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Lott, Bret 1958–

Lott, Bret 1958–

PERSONAL:

Born October 8, 1958, in Los Angeles, CA; son of Wilman Sequoia (a corporative executive) and Barbara (a banker) Lott; married Melanie Kai Swank (an office manager), June 28, 1980; children: Zebulun Holmes, Jacob Daynes. Education: California State University, B.A., 1981; University of Massachusetts—Amherst, M.F.A., 1984.

ADDRESSES:

Office—Southern Review, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803. E-mail—[email protected]

CAREER:

Writer, novelist, educator, and editor. Big Yellow House, Santa Barbara, CA, cook's trainer, 1977-79; RC Cola, Los Angeles, CA, salesman, 1979-80; Daily Commercial News, Los Angeles, reporter, 1980-81; Ohio State University, Columbus, instructor in remedial English, 1984-86; College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, professor of English, 1986-2004; Vermont College of Norwich, faculty member, 1994-2000; editor, the Southern Review, Louisiana State University, 2004—.

MEMBER:

Associated Writing Programs, National Council on the Arts, Poets and Writers.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Syndicated fiction project award from PEN/National Endowment for the Arts, for "I Owned Vermont"; Ohio Arts Council fellow in literature, 1986; South Carolina Arts Commission fellow in literature, 1987-88; South Carolina syndicated fiction project award, 1987, for "Lights"; Pushcart Prize, Pushcart Press, 2000; Chancellor's medal, University of Massachusetts, 2000; National Media award, National Down Syndrome Congress, 2000; Fulbright senior American scholar, Bar Ilan University, Tel Aviv, Israel, 2006-07.

WRITINGS:

The Man Who Owned Vermont (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1987.

A Stranger's House (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1988.

A Dream of Old Leaves (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1989.

Jewel (novel), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1991, reprinted, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1999.

Reed's Beach, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1993.

How to Get Home (novella and stories), John F. Blair (Winston-Salem, NC), 1996.

Fathers, Sons, and Brothers: The Men in My Family (essays), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1997.

The Hunt Club (novel), Villard (New York, NY), 1998.

(Editor, with W. Scott Olsen) A Year in Place, University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 2001.

A Song I Knew by Heart (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2004.

The Difference between Women and Men (short stories), Random House (New York, NY), 2005.

Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2005.

(Editor) The Best Christian Short Stories, WestBow Press (Nashville, TN), 2006.

Short stories included in anthology Twenty under Thirty, Scribner, 1986. Contributor of fiction to periodicals, including Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Iowa Review, Yale Review, Yankee, Seattle Review, Redbook, and Confrontation; contributor of literary reviews to periodicals, including New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, and Michigan Quarterly Review.

SIDELIGHTS:

Bret Lott is a writer of short stories and novels, a professor, and editor of the Southern Review. Respected in his field, Lott was appointed as a member of the National Council on the Arts, the advisory body of the National Endowment for the Arts, in 2006. But Lott's life experiences range widely. He has worked in sales, experience which he brings to bear in his first novel, The Man Who Owned Vermont. Rick Wheeler, a Massachusetts soft drink salesman who both knowingly and unknowingly sabotages his marriage, is the protagonist of the book. With a life and marriage that fall short of his expectations, Rick is often sullen and self-defeating. On one occasion he refuses to stop the car to let his pregnant wife find a bathroom, and her subsequent miscarriage—along with the guilt and blame—trigger a growing breach that culminates in separation. Only then, as Rick tries to connect with others in order to fill the emptiness, does he recognize his complicity in the gradual disintegration of the relationship. Critics responded positively to the book, citing the author's ability to demonstrate the feelings and actions of real people in fiction. "Lott knows how ordinary people work and love (or try to love)," wrote Michiko Kakutani in a review for the New York Times.

Writing in Time magazine, one critic perceived Wheeler's story as a tale of ordinary human courage. "Given every reason to surrender, he struggles on," the reviewer reflected. The Man Who Owned Vermont "manages to capture ordinary life's poetic—and tragic—moments," contributor Lori B. Miller observed in the New York Times Book Review. "Mr. Lott's … storytelling … is subtle but powerful."

A book of personal essays about his family, Fathers, Sons, and Brothers: The Men in My Family was published in 1997. Lott presents the reader with fifteen stories that relate events and anecdotes about him and his family members while reflecting on the connections that exist between them, and how they have changed over time. For example, in the story "Learning Sex," Lott tells of the time his wife and he broached the sensitive subject with their son. Lott relates that experience to his own parents' difficulties approaching the same subject with him. Lott's essay collection appealed to many readers and critics. Fathers, Sons, and Brothers contains many "honest and affecting essays," wrote Brian McCombie in a review for Booklist. Other reviewers, however, thought that Lott's stories may be too familiar and therefore not as insightful as they could be. The author "treats experiences all too common to male readers," noted Library Journal contributor William Gargan.

