A Song I Knew by Heart

Paperback $13.95

May 31, 2005 | 336 Pages

Ebook $9.99

Apr 13, 2004

  • Paperback $13.95

    May 31, 2005 | 336 Pages

  • Ebook $9.99

    Apr 13, 2004


“An affecting novel about the slow workings of forgiveness and redemption.”
–MAUREEN CORRIGAN, National Public Radio

“Written in lyrical rhythms . . . an affecting hymn to family love and a mantra of empathy and forgiveness.”
–Richmond Times-Dispatch

“We can only admire the way Lott . . . creates and differentiates so many characters and sets them into action so naturally. . . . A chance to visit a country of grace where the twisted roads of American literature seldom lead us.”
–Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Lott uses lyrical, poetic language and addresses moral principles that force the reader to stop for self-reflection. . . . A moving story.”
–Tulsa World

“Vividly intense, intimately detailed . . . a memorable book.”
–The Sunday Oklahoman

Author Q&A

A Talk with Bret Lott

It has been six years between novels.  Why such a long time?
Before getting the call from Oprah, I was sort of this little-known literary writer toiling away at writing his books, turning them out year by year by year. Then suddenly — and I mean suddenly, as Jewel was officially out of print the day Oprah announced that it was her next book club pick — I was writing, I felt, under a magnifying glass, as though there were legions of people wondering when I would have the next book done, and what it was about, and why I was taking so long. Granted, all of this was in my imagination — I know that no one is down at Barnes and Noble every morning, peering in the windows before the doors open and wondering, When will Bret Lott’s new book come out? All of these impediments were in my mind.

But what this concern with the world outside my home did make me do was to be careful with the writing. I want — and have always wanted — every book I write to be better than the one before. I want to improve as a writer. I want to tell a story more clearly, more movingly, more genuinely, more truly with each book I write. And taking the time I did with A Song I Knew by Heart has yielded, I hope, a much more mature book, a book that has, because it steeped in me so long, a greater depth and resonance than it would have were I to have cranked out a book quickly so as to try and catch an immediate ride on the fame afforded me by being chosen by Oprah.

I have to ask a question that you must be tired of hearing by now, so here goes:  What was it like to be chosen for Oprah’s Book Club?
Wonderful. It was a blast. Despite whatever sort of rueful tone the answer to your first question may carry, I want the world to know how extraordinarily cool it was to have been chosen for the book club. The morning she was to announce it on her show, I went to Amazon.com and checked out the Jewel page, just for kicks. According to their count, Jewel was ranked as being something like the 1,619,073rd best-selling book in America. By that afternoon, after the show had been aired, it was the number one bestselling book. Just like that.

But the best thing about the whole experience was that people were reading a book about a woman who loves her Down syndrome daughter, and who loves her husband and her children; readers around the world met Jewel, and knew something deeper about the nature of love.

A Song I Knew by Heart is partially set in the New England of your early novels and stories.  What was it like to revisit the past, if you will?
This may seem strange, but it has been my experience that, when I have created characters and written a book about them, they never seem to pass away. They live on. This is the case with one of the main characters in my first novel, The Man Who Owned Vermont, Lonny Thompson, the plumber. There was a line in that book in which Lonny, who has never been married, tells the protagonist, Rick Wheeler, that he almost got married once, “but that’s another story.” That other story — what it might be — has stuck with me for the last twenty years, and though Lonny isn’t the primary character of A Song I Knew by Heart, it was that wondering about what happened to him that led me in part to return to New England. The wonderful thing is that Lonny was still alive, twenty years later, just waiting for me to let him into this story of a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law’s love for each other.

The story, though, is also about leaving where you have lived, leaving that home. And so it occurred to me while writing the book that Lonny’s dying of cancer, and Naomi’s choice to leave this place, was in fact something of my own saying goodbye to a place where I once lived, a place I still love but which is part of my history now. We’ve been here in South Carolina for 18 years — the longest I have ever lived in one place my entire life — and it’s beginning to feel like our real home.

