Some fictional characters slip under the skin of their creators and take up permanent residence.
No matter how many other books an author writes, or how many richly detailed new characters emerge from his imagination, the ones from that old book keep insinuating themselves into the writer's thoughts, pleasantly or otherwise. And the only way to scratch that itch is by giving in.
With "Dead Low Tide" (Random House, Jan. 17), a sequel to his 1997 novel, "The Hunt Club," Charleston area novelist and short story writer Bret Lott is delighted to be gallivanting again with Huger Dillard and his father, "Unc." The gents who enlivened "Hunt" now find themselves up against an array of clandestine military forces and terrorist sleeper cells, not to mention embroiled with old chums, longtime neighbors and lost loves.
"I spent a year writing a sequel to 'The Hunt Club' immediately after the first one was published, and it was awful," says Lott, who banished that manuscript to the shelf. "But over the next 10 years, I kept thinking about those two characters, how much I loved them, and how much fun it was to write a novel where things happened -- car chases and deadly doings in the swamps -- so I decided to write another one."
So, after having written 13 books (of a literary bent) about 13 different sets of characters, few of which employed a thriller's devices, Lott returned the Dillards to active duty for "Dead Low Tide," with a third novel starring the pair already in work.
"I think Huger and Unc are fun. They have a good rapport. They are testy and kind of get on each other's nerves, but love each other and the outdoors. Of course, I love writing about the Lowcountry landscape, though without the romanticized approach. It is always mysterious to me, this beautiful and scary place. I should add that one of the books I read a lot and leaned on in writing this novel was the two volumes of 'Goose Creek: The Definitive History' by Michael Heitzler."
But the idea for the story also began to take shape while Lott was kayaking.
Two sides of a stream
"My wife and I were out kayaking Goose Creek one day and put in at Yeamans Hall, just a half-mile from our home in Hanahan," Lott recalls. "On one side of the marsh were the mansions of Yeamans and its private golf course and all the hundreds of years of history of that community. Opposite the mansions on the other side were warning signs about the Naval Weapons Station and the Naval Consolidated Brig.
"All this high-end intelligence stuff was going on right there in our backyard. Our son, Zeb, also was in the U.S. Army and engaged in the surge in Iraq at the time, and I was very aware of the fragility of our nation's security. I started wondering 'What if?'"
As in what if a sleeper cell infiltrated an elite neighborhood like Yeamans, reimagined in "Dead Low Tide" as Landgrave Hall.
Although the tale pivots on the Dillards' discovery of a corpse anchored deep in the pluff mud, the novel has more in mind than suspense alone. If the spirit of "The Hunt Club" was an exploration of a 15-year-old boy's self-discovery, "Dead Low Tide" ponders what Huger Dillard will do with his life.
"He's trying to figure out his next move," says Lott, a professor of English at the College of Charleston. "It's complicated by the fact they have money now, where in 'The Hunt Club,' he and his father were stone broke. As a 20-something, Huger's enjoying an easy life but realizing he needs to do something useful with it."
While a sequel, the novel is intended to stand on its own, Lott says.
"That's the hope. I don't want people to feel obligated to read the first book in order to read the second, but I hope they will. One of the real challenges of doing this book was walking the line between getting people up to speed on the previous novel without boring readers of the first book with a rehash. By the way, there is no vestige of that first, failed sequel from 1998 in this one."
Put to rest
Lott never thought one of his books would come with a warning label.
"The Hunt Club" was the flashpoint of a minor furor in September when the Charleston County School District was petitioned by a set of Wando High School parents to remove Lott's novel from English students' optional summer reading list. The parents, whose original request was rejected by the Board of Governors in October 2010, filed an appeal, again objecting to what they felt was the book's excessive violence and inappropriate language.
Lott was stunned. "Bad guys do and say bad things," he argued.
A group of Wando High teachers was asked to read the book and determine if it was appropriate for students. It was decided that "The Hunt Club" should remain a choice for students, an opinion buttressed by a district committee -- convened, as it happens, during National Banned Books Week -- that included teachers, media specialists and parents. The committee recommended that the district continue using the book, albeit with a warning note regarding the novel's themes.
These days, a dominant theme of Lott's life is freedom. The freedom to read anything he wants, even the sort of high-grade swashbucklers he might once have avoided.
"I realized I could write about Huger and Unc for many books, because over the last four years, at my youngest son's suggestion, I read all the Patrick O'Brien ('Master and Commander,' et al.) novels. I read all 20 volumes straight through, then started reading them all again. I'm at an age now where I don't have to read everything, and I can reread whatever book I please.
"Following characters who are intriguing to you, watching them live, is enjoyable for me."
Particularly when the characters are your own.
"What I realized is that I have to have that stake in these people in order to write something that will work, and it has to work on my terms, by my measure. My heart has to be in it."