Lott presents a different kind of family dynamic in his first thriller novel, The Hunt Club. Fifteen-year-old Huger Dillard, the protagonist, helps his blind uncle run a primitive backwoods hunting club for wealthy patrons, largely physicians, from Charleston, South Carolina. Huger serves as his uncle's eyes, but nothing prepares them for the Saturday when they find a headless corpse, labeled with a cardboard sign identifying the deceased as Dr. Charles Middleton Simons, and identifying the murderer as his wife. But she is later found hanged in a hotel room. From this harrowing beginning, the story proceeds as Huger and his uncle find themselves in real danger, with someone after their apparently worthless Carolina swampland. Booklist reviewer Joanne Wilkinson noted that the book is promoted as a thriller, but "at the heart of this wonderfully well written novel is a haunting coming-of-age story." Critic Thomas L. Kilpatrick, writing in the Library Journal, called the book "a good read with action, suspense, and a hint of Southern folklore."

In 1999 Lott's literary career, for many years low-key, received a tremendous boost when his 1991 novel, Jewel, was reprinted as a mass market paperback and selected as part of Oprah Winfrey's TV book club. The novel tells the story of Jewel Hilburn, a devoted Mississippi wife and mother. Her sixth child, Brenda Kay, is born with Down Syndrome, and a once-tranquil family life is thrown into turmoil. Jewel is fiercely determined that Brenda Kay will have the best care possible, and the girl becomes the family's entire focus. Many of the other characters' own dreams and ambitions wither in the face of this new reality, including husband Leston's hopes of owning a lumber yard. Jewel's decision to move the family to California to ensure Brenda Kay's education, however, ignites conflict between her and Leston that even love and compassion for the child cannot overcome. Lott "expertly realizes a stubborn, faithful mother and her phenomenally unselfish, supportive family," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

A Song I Knew by Heart is a "highly emotional depiction of grief," commented Joanne Wilkinson in Booklist. Naomi, a widow in her seventies, has already suffered the profound grief of the loss of her spouse, Eli, whom she had known since childhood. She is devastated when her son, Mahlon, is killed in a car accident. As Naomi and widowed daughter-in-law Ruth endure the bitter pain together, Naomi decides to return to her childhood home in South Carolina. Ruth, with no ties left to keep her in the north, accompanies her. Together, the two women, bound by death, face aspects of their pasts, endure the dreadful present, and look toward a better future. Wilkinson called the book an "achingly tender portrait."

In his collection The Difference between Women and Men, "the universe of Bret Lott's stories is the uncertainty of family life," noted reviewer Edith Alston in the Weekly Standard. In one story, a man uses an unfortunate turn of phrase while traveling in a car with his wife. Upon reaching home, he discovers that his marriage of twenty-seven years is now in jeopardy. Many of Lott's tales "eerily border the edge of an alternate universe," Alston commented. When a man admits an affair to his wife in another story, he is confident that the two of them will be able to get through the difficult situation. However, he is unaware that, in his wife's view and in reality, he has already begun to vanish, bit by bit. "The Train, the Lake, the Bridge" is the "real jewel" of the collection, Alston stated, "a ghost story without ghosts" in which haunting events from the narrator's Depression-era boyhood in New England figure prominently. In "Rose," Lott revisits the characters, settings, and events of William Faulkner's extraordinary short story, "A Rose for Emily." The "characters Lott plays witness to inhabit today's world, where marriage and parenthood are fragile states," noted Alston.

As a writer of essays, novels, and short stories, Lott has considerable experience in the literary world. With Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life, he offers a collection of advice and insight geared toward the neophyte writer. Lott approaches the subject of writing by "focusing on creativity and guiding the writer to certain realities of the craft," noted Loree Davis in the Library Journal. A combination of memoir and instruction, Lott's book recounts the difficulties from his early days as a writer, prior to being selected as an Oprah writer, when he had to balance the needs of his family with a teaching job that drained time from his writing schedule. He encourages writers to pay attention to the weight and importance of every word in a story, and to work hard to make time to write even in a frenetically busy life. Writers new to the craft will "appreciate the heartfelt supportiveness of his counsel," stated a Publishers Weekly critic, as well as his handling of the world of writing and publishing "with resounding candor and sincerity."

