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Blessed to be a blessing

Interview | Novelist Bret Lott on using his God-given talents in his vocation, writing about forgiveness, and "setting God in the midst of these stories"

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

Bret Lott is a critically acclaimed, bestselling novelist, who was recently appointed the editor of the prestigious literary journal The Southern Review. He is also an evangelical Christian who writes openly about his faith.

The author of half a dozen novels, several volumes of short stories, and a memoir, Mr. Lott is a Southern Baptist. Widely respected in literary circles, he found a mass audience in 1999 when Oprah Winfrey chose his novel Jewel, about a woman and her Down syndrome daughter, for her book club. (See WORLD, March 13, 1999.) That pro-life novel was one of the most popular of Oprah's selections, selling some 2.5 million copies.

Mr. Lott here speaks with WORLD about his latest novel, A Song I Knew by Heart, and his vocation as a Christian writer.

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WORLD: Christian writers often complain that they are not taken seriously-by secular publishers, critics, and general readers-because of their Christianity. Some try to tone down or to veil expressions of faith. In this novel, though, you don't seem to hold anything back. You write about conversion, baptism, prayer, blessings, grace, and there is hardly a page without some reference by Naomi, narrating her story, to God and her relationship to Him. And yet, you are published by secular publishers, critically acclaimed, and have a wide general readership. How have you managed this?

BL: I think this has come about through recognizing that the more I talk about Christ, the more I am able to talk about Christ.

My early books were not obviously Christ centered, but pointed toward my vision of art as being redemptive, of writing as being an act of faith in view of a God who loves us and who died for us. My books have never been existentialist downers, but have arrived at a place wherein loss has been accommodated; the question for all of my characters, at the ends of their books, has been, Given what I have lived through, the sorrow and triumph both, how do I now live?

As I have grown up, both as a writer and as a man of God, I have come to see that boldness in simply setting God in the midst of these stories has allowed me the boldness to set God in the midst of these stories.

God blesses us when we go boldly to the throne of Grace, and though certainly I could count good reviews and a wide readership as blessings, I think the true blessing in simply letting characters have a real relationship with Christ is that God and His love for us-His forgiveness-is being seen and felt by readers who, in this present culture, don't know the joy of forgiveness, and the redeeming quality of love.

WORLD: A Song I Knew by Heart is a remarkable retelling of the book of Ruth, in contemporary terms. Do you find that your readers pick up on the biblical origins of your plot, or is biblical illiteracy so rampant that they miss the connection? What was it about the biblical story that made you want to write about a modern "Naomi," "Ruth," and "Beau(az)"?

BL: By and large, people have recognized the origin of the story, though it's interesting that a couple of reviewers in the print media haven't-those folks to whom so many readers look for advice about which books to read, it turns out, might very well be the least Bible-literate.

But it was and is my hope that one needn't have read the book of Ruth to enjoy the story. I don't want a reader to feel it necessary to have that background, as it were, in the Bible to appreciate a story about a love of this depth and magnitude, although every time I have spoken somewhere about A Song I Knew by Heart the subject has always been the fact of this being a retelling-a reseeing-of a story it takes 15 minutes to read in the Bible.

I wanted to write this story for many years, because it is a story about a relationship that is, in our present culture, something of an ugly thing: The joke, of course, is always about the enmity caused by the in-laws. But one of the truly beautiful and deepest love relationships in the Bible is that between in-laws, between mother-in-law Naomi and daughter-in-law Ruth.

My novels are always, finally, about family, but blood relationships and marriage relationships. What I found most mysterious and moving about this relationship is that it is based on a relation that is simply in law, not blood, and yet it is one of the most eternally moving moments in the Bible.

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