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  • Written by Bret Lott
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On Sale: May 20, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-50715-0
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this deeply affecting, beautifully crafted collection of short fiction, Bret Lott broadens his stylistic range, striking a surprisingly surreal tone with stark, hyperrealistic prose. As story after dazzling story deliberately takes you down a deceptively ordinary path, the arresting center of each startles your unsuspecting sensibility.

Among the narrative gems is “Family,” in which a husband and wife bicker incessantly before realizing that their two children are missing, only to discover them in a surprising place–and in a disturbing condition. In “Everything Cut Will Come Back,” a long-distance phone call between two brothers takes a turn when their own tragic past crackles over the line. In “History,” a widow thinks she spots her son at the airport and is left instead with a simple memory of her late husband that resolves her grief. The innocence of three boys is lost when they witness a devastating winter tragedy in “The Train, the Lake, the Bridge.”

Within these pages, adulterers are unceremoniously caught, epiphanies arrive during bizarre encounters, and characters move through everyday moments with a fortitude that elevates these stories almost to mythical status. Without a stroke of false sentimentality, The Difference Between Women and Men will leave you strangely shaken–and ever aware of the odd permutations of humankind.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Family



In the heat of the fight, they forgot about the children.

They were yelling at each other about an issue neither could now recall. They could only remember that one or the other of them had been wronged somehow.

Then she’d stopped, said, “Where are the kids?”

“Of course,” he shouted, “it would be you to take the higher ground. It would be you to bring the kids into this, make me feel like a heel for not thinking about them!”

“And of course,” she shouted, “it would be you to think I’d use them as a weapon against you!”

But then they fell silent, and the quiet of the moment—neither could now recall when there had been silence in the house— infused them both with fear, so that they dropped their hands from the authoritative gestures they’d held them in, index finger of one hand pointed at the other’s face, the other hand clenched in a fist at the hip, and let their arms go loose, useless.

They had forgotten about the children.

“Where are they?” he said, but she was already out of the room, headed upstairs.

She could not find them in their rooms, saw only evidence they had been here before: In Scott’s room were plastic models of fighter jets hung by fish line from the ceiling; on the walls were pennants of major league baseball teams and posters of heavy metal bands with names such as The Broken Necks and The Disease. The dresser in Jennifer’s room was strewn with barrettes and combs, the bed left unmade and littered with Barbies and teen magazines, at least a dozen different outfits heaped on the floor inside the closet.

But the children were not there.



He checked the garage, saw their bicycles, Jennifer’s with the wicker basket, the purple streamers off the ends of the handlebars, Scott’s with the black banana seat and chrome sissy bar. There was more in there, too, to suggest to him the lives of his children: a half-deflated basketball, a pair of skis leaned against the wall beside the shovel and rake and hoe, a pink plastic Barbie Dream House, perched atop it a plastic jeep, a couple of Scott’s G.I. Joes in the front seat.

But there was only evidence of the children here. Not the children themselves.

This was when he remembered the swimming pool out back, stretched over it a green tarp littered with leaves. He feared the worst: his two children climbing under the tarp, then drowning in some freak accident like those he read about routinely in the morning paper. The pool itself had been covered, as best he could recall, since a week or so after Labor Day, when the air had turned cold perhaps a little too early and the leaves had started to change, and as he made his way through the living room to the sliding glass windows onto the back patio, he pushed aside the image in him of his two drowned children and let fill him instead that old joy of raking leaves into piles and then burning them with Scott, the two of them armed with rakes and standing still and quiet before the smoldering heaps, the rich and deep aroma of burning leaves a smell like no other, and he remembered then how he cherished this time with his son, fall’s leaves a tangible truth that we all grow old, that winter is fast upon each of us, but that, too, spring will come again, and the trees will burst wholly green with proof positive of life’s renewal. Father and son, he thought.

He moved out onto the deck, looked at the pool, the empty trees, the small shed huddled out among them, that place where he kept the pool cleaning equipment and various other summer items: beach chairs, the barbecue, an ice chest.

But it was the pool he was headed for, the pool and what horrors it might hold for him at this very moment.

Then he was at the edge and he knelt, lifted a corner of the tarp, fearful of what he might find there.

He saw nothing, the water opaque and dark, no light other than the sliver he’d let in with pulling back the corner of the tarp.

He stood, pulled back more of it, the tarp heavy and ungainly, and he felt his heart pounding for the work of it; felt, too, the way his muscles seemed suddenly his enemy, unable and unwilling to exert the force needed to do this work.

