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Roy Blount Jr. looks back at the complicated source of his career as a humorist -- his mother

July 23, 1998

beswtbk picture Roy Blount Jr. describes himself as a "humorist-novelist-journalist- dramatist-lyricist-lecturer- reviewer-performer-versifier- cruciverbalist-sportswriter-anthologist- columnist-screenwriter-philologist of sorts," but even this multifaceted description doesn't convey the variety of Blount's life experience. He has written for more than a hundred different publications; he's in a writers' rock band with, among others, Stephen King and Dave Barry; and he's interviewed such national figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Willie Nelson, Joe DiMaggio, and Eudora Welty. He wishes he could add major-league third baseman to the list, too, but admits that at the age of fifty-six such a dream seems "over hopeful."

Blount is the author of fourteen books, including About Three Bricks Shy of a Load (1974), a report on the time he spent following the Pittsburgh Steelers; First Hubby (1990), a novel; and Roy Blount's Book of Southern Humor (1994), an anthology of the funniest writing (whether intentional or not) to have come from the Confederacy and Kentucky. Now, with Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story, Blount has gone in yet another direction: what he calls "putting everything in." Be Sweet centers on Blount's effort to come to an understanding and acceptance of his late mother, Louise, who was abused by her stepmother after her father died, and who would say to Blount and his sister Susan as they were growing up, "I just want to raise up you children, and then I want to die. And you'll grow up and forget about me." Far from having forgotten about his mother, Blount is still trying to untangle his feelings seventeen years after her death. In the process of examining his roles as son, brother, father, and husband, Blount weaves in spicy limericks, laugh-out-loud anecdotes, and sharp observations on literary and political culture. And as Blount moves (with ease) between the bittersweet and the hilarious, he finds himself able to piece together what drove him to be funny in the first place.
Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Books & Authors:

Sky Writing (June 1998)
All writers have a point of view. For William Langewiesche -- pilot, Atlantic correspondent, and author of Inside the Sky -- it happens to be an aerial one.

The "What If?" Business (June 1998)
For the novelist John Irving, storytelling has been a "necessity" since youth -- and the mother of three decades' worth of unrelenting literary invention.

The Adventures of Jane Smiley (May 1998)
In her latest novel, Jane Smiley lights out for the territories in search of slavery and the American anti-romance.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.
Blount, a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1982, recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

You write that "being sweet, like being funny, is a freedom-of-choice issue to me." Is being funny really something that you're free to choose? In your memoir it sounds as if taking refuge in humor was a necessary response to your upbringing.

blounpic picture
Roy Blount Jr.

There are all sorts of refuges from confusion and unresolvable conflict. Humor is the one I chose. And I choose to think of it not as a refuge but as an escape. An escape toward resolution, ideally, but primarily just getting out of Dodge. Refuges are things you find or look for; escape is something you do. I don't think of humor as a noun so much as a verb. It's not a place to go hide; it's a way to get out of a corner. And when someone tries to back me into the corner of being funny, I choose not to be. Exactly how free these choices are -- that's an issue of the book.

What do you think makes someone funny? Is everyone endowed with a sense of humor?

Anyone who can laugh has some sense of humor. I don't think of it as an exotic gift. That's one reason why it's hard for me to answer questions about being funny -- funny strikes me as a natural thing to be. I don't work at being funny; I work at writing as clearly, fluidly, and interestingly as I can, which is a struggle. In baseball you have scientific hitters who try to out-think the pitcher, and then you have hitters who just see the ball and hit it. Some equivalent to that -- seeing the ball and hitting it -- is my approach to being funny. But that doesn't mean I'm just up there hacking. One reason I am a writer instead of a baseball player (which is what I wanted to be as a boy) is that as a writer you can foul a pitch off and then go back and change your swing, over and over, until it hits the same pitch squarely. You can even change the pitch to some extent. You've got to have an instinctive sense of what it feels like to make good contact -- you have to have a lust for that, in fact -- but you also have to get your mechanics down, which is to say you have to write a good sentence, pick the right words.