Lott told CA: "Though I'd always enjoyed writing—whether letters, or essays for school—the idea of being a writer never really occurred to me until I was a senior in college, after first having been a forestry major, then a marine biology major, then quitting school to work as a salesman, then coming back to school with the notion of teaching high school. But finally, in my senior year, my teacher John Herman suggested I go on for a master's degree, which I did. At the University of Massachusetts—Amherst I studied under Jay Neugeboren and James Baldwin, and my first stories started appearing in Writer's Forum, the Yale Review, and the Iowa Review. After graduation I got a job teaching five sections of remedial English each quarter at Ohio State University. Even though we had our first child then, and even though I was teaching so much, I managed to sneak down to the basement of our apartment each morning at about 4:30 to write for a couple of hours before my wife, Melanie, and Zeb woke up. In that way I was able to complete The Man Who Owned Vermont.

"All my writings, whether short stories or novels, are about working people—people who have to sort through their personal lives and problems while working to pay bills and put food in the refrigerator. I think this comes from the fact that my family is a working one. (I was the first person to go to college in the Lott family in three generations.) My brothers and sister and wife and in-laws and most friends all work forty hours a week; that seems real to me—not a professor's life or a writer's life that so many people imagine is glamorous and full of interesting activities. And so writing is for me my own work, my job, what I do. And though it is work, I still have a blast every time I sit down at my desk, imagining the lives of other people and putting them down on paper. In the Georgia Review, Steven Corey called The Man Who Owned Vermont ‘a delicate and wise view of working and loving in modern America.’ These are indeed the themes I want to write about, the concerns I want to capture in my fiction."

Lott later added: "The longer I write—the more books I write, the more sentences I put together, the more single words I pick to use—the harder the whole thing gets. I don't mean this to be gloomy or off-putting. It's just that I am constantly in touch, and more so with every book I write, with my shortcomings, what I cannot do. My lack of vocabulary, of imagination, of insight and artistry. I mean this. When I was writing my first book, the whole world was available: I didn't know what I couldn't do, and for that reason the adventure of writing back then was a joyful one, a surprise every day. Now I am in middle age, and the surprises are deeper ones, more rewarding ones, because I know what I am up against, and still I am here, and still I am writing. The biggest surprise is realizing continually how little I know, and yet still feeling the need to find out more, to discover why these characters in my stories do what they do.

"I have my whole life been trying to write books that oppose the cynical, jaded perspective so very much of our culture has adopted as the air we have no choice but to breathe. I am not consciously thinking to write books that are attempts to be sincere, to be honest, to be straightforward and to tell the truth. But this is all I know to do, and the effect I want to have, then, is to let people know there is hope, and that we are not shackled to the bleak and horizonless viewpoint it seems so much literary fiction hands us. I don't think it ought to be a surprise to anyone that I am a practicing Christian, that I believe Christ was who He said He was, and that the hope He holds out to us all is woven into the very fabric of who I am. There is hope. That's the effect I want my books to have on my readers."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Another Chicago Magazine, fall, 1998, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers: The Men in My Family, p. 257.

Antioch Review, summer, 1987, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 375.

Bloomsbury Review, May, 1997, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 19.

Book World, November 7, 1993, review of Reed's Beach, p. 11; July 6, 1997, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 8; May 17, 1998, review of The Hunt Club, p. 7.

Booklist, May 15, 1987, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 1408; June 15, 1988, review of A Stranger's House, p. 1708; August, 1989, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 1946; September 15, 1991, review of Jewel, p. 121; August, 1996, Jim O'Laughlin, review of How to Get Home, p. 1882; May 1, 1997, Brian McCombie, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 1474; February 1, 1998, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Hunt Club, p. 899; March 15, 1999, review of The Hunt Club, p. 1316; February 15, 2004, Joanne Wilkinson, review of A Song I Know by Heart, p. 1003; November 15, 2004, Donna Seaman, review of Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life, p. 530; June 1, 2005, Joanne Wilkinson, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 1753.

Books & Culture, September-October, 2005, Susan Wise Bauer, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 31.

Christianity Today, June, 2005, Lauren F. Winner, "A Jewel of a Writer," July, 2005, Cindy Crosby, "Lyrical Storytelling," p. 59.

Georgia Review, fall, 1987, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 639.

Globe & Mail (Toronto, Canada), June 12, 1999, review of Jewel, p. 4.

