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Luke Rutan

The power of words

Lifestyle/Technology | Author Bret Lott strives to write with the integrity of Christ

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

Bret Lott is 6 feet 4 inches tall. In a play he would be more likely cast as a lumberjack than a literary writer, college teacher, and member of the National Council on the Arts. He's one of the few evangelical Christians in recent decades-Larry Woiwode and Walter Wangerin are two others-who have had success as serious writers. He's also had commercial success: In January 1999, Oprah named his novel, Jewel, one of her book club selections, and it went on to sell millions of copies.

Lott's author biography on the Oprah site includes the Bible on his list of favorite books. He writes, "My most cherished book, the one that has transformed me and from which I read every day, is the Bible. Though I know this sounds like a Sunday sermon, the Bible has been-and is-the single most influential book in my life, the book that inspires me, challenges me, changes me, confirms me. Like the character Jewel, the people found throughout it are at once strong and weak, well-meaning and flawed, stubborn and loving, all of them wrestling with the will of God; and there at the center of it all is Christ, God on earth, to show us what genuine love really is: the surrendering of self for others."

I interviewed Lott about his work and writing habits during a recent Wedgewood Circle event in Manhattan, where he was explaining the publishing world to venture capitalists interested in investing in culture (WORLD, Nov. 29, 2008).

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He's an early riser: On a perfect day in his South Carolina home he's up at 5:00 a.m. After coffee and prayer he is at his desk with yesterday's work on the computer screen. He turns on the right music-every novel has a different soundtrack. He wrote Ancient Highway: A Novel (2008) to Bill Frisell, whose music Lott describes as "post-modern hillbilly, with banjo, guitar, bass, and layers of electronic music." The layers are important. Lott looks for music that is instrumental, textured, and many layered. He's listening to Pat Matheny's Secret Story as he writes his current project.

With the music playing he begins "pawing through the sentences I wrote the day before." He spends 30-45 minutes being "critical, critical, critical. That sets me up to go forward." He's not frustrated by the critic in his head. He says the critic is "basically me. You have to make it and you have to tear it down." When he's satisfied, he begins writing and is happy if he ends up with three or four fresh pages. On a good day he'll work at his desk until 9:30 a.m. Then he breaks to sit down with his wife to read the Bible and then the newspaper: He likes to do the Scrabblegram.

For 18 years Lott taught at the College of Charleston before leaving to edit The Southern Review at LSU for three years. He gave that up to return to the College of Charleston because he missed teaching and found that editing a literary journal means rejecting about 99 out of 100 stories submitted.

A perfect day includes teaching a class and holding office hours. He loves teaching creative writing and tells his students the same things he practices. He says, "Don't expect you'll be able to write correctly . . . use crutches." One crutch Lott uses is the word then. It helps propel the action, so he doesn't worry about using it as he writes, but when he edits he hunts for it: "A crutch is like scaffolding. When the building is done, you remove the scaffolding."

Lott says his current students are good writers but "need empathy." Often preoccupied with their own lives, issues, and problems, "they need the ability to see value in another person." His non-Christian students focus on "the pointlessness of things and the brutality of culture." His Christian students too often see "writing as an evangelistic tool." Lott tells them that "writing short stories as a means of evangelism isn't art. It's sermonizing."

All Lott's fiction deals with sin, forgiveness, and rebirth because "that's what I'm thinking about all the time. All my books have that fabric from which they're written." He's aware of the power of the written word: "The word is sacred. This is a sacred thing we do here. More than any movie or art, you actually move someone, get into their brain and heart."

Writing as a Christian means writing with the integrity of Christ, "with empathy, compassion, love, and truth." Although readers often want a comforting story, he says, "The Bible is a comforting story only in that Christ loved me despite my depravity."

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