"Oh, I know, I know, I've been a parent myself. 'Be sweet' just means 'Please let me forget for a moment or two that I am a parent so I can be a human being.' But children don't know that!"
--Roy Blount Jr. Read an excerpt from Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story

Atlantic Monthly articles by Roy Blount Jr.:

Lustily Vigilant (December 1994)
Nobody else has written about movies with such dash as Pauline Kael, and nobody else has seen movies with such a depth of perspective.

Diamond Nuggets (August 1997)
All the weekly baseball notes you'll ever really need.

That Was Me on TV (June 1998)
Life in the last, or next-to-last, slot.

Then, too, in my case, choosing the right words involves comedy. Words are fundamentally amusing, and American English is so higgledy-piggledy, involving all sorts of influences from Anglo-Saxon to Latin to Shoshone to Yiddish, that an American English sentence is like a George Price cartoon. Every word is an eccentric character -- if you have any sense of history and harmonics, you'll see that every word has had a wild and crazy life, and is bursting with unruly promise. The sounds, derivations, syllabics, and rhythms of words are ... a mess. The only way I can get strings of words to work and move and fit and flow to their potential is by latching onto some sort of comic strain that they can dance to. I like to think of humor not as a way of dismissing things, but as a way of appreciating things. How that squares with all that talk of escape ... well, it's a way of escaping into appreciation.

How different is the process of writing a book from coming up with a show for a live audience?

I could probably deal with that question better in print than I can orally. That's one of the differences -- you can pin down fine distinctions better in print, because you can write things that the reader can go back and look at again, several times, not because it's confusing but because it's rich. When you're speaking, you can't stop to think for long, because then people would get up and walk away. When you're writing you can stop and think for half an hour, then write the second half of the sentence. And then change the first half. Ideally, you come out with something that sounds like you just thought of it and said it, but in fact it has more layers to it. I like the idea of writing something that at first glance seems like a simple straightforward statement but somehow invites you to go back and go through it again.

How much do you go back and edit yourself as you're writing?

I'm always editing. Even as I'm talking here I'm regretting every word I'm saying and wishing I could go back and change it and trying to remember what I said so I can double back around. Part of listening to what you're saying is hearing when you're off-key or when you're not saying exactly what you mean. I'm always rewriting as I write. My editing faculty works faster than my fingers, which is not to say it gets the job done before my fingers get it down on the page, but I tend to be adjusting what I'm thinking as I'm thinking it. You have to keep polishing and keep shifting words around to get the rhythm right, and keep writing it over and over until it finally surprises you.

You are on the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. What does this involve?

People may have the fond notion that we panelists get together once a year at a banquet to wave joints of mutton and belch and argue about words and stay up far into the night sloshing glasses of Keatsian wine and singing rowdy songs about words. Unfortunately, I just get questionnaires in the mail. Not only do I never see the other people on the panel, I never see the people who send the questionnaires. I check off whether a given usage is acceptable (waitressing: uninvidious, transitioning: barbarous), I add marginal comments, and I mail the questionnaires back. I've always wanted to be involved in some kind of all-star team where everybody gets together from all directions wearing their home-team uniforms -- Indians whipping the ball around the infield with Yankees and Bluejays -- but the usage panel is not like that. Being on it is still pretty cool.

Could you talk a bit about why your mother's command to "be sweet" is so nettlesome to you?

My mother tended to tell me to be sweet at those moments when I felt least like being sweet. And I don't see how anybody can be sweet on purpose. Maybe I just never had the knack. I can be candid or attentive, but how does anybody ever know when he's being sweet? Furthermore sweet is a pejorative term among boys, so when mothers tell boys to be sweet it's an imposition. And the same mother who would adjure my sister and me to be sweet would also tell us that we were turning her life into "a double-jointed hell." It's hard to see yourself as both a person capable of rendering your mother's life double-jointedly hellish and a person who is capable of sweetness. I didn't have enough joints.

