MT. PLEASANT, S.C. (BP)–Novelist Bret Lott picked up the ringing phone. It was television megastar Oprah Winfrey. Herself. She was calling to tell him she loved his novel, “Jewel,” so much that she had selected it for the February 1999 Oprah’s Book Club.
In today’s literary marketplace, getting picked by Oprah is the big break every writer dreams of. It means going from the midlists to the majors. It means instant best seller.
But just a few hours earlier, Lott had learned that one of his students had died — a 51-year-old single man who lived at home to care for his invalid mother. “They found him slumped over at his desk,” Lott recounted, “where he had been reading one of my novels.” Then came the Oprah call.
“It was clearly God’s timing,” said Lott. “He was telling me that one day I, too, was going to die and stand before him and give an account. That no amount of worldly success, no record of best-selling novels was going to save me. Only faith in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross and rose again to save us from our sins.”
Strange talk from a best-selling author these days. And, within today’s literary world, a strange history: Bret Lott came to Christ at a Josh McDowell rally back in 1976. He and his family are Southern Baptists, members of East Cooper Baptist Church in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., where he has taught an adult Bible class for five years. He and his wife, Melanie, send their boys Zebulun and Jacob to a Christian school. The Lotts live a pretty ordinary, everyday life of activity in home, community and church. Today, that’s weird.
Lott does have some conventional writer’s stuff on his resume: English major at Cal State, graduating in 1981. Studied creative writing under the late James Baldwin at the University of Massachusetts. Master of fine arts in 1984.
But here was Lott’s unconventional pursuit: “At U.Mass I was trying to figure out what a story really was, and how best Christ might be revealed through the gift from God I had received. Everything under the umbrella of ‘Christian fiction’ was either oatmeal — ‘Dare I steal Aunt Minnie’s pie from the window sill?’ — or allegorical fantasy, or chaste bodice rippers. I don’t mean to be glib. But I was and am convinced there is an intelligent, artful, heartfelt way of seeing the world, and seeing it really, that I wanted to find.”
Lott’s sense of writing as a Christian vocation crystallized with C.S. Lewis’ call for Christians not to do Christian books, but books about everything with Christian values built in. In the early ’80s, he read John Gardner’s “On Moral Fiction,” which argues that writing should be redemptive, even if it does not have an explicitly religious theme.
Lott also had some growing up to do. At first he was infatuated with the idea of “being a writer,” doing vain things like signing his stories “R. Bretley Lott.” Then he discovered the writer Raymond Carver, who “was a big influence, and kind enough to look at my own work personally before he died. He showed me — and all of us young writers — how to produce fiction that was character-centered, not author-centered. You have to get into the mind of another person and write from their point of view. You can’t dictate to characters how to act or think.”
From the mid-’80s through the ’90s, Lott — signing his work just plain Bret Lott — paid his dues, publishing stories in literary magazines, writing six novels and becoming a creative writing professor at the College of Charleston. The way was not entirely smooth. Once he was dropped by a publisher who said, “The problem with you is that you’re white, male, and you don’t make good copy for People magazine.”
One of Lott’s friends, Wally Lamb, had written novels that twice had been featured on Oprah. He recommended Jewel to the Oprah producers. The novel is based on the life of Lott’s grandmother who, in 1940s Mississippi, raised a Down’s syndrome daughter. Oprah read the book and loved it. With its selection, Jewel hit the New York Times best-seller list.
His church laid hands on Lott and prayed for him in the Sunday night prayer meeting before he left for Chicago to appear on Oprah. The minister, referring to the expected increase in book sales, drew a laugh when he said, “Now, you tithe, don’t you?”
When Oprah announces her book club selection at the beginning of the month, she invites readers to write in about how the book affected them. Then she selects four respondents, flies them in and sits down to dinner on the set of the show with them and the author to discuss the book.
Two of the women flown in for the Feb. 26 show had, like the novel’s heroine, given birth to a Down’s syndrome child. One, like Jewel, saw her child, in Lott’s terms, “as a blessing that only seemed to be a burden.” The other woman, in a wrenching and tearful confession, told about not being able to deal with her child’s handicap and how she had just placed the baby for adoption when she read Jewel. (Oprah followed up with a segment on the child’s new home. It turns out the baby was adopted by a single mother who already had one Down’s syndrome child.)
All who spoke agreed that the novel helped them cope with difficult life decisions. No one advocated abortion or infanticide. They chose life, and Bret Lott’s writing had helped them. Life imitated art.
After three hours of taping, less than half an hour got on the air. A small part of the discussion was the use of the “N word” in the novel. Oprah defended its use as authentic to the character and period, pointing out that later Jewel realizes that blacks are real people and quits using the term. Over the dinner, Lott learned that three of the four dinner guests on the program with him were fellow believers. Most of the overtly Christian talk didn’t survive the editing. But for once Oprah had a clear pro-life message.
And what’s the Oprah difference for the Lott family? Best-seller status means the Lotts are finally going to let go of that 1972 VW Bug with 302,000 miles on it and buy a new car.
Lott’s first three novels (“The Man Who Owned Vermont,” 1987; “A Stranger’s House,” 1988; and “A Dream of Old Leaves,” 1989), which were out of print, have been reissued in new editions, and his fifth novel (“Reed’s Beach,” 1993) has been reprinted. “The Hunt Club” (1998) is still selling. That literary mystery had done well, and Lott is scheduled to write a sequel to capitalize on its success. Now with best-seller status, Lott can write the book that is in his heart, a retelling of the Book of Ruth, set in contemporary America.
A few weeks ago Jewel was out of print, then became a best seller. It peaked at No. 4 on The New York Times list. When it dropped to No. 6, Lott felt the letdown. Soon Oprah will go on to the next book club selection and another author will get on the roller coaster.
“I’m a bit perplexed about all this,” Lott said, “but I am thankful. I need to stay centered on Christ and on this blessing and my job, writing the next book.”
Reprinted by permission from WORLD magazine, March 13, 1999.