Pamela Berkman's new collection of short stories is full of real nuns. But the nun of the title story, The Falling Nun, is one of those little plastic statuettes you can order from Archie McPhee.
In the story, a group of office mates decorate their cubicles with the plastic sisters because they've heard the totems have a way of drawing new men into otherwise barren love lives.
And sure enough, when a plastic nun falls over, a new man is not far behind. The results, however, turn out to be less than romantically ideal.
"That story has a tiny basis in fact," said Berkman in a telephone interview from her home in Glendale, Calif. "For a lot of stories, I'll have a little piece of reality and take off from there.
"For a while in the Archie McPhee catalog, there were testimonials from women who said their love life improved after they displayed the plastic nuns," she said. "I like careful-what-you-wish-for stories. This is one of those."
Berkman's first short story collection, Her Infinite Variety (Scribner Paperback Fiction, 2001) told stories of the real women in Shakespeare's life and became a national bestseller. The Falling Nun, just released, has already drawn both praise and criticism for its offbeat depictions of women on the edge.
Among the characters in the book is a young woman getting her first tattoo, a girl losing her faith, a college student who can't stop crying, a woman who rapes a man and a woman addicted to cutting herself.
But these are not dark, morose tales. Berkman's humor and light touch are her hallmark. She's able at once to open a portal to the dark side while gently reminding us not to take it all too seriously. Magic and whimsy are interwoven into the tales amid glittering detail -- all in prose that's light and fleet.
Where does she come up with her ideas? For Her Infinite Variety, she credits the movies for the spark.
"I must give some credit to Gwyneth Paltrow," said Berkman. "I saw Shakespeare in Love, which was a lovely movie, but I remember standing out on the pavement afterward, and I thought, well, that was really nice, but there were so many real women who Shakespeare knew. Why doesn't someone write about them?"
She did, and the book was finished in about a year. Currently, she is at work on two writing projects.
"I wrote a follow up to Her Infinite Variety, a novel. My favorite character in Shakespeare is Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet," she said. "I've written a parallel story to Romeo and Juliet told through Mercutio's eyes." The book is completed and is being shopped around for a publisher now.
"I'm also working on a follow-up to The Falling Nun, a book about a girl in the '70s in the suburbs, a misfit, who becomes obsessed with Star Wars and wants to learn to use the Force. It's a novel. Right now, it's told in the form of fan letters to George Lucas.
"I like outsider fiction," she said, "stories about people who don't fit in. It rings home for me."
Berkman, whose father lives in Colorado Springs, will sign at Chinook Bookshop next week. She likes speaking to reading groups about her work and adds that she is available to talk to reading groups by speaker phone. Interested readers should contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Kathryn Eastburn