He managed the tarp halfway across the pool, walked the huge sheet of green plastic away from the deep end, until he knew there was enough light to see the entire length and depth of the pool, still in him this fear of what he would find there.

But there were no children in the pool. He took in a breath, thankful for the twisted blessing this was: His children were not at the bottom of the pool, yet still they were missing.

He looked up at the trees, at the bare branches up there, and longed for his children, in him the melancholy of autumn, the smell of burning leaves and the image of Scott and himself staring into smoke like some dream he might have had years before, back when his heart was strong, his arms willing and able to work.

But where were the children? he wondered, and let go the tarp, turned to the storage shed.



She turned from the bedrooms, headed down the hall toward the bathroom in the vague hope they might be there, Scott maybe combing his hair for school, Jennifer doing her best to French-braid hers all by herself. It was then she remembered her promise to her daughter last night as she’d tucked the girl into bed, that promise to French-braid her hair for school this morning.

She thought of those moments at the close of a day when she sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed, Jennifer lying on her side and facing the open bedroom door. The bedroom light off, it was then she listened to the girl’s cares and woes, listened and saw in her daughter’s eyes the glint and sparkle of light from the hall, Jennifer’s words a song of life, whether she spoke about the boy she liked, David Burgess, and how he’d drawn with a pen a devil’s pitchfork on her sneaker during naptime; or spoke of how her best friend, Lisa Spuhler, had beaten her at tetherball on the playground; even as she spoke of her brother, Scott, and how he’d let the air out of her bike tires just to be mean, and how much she hated him.

They were words of a child’s sorrow and joy, and as she listened each night she gently touched at her daughter’s auburn tresses, carefully lifted long tendrils of it away from the girl’s face, laid them behind her head and across the pillow, her daughter’s hair then a swirling and perfect wave, beautiful hair, hair the same color as her own, hair just like her own when she was her daughter’s age, the color and length and beautiful sheen of it evidence sure enough of the passing of blood between generations, the beautiful gift of life: Mother and daughter, she thought.

She reached for the bathroom door, hoped to see inside two children preparing for school, and she resolved in the moment she pushed open the door that she would take care of her daughter’s hair for her, would even drive her in to school if they were late as a result of the braiding.

But they were not there.

The bathroom was empty, inside only the 101 Dalmatians shower curtain crowded with cartoon puppies, dinosaur and Care Bear bath towels on the racks, the sink counter strewn with even more of Jennifer’s barrettes and clip combs, Scott’s single black plastic pocket comb.

Only an empty children’s bathroom, and in spite of her fears she smiled at the familiarity of it, the welcome sight of the room, all this evidence of their children’s lives.

But where, she still worried, were the children?

“Found them!” she heard then, her husband calling from outside, his voice reaching her through the small window above the bathtub. “They’re out here!” he shouted.

She felt her heart ease, the melancholy of the missed moments of her hands moving deftly in her daughter’s hair gone now with the good knowledge Jennifer hadn’t yet left for school. She could still braid her hair.

And what were they doing outside? she thought, as she made her way back to the kitchen, then to the living room, where the sliding glass window stood open to reveal to her a sharp fall morning, bare trees, the swimming pool cover peeled back, the surface of the water already scattered with leaves.

It was then he emerged from the storage shed, smiling, a proud look on his face, and for a moment she believed he’d use this triumph of his against her once the fight picked up again.

She saw, too, he had the little Igloo cooler they used to take with them to football games and on day trips, the small one that held only a few sodas, a couple of sandwiches. He carried it not by the handle but with the cooler set atop his hands like a pillow bearing a crown. Or the body, she thought for a moment, of a dead child borne from the depths of the pool. But it was only an ice chest, she thought, and a little one at that, and she felt a brief smile play across her face, felt herself blink.

He held the cooler with both hands, careful not to tip it or drop it for what he’d found inside it, and now he stepped out of the shed and into light down through empty trees, light so sharp and cutting it seemed to slice into him, a sky too bright and sharp for words.

She walked around the edge of the pool, came toward him, and he saw how she looked past him, toward the doorway into the shed, as though there might be something inside he’d overlooked.

She stood before him, and he saw her eyes go from the cooler to his own eyes to the cooler again.

She said, “So where are they?”

“Where do you think?” he said, and nodded at the cooler. Still he smiled at her.

