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California Dreaming

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You’re probably dying to know what the J stands for, right? Well, J. California Cooper isn’t saying. She hasn’t used her first name since the early eighties, when complete strangers in the Bay Area theater scene took to chatting up the playwright as if they knew her personally. So she kept her last name, adopted her home state for her middle one, and dropped every letter in her birth name but the first initial.

A quarter century later, people still talk to Cooper, and a good many of those voices are characters in her head. Her latest menagerie has plenty to say in Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns (Doubleday, $23.95), Cooper’s first story collection in five years. Leafing through the nine stories is like propping open a screen door and peering into the homes of family and friends. As you may have guessed from the title, Cooper’s characters are looking for something: a soul mate, justice or the strength to persevere in a difficult world. The master storyteller sweeps us into their lives and makes us care deeply about them. We find ourselves surprised and moved by their complexities: They’re world-weary yet optimistic, cautious yet giving, virtuous yet nonjudgmental, shy yet bold, and they are the brainchildren of a woman who’s a complete original. Her works cause us to smile while making us think.

What distinguishes Wild Stars—Cooper’s eleventh book—from previous titles like In Search of Satisfaction (Anchor), A Piece of Mine (Anchor), The Matter Is Life (Anchor) and Some People, Some Other Place (Anchor) is that her latest work displays less urgency to arrive at answers to life’s Big Questions. Instead it relishes in the search itself.

The insightful author, who has sold more than 700,000 copies of her much-loved works, including Wake of the Wind (Anchor) and the 1989 American Book Award–winning Homemade Love (St. Martin’s Press), says she has just one more book in her. It’s hard to believe that the energetic seventysomething (she loves swimming, playing the piano, and tap dancing) will ever put down her pen and writing pad because it’s an integral part of her creative ritual and spirit. She writes in bed, in longhand. “Anything mechanical will run the story and feeling away,” she says. And she writes only under certain conditions. “Writing hand to pen to paper never happens in the summer,” says Cooper.

These days, this Portland, Oregon, mother of one grown daughter has been feeling the impulse to lay down her pen and pick up brushes and sketchbooks instead. She doubts this final book will come to her Pacific Northwest house, where she’s been living for the past year. “It’s too big and cold,” she says. She’s strongly considering a move to smaller digs. “All I want is a little house with a garden, a yard, a cat and a chicken or two.”

Despite this quest for a simpler life, Cooper has had a dazzling career. And through it all, her message has remained pretty much unchanged. “I’ve always loved to write about what’s going on in the world,” she says. “Because I love God, I know that even though life is hard and people suffer very much, if you have laughter and faith, you can also have optimism.”

For more on J. California Cooper and her upcoming readings for Wild Stars Seeking Midnight Suns, go to randomhouse.com.


Photo Credit: Ron Holtz
J. California Cooper takes a break from her characters.
Photo Credit: Time Inc. Digital Studio

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