“Every writer needs somebody that supports them with honesty. Honesty. Honesty. Honesty. One of the great things about writing workshops is discovering who’s going to be honest with you,” says English professor and acclaimed author Bret Lott, who has been offering honest support to students at the College of Charleston for over 30 years.
Lott helped establish the two-year, full-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at the College in 2016 and acted as director for two years before he returned to teaching. His approach to teaching has earned him the respect and admiration of students, and his fiction and creative nonfiction classes are so sought after that they have waitlists every semester.
“I come at it with humor and goodwill and encouragement, because we’re all taking each other very seriously and if I’m not honest with you, I’m doing you a disservice,” says Lott.
On this episode of Speaking Of…College of Charleston, Ron Menchaca ’98, vice president of marketing and communications, speaks with Lott about his 34 years of teaching, writing and an upcoming nonfiction book as well as the international writing program he established in Bahrain. Lott shares moments from his life, including the story of becoming an international best-selling author overnight when Oprah Winfrey made his novel Jewel one of her coveted book club selections.
A unique aspect of the College’s M.F.A. program is its partnership with the University of Bahrain. For the last six years, Lott has traveled to Bahrain with two M.F.A. students as part of a cultural exchange program. This international and cross-cultural project works to bridge two worlds by bringing undergraduate students at the University of Bahrain together with graduate writing mentors from the College for a semester-long course in the art of writing.
“If anyone were to ask me, this is an incredible one-of-a-kind program that is actually, physically, culturally, academically and tangibly a PRACTICAL APPLICATION of intercultural exchange,” says Lott. “I don’t know of any other program like this at the College. Period. We’re utilizing our students to lead students a half a world away to become writers. Our students are genuinely affecting the lives of writers in the Middle East.”
Lorne Chambers ’23 participated in the program in the spring of 2023.
“Being a mentor with the joint creative writing program between the College of Charleston and the University of Bahrain was a truly enriching experience. It was a reminder that art — even literature — has the ability to transcend language barriers, cultural differences and oceans,” says Chambers. “The students were lovely. They were so eager to learn and to express themselves. I was floored by the talent and some of the work that was generated by them during this program.”
Lott says the students in Bahrain write about the same things that College of Charleston undergraduates write about. “They write about love and family. They will write science fiction. They’ll write coming of age stories as well as poetry about their deep feelings and their deep observations. The cultural aspects of it, the practical elements of it are different, but at the core it’s basically the same thing that we’re all trying to write about; writing in order to understand.”
Lott uses the same approach in his own work and writes to see where his characters take him. That approach has resulted in more than a dozen fiction and nonfiction books, and led to awards, fellowships and being selected as a recipient of one of the country’s most important book clubs.
Only 100 authors know what it’s like to hear the words “you’ve been selected as an Oprah Book Club winner.” For Lott, those words couldn’t have come at a better time. On that winter day in 1999 Lott was in Vermont teaching at a residency program and had spent three hours on the phone with his agent discussing “what a train wreck this book was,” he says. Later that day, one of Lott’s students, a promising writer, died of a brain aneurysm. Then he picked up the phone and heard the life changing words. His novel Jewel, which was based on the life of his grandmother, had been selected for Oprah’s Book Club, and became an overnight international bestseller.
“It was one of the worst days, but the greatest days,” he says.
According to Lott, every novel starts with a visual and not with an answer. “It starts with something happening and then my curiosity, and the reader’s curiosity are piqued by the question, what happens next?”
The visual images that sparked the idea for his latest book, Cherries on the Golan, Olives in Jerusalem, were memories of eating cherries and harvesting olives, which Lott and his wife, Melanie, experienced living in Jerusalem for a semester while he was a visiting professor at Bar-llan University.
“It’s a book about community. It’s a book about food that we ate in Israel and the West Bank and in Jordan. It’s about the people we met and communities that we were part of. But, when I started writing, all I had were these two images of eating cherries on the Golan Heights and seeing Bedouins harvesting olives in public spaces,” says Lott.
“In between were all sorts of different experiences, different meals that we had and different food. But I didn’t know what this book was about other than we lived there and we met these people. This is the food we ate, this is the community that we resided in and I got to the end and knew what the book was about. It was about all those things,” he adds. “It was about food and community and the Holy Land. And it seems like that’s enough to me. You know?”
Featured on this episode:
Bret Lott is the author of 14 books, most recently the essay collection Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian (Crossway, 2013) and the novel Dead Low Tide (Random House, 2012). He received his M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1984, studying under Jay Neugeboren and James Baldwin.
From 1986 to 2004 he was writer-in-residence and professor of English at the College of Charleston, leaving to take the position of editor and director of the journal The Southern Review at Louisiana State University. Three years later, in the fall of 2007, he returned to the College of Charleston and the job he most loves — teaching.
He has spoken on Flannery O’Connor at the White House and served as Fulbright Senior American Scholar to Bar-llan University in Tel Aviv, Israel. From 2006 to 2013 he served as a member of the National Council on the Arts. From 2010 to 2022 he was director of the College’s Spoleto Summer Study Abroad Program in English.
Resources from this episode:
Books by Brett Lott
The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War by Barbara Tuchman
Oprah’s Book Club
Acclaimed Author, English Professor Donates Manuscripts to Special Collections