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).
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."
He draws frequently from his own family for the skeleton of a plot. ("I don't get in trouble because I write with love about them rather than indictment.") He starts with a truthful experience and then asks basic questions: "What if that happened? What would I see? What would happen next? What would that be like? What would be the effect on the next generation?" His books are full of "people making steady mistakes and reckoning with that."
Writing about sin can err in two directions, he says: toward pornography or toward pablum. "It's a fine line-we need to look at it but need to see depravity in the light of Christ. When you're a participant you're sinning. . . . It's all reliant upon how the author renders it. That is the way readers receive it."
After teaching, Lott heads home, cooks dinner, and sits down to watch a program like Amazing Race or Survivor. He likes them because they "strip people bare and show what their make up is, what their moral character is, and why people do what they do."
A good day ends with Lott reading a good book. A perfect day ends with him reading a Patrick O'Brien novel "with the knowledge that there isn't an end . . . that there's not a closed amount of Patrick O'Brien."
(Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Bill Frisell's name.)
Remember when your mom put those (ugly) lace-ups and other school-year purchases on summer layaway? With money tight and credit crunched, layaway as of 2008 is back.
One of my favorite discoveries this year has been the English Standard Version online Bible reading plans (esv.org/biblereadingplans). The website offers several different plans-Book of Common Prayer Daily Office, Through the Bible, M'Cheyne's, etc.-to take a reader through the whole Bible in a year. Readers can subscribe to an RSS feed, download podcasts, or get the daily reading on their mobile device. The audio feed, read by actor David Cochran Heath, allows me to hear the passage as I read it. I now also listen to a chanted version of the daily psalm at the website of the Lutheran Liturgical Prayer Brotherhood (llpb.us/Canticles-Psalms-Ants.htm).
One of my favorite books as a child was Louisa May Alcott's An Old Fashioned Girl. When society girl Fanny's father goes bankrupt, she learns what her friend Polly Milton always knew: Poverty can be the mother of creativity. In these tough economic times, many of us will be learning or relearning that lesson and learning to do more with less. That may increase the popularity of websites like www.instructables.com, which is full of ideas (and instructions, both written and pictorial) on making items ranging from duct tape messenger bags to homemade chocolate chapsticks and sculptures out of recycled watches.