot of things when I was growing up,” she said. “Writing was something she always did. She just stuck them in a drawer.”
She was known for a folksy, conversational style and for stories of women scarred by violence or betrayal. Her work was praised for its power and at times criticized for being didactic.
Her collections included “A Piece of Mine” and “Homemade Love.”
Reviewing her novel “Family” in The New York Times in 1990, Roy Hoffman called it “the sort of book that ought to be read out loud.”
“Never mind that the narrator, Clora, is a ghost,” Hoffman wrote. “In its strong rhythms and colloquial expressions, this book is a living woman’s monologue. At times, Clora even seems to lean toward us, grabbing at our lapels.”
Williams said her mother never took her fame seriously.
“She used to say people have forgotten all about me,” Williams said. “But all her books are still in print. It’s pretty amazing.”
Her mother did not want a funeral and requested instead that she be remembered with personal acts of kindness or charity.
AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this story from New York.
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