It may seem that I took my mother's figures of speech too literally, but they sounded pretty literal coming from her. I've always focused on words to see what people really mean by them. Taking things literally not in a limiting way, I hope, but out of a need for clarification. If we want to trace everything back to my mother (I can think of other places to look), I think I was justifiably confused by her mixed messages. Also, she had taught me to read early and to savor words. It's hard to savor contradictions. Not impossible, but tricky. Also, growing up in the South during times of change, when the region was being frowned upon nationally, would give a growing person a tendency to question exactly what people meant by what they said. There's a great southern tradition of glorying in language but that tradition often has more glorification in it than precision -- glorification as a means of avoiding close reflection. There's real verbal glory in that heritage, but a certain astringency is called for.

It sounds like you couldn't question your mother to her face very often.

She didn't brook argument. It wasn't a matter of give and take with her. I've been a parent myself, sorely tried and short of patience. I know how parents feel when their children are being "impossible." But that's a parental term, not a child's term. A child is trying to be possible. Often when a child is trying to be as possible as possible (as possible as the child can get away with) the child's behavior strikes the parent as impossible -- impossible to bring into line. My mother was an abused, under-loved orphan who became a harried mother and housewife. She resented us when we didn't appreciate how much better our childhood was than hers -- she didn't know how to look at things from a loved child's point of view. Even a loved child's lot is tough, sometimes. Hard as it is to be a good parent, it's even harder to be a sweet child. (How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is, to have a parent who demands that you be a thankful child.) My mother expected everyone to share her sense of reality. I've been guilty of that -- in fact, that expectation may be one thing that makes someone a writer. But writing makes you realize that you have to get a little bit outside of your sense of reality in order to construct something that will be recognizable as reality by someone else. My subtitle was "A Conditional Love Story," because it seems to me that love resides in how two people deal with conditions. You can feel unconditional love, but conditions can keep you from expressing it, or from expressing it in a way that seems loving to the person you love.

"What was the tone in which [my mother] told me how close I came to killing her? Seems like it was almost wistful, somehow. Almost flirty, too. When I was a little bitty kid, I called her Sugar, because my father did. I don't remember doing that, I just remember her bemoaning, for many years, the fact that I had ceased to."
--Roy Blount Jr. Read an excerpt from Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story

You write, "I think it more likely that a person's destiny derives from a Great Moment, good or bad, which may come early in life, leaving the person frustrated by anticlimax in his or her prime." Is there a particular great moment that you've pinpointed for yourself, or is it too early to tell?

I started off with the semi-fanciful notion that the Great Moment in my life was when I was born -- nearly killing my mother, according to her, in the process. A Moment that I was presumably not even aware of at the time. In fact I think the logic of my book suggests that the Great Moment of my life was the moment when my mother's father died, shamefully, and left her alone and mystified and stigmatized for nothing that she did herself. There's never been anything in my life that dramatic, thank God. Toward the end of the book I tried to put myself in my mother's place at that moment, and the closest I could come to it was seeing the real anguish on my little grandson's face when he heard that his beloved uncle had gone away for a while. I tried to extrapolate from that how distressed my mother must have been when everyone who really cherished her (her mother had died years before her father) was gone forever. Nobody could ever cherish her enough after that. I couldn't. I tried in Be Sweet to cope with that moment for her, belatedly. And for myself, also belatedly.

Incidentally, I think I got the phrase Great Moment from Preston Sturges's movie, The Great Moment, a remarkable mixture of comedy and painful drama. It's not his best movie but I find the ending of it very moving. Its original title was Triumph Over Pain.

There are many things about the way your mother raised you that bother you, in retrospect -- that she didn't discuss her troubled childhood, that she made you feel guilty for things you couldn't control, and that she wouldn't fully accept your love for her. Did you make a conscious decision to raise your own children differently from the way you were raised?

