June Sylvester Saraceno grew up watching her high school integrate to unfounded, racist fears of the adults in her life; yet all that really changed from the end of segregation was the town was united by a better-performing football team. Saraceno’s life experiences informed her writing, and here is her full interview about her book, “Feral, North Carolina, 1965,” and the character of Willie Mae partially inspired by her own childhood.
Ruth Jackson Hall: What compelled you to write this book?
June Sylvester Saraceno: Willie’s voice as a character has been in my head since my undergraduate writing workshop days. That’s how long this book has taken me! At first, I would write the story she seemed intent on at the time, but she kept coming back. The book grew out of these stories and vignettes that amassed over a period of years.
RJH: How closely does your novel mirror your own childhood?
JSS: I drew inspiration from my childhood, but the book is definitely fiction. I grew up as one of four children, separated by large gaps in age. I had a close relationship with my older brother, David, the inspiration for Willie Mae’s brother, Dare. When you grow up in the country, siblings are your constant playmates. As far as setting, it’s similar to where I grew up, just inland of the North Carolina coast.
Church was important. Going to the “right” one depended on a lot of things, including class. For example, the more refined First Baptist Church was attended by more doctors and lawyers than the Pearl Street Pentecostal Church, with its altar calls, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands for healing, and other practices. Being raised in a fundamentalist environment had a powerful impact on me and, like Willie Mae, I was frightened and conflicted about the need to be saved.
Race and segregation were very real issues. Our schools integrated when I finished sixth grade. There was a lot of talk about how there would be fights and generally mayhem. There really wasn’t much of that. What actually happened the first year that the high school was integrated was that we had the best football team ever. They won big and it proved to be very unifying. Football is big in the South. A winning team was pretty unifying. But I would say I’m still haunted by the racism in our country and frustrated by our seeming inability to really address it. Often we can’t even talk about it in any meaningful way.
RJH: When, why, did you start writing … ?
JSS: I started writing in elementary school. I started my first novel when I was in 6th grade about a girl named Rabbit and the difficulties she experienced with her mother.
I also kept a diary, eventually writing it in code so my mother couldn’t decipher it.
Although I had a reputation for bad behavior by the time I was in high school, I had the great fortune to have three amazing high school English teachers who saw something in me and changed my life. Ms. Flood, Ms. Finch, and Ms. Boswell. They kicked the door open to my belief that I could become a writer. Between them, they recommended wonderful books to read, including the scandalous “Fear of Flying” by Erika Jong, which let me know that I could be a badass and a writer. They opened the door to the beauty of language. Ms Boswell, who was very prim and proper, once shared her admiration for the lovely sound of the word “syphilis,” pronouncing it with a lilt in her voice. The whole class was shocked into silence.
RJH: Were you a reader as a child? What did you read?
JSS: Yes. I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew and her adventures. I inherited my older sister’s collection of her books. Growing up in the insular, rural South, I was fascinated by the society and the larger world I caught a glimpse of through these books. I was fascinated by the implication of words like “luncheon,” “roadster,” and “tennis bracelet.” We also had two sets of encyclopedias and a classics collection. I was shocked to discover when I read those books later that there was so much more to them — that the versions I read as a child were the condensed classics. I also went to the library a lot with my mother and loved the old book smell, the creaky floorboards and being able to borrow as many books as I wanted.
RJH: You write so beautifully about wild places and outdoor childhood adventures. How would you compare your childhood to your son’s?
JSS: My son was born in Truckee and raised in Sierra Meadows. When he was young there was so much more undeveloped area here, lots of woods, creeks and dirt trails. He and his friends would ride their bikes on the “Bloody Trails,” named for bike jumps and their consequences on the hilly terrain in the neighborhood before it became a plot of condos. Over time, development has covered the trails he played on. They’re golf courses, houses and condos now. I’m glad he was able to have some wild space growing up. I think we had similar childhood experiences but he wasn’t as much of a brat as I was growing up.
RJH: What are you working on now?
JSS: I’m working on some nonfiction essays. I haven’t written essays in a very long time and these are an attempt to address life changes that I’m still trying to sort out. I also have a collection of poetry forthcoming in January 2020 titled “The Girl From Yesterday.”
RJH: How does writing poetry inform your writing of prose?
JSS: I think writing poetry trains you to trim, to cut what’s unnecessary. Most of my revision process involves first wielding the ax, then the hand saw, then the knife, then the scalpel. Somewhere under all the didactic proclamations and endless repetition there may be something true and good.