In addition to writing, Bret currently teaches at College of Charleston and serves as nonfiction editor of literary magazine Crazyhorse. His new book, Letters and Life, On Being a Writer: On Being a Christian is out now with Crossway Books.
Bret graciously took the time out of his schedule to answer a few questions on writing and his inspirations for the Riffle community:
Who or what are your inspirations for writing?
My life. I think the most important thing a writer can do is to examine his or her life, watch what’s going on around you, listen for genuine moments when things are happening that most other people would take for granted. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve written about that spring from these personal moments – one early morning my then three year old (he’s now twenty seven) looked up at the sky, the moon still out and just a blue and white shadow up there, and said to me, “Look! The moon is teasing the sun!” That moment, I can tell you, ended up in a novel, as did another moment when I tried to sell the lady across the street a electric table-top rotisserie at the yard sale we were having, only to understand slowly that I was being had by how little she was willing to pay. These moments may seem cute or boring or inconsequential, but these are the real inspirations for my writing: those moments overlooked by most people, who are generally on the lookout for bigger and better and more important moments. These small instances of seeming nothingness are what our lives are made of – so we better pay attention to them.
What book is on your nightstand at the moment?
Two of them: Patrick O’Brian’s The Wine Dark Sea, volume 16 in his twenty-volume novel series about Captain Jack Aubrey and Ship’s Surgeon Stephen Maturin (this is my second time through the series); and Heat, by former editor of The New Yorker’s Bill Buford, the nonfiction story of his working for Mario Batlali and Buford’s subsequent trips to Italy to follow, so to speak, in Batali’s culinary footsteps (I love to cook, and in fact there is in the oven as I write this a batch of Ragu Bolognese slow cooking).
What do you find to be the most rewarding as an author and as a writing professor?
The very best moment in my life as a professor is when a student suddenly understands that he or she is capable, via the imagination and well-written sentences, of creating something that is larger than he or she would have expected; it’s that moment when a student is surprised at what she has made, and that it has reached someone else with what it wants to speak.
The best moment about being a writer is when I get a letter from someone telling me that a book I have written has meant something to him. Writing is such a solo venture, riven with long long long hours of being alone with words, that when what you have done sparks in someone enough energy to get that person to write to you, I am genuinely encouraged, and thankful.
If you could meet anyone in history, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
Of course Jesus! But that’s not a what if situation – one day this will happen. So IF I could meet anyone in history (this is tough because I love history, and read more nonfiction than anything else), I’d have to say I’d like most to meet the artist Paul Cézanne, the early impressionist painter who saw the world in a new way, saw it in its beauty and light, and rendered it in a kind of love I hope my own work exhibits.
Thanks to Bret for chatting with us. Let us know what you think about Letters and Life and join us on Riffle to find more great reads!