Photo credit: Rick Rhodes
Family: Everybody’s Story
An Interview with Bret Lott
By Robert L. Hall
Some weeks ago, I flipped open the Sunday book section of The Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper and read the heading:
“Lott, new editor of lit journal, has new novel.”
I had been waiting for a good interview to walk by, and here, in black and white, was my chance: Bret Lott, author of the novel, Jewell, which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 1999. And now, as I kept reading, I found out that he is the new editor of The Southern Review. We have a saying for folks like that in Arkansas—that is, folks who seem to have it all going their way: we call it ‘falling into the hog trough,’ if you’ll pardon the southern vernacular?
Can you imagine? Then, when I saw that he would be signing and reading at That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas, I knew I had to be there. I had heard of the legendary place, where the famous and near-famous southern authors went to talk to audiences, but I had never been there. It was a few miles up the road, but what the heck? I was glad I went. The atmosphere was pleasant, relaxed, and the proprietor, Mary Gay Shipley, was ingratiating. She insisted that I conduct my interview with the author right in front of her clientele because she wanted them to see what a professional interview of a literary figure was like. How inspired is that? So, here is the interview I conducted that day. Thanks to Mary Gay and especially to Bret Lott, who is an incredibly talented—and if I may say so—blessed individual.
You were raised in Los Angeles by southern parents. How did your parents create an environment for storytelling among the West Coast distractions?
I spent a lot of time at my grandmother and grandfather’s house, so the distractions of Southern California were limited by the fact that we were in the one house all weekend long. There was sort of an enclave of family there, so I grew up with cousins and aunts and uncles. Every weekend, we weren’t very far from each other so we would converge upon their house in Redondo Beach while I was growing up.
I noticed a parallel between the character, Jewel, in your novel by the same name, and your grandmother?
Yes. It’s based loosely on her life…the general plot. My grandmother had six children and the sixth child was a Down Syndrome baby that was born in the woods outside Hattiesburg actually, in a log cabin that my grandfather built. I’ve been to this cabin before. So, in 1953 there were all kinds of things going on for Down Syndrome kids in Southern California, as far as you could go in 1953. My grandmother was told, “You just should institutionalize your kid and she’ll die in a couple of years and, you know, it will all be for the best.” And she said no and moved everybody out to California, and that’s kind of the basic plot of Jewel.
In terms of skeleton of plot: Yeah, six kids and they moved out to Southern California. She was active in the Down Syndrome education movement out there; but not a whole lot more than in the novel. My grandmother is kind of beyond belief—she is much larger than life. So, there were a lot of things I downplayed, actually. And, then there are all sorts of subplots and characters that had to be created; but basically that life was paralleled in the novel.
So, ‘Write what you know’ really applies here?
You betcha! Always, yeah.
There is an excellent audio book review of your latest book, A Song I Knew by Heart, on the Internet, done by Maureen Corrigan for National Public Radio. She says in her review that your work is atypical, as it deals with blue collar white people, working class and earnest, instead of the neurotics and eccentrics who are proud of their neuroticism. Her only criticism (which I felt was very minor) was that it might not be modern enough. What do you think of that criticism?
Although I didn’t hear that review, Melanie, my wife, was telling me about it. I was out on the road somewhere when that ran. I really thought…from what I’ve heard about what she said…I was very happy because she was seeing that it was a different type of book than we are getting routinely in the publishing world right now.
I wasn’t really…when I was writing it—I was not really thinking, “I’m going to blow the lid off cynical readers.” I was thinking, “They are real people.” And the kind of people that I write about and love are not deeply cynical, not burned out by the world, not jaded; they mean to live the lives that they live. They love each other through better and worse, through loss and grief, and still manage to survive and to love again. Maybe that sounds cheesy, but that’s what I love to write. So, when she reviewed that—that’s my understanding of that review—is that she was pointing out, it’s an atypical book, and it’s a very strange world we live in when an atypical book is one that has hope and sincerity.
In The Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper, you are quoted as saying you “write about family.” What are you trying to say about families in your work?
I don’t know what else to write about, that’s the bottom line. I don’t know what else there is to write about. I’m not saying that to be glib or a quick answer. Family, that’s basically everybody’s story. Whether you are writing away from the family or trying to extract from the family or trying to get hold of the family, or the family’s dying or being born, or are you meeting your soul mate or your lover or whatever; it’s all about the family. So, when I’m writing, I’m not thinking about trying to say something so much as to write clearly and in love—what I love and what I hold dear. I know that’s kind of a vague answer, but I don’t want you to think I’m trying to instruct or preach or anything.
If the only thing I know about is family, then what I’m trying to say is that family is all that matters; but that comes out of the fact that that’s all I know what to write about, for better or worse again.