Kirkus Reviews, April 1, 1987, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 503; June 1, 1988, review of A Stranger's House, p. 784; May 15, 1989, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 722; August 15, 1991, review of Jewel, p. 1034; July 15, 1993, review of Reed's Beach, p. 881; June 15, 1996, review of How to Get Home, p. 848; March 15, 1997, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 442; January 15, 1998, review of The Hunt Club, p. 72; February 15, 2004, review of A Song I Knew by Heart, p. 148; April 15, 2005, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 441.

Kliatt, May, 1999, review of The Hunt Club, p. 58.

Library Journal, June 1, 1987, James B. Hemesath, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 129; September 1, 1988, Michele Leber, review of A Stranger's House, p. 183; June 1, 1989, M.J. Simmons, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 146; September 15, 1991, Thomas L. Kilpatrick, review of Jewel, p. 110; July, 1996, Ellen R. Cohen, review of How to Get Home, p. 167; June 15, 1997, William Gargan, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 69; January, 1998, Thomas L. Kilpatrick, review of The Hunt Club, p. 142; March 15, 2001, Joyce Sparrows, review of A Year in Place, p. 84; September 15, 2003, review of Jewel, p. 112; March 1, 2004, Robin Nesbitt, review of A Song I Know by Heart, p. 108; January 1, 2005, Loree Davis, review of Before We Get Started, p. 112; May 1, 2005, Susanne Wells, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 79.

Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1988, review of A Stranger's House, p. 1; February 11, 1990, review of A Stranger's House, p. 8; August 25, 1996, review of How to Get Home, p. 10.

Massachusetts Review, spring, 1988, Roger Sale, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 74.

New York Times, June 6, 1987, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 12; August 18, 1988, Caryn James, review of A Stranger's House, p. 20.

New York Times Book Review, July 12, 1987, Lori B. Miller, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 20; May 8, 1988, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 42; September 11, 1988, Isabel Eberstadt, review of A Stranger's House, p. 33; September 10, 1989, Eils Lotozo, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 26; March 1, 1992, Judith Freeman, review of Jewel, p. 21; November 8, 1992, review of Jewel, p. 64; February 13, 1994, James Polk, review of Reed's Beach; August 4, 1996, Barbara Quick, review of How to Get Home, p. 18; July 6, 1997, Andrea Cooper, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 15; March 29, 1998, Robert Polito, review of The Hunt Club, p. 9; June 18, 2000, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 28.

Publishers Weekly, May 1, 1987, Sybil Steinberg, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 54; March 4, 1988, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 107; June 9, 1989, Sybil Steinberg, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 54; December 8, 1989, review of A Stranger's House, p. 52; August 23, 1991, review of Jewel, p. 46; August 31, 1992, review of Jewel, p. 72; August 16, 1993, review of Reed's Beach, p. 85; June 17, 1996, review of How to Get Home, p. 48; April 14, 1997, review of Fathers, Sons, and Brothers, p. 61; December 1, 1997, review of The Hunt Club, p. 43; November 22, 2004, review of Before We Get Started, p. 52; May 16, 2005, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 36.

Quill and Quire, December, 1989, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 29.

School Library Journal, November 1, 1998, Pam Spencer, review of The Hunt Club, p. 161.

Southern Living, September, 2005, Valerie L. Kramer, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 215.

Time, July 27, 1987, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 65.

Today's Christian Woman, March-April, 2006, Janice Byrd, review of A Song I Knew by Heart, p. 63.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 7, 1988, review of A Stranger's House, p. 6; October 29, 1989, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 6; November 24, 1991, review of Jewel, p. 6; November 22, 1992, review of Jewel, p. 8.

Village Voice, October 3, 1989, review of A Dream of Old Leaves, p. 56.

Virginia Quarterly Review, winter, 2006, Wade Edwards, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 281.

Weekly Standard, August 15, 2005, Edith Alston, review of The Difference between Women and Men, p. 39.

Wilson Library Bulletin, September, 1987, Ben Davis, review of The Man Who Owned Vermont, p. 101.

Writer, July, 2005, Steve Weinberg, review of Before We Get Started, p. 48.

ONLINE

College of Charleston Faculty Award Winners,http://www.cofc.edu/ (January 8, 2007), biography of Bret Lott.

Louisiana State University Highlights,http://www.lsu.edu/ (fall, 2004), "Celebrated Author Takes over Editorship of Historic Literary Publication."

National Endowment for the Arts,http://www.nea.gov/ (December 11, 2006), "U.S. Senate Confirms Appointment of Six New Members to National Council on the Arts."

Southern Review,http://www.lsu.edu/thesouthernreview/ (January 8, 2007), "President Bush Nominates Southern Review Editor and Director to National Council on the Arts."

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