Old friends have a quality to their voice that immediately warms your soul upon hearing it. You can go years without speaking to that person and then one day the phone rings, you say hello, and with one word that voice negates the passage of time and unleases a flood of memories.
A rare few writers have this same special quality to their writing. T.R. Pearson, author of ten novels, most recently warmed his readers with the voice of his first work of nonfiction, Seaworthy: Adrift with William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting. The book recounts the strange journeys of a man obsessed with navigating the Pacific on a homemade raft. At sixty years of age, Willis survived on rye flour and seawater as he attempted to travel from South America to Australia, a trek he repeated a decade later. This amazing story is the perfect vehicle for Pearson’s slightly antiquated and sophisticated writing voice.
For a more complete review of Seaworthy, click here. Continue reading for Pearson’s thoughts on painting houses, the use of dialect in Southern fiction, and selling nonfiction books.
Slushpile: What was the first book that really made an impression on you?
Pearson: Tristram Shandy. It was shocking to stumble across Laurence Sterne’s modern sensibility lurking in the 18th century. I’d read plenty of novels before I came across this one, but I’d never been so surprised and enchanted by a piece of fiction.
Slushpile: At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?
Pearson: My grandfather was a lifelong writer. I think I inherited the impulse. I’ve been writing since I was a child. There was no deciding to it.
Slushpile: At what point did you believe you could actually make a living writing?
Pearson: I’ve never believed it, and with good reason.
Slushpile: I believe you got a masterss degree in English and then promptly went to work painting houses. Some authors argue that a physically demanding job helps their writing because they come home tired, but mentally fresh. Others are too exhausted after doing something physical to write. How did your experience painting houses affect your writing career?
Pearson: Painting houses was an alternative to teaching. I’d taught before and found
all of the attendant work too draining to allow me to write. Painting was only physically tiring. I could get up early each morning (around 4:30 in my case) and write for three or four hours. And then off to paint. Clean brushes. Drink bourbon. Repeat. I lived like that for about five years and produced three or four novels.
Slushpile: Your first novel, A Short History of a Small Place, was published in 1985. It focuses on the small town of Neely, North Carolina and is a meandering tale, full of side-stories and digressions, perfectly capturing the way many Southerners tell stories. How did you go about getting this book published? What do you remember about getting that first acceptance letter?
Pearson: That manuscript was widely rejected by agents and editors alike before an agent finally saw the humor in it (no one else had). The book sold shortly thereafter for the princely sum of $7,500. It was all a matter of getting the manuscript into the right hands. That’s usually the case in publishing.
Slushpile: Since that first book, you’ve published nine other novels. How do you think the publishing industry has changed since A Short History of a Small Place was first released?
Pearson: Fewer and fewer people buy books and read them. I’ve a very gloomy opinion
of the future of publishing. The fundamental problem is that the business is very slow to change while the relatively small audience for books is much more agile. Charging $25 for a hardbound book given the numerous and cheaper entertainment alternatives isn’t just uncompetitive; it’s idiotic.
Slushpile: One of the hallmarks of your writing is your voice and use of the vernacular. You portray Southern dialogue without simply dropping a “g” and adding a “them thar” to the text. Instead, your characters often feature antiquated word choices. For example, in Blue Ridge, Paul Tatum says “I can’t say I ever really wanted a house, wouldn’t even have been shopping for one if Lowell hadn’t visited on me a mortgage deduction calculation.” He later says “I’m a pretty formidable housekeeper. My rooms are evermore neat and uncluttered. In truth, I’m afflicted with a bit of an overactive interest in housework, which I’ll allow anymore is within hailing distance of a clinical compulsion.” How did you arrive at this voice and style in your writing?
Pearson: My hope is always that I can capture a place and a way of talking through
syntax rather than by corrupting spelling. Biblical turns of phrase are still fairly common in the South, and I generally aim to create characters raised on the Old Testament, or at least exposed to it sufficiently throughout their lives to have soaked it in. I find idiomatic Southernisms, not a “g” in sight painful to read.
Slushpile: How conscious are you of voice and style when you write? Is it something that just comes naturally or do you consciously work at achieving a certain sound?
Pearson: I’m primarily interested in the narrative voice, so thats’s what I nail down
first, and then I move onto the deeper recesses of character and plot.
Slushpile: After ten novels, what prompted you to take on the nonfiction project of Seaworthy?
Pearson: I wasn’t at all sure I could sell another novel. Nonfiction is much more appealing to publishers just now, so I went looking for the sort of actual human who might engage to me like a fictional character would, and I was lucky enough to come across William Willis.
Slushpile: Nonfiction books these days seem to often include the author going on some journey, or immersing themselves into the experience. I get these incredibly vivid images of an eager publicist saying “why don’t you try to raft from New York to Washington DC for your book tour?!?!” Did you try any rafting or sailing at all while working on this book?
