J. California Cooper, a writer who enjoyed a widespread acclaim for her fable-like tales built largely around the imagined lives of African American women, died Sept. 20 in Seattle. She was 82.
A spokeswoman, Vivian Phillips, confirmed the death. Ms. Cooper had several heart attacks in recent years.
Ms. Cooper began her writing life as a playwright and held a series of jobs, from secretary to truck driver, before publishing her first book of fiction in her 50s. She went on to write five novels and seven collections of short stories that won her a substantial following throughout the country.
Often secretive about her personal life and her writing methods, Ms. Cooper let her books speak for her instead. She often addressed the struggles of African American women in her fiction, writing stories in vernacular dialect as if she were speaking over the back fence about the weaknesses, sorrows and triumphs of ordinary people.
“In their own gossipy, circuitous, roundabout way, the stories enchant you because they are not stories; they are the truth reconstructed,” novelist Terry McMillan wrote in the New York Times Book Review in 1987. “They give you the feeling that you’re sitting on the front porch with the narrator, somewhere in the South; it’s hot and humid, she’s snapping beans, you’re holding the bowl and she’s giving you the inside scoop on everybody.”
Ms. Cooper was sometimes described as a literary folk artist, whose stories were notable for their homespun wisdom and clear-eyed sense of right and wrong. She wrote about women hoping to find love, but she also examined such topics as rape, prostitution, incest, homosexuality and drug abuse. The presence of death and the long reach of slavery often loomed behind her stories.
Her first novel, “Family” (1991) explored the fate of a female slave, Clora, and her many-hued descendants in succeeding generations.
“Her place was goin to be nice,” Ms. Cooper wrote in “Family,” in a passage typical of her plain-spoken, colloquial style. “She furnished it with the best of things, tho she never lowed no one in them special rooms. She didn’t much go in em herself cept to go sit and look round at what was hers. Hers.”
In an introduction to Ms. Cooper’s first collection of stories, “A Piece of Mine” (1984) Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple,” said her work was in the tradition of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.
“Like theirs,” Walker wrote, “her style is deceptively simple and direct, and the vale of tears in which some of her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person’s foolishness cannot be heard.”
Ms. Cooper often spoke of how her sense of morality derived from her strong Christian faith, and her stories are replete with harsh judgments on the arrogant, greedy and profligate. In the story “$100 and Nothing!” from “A Piece of Mine,” she depicts the bitter relationship between a successful businesswoman and a husband who belittled her achievement. He said he could do as well with “$100 and nothing.”
When the woman was dying, she left her husband exactly $100 in her will.
Joan Cooper was born Nov. 10, 1931, in Berkeley, Calif. She spoke little about her early life, except that she married for the first of two times when she was 19.
She adopted “California” as a pen name and did not like to reveal her age or, for much of her life, her first name.
“If I tell you, someone will start calling me by it,” she told The Washington Post in 2000. “My mother gave it to me, so it’s mine. I have to keep something for myself.”
She held jobs as a manicurist, waitress, secretary, loan officer and, for a time, moved to Alaska to work as a bus and truck driver. In her spare time, she wrote 17 plays, one of which, “Strangers,” received San Francisco’s Black Playwright Award in 1978.
Walker suggested that she try her hand at short stories and became one of her early champions, publishing her first book in 1984. Ms. Cooper won an American Book Award for her 1986 story collection, “Homemade Love.” One of Ms. Cooper’s short stories, “Funny Valentines” was made into a 1999 TV movie starring Alfre Woodard.
Ms. Cooper lived in Oakland, Calif., for many years and later moved to Texas before returning to the West Coast. She had lived in Seattle with her daughter and only survivor, Paris Williams, since 2013.
Ms. Cooper liked to immerse herself in silence and allow what she called the “vibrations” of the past to create the voices of her characters.
“I’m not a real writer,” she said in 2004. “I write because these people tell me things.”
Ms. Cooper’s fiction was sometimes criticized for having one-dimensional characters, intrusive narrators and half-sketched scenes. Even so, she wrote with a kind of personal authority that made many of her readers believe that her stories were drawn from real life or based on difficult experiences in her own life.
“Some people think I’ve lived these stories,” she said. “If I did I’d be dead and ugly.”