Again, in Jewel you write from Jewel’s perspective—i.e., a woman, and also describe Brenda Kay, who is a case study of a person with Down Syndrome. That had to be tough to do convincingly?
It’s a matter of using your imagination. We live in a time when people are trying to pigeonhole who you are and in a time when your—or my—imagination, is the key to the whole thing. When people ask me, ‘How did you write from a woman’s point of view?’ the only thing I can say is that I just really imagine deeply what it’s like—not to be a woman—but to be in this novel, Naomi, a woman who was born in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, grew up there in a loving family, but moved with her brand new husband to Western Massachusetts after World War II, and raised a family there. Her husband has died the year before and then her only child dies, and she is left with her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Now, given all that, what does she think, how does she act, what does she feel?
Rather than saying, ‘Okay, I’m writing a woman character,’ truly, it never enters my mind when I’m writing: or ‘I’m writing a female character,’ or ‘ I’m writing from Naomi’s point of view.’
The novel before this one is called The Hunt Club and it’s from a fifteen-year old’s boy point of view. It was just as hard to write from a fifteen-year old boy’s point of view. I’m not a fifteen-year old boy. He’s from a broken family; my parents are married to this day. So, to say you’re a man, not a woman—how hard is it to do that? It’s equally hard to write…if I were to write a novel from a forty-five-year old man’s point of view, I would want to know the exact same things. Not, how old is this man, but what happened to him as he grew up to this day when I’m starting to write this story. So, it’s a matter of thinking with compassion and imagination: What would this particular person do? Not, what would women do? Because the minute you think, what would women do? What would a woman do? You are going to be wrong. That’s just wrong. And the same thing goes: What would men do? That would be wrong too. So, for me, I’ve always thought of it just as a particular person walking on the face of the earth on a particular day. Just a particular person, rather than just a gender.
Think that will get into the interview? All that stuff?
Well, we’re a writer’s site. You’re not getting a pass with this—I’m not trying to say that. But you write with detailed descriptions and getting into the minds of your characters so much, as opposed to the conventional wisdom today, which says not to do that. “Show, don’t tell!” is what is presently promoted. How do you get away with that?
Again, writing is about daydreaming. You’re sitting there…it took about four years for me to write this book (A Song I Knew by Heart) so I’m sitting there, daydreaming for all that time. And the best kind of daydreaming is one in which you are in the detail—you’re in deep. That’s the level of being inside the story so that the details are there. It’s not like I’m doing a flyby telling of a woman’s life from her point of view. She’s sitting at a table, holding a coffee cup. Everything that’s around her; the more deeply I try to imagine—sink myself into her life—as her, the more the details are going to stand out. So, I just kind of look around the room and list them; later on, in revision, I throw them out. I have more detail than you want to know when I’m writing something. But, for me, the other part of that as a writer is, I’m the first one that sees the story happen.
If I’m seeing this happen, I’m the first one to write it down. Now, already, because I’m writing it down, it’s already diluted because what I saw is not exactly what I wrote—because there’s no way to get exactly what I wrote. The next thing is that you then read it. So, it’s third hand. You are the third reader of this thing, basically. So, I need to see things so vividly, and try to match that vividness so that you, at third hand, can try to read a vivid passage.
I’ll back off the technical questions a bit. Now, you were recently at the White House salute to American authors with Elizabeth Spencer and Tom Wolfe. You spoke on Flannery O’Connor, I believe. What is O’Connor’s gift to American writing, in your estimation?
I spoke on Flannery O’Connor. She’s my hero. Flannery O’Connor is just a wonderful writer, in that she wrote these big, giant larger-than-life characters. They hit you over the head with a two-by-four. She had a great, wonderful quote: ‘To a world that’s hard of hearing, you have to write large.’ So, she was trying to write these stories to a world that just wasn’t hearing. By that, what I mean, is she wrote about grace, she wrote about sin, she wrote about Christ’s redeeming capabilities. But, she wrote it with a very visceral, a very hard-edged manner.
She was Catholic.
Yes, and she held deeply that fact that we are sinners; and it wasn’t like a Protestant Bible-waving sensibility. It was like…I don’t know if you have ever read the story, A Good Man is Hard to Find? That story is a startling, very terrifying story when you get to the end of it. It pits good against evil and there is murder involved. There is death involved. So, it’s not really figurative and like people are now—good and evil is kind of a gray area. She was very black and white, in that evil will kill you. Anyway, I think she was a wonderful writer because she was so daring and willing to write these larger-than-life characters and confront humanity with its fallen nature, without being a Bible-thumper. So, that’s what I talked about.
You are going to be leaving Charleston, to take up your duties as editor at The Southern Review. What did you try to teach your students at the College of Charleston, where you have been for the last eighteen years?