You are originally from California, spent time in New England, and now live in South Carolina.  How have these places shaped you and influenced the stories you write?
South Carolina has taken a while to get used to. The pace of life is slower, more gentle, and I think that has shown through my writing over the years: there seems to me a little more density to the language, a greater sense of the texture of things — sounds, smells, dialog, characters, everything. But the subject matter — family, and stories we all know and hear and learn about the family — hasn’t changed, ever. That’s because growing up in California I was always surrounded by family, a huge enclave of Mississippi folks who spent the weekends together and Grandma and Grandpa Lott’s house in Redondo Beach. I just don’t know what else to write about.

“The Book of Ruth” from the Bible was obviously an inspiration for this novel.  Why that story, and what were the challenges in updating this story for the contemporary reader?
I started writing A Song I Knew by Heart just after I’d finished my last novel, The Hunt Club, back in 1997 — long before Oprah called. I’d wanted for many years to tell the tale of these two women, and the love they have for each other, despite the fact they are in no way blood kin — their relationship was based purely on the fact of a man, Naomi’s son, and Ruth’s husband. That depth of love, a love so deep that Ruth would leave her homeland and follow her mother-in-law, despite Naomi’s loss of faith in God’s care, truly intrigued me.

The challenge in updating it lay in how to approach the entire notion of home, what it means to leave it, where it seems to exist, how to wrestle with memory and history and love lost. I realized that I myself had left western Massachusetts many years ago and found my own home here in Charleston, which then gave me the concrete visual I needed: western Massachusetts, with its cold and bleak late fall and winters, and the deep and year-round greens of South Carolina. And then I began.

The book is told in the first person by Naomi, a woman her early seventies. How did you find her voice and how did you keep it authentic?
Of course the biggest challenge is always finding the voice of the story. I found Naomi’s — truly — by listening very quietly. I originally started writing this one in a room of our house designed to let me write in: the study. But I found pretty early on that the room was too large, and there were distractions everywhere — my sons’ own papers, my wife’s Bible study materials, bank statements, everything. Finally one day I decided I was going to give writing this one a try on my laptop in a room we call “the dungeon” — a converted closet, maybe four feet by four feet — that we had put a desktop in so that we could make our boys go in and do their homework undeterred. And that’s where I wrote virtually all of this book: in a small, quiet place that allowed me to listen intently to this small voice I heard: Naomi.

What do you hope reader’s come away with after reading A Song I Knew by Heart?
My hope is that reader’s will find in this story hope: hope for forgiveness, hope for redemption, hope for reconciliation, and hope for finding out that God is always here, no matter if we think he has left us. This story of two women and their love for each other in the face of mutual loss is, finally, a story of faith in God, and the opportunity for renewal each of us is given every day we are alive.

What’s next for Bret Lott?
Next spring Random House will be publishing Before We Get Started, a collection of reflections on the art of writing, everything from more spiritual matters such as why one writes in the first place to practical tips on pace, structure, even how to make time pass in a novel or story. Later next year Random House will publish my next story collection, An Evening on the Cusp of the Apocalypse. And at present I am working on a new novel, tentatively titled Ancient Highway, a story that follows three generations of the same family from Texas to Hollywood, from 1927 to the present, and how the patriarch’s desire to be a movie star affects his entire family. I’m having a great deal of fun with this one.

From the Hardcover edition.



Q: This story is told by Naomi, an older woman who has lost her husband and her son. You have captured her voice beautifully. Do you find it difficult to portray a woman’s voice? How is it different from writing a character that is more similar to you?

Bret Lott: I haven’t ever really found it difficult to capture on the page a woman’s voice, because I don’t really let myself think about its being a woman’s voice.” That is, I know that if I let myself think of Naomi as first a woman, then in effect I will have already diminished her being a human being with a life story, a history, concerns and prejudices, and joys and sorrows. Rather, what I always listen for in a voice (and this is the third book of mine from a first-person female point of view) is who this person is: what she desires, what she fears, where she has grown up and how and with whom; and I listen as well for her failures, and her triumphs. What I then have on my hands will be, it is to be hoped, a real human being, one who, in this case, is a female. That’s when the issues of that person’s being a female come into play—what a woman could do and say at a particular point in history, how those desires she has could or could not be acted upon—but I only begin to think about those things once I have established in my own imagination a real live human being. I also listen in the real sense: I have a good number of friends at my church who happen to be older ladies, women with whom my wife and I have worked on different events and ministries, everything from Wednesday Night Supper to Prison Fellowship, and they all have real voices, and real histories (and a good-sized gang of them plays cards every Tuesday night!). They have proved—especially my dear friend Eleanor Johnson—to be wellsprings of stories and voices and love. They helped a great deal in getting to know Naomi.

