>On Knowing Nothing: An Interview with Bret Lott

>The day that Oprah Winfrey featured Brett Lott’s out of print novel, Jewel, on her book club, it went from Amazon.com’s cellar to its number one seller.

Worldly wisdom would say that Bret Lott was “lucky,” but the truth is that Bret Lott has benefited from his perseverance and God’s providence.

Lott chronicles both the perseverance and the providence in his candid Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life. Before We Get Started is, indeed, an intensely practical memoir. It would be difficult to find advice more practical than Lott’s detailed description of his system for tracking submissions and rejections. In fact, he includes an entire chapter on rejection, with which he is well acquainted, having received at that point something like 600 rejections.

But Lott is a genre-spanning author who has received significant acceptances. In addition to Jewel, A Song I Knew by Heart is another best-selling novel. Lott’s other novels include: The Man Who Owned Vermont; A Stranger’s House; Reed’s Beach, The Hunt Club; and his most recently published Ancient Highway. Lott’s short stories have appeared in numerous magazines; collections of his short stories are A Dream of Old Leaves and How to Get Home. Fathers, Sons and Brothers is a collection of memoir-like essays that reflect on relationships among three generations of men in his family.

I had the opportunity to communicate via email with Mr. Lott and ask him some questions about his work and his faith.

GM: In Before We Get Started, you devote an entire chapter to the subject of rejection, which doesn’t seem like a common practice in books about writing. Why a whole chapter on rejection?

BL: This grew out of a kind of need I saw in students I was teaching at Vermont College. Some of the graduating students had sent out their novels and stories to only one or two places, and were getting discouraged, and I realized that there really wasn’t much ever being said about not only the whole spirit of submission and rejection, but also the practical elements of it. So I decided to give a lecture on it, and decided as well to make it a PowerPoint presentation — I took a couple dozen rejection slips and letters of rejection that I’d gotten during my life (out of the nearly 600 I had accrued by that time), scanned them into the computer, and then gave a lecture in which the students got up close and personal looks at the sorts of rejections I’d gotten, and then heard from me how I dealt with them all. I followed up that part of the lecture (which was about 90% of the entire thing) with my successes — my first acceptance letter, of course, and a couple others. All this so that they could understand, as fully as I could let them know from my experience, that this whole writing thing is about perseverance, wherewithal, tenacity, and faith, all in the face of the assurance that you will be rejected.

When it came time to put this book together, I really wanted to use those images of the actual rejections themselves, which led the publisher to say No, as the cost for production would go through the roof, and there were permissions and copyright questions and all that hoo-ha. So I was forced, finally, to write the whole thing out, which led to what I think may be the most helpful essay in the whole book, because people see the accomplishments a writer makes — we only see in bookstores and journals the finished, accomplished piece of art — and as a consequence those who are learning to write, because they have seen only the end product, begin to believe that the end product is the ONLY product. Not true. Rejection is the cornerstone of a writing career. That’s why I wanted to make sure that essay appeared in a book on writing.

GM: You write that “scales fell from” your eyes with the realization of how Raymond Carver served as “the conduit” through which his stories passed, while in your earlier stories you served as “a ringmaster calling attention with a megaphone” to your characters. How can a writer decrease from ringmaster to conduit?

BL: Be humble. Realize it’s not about you, even if it is about you. This is where being a Christian is really put to the test in the context of an artistic endeavor: You must realize that, even if the things about which you write are about you, that you—the artist—are not what is at stake. The characters are at stake. This speaks to being a Christian in that we as believers must have compassion on others, and to do so NOT to bring attention to ourselves (hence Christ’s railing away at those pious people who pray on street corners and tithe mint and seek the most prominent place at the table because of their supposed close relationship to the God whom they ostensibly worship). One can decrease and let the characters increase by practicing what it means to let Christ increase while I decrease: remember to be humble. I believe that if one practices the remembrance of humility long enough, there comes a time when that humility will become a part of the fabric of who we are; write long enough with an eye on the characters and not on those perceived glories of Being a Writer, and you will find those characters being alive and working and living; you will find yourself decreasing.

GM: How does your faith intersect with your work?

BL: I believe in the depravity of man — I do not see him as essentially good, and do not see him as able in and of himself to surmount his nature, and see that nature changeable only through a saving knowledge of Christ. This intersects with my work in that my characters are most often (well, basically, always) wrong. They operate within a belief that they are right, and for that reason the story’s conflict emerges: I write about people who are in conflict with the worlds they themselves have created. I do not, however, write about them in a way that would have readers say they are not savable, or to pass judgment on them; I try to write of them with the compassion of Christ, who saw all of us — every one of us — as individuals who were lost. And because I write from a position of hope in Christ — a hopeful stance — my characters seem, by and large, finally to come to reckon themselves to and with their own failures — they are humbled — and find ways, by and large (though not always) to then live. I do not write about religious conversions, do not outright write about Religious Experience. I write about the deeper elements of Hope and Confession and Humility in a world that tells all of us every day You Can Do It Yourself. My characters realize they cannot. But I want to say right here and now that I do not write thinking, What would Calvin think? Or, Am I reflecting Reformed Theology with this next sentence I write? I do not believe theology will save us. I believe Christ saves us.

