Novelist. Sayers was born on August 8, 1952, in Beaufort, South Carolina, the daughter of Paul Sayers and Janet Hogan. She grew up in Beaufort and was educated in local schools. One of her teachers was Pat Conroy. She eventually earned a B.A. degree from Fordham University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University. She has taught creative writing at the City University of New York and at the Low Country Technical College in Beaufort. In 1993 she joined the English department at the University of Notre Dame, where she became director of the master of fine arts program in creative writing.
Sayers is the author of six novels and several short stories. Her first novel, Due East (1987), serves as an anchor work for her subsequent four novels. Due East is the name Sayers gives to the thinly disguised Beaufort of her youth and adolescence. She has said, “I was raised in a little coastal town—Beaufort, South Carolina— suspiciously like Due East. I moved to New York at seventeen, but evidently have a compunction to return to that particular southern landscape.” In part, her return to Beaufort is an imaginative return to her past life and to the past life of her large family. Her first book is a coming-of-age novel about the anxieties, cultural and otherwise, of a young Catholic girl located in the midst of a small-town Protestant culture.
Her second novel, How I Got Him Back (1989), and her third novel, Who Do You Love (1991), are also set in Due East, with the recurrence of many characters from her first novel. She has written, “Every time I write about Due East—which is mostly every time I write—I am trying to come to terms with South Carolina, with how that place has seeped into my being.” In some ways, her first three novels form a trilogy, and they have clear elements of autobiography, though Sayers has created an overlay of shifts in time and shifts in narrative voice that discourages strictly autobiographical reading.
In her fourth novel, The Distance Between Us (1994), Sayers moves the action away from the South and into New York. Her fifth novel, Brain Fever (1996), continues the story of the lives of several characters that have appeared in earlier works. Brain Fever tells the story of a middle-aged man who is coping with emotional and family crises. Her latest book, The Powers (2013), recreates an America on the verge of war, right before Pearl Harbor in 1941, with a host of real and imagined characters, including the New York Yankees star Joe DiMaggio, whom the author endows with psychic powers.
Most of Sayers’s fiction centers on the family and its discontents. Daughters are alienated from fathers, husbands are alienated from wives, and children struggle to find clear paths out of the maze of family struggles. A central theme of her fiction is romantic entanglements between men and women, conflicts that often remain unresolved. Sayers’s characters sometimes feel isolated and disappointed, and frequently they are forced to settle for small victories of reconciliation and affection.
Sayers’s fiction is wholeheartedly unsentimental. Its narrative force is carried by the author’s strong display of comic irony. Several critics have suggested that Sayers’s ironic stance is tempered by her self-declared Catholic religious faith, placing her in a way in the southern tradition of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.
Valerie Sayers was the 1992 National Endowment for the Arts literature fellow, and she has served on the fellowship panel for the National Endowment for the Arts and on the fellowship panel for the South Carolina Arts Commission. She is a frequent book reviewer for the New York Times and the Washington Post.
McCord, Charline R. “Interview with Valerie Sayers.” Southern Quarterly (Winter 2000): 135–52.
Zubizarreta, John. “Valerie Sayers.” Catholic Women Writers. Edited by Mary R. Reichmdt. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001. 345–50.