He knelt, still just as careful with the cooler as he’d been since he’d taken it from the top shelf, drawn there by a strange and muffled sound, a rhythm of some sort that seemed to have emanated from the cooler, next to it on one side the dust-covered Coleman lantern, on the other a rusted and label-less can of paint.

He looked at his wife one more long moment and saw in her features the same fear he’d known until a few moments ago.


From the Hardcover edition.
Bret Lott|Author Q&A

About Bret Lott

Bret Lott - The Difference Between Women and Men

Photo © Rick Rhodes

Bret Lott is the author of the novels A Song I Knew by Heart, Jewel (an Oprah’s Book Club selection), The Hunt Club, Reed’s Beach, A Stranger’s House, and The Man Who Owned Vermont; and the story collections A Dream of Old Leaves, How to Get Home, and The Difference Between Women and Men; the memoir Fathers, Sons, and Brothers; and the writing guide Before We Get Started. Named editor of The Southern Review in 2004, Bret Lott lives with his wife in Charleston, South Carolina.

Author Q&A

A Conversation With Bret Lott

Random House Reader’s Circle: Though you are primarily regarded as a novelist—you have published six of them, the seventh due out soon—this is your third collection of stories. What do you find so compelling about this fictiveform?

Bret Lott: I love the short story because of its ability to work under your skin in a way a novel can’t. Novels are big animals that can wander around a bit, and can park for a while and mosey and all kinds of things. But a story is a pinprick, a kind of jewel outside of its setting—a diamond in the palm of your hand you can appreciate for its simplicity. I know I’m allowing my metaphors to run riot here, but it’s difficult to say, save for the fact there is a purity to the short story form, a kind of guerilla tactic to them that makes them all the more surprising and a lot of times more memorable than a novel.

RHRC: What are some of the challenges to writing stories that you might not have to face when writing a novel?

BL: Keeping it to the point. Not that a story has to have a point. Rather, it is that a story has a much smaller canvas than a novel does. I like to think of novels as murals, whereas a story is an intricate cameo. The challenge, therefore, is to stay in scene, stay on character, stay on detail. Stay on target. I love the short-story form above the novel because it calls for a kind of precision that makes one see as deeply as possible the characters and situation the story has to reveal. A novel can wander, make side trips—excursions, if you will. Which isn’t to say it can be sloppy—there has to be the same precision in a novel as in a story.

RHRC: In the Washington Post review of The Difference Between Women and Men, Carolyn See writes, “If not for Bret Lott, who would tell us about the RC Cola salesmen, the food brokers, the small-time insurance agents, the couples who are about six steps away from being homeless, if they stop to think about it, except that they don’t have the time to stop and think about it?” Do you agree that your work addresses these issues of class?

BL: I do. Class issues are always present in my writing, though it’s not anything I think about when I sit down and begin to see the world I am going to write about. Thinking about capital-I Issues and that sort of thing while you write would be like a jazz musician thinking abut the scales while he reels out a beautiful line he hasn’t ever played before. I hope the class issues aren’t the focus so much as the inherent value of the lives involved. The fact that Carolyn See, having read the stories, asks the question she does is the very essence of the “special value” I would hope my work has. I want readers to see the lives of other people as being valuable in and of themselves, and to have to pause and think of RC salesmen and financially troubled couples as being people. An editor who rejected my first novel told me that the most important thing she got out of reading The Man Who Owned Vermont was that she would never see the people who work in a grocery store—the salesmen and clerks and cashiers and stockers—the same way again. Although she didn’t take the book, I still look back at that moment with the greatest sense of fulfillment: the story made someone see people around her whom she had previously ignored as being worthy of her attention—she was seeing them now with empathy.

RHRC: How do you know when you begin a piece of writing that it will be a story, or a novel, or a work of nonfiction?

BL: Some stories have turned into novels, some novels have yielded stories; some essays have been written because the fictive form seemed to cheapen the true experience. This may sound cheesy, but it’s about listening to what the story itself wants to be, and not making it what you want it to be. Listen, and write.

RHRC: Throughout your career as a writer, you have also been a teacher of writing. How did both your writing life and your teaching life begin, and how do they work together (or not)?