GM: How would you define a Christian perspective on the arts?

BL: I would hope that Christians would look to the arts a whole lot more than they do. Unfortunately, the arts, as a result of the Enlightenment, were commandeered by those Enlightened, who felt that, as Kant put it (and this is a rough paraphrase) that anyone who relied on the guidance of others or who depended on perceived higher powers was a weakling, resulting in art that celebrated the salvation of the self by the self. And as a result, believers very often eschewed any participation in and patronizing of the arts. But this is wrong. Believers ought to patronize and practice the arts as a means of expressing hope and love and joy at the fact of our creator’s love for us.

GM: What can believers do to promote Christian artists and their creative efforts?

BL: Create and participate in the study and practice of art — creative writing, painting, sculpture, etc. — through courses at their churches, to begin with, and I am not here talking of Creative Memories. I mean true explorations of the talents we have been given to express ourselves as believers in God through art. Next would be not to be afraid of art — to seek it out and appreciate it, and not limit ourselves solely (and soully) to Sandy Patty and Angela Hunt and what’s his name, the Painter of Light. I don’t mean here to be dismissive, but we need to be challenged by art, and not merely comforted by it. We need books that confront ourselves with ourselves, and not more books that allow us to escape ourselves into soft-focused conflicts that happen all for a happy ending.

***
Bret Lott proves that being a Christian and a popular author are not incompatible. He proves that writing quality literary fiction and being a popular author are not incompatible. And he proves that being humble and a popular author are not incompatible. His memoir stresses the need for humility and submission in the creative process.

On the day Brown delivered the smiling Amazon box containing my copy of Before We Get Started, I was contemplating my writing life and confronting the doubt demons that periodically assail me. As my husband drove beside the lake and we neared home that evening, I watched gulls flash white against dark clouds over the gray lake and I thought, “Why do I even try? The more I write, the more difficult is seems to be. I know nothing.”

The next morning I got up at 5:00 as usual and went into my office. I picked up the copy of Before We Get Started. A little over ten pages into the book I read, “…the longer I write—and this is the one sure thing I know about writing—the harder it gets, and the more I hold close the truth that I know nothing.”

I was pierced by providence. I put down that book and picked up The Book. My regular devotional that morning directed me to 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, where Paul writes:

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom….”

I was convicted. I do not write with lofty speech or wisdom. I experience much weakness, fear and trembling. My speech and message are not in plausible words of wisdom. Yet, through Lott’s memoir and my scheduled devotional reading, I felt as if God had reached down, put His arms around me and said, “You don’t know anything, Glenda, but I do.”

The above is a slightly updated version of an interview that appeared in the May 9, 2007, issue of Christian Renewal.

© Glenda Mathes, 2007, 2010

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5 thoughts on “>On Knowing Nothing: An Interview with Bret Lott

  1. >Fiction writing is a very humbling experience! Larry Woiwode compared it in a small way to the Incarnation: instead of the spirit melding with flesh, life is rendered in words. A fiction writing is trying to capture a vision and more often than not, the vision will not speak to a reader. Even when it does (and the publisher offers a contract), what the story says to you is not what it will say to someone else. But if God made you a writer, you have to write, and one way or another, He'll use it.

  2. >Thanks for the challenging interview! There is a lot for Christian creatives to take into account, here. I do take exception to the way Mr. Lott calls Angela Hunt's work into question, however. First that he would have the dismissiveness, as he put it, to mention fellow believers and artists by name when talking about work he considers too soft or entertaining. We're not called to criticize each other that way. But second, he's way off base in what he asserts about Ms. Hunt. Her work is challenging, well-crafted, and known to take a fresher, deeper approach to difficult themes.He should know better, especially if he had read any of her work. And he owes Angela Hunt an apology.-Bob Elmer

  3. >Thanks for leaving your comment, Bob. I agree that Angela Hunt's work is more substantive that Mr. Lott appears to realize. I'm not sure if he's read any of her work. Bear in mind that this interview took place some three years ago, and it's possible he's more aware of her work by now.

  4. >Glenda, thanks so much for this interview. I'm a long-time admirer of Bret Lott–the writer and the person/pilgrim, and you've asked wonderful questions that get to the heart of things. I see a number of other people in the arts listed in your blog whose work I admire, including the artist Fujimura, who was recently visiting in Nashville. In short, I love your blog and the people you choose to know more about! I'd love to have your insights any time you have a moment at "Writing in the Midst of Real Life"–www.joyjordanlake.com

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