Bret Lott is an author and a Christian. His new novel, Dead Low Tide (Random House), comes out this month. His other books include Jewel and Ancient Highway.
Q. Your new novel, Dead Low Tide, is the sequel to The Hunt Club. In that novel, the protagonist is Huger Dillard, a 15-year-old boy mired in the lies, sins, and mysteries of his Charleston community. He was the first to set eyes on a dead body on the property of his uncle’s Hungry Neck Hunt Club, and he is pulled into the mystery behind the murder. What made you decide to return to Huger’s story? A. I was haunted by these two people, Unc and Huger, over the years between then and now. They were interesting people who had been ushered to a new place in their relationship to each other, and I just wondered what had happened between them all these years later. The strange thing about writing a novel is that you meet these people, find out all about them, watch them act under duress, solve or not solve problems—and then you walk away, and never hear from them again. This was an opportunity to go back and find out what they’d been up to. Oh, and to write another murder mystery—which was a lot of fun.
Q. The Hunt Club is not normally classified as a young adult novel, but recently it made headlines because the Charleston (S.C.) County School Board had to decide whether or not to remove it from the approved reading list for Wando High School. One family objected to its inclusion due to the strong language and other mature themes in the novel. The school board decided to leave the book on the list, but they will be giving parents a disclaimer in the future to give some warning about mature content in the book. How do you feel about the decision? A. I think it’s a good decision, though of course now the question of who gets to decide what the disclaimer will say and which books will get the disclaimer is brought to the fore. The entire episode seems strange all the way around: I didn’t write it as a young adult book, but somehow it’s gotten into the school systems as such. There is bad language in there, and bad people, but if you don’t portray bad people as bad people—as evil—then you’re only lying, you’re not telling the truth. I think, sadly, all that was lost on the people who protested the book’s being included on an optional—optional—reading list.
Q. Since you are a Charleston resident, do you feel like a prophet without honor in your own hometown? A. Sometimes, to tell you the truth, yes. I’m not from around here—though I’ve been teaching here since 1986 and writing all this while, with my thirteenth book coming out in January (the first one came out in 1987, after I’d been teaching here). But because I don’t write strictly in the Southern mode, about magnolias and carriage rides in Charleston and sunsets across the harbor, and because I wasn’t born in South Carolina, I’m regarded, I think, as an interloper, an anomaly. Oh well.
Q. Did you ever steer your own kids away from any particular books? A. Nope. But I monitored what they read, gave them as many good books as possible. They have always been avid readers—I mean avid—and were always reading way more books on their own than they were being given in school. So they came up with a sense of what a good book is and, I think, retain this sense to this day. My favorite pastime is reading the Patrick O’Brian novels—the Master and Commander series of 20 novels (I read all of them and am now rereading the whole thing, on volume 15 the second time through as we speak)—and it was my younger son, Jacob, who bugged me for years to give them a try. I’m thankful for his taste in books every day.
Q. Many Christians find it difficult to read books with profanity or vulgar language, sex or violence, believing that those things cannot fall into the category of “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Phil. 4:8). How would you respond to those concerns? A. All I can say—and I mean this in love, and without any sense of irony at all—is don’t read books that have those elements to them. I won’t defend to them what I do when it comes to using foul language or sex or violence. I simply see the world as being a fallen place, and my job as a writer is to portray that fallen state, and to portray as well the fact of redemption being available within that fallen state. We need to focus on those things Paul exhorts us to, but I think Paul may be speaking of these things because the opposite of those are always around us, always present—our job is to focus on the good, true and beautiful, but we only know these because they stand in relief to the opposite. A book that is solely filled with the good denies the reality of conflict and sorrow and sin that is everywhere present. When Christ came to live among us, he didn’t have his apostles scour every room he entered of its offensiveness; instead, he walked boldly into the sin of the world, and pointed to it every day he was alive.
Q. Do you ever find that you have to convince people that you are, in fact, a Christian after they read one of your novels? In other words, do you feel suspect in the community of believers? A. Good question. I don’t think people necessarily understand that I am a Christian, but they understand the value and purpose and quality of redemption, of forgiveness, of the necessity of love as the only engine to life, which I am happy to show. As for the second question, I have received letters from believers who let me know they are praying for me because of my language, but those are few and far between. But I don’t really feel I am being regarded suspiciously by the community of believers.
Q. On the flip side, at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College a few years back, you opened your speech with the Apostles’ Creed. Do you think your openness about what you believe ever affects your response from readers, other writers, or publishers? A. I can’t really say. I think people appreciated my saying that at the festival, that openness. But I don’t know why that would be a remarkable thing, professing Christ openly. Either we believe this, or we don’t. I don’t really hear a great deal back from readers, writers, or publishers about this matter. If anything, I think the publishing world may regard me as some sort of savant, someone who can write a good book but who’s an oddity when it comes to his personal life. All that Jesus stuff.
