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Spinning Yarns

T.R. Pearson constructs Southern-style stories laced with small-town Virginia personalities.

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Charlottesville writer T.R. Pearson’s books are the literary equivalents of Southern porches. He writes of people in small-town, rural Virginia with a cutting satiric wit that renders his characters hilarious and unforgettable. His ninth and most recent novel, “True Cross” (Viking, $24.95), is no less captivating as it explores the odd romantic quest of creative accountant Paul Tatum. His story is one that meanders through the ins and outs of the colorful inhabitants of small-town Virginia. Tatum is both despicably immoral and deliciously enticing as he executes his plan to leave his girlfriend, Mona, and seduce the fair, and married, Maud Hooper.

Pearson’s storytelling method carries the reader through with enticing digressions. Pearson’s literature seems to illustrate a way of storytelling that is distinctly Southern. “It’s all over the place,” Pearson says. “If I’m using a first person narrator like ‘True Cross,’ I just let the characters talk. Some tend to be more discursive than others. I mean some get to the point quicker than others.” By letting his characters unwind their long tales, his books are given a dimension beyond that of the plot.

Pearson is not alone in this brand of writing. Southern authors like Mark Twain and William Faulkner employed digressions in their work, and Pearson names both as primary influences. “Spinning a yarn is typical of the South as well as of rural storytelling,” Pearson says. “Everything is tinged with the Old Testament. The stories are scattershot the way a lot of biblical stories are. There are lots of people to bring in and you have to introduce whole histories. There’s a kind of leisureliness to these people. They figure they have enough time to go off on tangents.”

While this method of storytelling seems natural to Pearson as well as to his readers, he implies that not everyone is apt to understand his manner of writing. “My first book, ‘A Short History of a Small Place,’ was given to a copy editor after I finished it,” Pearson says. “This guy was a New Englander and he couldn’t make any sense of the idiom. He just didn’t get the phrases that I used. So he rewrote everything, and the only way to make the book right again was to strip out all the copy editing. I write by the way I hear it. It’s supposed to be a kind of oral history. And when you deal with a copy editor they’re dealing with the written word. So we’re not dealing with the same thing.”

Pearson’s brand of storytelling is intrinsically linked to humor. “I almost found out what a powerful tool humor is by accident,” Pearson says. “My first book was originally supposed to be a tragedy, but I just couldn’t do it. Humor is really the thing that turns everything around. And it’s really an important part of life. If my books weren’t funny they wouldn’t be worth reading. It’s not about the plot. It’s kind of about the characters, but they wouldn’t be worth following if they weren’t funny. Without the comedy I got nothing.” S

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