A Farming Woman Who Writes It All Down
Despite literary acclaim, novelist Dori Sanders still works her South Carolina farm as she thinks up new stories to tell
BOSTON — DORI SANDERS is a farmer and an author. Yet even after the publication of her second novel, she thinks of herself as a farmer first.
"Not long ago, I walked into a room," Ms. Sanders says, beginning to tell one of an endless stream of stories. "A woman there said, `I've never been in the same room with a real author before.' I looked around and said, `A real author where, where, where?' And they were talking about me. It was really embarrassing."
Sanders still lives on the farm near York, S.C., where she grew up swapping stories with her nine siblings. "We didn't have radio or television," she says. "That was a way of entertaining ourselves."
Her father, a teacher and farmer, was one of the first black farm owners in York County. He bought the land in 1915.
"I've lived on the farm my whole life," Sanders says. Although most of her brothers and sisters left for college and careers, Sanders stayed behind to help one of her brothers work the land.
"I don't understand why we keep doing it," she says. "The work is hard. But I rightly can't quit, that's the truth. It isn't because we haven't tried."
Yet, Sanders says, "I don't think I could write without it. It's the wellspring for my writing."
Both of Sanders's novels draw from her life on the South Carolina peach farm. "Clover," which was published in 1990 to much acclaim, tells the story of a 10-year-old black girl and her white stepmother.
Walt Disney Pictures bought the option to turn "Clover" into a movie. The book has been translated into five languages and is in its eighth hardcover printing.
Sanders's new novel, "Her Own Place," traces the life of Mae Lee Barnes, a South Carolina farmer's daughter. This expansive novel covers five decades of change in the rural South.
Sanders never really aspired to being a writer. "I just love the storytelling process," she says.
With a sweet voice rich in character and emotion, Sanders never stops telling stories. "Never will forget...," she'll say and branch off into yet another spellbinding tale.
While working at a motel in Maryland during the winter, Sanders would scribble lines on old menus or cocktail napkins to pass the time. One of her employers encouraged her to pursue the writing more seriously.
And maybe her father planted the writing seed early in her life, Sanders says. When she would get in trouble and start to explain, her father would stop her and say, "Write it down, little honey, and put it on my desk."
"So I had to write myself out of things," Sanders says.
Despite her success, Sanders's work has been criticized for "sugar-coating life in the South." Both novels take an optimistic view of racial issues.
Sanders's defense against this criticism comes by way of a story, of course. "I cannot be a spokesman for hatred because I don't have it," she says. "At my age, I remember when our little town had two churches, and two schools, and two water fountains at the county courthouse. Everything was totally segregated."
But what Sanders remembers best is the white man who ran the general store in town. Little Dori often went in to buy something for her mother.
" `Anything left over?' I'd say [after paying the storekeeper]. And he'd look down at me from over those long wooden counters and those eyes would seem to pierce through my head. But I'd just look at him and ask again: `Anything left over?' Then he'd say, `I don't know. Everybody tells me I can't figure a thing. Let me figure again.' And he'd start marking on the back of a brown paper bag. And then he'd act so surprised. `Oh, I did figure wrong. There are a few cents left over.' So I'd go over to the can dy counter and I'd get a johnnycake and I'd be so happy. Now, I want to ask you: How could I hate that man? Tell me."
Dori Sanders knows what she has lived and how she feels. She's not about to let someone else tell her how she should write about it. "I don't feel pressed upon or compelled to express anger," she says. "I didn't experience that."
It's no longer necessary for Sanders to spend winters working in Maryland to keep the farm afloat. She hasn't done that since 1988.
In spite of her writing success, life on the farm hasn't changed much in the last five years. "I drive my own tractor still," Sanders says. And when she has to go to town, it's a 1974 yellow pickup truck that takes her there.
When she's not out promoting her books, Sanders still mans the family's open-air farmstand beside the highway.
Her current project is the "Farmstand Cookbook," a collection of family recipes and the stories behind them. "It will be an informal, chatty cookbook," she says. Southern cooking and hospitality come naturally to Dori Sanders.
"If you're ever down that way," she says, "you must come to the Sanders Peach Shed just outside Charlotte on Highway 321."