Sanders, Dori 1935–
Dori Sanders 1935–
Fiction writers come from all walks of life. Some are teachers at the nation’s universities, some travel from place to place, some work the assembly line or the fields. In Dori Sanders’s case, farming was her life’s work until well into her fifties, when she began jotting down observations gleaned from years of growing peaches and other produce and selling her wares at a roadside stand. Today Sanders is a writer with two well-received novels to her credit, the bestseller Clover and the more recent Her Own Place. In these works Sanders introduces characters whose experiences in rural South Carolina reveal the author’s own intimacy with and deep love of the region.
Writer’s Digest contributor Lisa M. Stroud wrote: “Dori Sanders can whip up a mean pot of pokeweed salad. She can spot a cooter sunning on a log 80 yards away, stalk it, bag it, and parboil the tender turtle meat to sweet perfection. She can plow her 200 acres from the seat of her Massey-Ferguson 245, then challenge her fellow farmers to a wicked game of checkers. And can she tell a story.”
For her own part, Sanders described herself in Essence as having “a very simple and childlike view of life.” She added: “I’m the type of person who can be fascinated watching a colony of ants for hours on end…. I certainly didn’t set out to be a writer. But there were friends who told me, ‘Girl, you can write. ’ They encouraged me to try to get something published.”
Sanders’s accomplishments have exceeded her wildest dreams. Her novel Clouer spent ten weeks on the Washington Post fiction bestseller list, won the Lillian Smith Award, and was optioned by Disney for a motion picture. Literary success notwithstanding, Sanders continues to work on her family’s farm and in the roadside fruit and vegetable stand they operate during the growing season. “Farming’s a black hole,” she told the New York Times. “It sucks everything in and gives virtually no return. But it is who I am. If someone asks me what I do, I say, Tm a farmer.’ And only later do I say, Oh, and I also do some writing.’”
Sanders, who coyly judges her age to be “60-odd,” was born and raised on a farm near Filbert, South Carolina. She was the eighth of ten children born to a high school principal and his homemaker wife. Sanders claimed in People magazine that she was “one of the underachievers
At a Glance…
Bom Dorinda Sanders, c, 1935, in York, SC; daughter of a school principal and farmer, and a homemaker.
Peach farmer and manager of roadside fruit stand, 1955—; young adult writer, 1982—. Author of Clover, Algonquin Books, 1990, and Her Own Place, Algonquin Boob, 1993.
Addresses: Home —Filbert, SC. Office —c/o Algonquin Books, P.O. Box 2225, Chapel Hill, NC 27515.
in the family” and that she “never finished anything except the farming season.” Although her father was a white collar professional who encouraged all of his children to read and study, he also tended the family peach farm—one of the oldest black-owned farms in South Carolina. Sanders told the New York Times that her father would begin to loosen his tie and his shoelaces as he drove home from school in a horse-drawn buggy, so that he would be prepared that much sooner to begin the many chores awaiting him on the farm. In People, she said of her father: “He loved words. His world always seemed more interesting to me than my mother’s cooking and cleaning world.”
Growing up, Sanders was plagued by a speech impediment that made her self-conscious and awkward in front of strangers. She was more comfortable with her siblings, who loved to tell stories to one another. The children would gather beneath a huge, mushroom-shaped rock on the property and take turns as storytellers. The boys liked scary tales, but Sanders preferred love stories with first kisses and happy endings. As Esther Fein noted in the New York Times: “For a young black girl growing up in South Carolina during World War II, storytelling was a hobby, not a career. A girl like her with a knack for language could go into education, like her oldest sister, Virginia, did. Or she could just be a chatty hand on the family farm, which is what Dori did.”
All of Sanders’s siblings except one brother eventually left the farm. She and that brother, Orestus, stayed on, growing peaches, okra, and other produce and selling it at the Sanders’s Peach Shed on their property. In time they bought additional land and enlarged the farm to more than 200 acres. The work was tough and unpredictable—sometimes late frosts damaged the crops beyond salva-tion—but Sanders was accustomed to the routines of farm labor and was comfortable remaining where she had grown up. A brief marriage, which she refuses to discuss, ended in divorce.
Sanders told Booklist that the years of World War II were formative ones for her, perhaps endowing her with the courage to become a writer in the future. “Just across the Catawba River right where I’m settled now there was a munitions plant,” she said. “We called it the shell plant. The buses would come to the farming communities morning and night, picking up women for the various shifts, to take them over to make shells. It not only pulled us off the farm, but it gave us freedom. It was the opening up of these [farm] women’s lives because it was the first time the farm women were able to earn money.” Sanders was one laborer at the shell plant who used her earnings to improve her lot—in her case, she bought land to add to her farm.