Q: When you started to write this story, what were you hoping to accomplish? What did you want to find out or share with your readers? Did you accomplish this? Were there any surprises along the way? How long after you had the idea for this story was it before you started writing it?

BL: I had been thinking of writing this book for years, and actually began it right after having written The Hunt Club, which means I started it all the way back in 1998. The Hunt Club is a sort of murder mystery, complete with car chases and redneck-on-redneck crime sprees, and so when I finished it I wanted to return to the sort of book I love best, the character study. But The Hunt Club did so well that I was asked to write a sequel (don’t even ask how that came out!), and so I put this aside. Then Oprah called, and Jewel was suddenly born again, which meant that my attention was on that book and all the attendant things that went along with—publicity, interviews, etc. etc. etc. So that when I finally settled down in early 2000 to get to the writing of this, my mission was to pick up where I had left off: a retelling of The Book of Ruth. That was what I’d wanted to do all along, simply retell a story of one of the most beautiful love relationships in the Bible. It’s an absolutely intriguing story because our culture has turned the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationship into one of terrific antagonism, when the traditional wedding vows that say “Where you go, I will go; your people shall be my people” aren’t quoting a man and a woman from the Bible, but a daughter-in-law speaking to her mother-in-law. That dynamic—that deep love between two people who are related only in law—was what intrigued me most. But in trying to retell the story, I soon found out that there really wasn’t any reason to just retell it—the Bible is the Bible, and so who can improve upon that? What I found in the writing of this, though, was that I was simply trying to understand the depth of that love, trying to understand how two women could love each other that deeply, and what would be the repercussions, the reverberations and resonances of that love. The writing of it became, finally, a lesson to me in what it means to love, and to forgive, and to give away love as a means to show how much love one has for another. Most surprising to me in the writing of this was Naomi’s instance of infidelity. When I began writing the book, I had no idea she had done what she had done, and simply followed her along as she made ready to move to where she believed her life could return to its more innocent state. But then, and I mean this truly, she suddenly revealed to me—to herself, as it were—what she had done, which gave her reason for wanting to leave much more resonance for me, and much more urgency: she needed and wanted to get away from herself. This troubled me while writing the book: a woman I had believed simply wanted to go home had suddenly become someone who had, however briefly and however long ago, sinned fully against her husband. And suddenly I didn’t much like her for that, so much so that I had to go through a kind of psychoanalysis with my agent, Marian Young, talking to her daily for a while about this character and what she had done, and asking myself, What am I supposed to do with her? But it is the true nature of forgiveness, I finally saw, that won out: those we love who have sinned against us and against whom we have sinned must be forgiven for that love to triumph. And so, though her infidelity seemed at first a kind of curse upon the story, that sin became the catalyst for the entire novel: we cannot accept the blessing of love without accompanying it with the gift of forgiveness.

Q: Do you have a writing routine or any rituals surrounding your work?

BL: I write every day, except Saturday and Sunday. I have been blessed in this life with having a job that lets me go in late in the morning or early afternoon and accomplish that part of things, allowing me the mornings to write. I get up around five or five-thirty, having set up the coffeemaker the night before so that there’s a fresh pot when I go downstairs. This book was written in something of a closet we have downstairs; it’s a little room off the living room, maybe four foot by four foot, that has a small window above a ledge-desk. That window looks out on the side of my next-door neighbor’s house, which is to say there really isn’t any kind of inspirational view. The size of the room is important too in that because it’s so small I can’t get up and pace or putter: I simply have to write (though I manage every day to find things to distract me). The effect of writing there is that I feel much more cloistered, much more insulated from the world out there—I feel much more like I am being allowed only the space I need to write a book (I even write on a laptop, and not the big ol’ computer in the study upstairs). I know this all may sound like something more akin to punishment—getting up that early, locking myself away in a closet—but I believe that creativity arrives only through discipline. At one point in my life I was a runner, and put in six or seven miles a day (though looking at me now you wouldn’t have a clue), and the system by which you become a runner is just about the same as becoming a writer: you make yourself do it, though as you lace up your shoes you may be dreading it, may be thinking about what else you could be doing, may be feeling already the fatigue that will come to you once it’s all over. Still, once you get settled in to the run, and settled in to the desk, there comes to you a kind of joy, a kind of release and wonder at the world and what you are doing in it. There’s a kind of freedom that comes upon you in a way only knowable through disciplining yourself to find it; this freedom is why you get up the next day and do it again, whether running or writing. The act is, finally, addictive, and its own reward.