What I try to teach my students is…the motto of my class is ‘I know nothing.’ I believe that the writer is not somebody who’s endowed with special wisdom, or a prophet, or a seer or anything like that. I think the writer is somebody who has chosen to really pay attention to the world and to see what is going on and try to pay attention and discover the way the world works, rather than telling the readers—you know, ‘I really know how the world works, and here’s how it works.’ Rather, as I said, I’m the first one to see the story, I’m the first one who gets to read the story, I’m the first one who gets to be surprised by what the story’s about. So, I’ve tried to teach my students my motto, which is ‘I know nothing.’ As Socrates said—and I don’t mean to go highbrow on you—but Socrates said, ‘The greatest level of wisdom that man can hope to obtain is the realization of how little he knows.’ That’s what real wisdom is.
I want them to think for themselves, to pay attention, to see the world newly all the time.
And what will you miss about Charleston?
I will miss the ocean. We’re moving to Baton Rouge. I’ve taken a job at LSU.
I’m going to be the editor of The Southern Review. I move there this summer; our younger son will go to the College of Charleston this fall, our older son will be a senior at Furman. We’re moving to Baton Rouge. It’s a great opportunity; it’s a great job. But, that’s a long way from the ocean. We were raised in Southern California and then in Charleston for eighteen years. The sea breeze is a nice thing. Baton Rouge is only one degree warmer per month. We did the check on the weather thing to see how hot it really gets there. It’s only one degree warmer, but there’s no sea breeze to blow off some of the humidity.
What do you keep in your writing room for inspiration, or as a writing tool?
A computer. I use that every now and then. (We join in laughter)
For, like, inspiration stuff, I wrote the bulk of this new novel in a little closet in our house. The point being, that it was a very small, cloistered space. I wrote this after Oprah called and the world became very big. The world became very big all of a sudden and I needed to be in a little closet to be away from everybody and to be as alone as I could be.
I tape, above my desk, little sayings from different people. One is from Flannery O’Conner, which says, ‘Never let anything get in the way of your writing.’ And that was kind of my problem the last four or five years. I let a lot of things get in the way of my writing. Another is from my agent, Marian Young. She said, ‘Cut to the chase.’ So, I got this ‘Cut to the chase,’ meaning, get that thing going! Let’s go! (He snaps his fingers as he speaks.) Another one was from John Berryman, American poet, who said, you should always be attempting to write a poem that you are incapable of writing, that calls for more courage, more intelligence, more technical expertise than you are capable of doing. Because, if you are not doing that, then you are just imitating yourself, and that’s the easy way. Berryman said it much better, but that’s a quote I kept above my desk. And then, I have a little, little, little picture Melanie bought me down in Beaufort, a little black-and-white photograph of a shrimp boat there in Beaufort. Her father is a shrimper in Charleston. And so I had that picture to look at and to think about. That’s about it.
What about your writing schedule?
It’s basically in the morning. We get up and have a ritual of sitting and reading the newspaper, get our son off to school, and then start about eight o’clock or so. I’m working on a new novel now which really has me going. I stopped about a month ago because of all the hubbub about the new book. I get up about five fifteen in the morning, which is the real schedule that I love—is getting up about five o’clock or five fifteen and then writing before daylight. I try to write as long as I can, but there’s always school. I edit a journal called Crazyhorse right now, then I’ll be editing The Southern Review this summer, so there’s always work to be done. Otherwise, I try to get a couple of hours, three hours, four hours when I can. And some days I write all day long if I’ve got the time and there’s nothing taking over.
I’m checking with my wife every time I say this, to make sure I’m telling the truth. (He glances knowingly at his spouse, Melanie, who is out in the audience, listening along with the group in the bookstore where we are conducting the interview at That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas.)
You’re going to The Southern Review next. What do you want to see for the journal?
I just want the best writing. Period. I want the very best writing they can possibly get. What I want to do is open it up to writing all over the country. The Southern Review was founded by Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks and their goal was not to say—and it’s written in his letters—I’m not just going to feature southern writers. He said, I want the best writing I can possibly get, but at this particular moment in American Literature, southern writing is very important. That was when Faulkner was working, and I mean everybody: The Agrarians, The Fugitives; so that was a moment in the 1930’s and in the early 40’s—really that was the southern renaissance at that point. So, what’s happened over the years is that Robert Penn Warren was having people write about what was going on in that particular moment in literature. And what has happened is, they are still writing about what was going on in the 1930’s and 40’s in Southern Literature. And what I want to do is to start talking about things more contemporary, writers writing on writing now. There are some other things; their poetry is excellent poetry. But, it’s kind of uncertain. It’s by and large—and this is not true all the way through—but it’s a lot of narrative poetry, which is poetry that tells a story. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not the only kind of poetry that is out there.
© 2004, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Rerserved