Throughout her years at the family fruit stand Sanders observed her customers and her community. “It takes sheer observation to develop a character,” she said in Writer’s Digest. “You need a listening ear and a quick eye. With a quick eye, you’re able to capture the mannerisms, the moves. With an ear attuned to it all, you hear the voice and remember it. People accuse me of talking all the time. But I listen and watch, too. If you’re a writer, everything is speaking to you. You’re a sponge and soak it all in. Later, when you’re ready to develop a character, you just pull one up in your mind, much as you would on a computer screen.”
In the early 1980s, Sanders began jotting down her random observations on any paper available at the moment. In those days she worked the winter season at a Best Western State Inn near Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. One day she used the back of a menu in the banquet hall for her writing. The manager of the banquet hall noticed the few sentences and after reading them encouraged Sanders to continue writing. So firmly did the woman believe in Sanders that she telephoned the Sanders farm in the summertime to continue exhorting Dori to write. Sanders told Booklist that she finally began to work seriously on her literary efforts “to prove to [my winter boss] that I wasn’t a good writer—and then she would quit bothering me!”
Sanders finished her first work, a story about migrant laborers, in the early 1980s and sent it to the editors at Algonquin Press in North Carolina. They judged the book too melodramatic but praised Sanders for the freshness of her prose and offered to read any further books she might produce. In the meantime, the budding author had an experience at her fruit stand that engaged her imagination and set the stage for her first published work. “One day I was minding the peach shed … and two funerals passed by, one white and the other black,” she recalled in Booklist. “There was a black little girl I didn’t know, with her face pressed against the window…. That little girl looked directly at me, and she waved at me, and I waved back. Then hours later came a white funeral, and they were driving such pricey cars…. There was a woman in one of the cars. She looked at me, and I looked at her…. I thought, ‘Here are two different people with totally different lives.’ What if those two people wound up together, with so little in common—but with one important thing in common, death and sorrow. Could those two people make a life together?”
Sanders used this premise as the base for Clover, a novel about a young girl who must suddenly cope with the death of her father and life with a brand new, white stepmother. The story is told from the point of view of Clover, who is ten years old, and it concerns the slow development of a relationship between child and stepmother. A Southern Living reviewer called the work “a perceptive picture of life in the rural New South, an often witty tale of small-town America trying to cope with big-city situations.” Algonquin Press eagerly published Clover in 1990, and Sanders was launched as an author.
As if to prove that her first novel was no mere passing flash of talent, Sanders set out right away to write another. In 1993 she released Her Own Place, a sweeping story of one single mother’s attempts to provide for her family and their support of her as she ages. Esther Fein enthused: “Although the novel spans the decades from World War II to the present, subtly covering such subjects as racism and AIDS, it moves at the gentle, timeless pace of a work by Willa Cather.”
The success of her writing has brought new and unexpect-ed dimensions to Sanders’s life. She still finds it amazing that she has a literary agent in New York City and that she is invited to read her fiction in front of groups all across the nation. The financial success of Clover has allowed her to lease office space in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she can retreat to work on her writing without interruption. Still, she retains her ties to the farm and to her peach shed. She joked to a Writer’s Digest interviewer, “I started writing when I was not quite young…. I was already a senior citizen.” This “senior citizen” is unwilling to drop her first career for a life in the limelight, no matter how tempting the prospect might be. Sanders concluded in the New York Times: “I was kind of hoping that when I became a real writer something would happen that would make me feel the way a writer should think and feel. Sometimes I feel like a buzz above the farming, and then I hear my brother say, ‘Dori, get your tractor over here.’” She added: “Maybe it’s because what I’m writing about is so much of what I am really about. I grew up in a place and a time, and I’ll never be able to get myself out of where I am. I’ll never write about anything else. I shouldn’t.”
Booklist, February 15, 1993, pp. 1012-13.
Christian Science Monitor, June 24, 1993, p. 14.
Essence, September 1990, p. 52; August 1993, p. 52.
Library Journal, March 1, 1990, p. 118; September 1, 1993, p. 256.
New York Times, May 3, 1993, pp. C-ll, C-14.
People, July 19, 1993, pp. 43-4.
Southern Living, October 1990, p. 76.
Vogue, April 1990, pp. 278-80.
Writer’s Digest, August 1993, p. 7.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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