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 piqued 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 who 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 is included in the novel, the story became more about the one girl, Sarah, and her family.
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. These things 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 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 any African Americans 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.
Do you have a specific writing style?
Voice is important in my writing. I need to hear the characters speak before I began to write. The story has to come alive in my mind where I hear the sounds and see the setting.
What is the mission you set out to accomplish with your voice in this book?
I didn’t have a particular mission initially except to learn to write. It was my practice novel; the one that wouldn’t ever get published. Later, I realized that it was important to American history, especially Arkansas history.
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