The tone I've taken toward my children has often been a sort of tongue-in-cheek version of my mother's tone -- saying pitiful, tragic things in a jocular way. That doesn't fit every occasion, but it pulls the generations together in a sense, and I believe I can state with some confidence that my kids don't refrain from doing things, or from telling me about things that they have done, for fear that they will kill me. My parents had strict notions of propriety; I don't. Neither do my kids. I have a great dread that the sort of gulf that yawned between me and my parents will open up between me and my kids, but why dwell on the dread? We share enjoyment.

I've tried to hold onto the energy of how intensely my mother cared about her children, but to channel it so that it's less cryptic and less powerful. I don't want to be powerful in the way she was. I want to know my kids (who are both adults now), and for them to know me. In my mother's and my generations, gears jammed and ground and finally shifted from the abuse she suffered to the sweetness my children express with some ease. That sweetness derives, I feel, from the scared little girl -- herself -- that my mother had such a conflicted soft spot for.

Relations and differences between males and females seem to be a favorite theme of many humorists, and in Be Sweet you refer often to your understanding of women -- or lack thereof. Could you talk a bit about how you've chosen to write about men and women?

Any two people speak two different languages. Gender is a complicating factor -- but being aware of that complication may be clarifying. I mention in Be Sweet that men and women seem to have different notions of the word heart, aside from the anatomical meaning. Women tend to think of heart in terms of emotion and sentiment, and men -- at least among ourselves -- tend to think of heart in terms of staunchness, toughness: when a boxer has heart, it means he'll take a beating and keep on fighting back. Those two notions of heart are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they are different, and they lead to inter-genderal disagreements and misunderstandings. The meat and potatoes of humor.

Over the years comedians have taken male and female differences for granted, and joked about them. I've always wanted to come up with jokes that somehow mediate between the differences. Jokes that both men and women can learn something new from. That's a confusing proposition, but I resist the notion that there are genuinely funny things for men to laugh at and not for women, and vice-versa. I like the idea of everyone speaking up in mixed company, which means taking the risk of saying things that make people defensive, that hurt people's feelings. I have to believe that humor, even if it's rude, if it's good and rude -- especially if it's good and rude -- helps people's feelings. I realize you can't talk about everything with everybody, but I wish you could. I want to push the envelope of what's discussable, what's laughable, in mixed company. (I might say that the Clinton Administration has pushed that envelope, willy-nilly.) You can't push the envelope bullyingly, because it will pop, or harden. Push it sensitively. It is very boring to hear people brag about how "politically incorrect" they are being, when they are just being trashy, but a humorist does need to have one of the instincts that a cat has: to climb into the lap of the one person in the room who doesn't like cats. To jump on the one thing that nobody wants to talk about.

Humor these days seems to be mainly disseminated to the public through television -- on talk shows (as you describe in your recent piece for The Atlantic) and sitcoms -- or through stand-up comedy. Is humor writing in magazines or books in any danger of being pushed aside by these other forms?

Writing in general is in danger of being pushed aside by television. Sometimes when I am on a book tour I begin to wonder whether the point of what I'm doing is the book, or the talk shows. People are more impressed when I tell them I have been on a cheesy talk show than when I tell them I have written a book. That seems a shame. Talk shows are fun, sometimes revealing, but they seldom entail judicious -- in the richest sense of judicious -- choices of words. I'm not writing books in order to get on television, I'm going on television so that people will read the books. Television has become the primary cultural medium, and let's face it, television generally makes only a very slapdash sort of sense. I don't know what to do about it, except to go on writing.

"Well, when you're a literary lion you hate to be shushed, somehow, but it was all in a good cause, so we muttered and got back in line and behaved. "
--Roy Blount Jr. Read an excerpt from Be Sweet: A Conditional Love Story

Which humorists or writers do you look up to? Is there a canon of humor writing?

I look up to so many humorists and writers that it would be like telling you what my favorite words are. But let's just mention one who doesn't get enough attention, partly because he won't go on talk shows: Charles Portis, the author of my favorite novel, Norwood. He could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he'd rather be funny. The characters in Portis's novels are all extremely serious. I can't think of a single one who has a sense of humor, but they're all hilarious. Portis has a wonderfully straight face. That's something all humorists admire -- a writer who can be funny without seeming to try.