Pearson: I’ve sailed a little, but I left myself out of this book on purpose. Seaworthy is intended to be Willis’s stage. My agent agitated for a chapter on how I’d come across Willis, but I wouldn’t even write that. It’s Willis’s book. Truth be told, I don’t even care how I found him.
Slushpile: The subject of Seaworthy, William Willis published his own accounts of his journeys. Since those records exist (although they’re probably out of print), what did you think was your role in retelling the story?
Pearson: I think of Willis and his time as a bit of secret history. Every book of the era, with the exception of Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft, is long out of print. So I hoped to bring Willis back to public view along with a few of his odder contemporaries. I also found Willis to be more than a little prescient in his habits and practices. He was well ahead of his time and would fit in perfectly in our day. I do think of him as one of the first (if not the first) endurance athletes.
Slushpile: William Willis saw his quest to travel from South America to Australia as “an endurance test–endurance of body and mind.” Completing a book is also an endurance test for new writers. Granted, they don’t have to drink saltwater and dangle from the mast, but finishing a novel or nonfiction book is definitely a challenge. What do you do when you feel your energy flagging and you’re in the middle of a new project? How do you keep yourself motivated and energized?
Pearson: I simply stick to my routine. I write in the mornings, and when I leave my
desk, I leave my work there. I know writing books is long labor, and I’m prepared for it.
Slushpile: Willis was this perfect combination of hero and fool. After spending so much time researching his life and adventures, what do you admire the most about him?
Pearson: His ability to think himself utterly normal in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. He was a complete flake by the standards of his day, but Willis was convinced that his habits were right and proper, and that’s all he required. That sort of blithe self-confidence is relatively rare, Dick Cheney notwithstanding.
Slushpile: Willis’s journeys took place in the mid-fifties and mid-sixties. Yet, the primitive conditions of his travel make the book seem like it’s documenting a much earlier time. It’s hard to imagine that these trips were occurring at the same time as The Beatles popularity, the Vietnam War ramp-up, and other more “modern” events. Did you feel that way at all?
Pearson: Willis preferred the primitive, and seemed almost to live out of time. He remained relatively untouched by the rest of the world.
Slushpile: While we’re talking about the time period surrounding Willis’s trips, many authors of nonfiction books go out of their way to ground a story in its particular era. They want their books to examine not just the specific events at hand, but to illustrate the entire time period. However,with Seaworthy, you avoided writing lines such as “as Willis neared the Samoan Islands, the Beatles were appearing on Ed Sullivan” or something like that. Were you trying to reinforce the anachronistic feeling of Willis’s
Pearson: I was chiefly trying to avoid clutter. I almost wrote a chapter on the history of Pacific weather but thought better of it. I believed that the story had enough pop without terribly much extraneous detail.
Slushpile: We spoke about your voice earlier… did you try to alter that at all for this book?
Pearson: I attempted to write a book that could be read in a couple of sittings, and
my primary goal was to be precise and accurate. Unlike with fiction, I couldn’t make up the facts. So the prose is leaner by choice.
Slushpile: What is your advice for how a writer can tailor their voice or style to suit a particular project?
Pearson: My advice is always the same: write the sort of book you’d like to read or, read the sort of book you’re writing. Good writing is almost invariably the result of feel and instinct, which need to be developed. Read and write; there is no other way to go about it.
Slushpile: How long did it take you to write Seaworthy?
Pearson: I guess a year or so on the research and around eight months on the actual
Slushpile: Was this purely a research project utilizing previously published media accounts and existing books? Or, did you conduct interviews or try to gather new information in some way?
Pearson: I quite consciously avoided living people. My intent was to make use of existing books and articles, since everybody I was interested in was long dead.
Slushpile: Many new writers are baffled by the fact that some nonfiction books are sold on proposal, while others are sold only when the manuscript is completed, and still others are sold based on a proposal and a handful of finished chapters. How did the sale of Seaworthy work?
Pearson: I wrote a proposal for Seaworthy, but it didn’t sell. So I said to myself, fuck it, I’ll write the book. I knew Willis’s life made for a good story, and I just plowed ahead. I’m far better at writing books than proposals, so I went with my strength and ended up selling Seaworthy on 100 pages or so, with the proposal as a kind of supplement.
Slushpile: Have you started thinking about your next project yet? Can we expect more nonfiction or will you return to novels?
Pearson: I’m researching a nonfiction book and tinkering with a novel. I’m tempted to combine the two. The sound you hear is my agent’s head exploding.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Pearson: Be your own harshest critic. Whatever you think you can get away with, you
can’t. There’s somebody out there working harder, rewriting and polishing more than you are. You can’t be lazy in this business or you simply won’t be in it.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Pearson: What I’ve said above with the addition of — polish, polish, polish. Publishing folk don’t edit anymore. Do it yourself, and do it to exhaustion. Send out only your best, finished work.