Traverse City Events: Roy Blount Jr. comes to the City Opera House in Traverse City, May 11, for the Traverse City National Writers series.
Roy Blount Jr. is the author of twenty-one books, covering subjects from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to the Marx brothers. He is a regular panelist on National Public Radio’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” and a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly. Publishers Weekly calls his new book, Alphabetter Juice, a “hilarious collection of riffs and raves” that “adds up to a cantankerous ode to the English language in all its shambling grace.”
MyNorth spoke to the author in a recent phone interview about his passion for language and its roots, the importance of public radio in America and what he thinks about being labeled by critics as a “curmudgeon.”
MyNorth: Your new book, Alphabetter Juice, is a sequel to your 2009 book Alphabet Juice. Of the numerous titles you’ve written to date, why did you decide to write a sequel to that particular book?
Roy Blount Jr.: I love writing these books. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been curious about words, and have taken notes about why I like certain ones and the ways people use them, either badly or well. I always wanted to write a book about words. Then I finally wrote Alphabet Juice, which I loved doing, and it was well-received. They asked me to do another one, and I thought, ‘As long as they keep allowing me to write these, I’ll keep doing them.’ It comes very naturally to me.
MyNorth: The book is very witty and anecdotal, and yet you seem to have a firm and passionate belief that there is concrete value in understanding language and its roots. How does an appreciation of the history of words contribute to our lives?
Roy Blount Jr: Words to me—they’re not people, or animals exactly, but they are living things. They have a long history, and the more you know about them, the better you’ll use them. As a writer, I want to use words as well as I can. I took umbrage to a sentence I read in a textbook once for an Introduction to Linguistics class, which announced that the connection between the sounds of words and their intrinsic meaning is arbitrary. I thought that was ridiculous.
There are thousands of words that have what I call “sonicky” value—that is, a connection between the sound and the meaning of a word. Take “squelch,” for example. Some people say that word is onomatopoeic, but I don’t think “squelch” captures the actual sound of squelching. What it does capture, however, is the experience of squelching. That’s just one example. I’ve always enjoyed words as physical things, not just abstract concepts.
MyNorth: There are some who bemoan where this generation is at in terms of its literacy and vocabulary, particularly because of the influence of technology, while others argue we’re more educated and informed than ever before. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Roy Blount Jr.: I hate to generalize anything too broadly. But I will say this: I’ve yet to read an entertaining text. (laughs) The English tongue is going to the phones, so to speak. People are rattling off these little blips of unnecessary communication, instead of stopping and thinking about what they want to say. Sometimes they do it so fast, they don’t even read what they’ve written! On Urban Dictionary, which is a website I find fascinating, people will often misspell the very word they’re defining.
Once on Amazon, someone wrote a customer review of Alphabet Juice in which they said: “I will not use most of the words discussed in this book in day-to-day professional writing.” And they had misspelled both “professional” and “writing.” I don’t know; maybe we’re just seeing bad writing now more than ever, because it’s so easy to get published.
MyNorth: In reviews of your books and in profiles about you, words like “curmudgeon” and “cantankerous” keep cropping up. Being a lover of language, how do you feel about those labels being used to describe you?
Roy Blount Jr.: Both of those are good words. (laughs) They have nice sonicky value. I don’t think of myself as unduly cranky, but I enjoy being cranky sometimes. There’s a sort of a pleasure in complaining about things with feeling. My children will complain that when they send me things they’ve written, instead of saying, “This is very good, and here’s what’s wrong with it,” I’ll just say, “Here’s what’s wrong with it.” But then again, I always read my own first drafts with horror. I’ll think, ‘Oh God, just shoot me now.’ I’m most cantankerous with my own work, so I can afford to be a little cranky toward other people’s work.
MyNorth: Do you have any favorite titles you’d recommend to other book lovers?
Roy Blount Jr: I have a special soft spot in my heart for Charles Portis. True Grit, of which there was just a film adaptation, is great, and Norwood and The Dog of the South. I always recommend those books to people.
MyNorth: Being a Southern writer yourself, do you have an affinity for other Southern writers?
Roy Blount Jr.: I do. We tend to enjoy the sound of language and rolling words around in our mouths and capturing voices on the page. We’ve grown up among people who like to chew the fat and sit around and talk. I always thought language was comical. If you think about how we produce words, we flop our lips around and roll our tongues and spit out sounds in very comical ways. We try to produce all manner of lofty thoughts with these odd noises, and then try to reproduce those noises on the page with little squiggles of ink. Working with words is kind of like rolling around with puppies or kids on the floor. Which is a very Southern way of looking at things.
MyNorth: Government funding for public radio has come under fire this year. As both a participant on NPR, and as a self-proclaimed avid listener, how important do you think public radio is to our cultural fabric in this country?
Roy Blount Jr: I think public radio these days is awfully good. It’s intelligent. It’s almost like one long extended conversation. Garrison Keillor always begins his “Writer’s Almanac” with the word “And.” “And here’s the Writer’s Almanac for July 10.” Starting that way gives the impression he’s in the middle of conversation, which is all public radio is. That’s what’s so wonderful about it—every segment folds naturally into the next, and it becomes this ongoing national dialogue.
MyNorth: After the book tour for Alphabetter Juice, what’s next for you?
Roy Blount Jr: I’m working on a novel, actually. I’d like to do another book before I do Alphabest, or whatever a third book might be called. Because where do I go from there? I have to give myself something to build up to. (laughs)
An Evening with Roy Blount Jr., a Traverse City National Writers Series event, will take place on Wednesday, May 11 at the City Opera House in Traverse City. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the event begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and are available at the City Opera House or online at cityoperahouse.org. The evening will include an audience Q&A and post-event reception and book signing. For more information, visit nationalwritersseries.org.