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Writer creates vivid portraits of place and time

By Jeffrey Sartain - Guest Column
March 9, 2016 at 4:33 p.m.

Jeffrey Sartain

Jeffrey Sartain   Contributed Photo by K. Jordan for The Victoria Advocate

Thursday's speaker in the UHV/ABR Reading Series is acclaimed novelist Valerie Sayers. With six books and a laundry list of awards and nominations, Sayers is one of the most well-regarded stylists of place and time in fiction.

Writing a setting well takes so much more than just painting a pretty picture with words. A writer like Sayers creates such vivid portraits of a time and place because she understands that the setting is inextricable from the characters. To get the tone and style right, so that a piece of writing feels familiar, even uncanny, it takes skilled writing that gets the voices of the characters just right. Through those characters, the important details of the setting reveal themselves.

The familiar and thoughtful portrayal of place, time and people is the most significant aspect of what literary scholars call regionalism. An effort to represent a people, place and time with a high degree of accuracy, regionalism tends to be best when the writer can capture the complexity of ideas and relationships that are in tension in any given time. Through artfully depicted people and places in novels like Sayers, authors capture a glimpse of what it was like to be alive in a particular place and time.

Sayers' reputation as one of the best American regional writers is one that is well deserved. Her most famous literary creation is the fictional coastal town of Due East, S.C.

Her fictional setting is readily recognizable to those who have visited coastal South Carolina towns. Most directly, Due East is based on her childhood hometown of Beaufort, S.C. A continued fascination for Sayers, she has returned to Due East as the fictional setting for at least some part of five of her novels, "Due East," "How I Got Him Back, or Under the Cold Moon's Shine," "Who Do You Love," "The Distance Between Us" and "Brain Fever."

I can personally attest to how real her novels feel, as I have spent a good deal of time with family in Beaufort and other coastal South Carolina towns. When I read Sayers' works, I am transported back to my childhood and the warm embrace of those family trips to the coast.

I see in my mind's eye the hanging Spanish moss and the windswept dunes of the Carolina coast, and I can smell the swampy, salty air all around.

In Sayers' works, the place and people come alive, and I can practically feel the soft, humid air and hear the lilting drawl of the low country accent.

Sayers' most recent novel, "The Powers," journeys back in time to America in 1941, on the cusp of World War II, when baseball truly was the American sport. "The Powers" moves beyond her works that take place in Due East, trading one vividly realized setting for another. In "The Powers," Sayers examines life in New York in the heady days of Joe DiMaggio and the Yankees' glory.

Never one to abide by convention, every one of Sayers' novels experiments in some way with form, voice and style. Some include many different kinds of text and images to tell their stories; some switch narrative voices between chapters and characters; and still others mix fact and fiction with their historical photographs superimposed on a fictional world. All of these techniques combine to create vivid, convincing narratives in which very human characters wrestle with very human struggles.

Sayers will give a reading at noon Thursday in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. The event is free and open to the public.

Jeffrey Sartain is the managing editor of the American Book Review and a UHV assistant professor of English. He may be contacted at sartainj@uhv.edu.


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