BL: I got started by reading my brains out when I was a kid, though back then I wasn’t reading with any idea of becoming a writer. I simply enjoyed stories, enjoyed going somewhere else, enjoyed finding out what people do in certain circumstances. That is, I wanted to find out what happened and why, which is all a good story gives us. I ended up having four majors in college: forestry, marine biology, education, and then, finally, English. In addition, I took a year off halfway through college to become an RC Cola salesman, believing at that point that college wasn’t for me. But after a year of that, I knew I wanted to go back to school, and so, before reenrolling at Cal State Long Beach, I took a course at Golden West Community College to get myself used to having assignments again, readings and deadlines and all that. The only nights I had open were Tuesdays, and the only course that was open on Tuesday nights was creative writing, so I used to show up to class in my RC uniform on Tuesday nights, and I had a blast writing things, though I still had no notion of becoming a writer. I then took another creative writing course once I was back at Cal State, and the professor read out loud a single sentence of an entire story I’d written for class. Then he said, “That’s a writer’s sentence,” and I remember thinking, Maybe I want to do this. I know this is a long-winded answer, but it is to say that my writing life has been inextricably entwined with that of teaching; without my teachers, I wouldn’t be here today. And as a teacher now, I continue to be invigorated by my students, as the things I teach them are things I must—I must—practice every moment I am writing. I tell my students on the first day of class that the things I wrestle with as an author are precisely the same things they will have to wrestle with: How does this character hold her coffee cup? What does this character see as he walks from this room into that room? What is she thinking as she parks the car in the lot outside the grocery store? These are what I work with, and there have been no breakthroughs beyond this in storytelling, ever. So my students are always, always my peers: we are all in this together, trying to tell stories. I am always preaching the basic elements of writing: true dialogue, detailed settings, pace, character development. And in preaching that relentlessly, I have no choice but to see in my own writing the need to keep to the basic elements of writing: make that dialogue sound true, make this room seem real, make this character seem alive. There’s nothing more than that, and it is what informs every class I have ever taught, and so I have no choice but to let it inform my own writing life. I also value the joy that young writers bring to the art form, their wonder at reading for the first time a terrific story by one of the masters, and then finding in each others’ writing what works and doesn’t work. I treasure working with students who are actively trying to find their own voice and vision—that is invigorating, and reason enough to continue to find that kind of joy in my own writing.

RHRC: Do you have a list of favorite stories? If so, can we get a glimpse of it, and can you tell us why these are your favorites?

BL: In fact I do. Sort of like my fantasy football team. And though I have read and appreciated hundreds of stories, these stories are my favorites simply because they are about things that happen to people the authors have made me care about. For that reason, I want to make certain no one misunderstands the summary statements I’m giving for each one as being the only reason to read them. Every one of these has manifold reasons to be read, chief among them the joy of reading. They’re in alphabetical order, too, lest anyone think I’m putting one above another!

“Kiss Away” by Charles Baxter
The quality of Baxter’s prose—its subtlety and rock-solid
strength—is what I most enjoy about this story. And of
course there ’s also the mystery of who this boyfriend is
and whether or not he can be trusted, giving us the sense of
“mystery” every good story has to have.

“1/3, 1/3, 1/3” by Richard Brautigan
I teach this on the first day of every course as a means to
remind students of the playfulness of story and to show the
quality of description I want them to learn: it’s not just
what something looks like, but also the spirit of the thing
described that is at stake.

“A Small, Good Thing” by Raymond Carver
Carver is my favorite writer, period, and with this story we
see all the virtues of his writing: the precision of his sentences,
the quality of his details, a moving plot, and, towering
above these, his compassion for his characters, from
the grieving mother to the bewildered baker simply trying
to make sense of his own lost life.

“Rock Springs” by Richard Ford
This story seems to be about a “bad” character, but he is,
finally, a nice guy. The magic to this story is Ford’s ability
to make us care about this man and to see, finally, ourselves
in someone we would most likely dismiss.

“Redemption” by John Gardner
There are two grieving points of view here, but the point
of view of the father, once he has reckoned with his grief,
disappears, leaving Jack Hawthorne alone to wrestle with
the death of his brother. This story is a tour de force, and
it breaks my heart every single time I read it.

“Water Liars” by Barry Hannah
This is one of the funniest and most poignant stories I have
ever read, and the turnabout here—telling the truth is the
most damning thing anyone out at Farte Cove can do—
makes the story one of the few that can successfully sneak
up and bushwhack you. And the dialect is pitch-perfect.

“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
This story illustrates the importance of detail, and the
miraculous way in which details can forward a plot, develop
characters, and create setting all at once.

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
This begins as a kind of sitcom, only to end up one of the
most brutal stories of all time, and is one of the great examples
in literature of how the best stories set up expectations
and then reverse them altogether.