Q. You write realistic fiction. You seem, from the novels I’ve read, to explore the nature of sin and regret, while still keeping hope of restoration alive. What’s your take on the current trend of really depressing books? A. Nothing new here. The further we grow from the notion of sin and personal responsibility for that sin, and the further we believe only in man as the means by which to find any sort of redemption—the further, that is, we mire ourselves in our enlightened humanistic state (I’m being sarcastic here)—the further we will turn our faces from true light. Believing in ourselves as our redemption will always prove to be a false lead, a dead end. Hence depressing books.
Q. I know that John Gardner’s writings have had a strong influence on your writing career. Who else? A. Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver. O’Connor primarily for her book Mystery and Manners, in which she outlines the art of fiction writing and does so through the prism of being a true believer in Christ, and being a servant of our Creator God. Carver because of his exquisitely humble prose, the clarity of his sentences, and his subject matter. These two are always on my mind when I writing, and when I’m teaching.
Q. You were a salesman before you began your writing career. Did anything from that experience turn out to be beneficial in life as an author? Is there anything about being a salesman that you miss? A. The only thing I miss about that job is the act of going day in and day out to different places, seeing different people, talking with them, getting to know others, and being in other places than my own routine locales and friends. A writer has to live with his eyes wide open, taking in everything, noticing everything, remembering everything, all with a kind of reverence and awe at the world out there. So I miss that dynamic element of the job, meeting people and being in other places. I think too that a salesman’s job is to talk people into things, into believing they need what it is you have to give them, and I know certainly that this a part of writing, of telling a believable tale: you have to give the reader enough information to let them believe you, to believe that what you are giving is real and matters. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and I know that having been a salesman has been integral to my being a writer. I’m trying to sell people a story. So I better get it right.
Q. This one is for my book club. We read A Song I Knew By Heart, which is a contemporary Southern story based on Ruth and Naomi. We had one question: Why did you make Ruth infertile? The glory of the story in the Bible is that Ruth becomes part of the lineage of Christ, so we wondered, why take that hope of motherhood away from the Ruth in your story? A. Great question—because I wrestled with this for a long time. Here’s why: I knew that I was writing a retelling of the Book of Ruth from the Bible, and I knew that because I was dealing with a sacred text—the Bible is as sacred as you can get—that I better not trounce on what is truly and deeply most important about that story: the fact this woman, Ruth, is in the direct lineage of our Savior. My understanding of Christ is that he lived and died once and once only for all of humanity—and if I wrote a book that even intimated that there could ever be another Christ born, then I would be in deep trouble with the Author of this sacred text. I didn’t want anyone to think out to the end of what could be were Ruth to have had a child, and find there at the end of that tendril of thought the notion that another Savior could ever be born to us again. That’s why.
Q. You have been blessed with success in your writing career. Would you still be writing if your books didn’t sell? A. Yes. I had to deal with this a while back, when I wrote and then my agent tried to sell The Hunt Club back in 1997. No one wanted the book because I was a literary writer—and the book was a mystery. It went to nine different publishers, all of whom said it was a good book but that I was a writer who had a track record of being a literary author, which means you don’t sell much, so why try this new venture? My agent then decided to send it out under a pen name—even though I had my own name and was well-regarded—because it wasn’t selling. I told her to go ahead and do it, because I wanted the story to be heard, and didn’t care about my name being on it. The first place she sent it—Random House—bought it, the editor delighted to know he’d “discovered” a new writer out there who knew how to tell a story. The rest is pretty much history. But this was the nadir of my writing life, having to be faced with giving up my name because I was known. And at that exact moment, when she let me know she was going to send it out under a different name, I began writing A Song I Knew by Heart, because I knew I had to write, that this was why I was here. So, yes.
Q. Word on the street is that you are a sucker for reality television. What are some shows you like to watch, and why do you think you like them so much? A. I watch “Survivor”—and have since the second season—because of the psychology involved. I tell my students that the show is a genuine glimpse into the psyches of human beings who believe they will act one way but who are pushed and shoved in every direction in order to try and survive. It’s a real education, I believe, in how people really behave, which is a great thing for a writer to see. We love “The Amazing Race” for some of the same reasons, but also because of all these exotic locales they get to go to. But the psyches involved here are interesting because the racers are all intimately related to their partners—so there’s a different sense of learning about how people behave available through viewing this show. We are also committed to “American Chopper” for the same dynamic, father and son—but also because the bikes they build (especially Paul Junior) are awesome.
Q. What do you think fiction offers the world that cannot be satisfied by nonfiction? A. Fiction offers us a way to see ourselves through the lives of others. The best fiction confronts us with ourselves and offers hope to us. Fiction is a lie that tells the truth. True stories can’t, I believe, offer that to us. True stories are always about the other person; fiction is a “never land” in which we become the characters involved, and then, it is to be hoped, see ourselves, warts and all, and see too—if the book is worthy—our way to redemption.