"I love these mountains and the people who live here. Appalachia is God's Country, and those of us who call it home are truly blessed."
-- Arlene Sanders
Arlene Sanders is an Appalachian Mountain writer. A lifelong Southerner, she is a native of Virginia, where she writes in Blue Ridge Mountains bordering the Shenandoah Valley.
TIGER BURNING BRIGHT: STORIES is her first book.
Sanders has received four Pushcart Prize nominations -- for "Tiger Burning Bright," "Auction," "Fire and Ice" and "Wish You Were Here."
TIGER BURNING BRIGHT: STORIES was a Finalist in the Jefferson Press Prize for Best New Voice in Fiction, and Sanders was a Finalist in the GLIMMER TRAIN Short-Story Award for New Writers for the title story in that collection.
She won the E. M. Koeppel Editor's Choice Award for "The Red Dress" (2011). In the William Faulkner - William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition (2011), she was a Novel-in-Progress Semi-Finalist for BLOOD MOUNTAIN: A NOVEL OF THE VIETNAM WAR; a Finalist for "Small Town, Saturday Night;" and Short Listed for "The Red Dress." In the Lorian Hemingway Short Story Competition, she won an Honorable Mention for "The Arrival." She was an ARTS & LETTERS Fiction Prize Finalist for "Small Town, Saturday Night" (2011), and a Finalist in the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction Competition, also for "Small Town, Saturday Night" (2011). Her work has been honored with other awards.
Sanders is the single parent of three wonderful daughters from Southeast Asia -- one from South Vietnam and two from South Korea. The sisters grew up on her farm in a hollow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"The finest and most caring people I know live in Appalachia," she says. "I thought it would be a good place to raise my children -- and it was. These beloved mountain folks welcomed my daughters into their homes and taught them good, old-fashioned manners and country ways that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
"In BLOOD MOUNTAIN, I try to capture some of the great humanity of the people who live here. To the extent that I can do this, I'll be happy with my novel."
Johns Hopkins University M.A. degree candidate in creative writing. B.A. degree with High Honors in English, Phi Beta Kappa.
Her fiction has been published in literary reviews, including CAIRN, CANTARAVILLE, THE DOS PASSOS REVIEW, THE DUBLIN QUARTERLY, THE EDGAR LITERARY MAGAZINE, THE GSU REVIEW, THE ICONOCLAST, THE MacGUFFIN, MINDPRINTS, NEW WORKS REVIEW, PERIGEE, PINDELDYBOZ, SANSKRIT, SLOW TRAINS, SOUND AND LITERARY ART BOOK, SOUTHERN HUM, SUGAR MULE, TAJ MAHAL REVIEW, TERRA INCOGNITA, TERTULIA MAGAZINE, WILLARD & MAPLE, and WRITERS POST JOURNAL.
Friends describe her as a quiet woman, shy and reclusive. Recently pressed for at least some personal information, she said, “If I were standing, say, on level ground, the top of my head would measure sixty-three inches above the dirt. I have red hair, low self-esteem, an old car, and no telephone. I have never owned a television. That's about it. There's nothing interesting about me."
(If you like, you can click on some of the pictures to make them larger.)
A CONVERSATION WITH ARLENE SANDERS
Interviewed by Brett Alan Sanders
(Published in New Works Review, Fall 2008. The surnames are coincidental.
Brett Alan Sanders and Arlene Sanders are not related.)
On the author’s Southern roots and literary heritage: Home is the Blue
Ridge Mountains in Virginia’s part of the Appalachian Range, where I’ve
lived most of my life. My parents were born and raised on farms in Virginia,
but I grew up in a Virginia suburb. I spent a lot of time, especially during the
summers, on farms belonging to my relatives. I also went frequently to
Washington, D. C., which was only a mile from the house: Constitution Hall,
the Library of Congress, and every Sunday night a concert in the gorgeous
atrium of the National Gallery of Art. So I was a “country-city girl.” But as
soon as I could, I bought a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains. My heart is
here, in the mountains.
Porter, Faulkner and Welty I read as a teenager, but not O’Connor. I read her
stories much later. These writers knew the South and captured it magnificently
in their work. It’s hard to say what it feels like to be nourished by a literary
heritage of Southern writing, because the South is all I know. I rarely leave
Virginia. I love these Southern writers, but didn’t need them to illuminate the
South for me.
The South in which I grew up was hot and slow. Air conditioning didn’t exist.
Southerners were kindhearted and gracious. We helped people whenever we
could. We hunted, and we all had guns, which we handled responsibly. We
drawled, tended our gardens, read books, visited our neighbors. There was –
blessedly – no television anywhere. Our men, incredibly, were still fighting
the Civil War.
