THOUGH BORN in Indiana, Roy Blount Jr. moved to Georgia at a young age and has since become an iconic figure in modern Southern writing.
His 21 books cover the gamut of American life, from his first in 1974 about hanging out with the Pittsburgh Steelers, to his latest, Alphabet Juice, about his love for the English language. NPR listeners know him for his regular stint on the current events/comedy show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.
Blount is the keynote speaker of the Savannah Book Festival this Friday at 5:30 p.m. at Trinity Church. He also speaks Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Telfair Academy. We shared an e-mail exchange last week.
With the steady infiltration of transplants, do you worry that the culture of the South is being watered down, or worse, becoming a parody of itself?
Roy Blount Jr.: I find Southern culture hard to talk about as one big lump. Some things — pimento cheese, for instance — that used to be taken for granted are now written up as cultural treasures. All I know is, when I get down South I can always tell I am not up North, and vice-versa. And I think pimento cheese can hold up to being iconified.
Country music has lost its grit and wit, but you can still tell it from other forms of schlocky pop — and I have to say, Garth Brooks, of whose music I am not a big fan, was great in the pre-Inaugural concert, exuding a hearty downhome friendliness that I’d call Southern.
Is the increase in e-mail, texting, and the internet having a positive effect in terms of getting young people to write again, after generations of the written word taking a back seat? Your thoughts on the future of writing and the English language?
Roy Blount Jr.: I don’t know that I have ever read an e-mail of literary value. E-mail is information, dashed off. What I love most about reading is coming upon something that is so well and so swingingly put that I want to keep reading it over and over.
Almost certainly, somebody had to keep writing that thing over and over, and over. Rewriting is easy online, but Internetspace is not conducive to reflective craftsmanship.
I guess, though, that when people put things down on a screen, letter by letter, they have to be a bit more aware of what they are saying than when they are chatting on the phone or blathering on TV.
The style of up-and-coming writers today tends toward narcissism and hypersensitivity. Is there still room for the Twain/Mencken/Blount Jr. mode of cynical humor, or is that time coming to an end?
Roy Blount Jr.: Looks like the times ahead are going to be hard enough to drive out a lot of narcissism. Maybe we should bottle some of it and stash it away, so future generations will know how to recognize it.
I’m writing a book now about Duck Soup, the 1933 Mark Brothers movie. One of its famous scenes has Harpo pretending to be Groucho’s reflection in a mirror that Harpo has just run into and smashed.
If Depression comes back, maybe narcissism will be replaced by people reflecting other people for a living. “What do I look like?” “You want to know the truth?”
Your first book, About Three Bricks Shy, chronicled your time hanging out with the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers. How does the Pittsburgh team that just won the Super Bowl compare to the Steelers of the ‘70s?
Roy Blount Jr.: I don’t know these Steelers the way I did the Steelers I hung out with in the ‘70s, but as a fan I love Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu, who are the only current Steelers who’d make my all-time Steeler team. The quarterback reminds me a little of Bradshaw — big and eventually reliable but you never know from moment to moment.
The mid-’70s Steelers were built primarily on the ability of the Steel Curtain defensive line to whip everybody in front of them, with Jack Ham and Jack Lambert and Mel Blount and the other ‘backers and defensive backs backing them up. This team’s defense seems to depend more on alignments and coaching, and the dash of Harrison and Polamalu.
I don’t think anywhere near as many Steelers from this team will go to the Hall of Fame. Few of them even go to the Pro Bowl. But they share with the old team a tendency to make everything harder than necessary but then to come through in the end. Seems like Mike Tomlin is great to play for — I think I’d put him on my all-time Steeler team, as head coach.
And you’d have to love Hines Ward even if he hadn’t played for Georgia. The nation now has both a wide receiver and a president who have good, warm, intelligent, confidence-inducing smiles — when was the last time? cs