Bestselling author Bret Lott named writer-in-residence

Bestselling author Bret Lott is this year’s writer-in-residence for the Ferrol A. Sams, Jr., Distinguished Chair of English program. This semester he will be holding classes with Mercer’s creative writing students, helping them hone their craft along their own writing journeys.
A professor at the College of Charleston, Lott often likes to say that he never intended to be a writer. Originally, he wanted to be a park ranger.
After an indecisive period at school — he changed his major four times — Lott dropped out and picked up a job as an RC Cola salesman. A few years later he decided to return to school, and in order to get used to working under a deadline again he enrolled in a course at the local community college. The class was, by “pure chance,” a creative writing course.
Lott went back to school and graduated with an English major, having switched to that major in his last year of college. From there he went on to earn a Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. It was not until his third year of graduate school that he began to publish short stories in literary journals such as the Yale Review and The Iowa Review. Lott advised, “Publishing your writing starts in the journals.”
Lott has published nine novels during his writing career. His fourth novel Jewel, which was published in 1991, became a New York Times bestseller when Oprah picked it up in 1999 for her Book Club. Jewel stayed on the bestseller list for three months and was made into a TV-movie in 2001.
“You don’t make any money, being a writer,” Lott joked. “Until Oprah calls you. I was incredibly blessed that that happened.”
Currently Lott is working on a book of creative nonfiction, but he also has a novel in the works. Eventually, he said, he would like to write a biography about musician Vince Guaraldi, the jazz pianist who wrote and performed all of the music from the Charlie Brown cartoons.
For Lott, the most important aspect of writing is the art of precision. Additionally, Lott feels that it is vitally important for a writer to find his or her “chair”: the perspective and angle from which they write.
“I’m trying to get them to write about their own hearts, out of their own experiences, in their own words,” Lott said of his creative writing students. “All the great writers, that’s what they wrote about.”
When speaking of authors writing from the heart and of their own experiences, Lott does not mean that the best writing comes exclusively from autobiographies and memoirs. Lott used fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien as an example.
“You have this guy’s heart that’s in the story. That’s why it works. You can write anything you want if it springs from your heart.”
Lott writes stories that are close to his own heart, and though he may not set about it consciously his stories are connected by a common thread.
“What always appears is that I write about family,” Lott said. “I write about those relationships. It’s not really anything I set out to do; it’s just where I live.”
Also uniting Lott’s stories is a spiritual presence that comes from Lott’s Christian belief. Although Lott does not consider himself a “Christian writer”—in his opinion, “‘Christian’ was never a modifier”—his faith comes out in his books as he strives to write from his own experience.
“I’m not writing thematically,” Lott said. “I’m not writing to proselytize, I don’t write to evangelize. But I write about sin and forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption. I don’t know what else you’d write about.”
Lott will be remaining as the writer-in-residence for the remainder of the semester. The most important aspect of the Ferrol Sams, Jr., Distinguished Chair program for Lott is that it introduces students to other voices in the writing community, bringing in new points of view regarding the writing process.
“Writing is very idiosyncratic,” Lott said. “The more voices you hear about how to write, the more you have to pull from as you’re deciding how you write.”