In the South, to this day, you do not say that someone works for you—they
help you. We went barefoot in the summer and skinny-dipped in creeks. Our
telephone numbers had four digits, and I still remember ours: Chestnut 2682.
We went to movies on Friday nights. Saturdays, if we had another quarter.
The “Dingling Man” (the ice cream truck) came every day with Popsicles
(5 cents) and Good Humors (10 cents). There were two kinds of girls: the kind
you took home to meet your mother and eventually married, and the kind you
didn’t. We ate cornbread and fried chicken. We went to church on Sunday
mornings, wearing pretty dresses, Mary Jane patent leather shoes, ribbons in
our hair. The white laboring class South was, arguably, a matriarchal culture.
When Women’s Lib arrived, we couldn’t understand what the fuss was about:
Southern women had always called the shots. We were rednecks. And racists.
We made our own liquor.
We thought this was life as it should be.
Changes in my thinking came later.
On artistic influences: The three artists who have strongly and consistently
guided my work are not writers, but photographers: Diane Arbus, Ingmar
Bergman, and Annie Leibovitz. These visual artists taught me many things,
but the most important thing is this: Don’t look away. This is so important, but
hard to explain. Photographers and film directors surely understand it, but
writers often don’t. For a writer, I think “don’t look away” means something
like, when the going gets rough emotionally, you need to face it, bear the brunt
of it, record it truthfully, and refuse to back off.
If you look at photographs Diane Arbus created, I think you’ll understand
what I mean. Arbus photographed people we might think of as “freaks.” If we
saw these people, we would lower our eyes. We would look away. We know
it is wrong to stare at “freaks.” But Arbus looked straight at them, and she saw
something fine, and dignified, and even beautiful in them, and you can tell this
from the expressions on their faces. She made them feel good about themselves,
and you can actually see that. This, in my opinion, is one of the qualities that
elevates her work to the level of art.
Bergman, in Wild Strawberries, captured one of the great scenes in film when
an old man, an aging physician, dreamed that a casket passed by in a horse-
drawn hearse. The casket fell to the road, and the lid was thrown open. Here is
where you’d look away. But Bergman kept a steady hand on the camera. The
old man, frightened and trembling, looked inside the casket and saw – of course –
Leibovitz is a genius. Her work – the sheer scope and depth of it – defies
analysis. She has created visual drama and beauty beyond our wildest dreams,
but what I love most in her work is the way she captures a deep and multifaceted
essence of love and joy and all the other feelings that can exist between a man
and a woman, two men, two women – just two people who love each other.
And frequently – I think I learned this directly from her – an unlikely couple.
Check out her most famous photograph, of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and
you’ll see exactly what I mean.
On reading and writing about love gone wrong: My reading list fairly screams
that I’m a romantic. I read love stories and write a lot of them, but many of my
stories are about love gone wrong, because that’s what love does. I think one
reason love goes wrong is that our expectations are too high and narrow. My
favorite authors – even McCarthy and Dostoevsky – have a lot to say about love.
The most important thing I’ve learned from them is that love has a much better
chance to grow and deepen if the lovers will cast their net wider and be more
accepting of love where they find it.
One of the most sensitive love stories I’ve read is Henry James’s “The Beast in
the Jungle.” That and du Maurier’s Rebecca. And Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men,
which I do consider to be a love story. In my work, odd couples fall in love.
A man and a woman who seem all wrong for each other. I like to write about a
man and a woman who have serious flaws, at least one of them, and bring them
together and see what happens. The three stories included here – “Auction,”
“The Woman Who Wanted a Man,” and “I Don’t Think We Should Land” –
seem to be nothing alike. But what they have in common is love between
“The Woman Who Wanted a Man,” for instance, is a highly comedic pairing
of unlikely lovers. I applaud Cassie’s spirit of adventure. While most women,
confronted with the prospect of a Jeremy, would have said: “Why?” Cassie
said: “Why not?”
Men, in my view, are brought up to be chauvinistic – the mothers do this! –
and frankly, I have never known a man who wasn’t, deep down, chauvinistic.
Jeremy, for his part, is a good man. Cassie was lucky to have found him. If
her approach seems demeaning to women, so be it. Most women, though, need
to be creative and daring in their search for love. And I love men in spite of
everything: their chauvinism, egotism, monumental insecurities, skewed
notions about women, obsession with football, and absolute refusal to ask for
directions. I do take swipes at men in my writing, and if my women get angry
enough, they kill them off. But still, I love them.
On country living and the raising of daughters: There’s nothing complicated
about single-parent adoptions. You want children, you don’t have a husband,
and the years are going by. You have three choices, and mine was to adopt. The
first child came from An Lac, the orphanage in Saigon you’ve read about in
Tom Dooley’s books. She was a beautiful little girl, about eighteen months old.
