Excerpted from A Song I Knew By Heart by Bret Lott. Copyright © 2005 by Bret Lott. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A CONVERSATION WITH BRET LOTT
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.
1. Read the story of Naomi and Ruth from the Bible. How does an understanding of the biblical story help to illuminate the relationship between the two women in the novel? In what ways are the two stories different?
2. Naomi knows that she must return to South Carolina when she remembers the light of her childhood home, which is different from the light in the North where she lived as an adult. Why do you think it is the memory of the light that pulls her back? What do you think the light symbolizes, not just in this instance but throughout the novel?
3. Why do you think Ruth decides to go to South Carolina with Naomi, even though it is not her home? Why does she say, “Where you go, I will go. Where you live, that’s where I’ll live too. This is a pact between us. Here. Now” (p. 97)?
4. Variations on the title A Song I Knew by Heart appear throughout the novel. What is the significance of the title in the beginning of the novel, and does your understanding of it change throughout the book?
5. The lives of Naomi and Ruth are filled with many of the rituals of daily life. One that plays an especially important role between the two of them is the baking of biscuits, a recipe that was passed down to Naomi and one that she has passed along to Ruth. Why do you think this act is so important between the two women? Explore some of the other daily rituals that appear throughout the novel and how they play an important role in bringing the characters closer.
6. Even though the book opens with the death of Mahlon and the remembrance of Eli’s death, A Song I Knew by Heart is in many ways a love story. It tells of the love between Naomi and Eli and Ruth and Mahlon. What other love stories are told? What other types of love are revealed?
7. Why do you think Ruth decided to betray her husband with Lonny Thompson? How do you understand Eli never telling her that he knew what she did? What other betrayals occur in the novel?
8. Throughout much of the story, Naomi is seeking forgiveness from her husband. Why do you think she seeks forgiveness now, instead of earlier in her life, when he was still alive? Do you think she is able to find the forgiveness she needs? Why or why not? What role does returning home play in her search? Lonny is also seeking forgiveness from Ruth. Why do you think he needs to be forgiven?
9. Naomi wears a locket around her neck. Why is it so special to her? What does the locket hold at different points in the novel? What does it mean when Ruth gives Naomi her ring, and why does Naomi put it with her locket?
10. After having finished the novel, how do the epigraphs at the beginning of the novel enrich your understanding of the story as a
11. This story is filled with loss, but each loss gives way to a new beginning, a new relationship. Even the beginning of the relationship between Naomi and Eli when they returned from their first walk was punctuated with the news of her brother’s death in the war. In what other instances does death make a new beginning possible?
12. What role does memory and the act of remembering play in this novel? Naomi remembers her life with Eli, and cherishes many of the private moments they shared, like when they told each other “Nice to meet you.” Why do you think she urges Ruth to keep her memories of Mahlon private? Do you agree with Naomi? Are memories things that can be owned? Why, or why not?
13. What is the relationship between memory, loss, and forgiveness in A Song I Knew by Heart?
14. “When we are young, it means, I have made a mistake. When we are old, it means, I have separated myself from love” is how Naomi describes sin (p. 77). Do you agree with her? How does her understanding of sin affect the course of the novel? How do she and the other characters in the novel separate themselves from love? In what ways do they embrace it?
15. There are many quilts throughout the story—the wedding ring quilt given to Naomi for her wedding, the quilt given to her before she leaves to return home. Why do you think the author chose quilts? What is it about quilts and quilting that lends itself to a deeper understanding of relationships and love?
16. How do you understand the incident at Harris Teeter when Naomi witnessed Ruth first meet Beau? Why do you think Ruth was so uncomfortable? Why do you think Naomi encourages Ruth to go to Beau? What is the significance of giving Ruth the quilt before she meets Beau at the firehouse?
17. Naomi wonders what her name can mean, what it contains. Often she feels that it is emptiness, that she is empty. She contemplates the names she is called, like Aunt Naomi. What is she accomplishing in trying to understand her own name? At the very end of the novel, she asks, “Why call me Naomi?” and she answers, “My name is Naomi. And I am filled” (p.303). How has she come to this place in her life? How does she understand herself differently? What has allowed her to be filled?