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Life lessons, plainly told

Novelist and short story writer J. California Cooper will be honored here for lifetime achievement by Philadelphia's Art Sanctuary.

If you've read anything by best-selling author J. California Cooper, you know that she would quickly tell you that basking in the spotlight is like making a direct call to the devil. Humans are their most foolish, she says, when they aren't humble.

Extolling these simple truths has made the 79-year-old California native a favorite among generations of readers. Her books, which include seven short-story collections and five novels, are all about learning life's obvious lessons.

Cooper's latest novel, Life Is Short but Wide (Anchor Books, 2009), was on the New York Times best-seller list for weeks. Philadelphia singer Jill Scott refers to Cooper as "brilliant. One of the best writers of all times." She's also a favorite of Nikki Giovanni, Halle Berry, and former first lady Laura Bush. She has earned scores of accolades and literary awards including the American Book Award in 1989.

On Thursday, Cooper will add one more honor to her prestigious collection: a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Philadelphia-based Art Sanctuary's 27th Annual Celebration of Black Writing. Past recipients include poet Sonia Sanchez and novelists Walter Mosley and Terry McMillan.

"All my books tell the truth," Cooper said. "Most people make the same mistakes over and over again all over the world. Life is about choices. And these choices determine our lives. I want to make things as plain as possible for people."

Cooper's sagas are set in rural Southern or Midwestern towns in the years immediately following the abolition of slavery. All of the tales are gripping, and there is a lot of hardship - witness Lifee and Mordecai Freeman in Cooper's 1998 novel The Wake of the Wind, walking through Texas to California when they are freed.

Her characters are poor, most are black, and everyone is searching for something: fame, freedom, or power. All roads, they hope, lead to love. But there is no quick fix. Those who take the easy way out crash and burn. Those with patience and faith do better - or at least Cooper doesn't let them fall as hard. A lot of people have no idea who she is, but those who read her savor every word of her folksy stories.

"It's interesting how she falls into that dichotomy, but her work is really fabulous," said Kali Gross, Drexel University's director of Africana Studies.

"She gets to the heart and soul of the complexities of everyday African American life, but she deals with that struggle with a wit and grace that wins people over. You aren't beaten down by the narrative, you end up lifted."

Lorene Cary, founder and director of the Art Sanctuary, said Cooper was chosen for the award because of her phenomenal body of work that is representative of this year's theme: "Let's have some serious fun."

"Her work is deceptively simple," Cary said. "It's fun, but it's a profound look at life the way it is: straight, no chaser."

The 13-day annual celebration of black writing began May 23 and wraps up Saturday with an all-day festival at Temple University.

Cooper talks the same way she writes: plainly and straightforward. Her voice may be gravelly, but it's still strong. Personal questions are immediately rebuffed. And absolutely no, the newspaper cannot have a more recent picture of her. She's been sick and she's not too crazy about the way she looks despite her gorgeous silver hair, wide eyes, and slim frame.

"The shingles changed my life," Cooper said of the illness she's been battling off and on for about 10 years. "It's like when I turned 69, time just sort of looked back and said, 'Look, we forgot her, let's go back and get her.' "

She opens up a little when asked what she's eating for breakfast: wheat toast, avocado, and cottage cheese, but her favorite meal is lunch. Oh, and yes, she likes President Obama, he's holding up well.

The conversation slowly moves to writing. Cooper wonders aloud why none of her books got turned into movies; after all, everybody says they like her work. Then she giggles. "Sometimes I like to think Jehovah didn't let it happen because I probably would have lost my mind."

The chat then turns serious, self-deprecating even - she clearly has no interest in waking up the devil this morning.

"I can't write," she said. "The people just come in my head. They just want to tell stories. Once I know what the people are coming to talk about, they come with music."

Cooper was born Joan Cooper and grew up in Oakland, Calif. She played with paper dolls until she was about 18. That was when her mother - echoing the sentiment of one of Cooper's many well-meaning but mean characters - took them away from her.

The next year, Cooper married and had a daughter.

Cooper started writing down her stories, which she says comes from her life experiences - there is a little bit of her in every character - and reading the Bible. She amassed a drawerful of short stories and plays. Over the years, she worked as a loan officer, a legal secretary, and a clerk. She didn't like to stay in one place for more than a year.

"People would often develop some hatred or jealousy," she said, sounding just like the omniscient characters that often move her stories along.

Eventually, Cooper's daughter, Paris Williams, talked her into submitting her plays to a community theater in Oakland. In 1978, the play Strangers won her the area Black Playwright of the Year Award. She began publishing her work under J., for Joan, and added California because it was her home. (Think Tennessee Williams.)

Around that time, Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, saw one of Cooper's staged works. She was so impressed that she suggested Cooper switch to writing short stories. Walker's printing house, Wild Trees Press, published her first book of short stories, A Piece of Mine, in 1984. A career was born.

Cooper, who writes all of her stories in longhand before typing them out on a computer, says she has a hard time getting them on paper because arthritis makes her hands tremble.

She has no plans to write another book, as of now, anyway.

"I'm kind of retired," she said. "So I'm pretty sure that I'm not going to write another book. It has to really come to me. I'm not going to chase it."

Lifetime Achievement

The Art Sanctuary will honor J. California Cooper at 6 p.m. Thursday at Church of the Advocate, 1801 W. Diamond St. Admission: $30, includes a book by an author in this year's Celebration of Black Writing. Information: 215-232-4485,