Have you always written?
I wrote little stories when I was very young and was encouraged by my high school English teacher to study creative writing in college. My family wasn’t about to have me spend four years at a university learning to write. I believed them and ended up with a BS in Accounting. Later, an editor for a newspaper overheard my conversation about sports, and was so impressed with my knowledge that she hired me as a freelance feature sports writer.
But it was not until the late nineties, when talk show host Oprah Winfrey, encouraged people to follow their passion that I got serious about it. I had no idea what I was passionate about, so I mimicked Oprah as a way to figure it out. She ran a half-marathon; later I ran the same one. She then trained and ran a marathon, and so did I, but I still felt empty inside until one day my friend said “I believe it’s writing.” Then I remembered how excited I was when my high school teacher had suggested I study creative writing, and how disappointed I was when my family didn’t agree with her. I believe not writing was why I felt the emptiness. (I feel it now when I’ve gone too many days without writing.) A few months later, I wrote my first thirty pages, which was required for the admissions application to Arizona State University and now I’m here.
What made you pick 1964 as the place to start your novel?
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee organizers arrived in the Arkansas Delta during the summer of 1964. The history of the Civil Rights Movement in Arkansas is an untold story. Although my novel is fiction, I believe this period in history is of significant importance to Arkansas and the United States. 1964 is historically known as Freedom Summer.
Why was this time in history important?
It wasn’t just the history, which is extremely important and was what led me to the story, but it became more about the people, their behavior, traditions and language set against the backdrop of the history of the civil rights movement are what made this time important to me. It was a time of discovery, pride, bravery, and ownership for African Americans.
What was your inspiration for Mourner’s Bench?
It was a prompt in a writing class that went something like “write until I tell you to stop about a story you’ve heard before but you are not sure if it is true or false.” I wrote approximately two handwritten pages about two young girls who worked for SNCC registering voters along the country roads of the Arkansas Delta. After I read what I had scribbled on the pages to the class, we spent the remainder of the class discussing the civil rights movement and the role young people played in it.
That story of those girls peaked my interest, so I started asking questions and researching the civil rights movement in Arkansas. I realized that I knew very little about Arkansas and the civil rights movement. The media and historians covered the integration of Central High School, but there wasn’t very much written about Arkansas’s role during the 1960s. I became absorbed in the history, and how, as a fiction writer, I could place these young girls inside that rich history. I wondered whom they were, who were their families, where did they live, and along with many other questions, how did they become so brave? Of course, when I started writing, the story took on a life of its own, and although the friendship between the girls are included in the novel, the story became more about the one girl, Sarah, and her family.
What makes this book relevant today?
I don’t believe there would be any time in history where this novel wouldn’t be relevant. The civil rights movement did not end for African Americans in the 1960s. We have continued to fight for justice both privately and publicly. Now, with the consistent brutality by the police throughout the country, the movement has become more public again, but I don’t believe one African American would say that they are now or have ever received equal rights and privileges as the dominant culture. This is also a book about a family and a community. If you take out the historical setting, it would still be about relationships between mothers and daughters, and church and state.
A coming of age story set in 1960s Arkansas that intersects with race, gender, and religion is an ambitious undertaking! What was the most challenging aspect of writing the book?
Voice, structure, and character development. Sarah’s voice was my primary concern. She is the narrator, so one of the major decisions was whether to use her voice in both narrative and dialogue. Also, whether I should use the adult voice in narrative and her young voice in dialogue. Although Sarah is an adult looking back at this period in her life, I decided to tell the story primarily from the point of view of her as a young girl. I wanted the characters to sound as if they were from rural Arkansas during the 1960s, so language and dialect became important. I studied plays from the 1960s to see and hear the language, and I would record voices when I visited Arkansas, especially at family gatherings when we let our guard down. I knew these voices but I needed to silence the noise in my head and environment so I could hear the characters speak individually and within their community.
It took me the longest to hear and capture Esther’s voice because it was a mixture of city and country. It wasn’t until she decided to stop being shy and speak up that all of the pieces to the puzzle came together, which leads to the next most challenging aspect, structure. I didn’t want to tell a singular story. I wanted the setting and characters to come alive on the page, which meant that I needed to find a way to make gender, race, family, civil rights and community work in the characters lives simultaneously. Nobody experiences one event in her life at a time. Generally, we are trying to balance several balls in the air. Esther’s actions are the connectors. Most of the characters are reacting to the choices she makes.
The third aspect was character development. The civil rights movement was all about change, and in Mourner’s Bench, from the summer of 1964 through the winter of 1965, not only did the narrator, but most everything had to evolve, including the setting, characters, and their voices, but in some ways, everything needed to remain the same, like love, and community. Then there had to be the possibility for the hope of something new.
SANDERIA FAYE was born and raised in Gould, Arkansas. She serves on the faculty at Southern Methodist University. Faye is the author of Mourner’s Bench (University of Arkansas Press, September 2015-peer reviewed). The novel is the winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in debut fiction. Her work has appeared in various literary journals and in Arsnick: The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Arkansas, edited by historians Dr. Jennifer Wallach and Dr. John Kirk. Faye is co-founder and fellow at Kimbilio Center for Fiction. She moderated a 2015 AWP panel and the grassroots panel for the Arkansas Civil Rights Symposium during the Freedom Riders 50th Anniversary. She is a recipient of awards, residencies and fellowships from Hurston/Wright Writers Conference, Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise Conference, Callaloo Writers Workshop, Vermont, Writers Studio, The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow, and Martha’s Vineyard Writers Residency. Faye is also a PhD student in English at North Texas University. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University, and a BS in Accounting from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. She was an instructor for The United States Navy-Navy College Program for Afloat College Education (NCPACE). She is a professional speaker with organizations like Books In Common and Ignite Dallas. Sanderia is a candidate for the 2017 University of North Texas President’s Wingspan Award for Excellence.