Q: In many ways, the lives of these two women are ordinary, but through them and the rituals of their daily life you are able to create a world that transcends the mundane. Where do you search for the elements that make up a story, a new world? In particular, did you take the biscuit scene from real life?

BL: I believe daily life rituals are what make up our lives, for the most part, and that if we can invest those rituals with the power of love, then those rituals can become, in their own loving way, sacred. My grandmother (the inspiration for the novel Jewel) used to make biscuits in the same way that Ruth does here. I can’t tell you how many times my siblings and cousins and I watched Grandma Lott make in her own mysterious way these absolutely perfect gifts of biscuits, which we promptly smothered with maple syrup and gobbled up. When I was writing this book, I couldn’t help but recall that mystery, as well as the joy and love that went into the making of these biscuits, and the way they were, truly, gifts from her, but gifts made in such a routine manner as not to call for anything other than the rote actions involved in making them. And I remembered once asking for the recipe for her biscuits, and her not being able to tell me what it was. All she could do was to show me, which meant the gift of these biscuits was all the more endearing and important: the only way I could know what she knew was to do it, instead of reading it. This seemed, once I was writing this book, to serve as a kind of central metaphor (though I wasn’t thinking of it at the time as a metaphor, but simply as a gift from Ruth back to Naomi) for the nature of love, and for the nature of forgiveness: the only way to truly know love is also to give love away; the only way to truly be forgiven is also to forgive. No matter how many recipes one reads for biscuits, there will be no biscuits like those made with love. I think the ordinary life is the most interesting, contrary to popular belief. The loud lives, the lives of high drama and high emotional decibel,are the lives we have pounded into our heads every minute we are awake by the media, whether newspapers or television or, for the most part, books published these days. I know I’m sounding like an old coot, but it seems to me that if we are not looking at our own lives and examining, testing, listening to, and treasuring those lives, then we are all going to fall into the trap of believing that only those lives lived at the highest pitch will be those lives worth examining. Bunk. As for where I find those elements of the ordinary that make up the lives of my characters, again, I listen, and pay attention to what is happening around me. Certainly my wife and I have our own mundane routines—the predictable coffee and newspaper each morning comes to mind here—but what makes these into important rituals are the details. Which coffee cups we use are very important to us (they have all been bought in pairs, though no two are exactly alike, and were purchased around the world and brought home precisely for this ritual each morning), and if one or the other of us ever brought to the table in the morning a mismatched pair, or if either of us used the other’s cup, a huge signal will have been sent out: something is wrong. And out of this came, I believe, the whole notion of Naomi’s bringing two cups instead of three, that broken ritual that begins the entire book: because she is bringing two instead of three cups, something is wrong. Precisely what is left for the rest of the book to discover is the depth and breadth and scope of what is wrong, all borne out of the simple breaking of the daily ritual.

Q: In many ways, this story is about relationships—relationships that have passed, between loved ones, husbands and wives. Why did you find the relationship between Naomi and Ruth to be so compelling as a subject? Which relationship in the story was primary for you? Which one did you feel contained the crux of the story?