RHRC: Finally, in a time when it seems fewer and fewer people are reading, why does literature matter?

BL: Because we are in a world that is swamped with itself, and with people whispering and shouting in our ears about what is happening this very moment everywhere in the world, whether it be what the celebrity du jour wore or didn’t wear last night, or the specter of global annihilation. Literature allows us time to think, to contemplate, to be quiet, and to breathe deeply. That’s why it matters.

Praise

Praise

Praise for A SONG I KNEW BY HEART

“An affecting novel about the slow workings of forgiveness and redemption . . . informed by virtues that rarely make it unedited into literature anymore.”
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

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


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The title story gives no real answer to what the difference between women and men really is. What, then, may be truly at stake for the wife in this story, now that she has decided not to listen when her “strange and loud” husband tries to explain to her that difference? What may be the significance of the armoire itself and its contents, and the fact that she can lift it now with “a miraculous ease”?

2. Throughout the collection, there are instances of what may
be termed “magical suburban realism” (the armoire and its
seeming weightlessness in the title story, the children residing
inside an Igloo cooler in “Family,” the husband slowly becoming
invisible in “A Way Through This”). What was your reaction
as a reader when you encountered these strange elements
of the stories? How might this alternate world, in which the
unbelievable is a part of everyday life, allow the characters involved
to understand more deeply their own situations?

3. In “An Evening on the Cusp of the Apocalypse,” a man
encounters every worst-case scenario one can imagine, from
losing his job to having his home repossessed to his wife ’s infidelity.
And yet, at the story’s end, he finds himself absolutely
content with his life, but only once that life has been
restored intact (and in some ways improved upon). How
does this speak to the tenuous nature of our lives as consumers,
as parents, as husbands and wives? What do you fear
most when you consider the possibility of losing the routine
of your everyday life? What do you value most about that
routine, and why?

4. Read the classic short story “A Rose for Emily” by
William Faulkner. (This is his most famous short story, and
you can find it in almost any anthology of American short
stories, as well as in the Vintage paperback edition of The
Collected Stories of William Faulkner.
) How does Bret Lott’s
Miss Emily in “Rose” compare to Miss Emily as understood
by the townspeople in Faulkner’s story? What is the significance
of the child being buried beneath the floorboards in
Bret Lott’s version?

5. In “The Train, the Lake, the Bridge,” why does the fact
that there are no ghosts involved in this “ghost story” make
this a story they tell one another only on those nights when
they know they cannot dig out from the snow? Why is it easier
for them to tell ghost stories than it is to tell the truth of
what happened that night of the storm?

6. “Everything Cut Will Come Back” seems to be about the
narrator’s brother trying to tend to his neighbor’s yard after
the death of his neighbor’s wife. But the story turns, finally, to
the brothers themselves, and their shared sense of loss at the
death of their parents many years before. Why does the work
Timmy performs on the yard signal the narrator that indeed
the two brothers are talking about their own loss? How is it
that the narrator, who feels that his words of comfort to his
brother about his work on the yard are meaningless, knows
exactly what Timmy means when he says, “I miss them”?

7. One of the shortest stories in the collection, “History”
seems almost a fragment. But how does this momentary
snapshot of an anonymous traveler illuminate the narrator’s
life? Is there in this instant of recognition and memory a
sense of grief, or is there a sense of fulfillment?

8. “Nostalgia” differs from nearly every other work in the
collection in that it tells the story of two children, and does so
from a point of view that does not place itself as an adult
looking back on his life (as with the narrator in “The Train,
the Lake, the Bridge”). Yet the word nostalgia itself means
a sense of longing or a mixture of happiness and sadness
when recalling the past. Given the brutal facts of the story—
pelting the babysitter into submission with tomatoes, the horrific
death of the babysitter’s brother, and the insensitivity of
the children toward that tragedy—why might this indeed be
an appropriate title for the story?

9. The last story in the collection, “Postscript” employs by
far the greatest role of “magical suburban realism” in the
book: here a lifetime passes by, the family moves to other
homes, their children grow up and have their own children,
all in the span of a single day, and all while the main character,
a writer, tries to put words in an order that will tell a story
all by themselves. What is the irony of his trying so desperately
to tell a story while his life passes him by? And why is
the story a fitting close to this collection?


  • The Difference Between Women and Men by Bret Lott
  • May 20, 2008
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $14.00
  • 9780345494702

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