In the introduction to your Book of Southern Humor you write, "nothing is less humorous or less southern than making a genuine, good-faith effort to define and explain humor, particularly southern humor." Nonetheless, would you mind describing what you were looking for when you started putting together your anthology?

I was trying to broaden people's notion of southern humor. People tend to think of southern humor as Hee Haw, but in fact it is highly diverse, often highly literary -- and more adventurous than the New Yorker humor tradition. In the past, to answer part of your last question, the American humor canon has been associated with The New Yorker: E. B. White, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman. Those writers all inspired me, and I wrote for The New Yorker some myself, but I felt confined by it -- I wanted to reach back to my roots and stretch out more. Southern humor is oral and raucous. That won't surprise anybody, I guess, but I don't mean oral and raucous like talk shows. I mean oral and raucous like, say, Chaucer and Shakespeare. I'm talking high culture. The southern person who might be called the greatest American musician, Louis Armstrong, wrote lasting humorous prose. The southern person who might be called the greatest American playwright, Tennessee Williams, wrote lasting humorous prose. The southern person who might be called the greatest American novelist, William Faulkner, wrote lasting humorous prose. The southern person who might be called the greatest American short story writer, Flannery O'Connor, wrote lasting humorous prose. The quintessential American novel, Huckleberry Finn, is humorous prose in the southern tradition. Rock-and-roll, the blues, country music, jazz singing -- all are rich in humorous southern language.

Set aside the fact that humorous southern language excoriates what is stupid about southern culture more effectively than any aspersions cast from the North -- not that I discount those aspersions when they are well put. Set that, as I say, aside. I am not talking about humorous southern language as a corrective to the South. What I am saying, which should almost go without saying, is that humorous southern language is more central to American culture than, say, analytical northern language. My Book of Southern Humor is a monument to American culture, not just to some little corner of hicky yuks.

Hicky yuks? Is that what I mean?


Well, there is a lot of redneckery in southern humor, but also a a lot of blackneckery. People tend to think of southern humor as white people with missing teeth chewing on a straw, and one strap of their overalls broken, and that is true in part, but southern humor is also people of both colors chewing on important matters (slavery, for instance -- a topic not touched upon, I believe, in New Yorker humor) and wearing all sorts of clothes. Without the writers in my collection, American culture might as well be Swiss. I love variety that's held together by some common thread. E pluribus unum. Southern humor is a great example of that.

Garrison Keillor pointed out recently, as he was introducing you on "A Prairie Home Companion," "People are going to read [Be Sweet] and think they know you." How much of Roy Blount Jr. will they really get to know? How difficult did you find it to reveal so much about yourself and your relationships with your family?

I would say they'll get to know ... 54 percent. It was difficult to write about all that stuff, and it's difficult to talk about how difficult it was. It's done now, and there is some relief in having gotten it done. But when I read reviews that commend the book but say my mother was crazy, or a bad mother -- that doesn't make me feel justified, it makes me feel bad that people are making flat statements about my mother as a result of my book. My mother, who taught me to read in such a way as to make me a writer. But there you go. Other people reap what we sow. All my life, until now, I have held back from writing whole-heartedly about my mother. What one would want to do is write a book about how great one's mother was. In a way I think that's what I did, but I certainly didn't portray her as great in the way she would have liked to be portrayed. (Because she was so full of mushy southern Christian compensatorily glorificational salve for her pain! I'm a writer. My being a writer because of her doesn't change the fact that I'm bound to cut through all that crap!) I tried in this book to reach a deeper sympathy with my mother -- to let off long-pent-up steam but also to get that steam out of the way so I could get to know my mother better, feel closer to her. I hope that's there in the book. I hope it's there for other mothers and other sons. But, by jiminy, I know -- if I know anything -- that it is there in some sense, to some extent, for her and me.

Discuss this interview in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

More Books & Authors interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Blount photograph © Valerie Shaff.