BL: This gets back to my initially believing I was just going to retell The Book of Ruth in a contemporary setting, when what the story finally ended up being was a kind of investigation of that love relationship between Ruth and Naomi—and a window into, finally, the relationship Naomi had with her own husband, Eli. Again, regarding those daily rituals that become sacred when invested with love, there is so much of Naomi’s relationship to her husband—their “Nice to meet you,” the keeping close of his gift to her of the locket—that surfaces only when Naomi sees Ruth dealing with her own grief. This added an entirely new and unexpected layer to the story—Naomi having to grieve again for her lost husband—a fact that of course ushers in Naomi’s own secret past. The result is that, though of course the primary relationship in this book is that between Ruth and Naomi, the prime relationship becomes Naomi’s to her husband, including her sin against him and then the ensuing wrestling with the fact that she had already been forgiven by him and what she can do to show her thankfulness for that gift from him. But then a curious thing happened: in Naomi’s wrestling with the gift of forgiveness, she realizes the best gift she can give is the giving of Ruth to Beau; for this reason, the story (I hope) comes full circle back to Ruth and Naomi. That is, their relationship returns to its primary importance only through Naomi’s having surrendered to the fact of forgiveness from her husband. And I think that oftentimes it is our own relationship to our sins that makes us unable to move forward with our lives; forgiveness is, I believe, integral to the growth of love.

Q: How did you choose coastal South Carolina as the setting of this book? How much of the story for you was embedded in its place? What was it about this landscape that you wanted to bring to the reader?

BL: I’ve lived in South Carolina for eighteen years, and published every book I have written while living there. But only with The Hunt Club, which was written ten years after I’d moved there, did I finally feel comfortable enough with the place and its people to think I could actually write about it. I enjoyed using the landscape of the Lowcountry so much that I wanted the next book, as well, to take place there, and found that the setting—a beautiful land full of light, lush and forgiving and nowhere near as severe as New England winters can be— served nicely. Not that there was ever any other choice in my mind: Lonny Thompson, a character from my first novel, The Man Who Owned Vermont, had always been lurking throughout my writing life—he was a man who was important in that first book, but whose story
seemed always to me a mystery, and when I first started seeing this story, and seeing it beginning in a locale as much the antithesis of the Lowcountry as I could see, it seemed natural that Northampton—the setting for both The Man Who Owned Vermont and my second novel, A Stranger’s House—would serve once again; the added bonus was that I would finally be able to get to the bottom of who Lonny Thompson was to be haunting me all those years after I’d created him. Both landscapes, then—the harshness of Massachusetts, the lushness of South Carolina—mirrored for me the famine-ridden land of Moab in the Bible, and Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem.

Q: Much of the story is about returning home, both literally and figuratively. Where did you grow up? Where do you now call home? Is home for you, as the dedication in your book would suggest, about your family, or is it about place?

BL: I grew up in Southern California and Phoenix, Arizona, but the bulk of my adult life has been lived exactly where A Song I Knew by Heart takes place: Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Over the course of those eighteen years our two sons (age nineteen and twenty-two) grew up, and the town of Mount Pleasant expanded in a huge way. Traffic is thick now, whereas when first we moved there it was a sleepy little suburb of Charleston. But that place will always seem home for the memories of soccer, and Cub Scouts, and our kids’ schools, and their basketball games every Tuesday and Friday night for years, not to mention our friends from church, and my colleagues from work. My wife and I have never thought of moving back to California, for the roots we put down were in South Carolina. But life takes its turns: we just recently moved here to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where I have taken over the reins of the venerable old literary journal The Southern Review. When offered the position I didn’t think a moment about it; this is one of the most important journals in American history, and to be able to guide it into the twenty-first century is an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. But we miss our boys, both of whom are away in college in South Carolina. Melanie and I are empty-nesters for the first time. We’ve found a terrific church here, and the job is a good one. Still, we plan to retire to South Carolina someday. But, finally, home is where our family is whenever we are together.

Q: What are you currently working on?

BL: Right now I am at work on a new novel, Ancient Highway, though a new story collection, The Difference Between Women and Men, is out this summer from Random House. Ancient Highway is based loosely on the life of my grandfather on my mother’s side—he ran away from his East Texas home when he was a kid of fourteen, bent on going to Hollywood to be an actor in the “flickers.” He ended up being in a handful of movies, all of them bit roles, and was even on The Andy Griffith Show a couple of times. But he never made it big. The story is told from his point of view, and from his daughter’s point of view, and from his grandson’s point of view as well, and happens at all different times in the twentieth century. It’s a great deal of fun, and also a stretch for me. But I’m enjoying the writing of it, and hope to finish it sometime this year.

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