She was found on a dirt road by American soldiers who brought her to Madame
Ngai at An Lac. My friend, Betty Tisdale, then secretary to Senator Jacob Javits
and a woman who has devoted her life to orphans in Southeast Asia, helped me
adopt this extraordinary child. She has since grown up to be a brave and gorgeous
and most remarkable human being, and she is the woman you will know as
Vu-Thi Thanh in “Auction” – my fantasy about what she would have been like
had she remained in Vietnam.
My friend the late Father Alexander Lee, a Catholic priest in South Korea,
helped me adopt two little sisters, who were five and seven years old when
they came to America. By that time the first child was five, so my daughters
were close together in age. The girls grew up on our farm in the Blue Ridge
Mountains. Today they are lovely, kindhearted, professionally successful,
and extremely independent young women. They visit me, but I don’t get
involved in their lives, because I don’t think parents of grown children should
interfere. When your children leave home, you’re done! You need to let them
go, and live your own life.
On a novel-in-progress: “Auction” is part of Blood Mountain. William
Flanagan, the protagonist, was raised on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains
of Virginia, but Blood Mountain is in Georgia. So I have to work this out.
Blood Mountain is a title that appeals to me. Our mountains in Virginia are
wonderful as mountains, but not as titles. I’d like to go to Blood Mountain.
If I could breathe the air on that mountain, and see what flowers and trees are
there, and hear the little woodland creatures, especially at night, maybe that
could be my setting. Then I could revise my book on Blood Mountain.
A great deal of me is going into this novel, and it is emotionally draining.
It is huge, overwhelming, demanding, exhausting, uncontrollable. I’ve been
told to outline it and stick with the outline, but an outline means you have
decided what will happen as the story unfolds. Even when writing a short story,
I am unsure how it will turn out. It’s like a movie progressing before my eyes.
It’s linear. A novel is a succession of detours and tangents. I’ve written 1,500
pages for Blood Mountain, and it has taken on a life of its own. It’s set in
Appalachia and Vietnam. Then all of a sudden, we’re in Africa, because
terrorists hijacked the plane and flew to Kenya! The novel, as it stands, probably
needs to morph into a trilogy, or receive a ruthless edit.
On the pigeonholing of speculative literature, the humanitarianism of
Dolly Parton, and the state of our nation and world: “I Don’t Think We
Should Land” is not science fiction. It’s a story about war, and where war is
taking us, and how it all could end. It is a parable, a romp, and certainly
written tongue-in-cheek. And, as you have suggested, it’s also a tribute to Dolly
Parton, one of my heroes. Ms. Parton is a humanitarian – a decent, kindhearted,
compassionate human being. If all people were like Dolly Parton, we wouldn’t
have wars. Or nuclear weapons. Or prisons. Or electric chairs.
Albert Einstein said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our
thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” To me this
suggests the “the state of our nation and world” springs right from the human
condition that I love to explore in my writing. Some writers are fond of saying
that our values have gone downhill, that we are in the midst of a moral decline,
that humanity has gone to the dogs.
What nonsense! The human condition today is the same as it’s always been,
and except for a few bad apples in the barrel, I believe most people are good,
kind, and peace-loving.
We live in a democracy, and when political decisions are wrong, you and I –
all of us –have a hand in that. We need to tell our leaders NO. We need to say
NO loud and clear. I would ask the poor mortal who next assumes the mantle
of our nation’s President to consider that arbitration and negotiation are the
best means for settling differences among nations, that war is absurd, that no
citizenry wants war, and that no one can win: “In modern war, there is no such
thing as victor and vanquished. . . . There is only a loser, and the loser is
mankind” (U Thant, former U. N. Secretary General).
The horror of war itself – the havoc, the shame, the destruction of daughters
and sons we’ve raised to honor reason and social order – is seldom experienced
by leaders who wage war. Literature, however, is at its best a great repository
of all that is good and civilized. It can also be a truthful and tragic chronicle
of the suffering and violent death that are the realities of war.
That’s why I hope our next President might pepper his reading with such
literary works as Roy Kesey’s Nothing in the World and Cormac McCarthy’s
The Road – both chilling apocalyptic visions of war’s aftermath; and such others
as Mark Wisniewski’s “Prisoners of War,” or Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to
inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families: Stories from
Rwanda, or Chimanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, or Kevin Haworth’s
The Discontinuity of Small Things, or Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, or the
works of countless others from Solzhenitsyn to Robert Olen Butler to Ha Jin.
To read these works is to move ever closer to an understanding of civilization,
what is wrong with it, what it should be like, and how both leaders and ordinary
people can do their part to make it better. A civilization is to be judged, at last,
on the way it handles conflict and the civil rights of its citizens. And on the way
it treats its artists, criminals, old, young, ill, infirm, retarded, addicted, physically
handicapped, mentally ill, and criminally insane.