Lott, Bret

October 8, 1948 –

Ultimately, Lott is a writer about families. In an interview with Robert Hall, he asserted, “Whether you are writing away from the family or trying to extract from the family or trying to get hold of the family, or the family’s dying or being born, or you are meeting your soul mate or your lover or whatever; it’s all about family.”

Novelist, short story writer, memoirist, educator. Although Lott himself was born in Los Angeles, California, on October 8, 1948, his parents, William Sequoia Lott and Barbara Joan Holmes, were southerners by lineage. Lott earned a B.A. in English from California State University-Long Beach in 1981. His matriculation was interrupted, however, by a decision to enter the workforce in 1979–1980 as a salesman for RC Cola, a temporary experience that was to hold him in good stead when he wrote his first novel The Man Who Owned Vermont (1987), which recounts the tale of a route salesman for a soft drink company who comes to grips with his personal shortcomings in time to save his shattered marriage.

It was in his senior year as an undergraduate that Lott decided to become a writer, and initially he tried his hand at journalism, working for the Commercial News in Los Angeles (1980–1981). After graduation, however, he came east to pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing (1984) at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he studied with the celebrated American novelist James Baldwin.

After a couple of years of teaching at the Ohio State University–it was during this period that he won an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship–he arrived in South Carolina to take up a position as both a writer-in-residence and professor at the College of Charleston, where he has remained to this date except for a three-year-period (2004–2007) when he was affiliated with Louisiana State University as editor of The Southern Review.

In addition to The Man Who Owned Vermont, his early works include three novels, A Stranger’s House (1988), Jewel (1991), and Reed’s Beach (1991), and two short story collections, A Dream of Old Leaves (1989) and How to Get Home (1996).

By 1999 these works had earned Lott an enviable reputation for empathetic characterization and lyrical prose, but his career reached a much higher plateau of critical attention and commercial success when television host Oprah Winfrey selected his novel Jewel for her incredibly influential on-air book club. The novel, first published in 1991, was hastily reprinted due to Winfrey’s endorsement and became an overnight bestseller; in 2001, it was made into a television movie, directed by Paul Shapiro and starring Farrah Fawcett in the title role.

In this career-making novel, the protagonist and first-person narrator Jewel Hilburn decides to uproot her entire family in the 1940s to find the enlightened medical support that she needs for her youngest offspring, a daughter named Brenda Kay, who is diagnosed with Down Syndrome. The essential plot of the book is based loosely on the real-life story of the author’s grandmother, who packed up her six children and moved from Mississippi to California in order to get for her youngest child the help that the “cracker doctors” of her native state could not provide.

Ultimately, Lott is a writer about families. In an interview with Robert Hall, he asserted, “Whether you are writing away from the family or trying to extract from the family or trying to get hold of the family, or the family’s dying or being born, or you are meeting your soul mate or your lover or whatever; it’s all about family.”

Most often Lott’s fictional families are in crisis, coping with the sadness resulting from some loss; in Reed’s Beach, a couple must re-navigate their marriage after the death of their seven-year-old son; in A Song I Knew by Heart (2004), a widow, whose grief is compounded after her son is killed in a car accident, must offer a path forward for her equally devastated daughter-in-law.

A departure from his customary family-centered narratives are the two books to date featuring the character Huger Dillard, whom readers first meet as a fifteen-year-old boy in The Hunt Club (1998) and then as a twenty-seven-year-old college dropout in Dead Low Tide (2012). Although both works contain the author’s distinctive attention to characterization and concrete setting–in this case, both the sharp class divisions of Charleston society and the lush landscape of the Carolina lowcountry–they are also mysteries during which the male protagonist solves a crime and simultaneously takes yet another step toward autonomous adulthood.

Because of their dramatic twists and turns, both books stand out from the rest of Lott’s canon, which is composed chiefly of narratives focused on the ordinariness of most people’s lives–the familiar everyday challenges that most individuals face, particularly in their relationships with others.

In addition to his fiction writing and editorial work, Lott has experimented with the genre of personal narrative. Three generations of Lott males provide the subject matter for Fathers, Sons and Brothers (2000), the first of three personal memoirs. The other two, Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life (2005) and Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian (2013), draw upon his years as both a professional writer and a teacher.

Among the various prizes that Lott has won over the years are three Syndicated Fiction Project Awards from PEN/NEA and a South Carolina Arts Commission Fellowship in Literature. He lives with his wife Melanie in Hanahan, South Carolina; they have two children.

“Lott, Bret.” Contemporary Southern Writers. Edited by Robert Matuz. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.

Marbura, Lily. “Interview with Bret Lott.” Center: A Journal of the Literary Arts 8 (2009): 157–165.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Lott, Bret
  • Coverage October 8, 1948 –
  • Author
  • Keywords Novelist, short story writer, memoirist, educator, won an Ohio Arts Council Fellowship, working for the Commercial News in Los Angeles, three Syndicated Fiction Project Awards from PEN/NEA and a South Carolina Arts Commission Fellowship in Literature
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date September 26, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 9, 2022
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