General 6-30-2005

Excerpt from “Not Just a Good Ol’ Boy: A Conversation With Roy Blount, Jr.”

Roy Blount, Jr. is a hard man to pin down:

Soul Food Diner

he’s a writer, a journalist, a sometimes musician with the all-writer band the Rock Bottom Remainders; he’s a cruciverbalist, a biographer, a TV and radio personality and, for most of his life, a Southerner living in the Northeast. He puts on a very funny one-man show and tells a mean tall tale. And his publicity photos don’t do him justice—in person, you first notice his shock of white hair and ready smile. (He looks uncannily like Phil Donahue—just as distinguished but more comfortably rumpled.) Talking with him feels as easy as shooting the breeze with a neighbor over the fence in July.

Susannah McNeely: Would you tell me a little bit about your new book?

Roy Blount, Jr.: Sure. It’s called Feet on the Street: Rambles Around New Orleans and is part of a series of books put out by Crown called Crown Journeys, with writers reflecting on trips to various places: Michael Cunningham did Provincetown, Edwidge Danticat did someplace in Haiti, and I’ve covered New Orleans.

SM: Did you choose New Orleans or did they specifically ask you to write on that?

RB: I chose it. I ran into the Crown guy down in New Orleans, at a writer’s festival, and he told me about this series; I immediately jumped in and told him, “I’ve got dibs on New Orleans.” I’ve always loved New Orleans as a place to visit. I don’t think I could live there—it stays open too late for me. But I’ve always loved it, made a lot of trips there over the years. It’s a liberating place to go: a lot stranger than where I grew up, but it’s still Southern, and holds deep associations for me. So I relished the notion of being able to go down there and have some gumbo, and write it off.

SM: [laughs] You can’t beat that. When you say New Orleans is a place you love to visit, but where you’d not want to live … do you feel that way more generally about the South?

RB: Well, you know, I write a column for the Oxford American called “Gone Off Up North,” because I went off up North in 1968 and have been here ever since. But I go down South often, and I hail very strongly from the South. But yeah, when I go back, it tends to close in on me after a while. It’s gone to the Right quite a bit, and the churches have kind of taken over. But at the same time, I get defensive about the South up here with people making blanket assumptions. For instance, a woman at Rutgers called me and left a phone message a while back, and said that she was getting a presentation together for her American Studies class about “Good Old Boys” and would I come and be there for it? I don’t know if she really wanted me to say anything or not … maybe she wanted me to show ‘em my teeth or something.

SM: [laughing] She wanted you to be their guest redneck?

RB: Yeah, I guess and I didn’t care for it. I think it’s interesting to find that people can be prejudiced against me, as well. Certainly a big part of who I am is being strongly “from the South.”

SM: I grew up in Texas, and when I get homesick, I miss the food—chicken fried steak and cream gravy, fried okra, black-eyed peas. Do you find that there are things you particularly miss?

RB: Oh yeah. I mean, people are always asking me why I left the South. I used to tell them it was because when I lived in the South, I was always looking around for a place to buy the New York Times; and in the North, I’m always looking around for a place to get fried okra, but I’d rather be thinking about okra than thinking about the New York Times. But now you can get the New York Times in the South and you can get good fried okra in the North, so it kind of blows that whole thing. In New York, now, you can get good Southern food. I can remember the first time I came up to New York during one of my college summers, and I ordered a plate of fried chicken and they brought me a plate of this awful, greasy mess. They did not know how to fry chicken. But now, they do. It seems fried chicken has come north. And Krispy Kreme has too. I went to the one here in New York, I guess on Lexington, and they had that “Hot Donuts Now” sign on. So, of course, I went in, and come to find out, those donuts weren’t any hotter than I am.

SM: Oh, the betrayal!

RB: I know it! I said, “Listen here, you can’t put that sign on. These donuts aren’t hot.” And the guy behind the counter said, “I know, I know. The manager told us to leave the sign on all the time.” Just about broke my heart. Why there are some things, surely, you just can’t do.

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