blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1


A Reading by Bret Lott
recorded April 24, 2008

David Wojahn: It’s a great pleasure for me to introduce you to Bret Lott who’s the final reader in this year’s VCU Visiting Writers Program. Bret Lott is the author of eleven books, most recently a short story collection The Difference Between Women and Men, a really wonderful book on craft which I strongly recommend, and a novel, A Song I Knew by Heart, which was widely praised and made the bestseller list. And Bret’s first novel, Jewel, was selected as an Oprah Book Club choice. He has a new novel, Ancient Highway, being published this summer [2008] by Random House. And some of you probably also know Bret as an editor. He recently stepped down as the editor of the august Southern Review where he did a great deal to revive and enliven that journal before he returned to his old job as writer-in-residence at the College of Charleston. I’ve known Bret Lott for many years now. I’ve taught with him at Vermont College where he served as my boss as the writing chair, and he was about the best sort of colleague that you could ask for.

Now you guys may not know this, but I have to confess that writers can sometimes be a kind of catty lot. They can gossip, they can obsessively rank their peers, and they can do a pretty good job of trashing them. But earlier this year when I told a writer friend of mine that Bret Lott would be featured in our series this year, she said to me, “He’s the only writer I know of who I’ve never heard anyone say anything bad about.” And the fact that she said that, as well as the fact that I think she’s right, is really something astonishing. I think his peers hold Bret in such high regard because he’s a consummate craftsman, because he’s one of the richest and most various prose writers we have among us, and because, in an era marked by irony and an often cynical slickness, the writing he offers is always deeply humane. We’re lucky tonight to be able to hear him. Bret Lott.

Bret Lott: I’m gonna read from this new novel. I was gonna read perhaps a story from that collection but I thought, actually, I’d rather read from this novel. This is where my heart is right now and I am among people who are writing right now. And this book hasn’t been digested by anybody. It hasn’t come out yet, so everything remains to be seen. So I’m among my peers right now because we’re all working on this at the same time—we’re all writers.

I tell my students the first day of all my classes that because you publish a book, it doesn’t mean that after, you know, your first book comes out that you get this envelope in the mail that you open up and it says that these are new issues you now have to deal with because you’ve published a book. The issues are the same. There have been no breakthroughs in storytelling, no matter what anybody tells you. There’s nothing—“this just in”—there’s nothing like that. So I am writing, you are writing, and so I wanted to share this as-yet-to-be-seen book, parts of it, with you.

I realize, the longer I write, it seems the less I have on my hands in terms of my own material. But it never seems to be anything but a really deep source for writing. Everything I’ve ever written has in its roots somewhere a sense of autobiography. This book is called Ancient Highway. For me, it’s the most autobiographical book I’ve written so far, and it’s about a young man who, in 1927, runs away to go to the movies in Hollywood to see if he can be a star. And it’s about a girl in Hollywood in 1947 who’s the daughter of a person who is basically a failed actor who ran away, when he was a kid, to Hollywood. And she can think of nothing more that she would love to do than to move to Texas where he ran away from—her father—but he’s gonna stick it out and be a star in Hollywood. And then it’s also about, in 1980, a young man who’s just out of the navy and he’s trying to sort out what he’s gonna do with his life and he moves in with his grandpa and grandma. And grandpa was at one time a young man who ran away to be in the movies.

It’s still very autobiographical, and it’s very dear to my heart. Suffice it to say that you can go on Internet Movie Database and find my grandpa in two hits. That’s the accumulation of his film career. Anyway, I’m gonna read, first off, the first chapter and a couple of scenes.

This is the epigraph. This is from Octavio Paz from The Labyrinth of Solitude.

Anyone who has looked Hope in the face will never forget it. He will search for it everywhere he goes, among all kinds of men. And he will dream of finding it again someday, somewhere, perhaps among those closest to him. In every man there is the possibility of his being—or, to be more exact, of his becoming—another man.

And the novel’s called Ancient Highway. This is from Earl’s point of view. This is the young man. Chapter one.

[Ancient Highway, Bret Lott, Random House, 2008.]

And that’s the opening of the novel. It’s about Earl. It’s pretty early on. I’m not spilling anything by telling you that he doesn’t become a star.

When I turned this in to my editor, he read it and he called me up and said, “I never thought I’d put words together in this order.” And then he said, “The scene with the Three Stooges is a tour de force.” He’s in a Three Stooges movie later on. This next part is from Earl’s point of view still. This is chapter three so some things happened in chapter two that, you know . . . like will happen in chapters. But I’m gonna cut to chapter three and read a scene here.

[Ancient Highway, Bret Lott, Random House, 2008.]

So that’s Earl’s raison d’être—his first experience at the movies. I always thought when I was a kid, I was trying to imagine that . . . what’s it like the first time you go to the movies? And, also, what would it be like back then? I just always remember the guy tearing my ticket in half—why are you tearing it in half?—it was always like I had been in trouble.

The novel’s told in three points of view, from three people. This is Brad, this is the man who’s the guy who’s just home from the navy. And he’s harboring a kind of thing about his life. The family’s broken up—this is what the story’s about. It also goes through shifts in point of view. It doesn’t like go A to B chronologically, shifts Earl to his daughter to Brad—so there’s kind of an architecture to it. So it’s actually all three of these stories are happening simultaneously, and it’s basically about how, you know, the choices that one generation makes, there are repercussions on the next generation and the next generation. So what I was trying to do was capture how, in the moment of what we choose to do, all of them happening simultaneously, and showing an accrued effect by the time the novel gets to an end—that’s what I hoped anyway. We’ll know in a few months when the reviews come out.

Brad is home from the navy and does not want to go back to where his mom is, so he’s chosen to live with his grandparents. This is sort of Brad’s heart—this is what’s kind of making him tick. This happens about halfway through.

[Ancient Highway, Bret Lott, Random House, 2008.]

Thank you very much.  end

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