Stephen Merritt by Roz Chast

Last year when Magnetic Fields guy Stephen Merritt and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast’s book 101 Two-Letter Words (Amazon, iBooks, Powell’s), which aside from being entertaining is also meant to be helpful if you play Scrabble, came out, I had the opportunity to interview Merritt by phone. As it turned out, the poor guy had a horrible sore throat, but he braved through a conversation with me anyhow. And I braved through a conversation with him, hoping that I could turn this into some kind of story. It was rough. For one reason, it was incredibly hard to make out what he was saying sometimes, partly because of his sore throat, but also combined with a sometimes bad cell phone connection on his end, so it has taken me a very long time to transcribe. Another reason is that I’m unsure that typical newspaper readers would find our conversation very compelling, since a lot of it resembled the sort of chat we might have over a beer after we were just introduced by friends. In other words, we talked a lot about particular issues pertaining to Scrabble that I think only fellow Scrabble lovers would even remotely enjoy. At the same time, I’m not a fanatic, so I have a feeling that there are really interesting philosophical and strategical issues that a hardcore player might have brought up, but I am not that. And so here, after much delay, is the actual conversation that took place between us. You are a fly on the wall.

J7: Would you ever do an audiobook version?

SM: No, because it wouldn’t have Roz Chast. Roz Chast is half the fun.

J7: Did you choose her or did your publisher?

SM: I chose her. She sent me a fan letter two or three days before my editor said it was time to choose an illustrator. I said, oh, let’s not choose an illustrator, let’s just go with Roz Chast. She sent me a fan letter, here’s her info. There was no drama at all.

J7: Did you have any input in what she contributed or did she do what she wanted?

SM: I went to her house and we chatted and I met her terrifying parrots. I don’t thinkI gave her any particular advice and I don’t remember her asking me about any particular letter. I handed her the complete manuscript and a little while later she sent back the complete illustrations. My only quibble with them was that she had misspelled artisanal on the box’s face.

J7: So would you want to do another book with her?

SM: Well, sure, she’s the ultimate collaborator, isn’t she? I guess the next step would be to do 1,083 Three Letter Words.

J7: That sounds multi volume.

SM: I think it would be more expensive than this one.

J7: I wish that was an actual plan.

SM: Well, if Norton is willing to pay us 10 times the amount they paid us for the first one, then I see no reason why not. I’m sure Roz doesn’t mind doing 1,083 drawings.

J7: Is it okay with you if you end up, after so many years in music, becoming known as the Scrabble Guy in books? What if that overtakes your reputation in music?

SM: I always wonder what’s going to happen when my hearing deteriorates to the point I can’t actually play music. Poetry seems the logical end point to that. But it doesn’t hold much economic promise. Poetry is not famous for its remunerative properties.

J7: But maybe poetry with Roz Chast involved?

SM: Could be, could be! It seems to have made Steve Martin a wealthy man.

J7: Words are obviously important to you and your songs indicate the care you take with them. Do you think that is part of the appeal of Scrabble for you?

SM: Sure. Generally my game life is limited to crossword games and crossword puzzles. Before I was doing this, for years I used to do the crossword in the New York Times. Not Saturday, but every other day.

J7: When you play Scrabble, do you tend to play for points or do you play for finish the board?

SM: I play for points. I block the triple word blocks if I can’t use it. I’m really strategic.

J7: Will you settle for simple words just to get rid of tiles even if it’s not a lot of points?

SM: If there are two words with the same score and the same strategic value, but one uses more letters, I will typically use the one that uses more letters in order to get rid of the tiles. I don’t know if that is a particularly developed strategy. I just assume it is.

J7: Have you ever played the English version rather than the American?

SM: I have accidentally played with the English word list instead of the American word list. It was pretty infuriating. One of the problems with the online Scrabble is if you accidentally switch to different countries, it’s the wrong list. I randomly switched it over and the only indication is a little Union Jack instead of an American flag, but the Union Jack is a symbol of the English language as well as the English flag, so I didn’t notice. I think I was probably playing for two weeks with the wrong word list until I figured out how to change it. I was playing against one friend.

J7: So you’re not a fan of that.

SM: The online version of Scrabble has so many problems. I can’t really get through a single game at this point. It keeps crashing. And it keeps demanding a password. It’s really annoying. It actually takes 30 seconds if I remember the password. As well, it takes 30 seconds to log on. For no reason.

J7: Do you ever play the actual board game?

SM: I started out with that. I particularly liked the Super Scrabble version.

J7: Do you have a any person who you’ve never played Scrabble with, but would love to?

SM: I have a friend Jason Keller, who is a Scrabble champion. He is the sixth highest scoring Jeopardy contestant ever. I would like to play Scrabble with him, but only if I had some kind of thyroidal enhancement to my brain. If we were in a comic book and what emerged was Lex Luthor or Brainiac sized, I would then be in a position to play Scrabble with him.

J7: So you would like a challenge, but only with a big of modification to help out.

SM: I would like to play Scrabble with him but first I would want to be smarter, or really have the vocabulary down. I have never studied the word lists. I don’t do the work of a real champion player.

J7: Does that mean you consider yourself a bit of a lazy player?

SM: I have my own other time consuming activities. It’s not lazy, it’s I haven’t dedicated my life to this particular activity.

J7: Would you if you weren’t a musician?

SM: No, because I don’t think I’m good at it. I have a terrible memory. Jason Keller has a great memory and I take him to be representative of other people at the tournament level and other people on Jeopardy. I have a notably terrible memory and it would probably not be the right time to start now. I think I probably would have wanted to start in my teens.

J7: Does the book say everything you would like to say about Scrabble? Is it your final word on the subject?

SM: The two letter words are important, but I think the three letter words are essential to being a tournament player, but these are words you have to know even if you’re not a tournament player. I think the other word list people study is the seven letter words, and eight letter words, because you want the word in Scrabble that gives you a 50 point bonus. In Words With Friends it’s only 35 points.

J7: A couple letter-centric lists might be helpful, like Q and X.

SM: You mean do a book of all of the Q words?

J7: It could be a book, I guess. I don’t know how many there are, though.

SM: I need to go look in the dictionary.

J7: Those seem like useful lists to have at your finger tips.

SM: Yeah. And U and Z maybe.

J7: Yeah. Those seem like the letters that if you don’t get rid of them early, you get stuck with them.

SM: I just saw a new word, I can’t swear by the spelling — z-o-i-e-a. It’s a little creature that pokes around. I think it’s basically microscopic. It’s like a tiny shrimp. It may be a stage of an arthropod or something. It’s a little wisp of a thing.

J7: Also, it touches on another issue with Scrabble — having more than one vowel.

SM: The ultimate word would use all your vowels.

J7: What’s your most dreaded thing to have deal with in Scrabble?

SM: I think I’m okay at playing words that have a lot of vowels in them, but it’s those seven consonant that really mess up my game. If I have seven consonants and none of them is an H, M, or S, or something where I can make a word that doesn’t contain any consonants, or they tend to come from different languages, like K and X are not often found together, K and Z.

J7: K and Z, if you have a A and two O’s, would work. Is there any letter that does trip you up that you find is consistently the one left at the end?

SM: The one letter I have at the end working against me is U. I often find it’s hard to put down a U at the end.

J7: Of all the vowels, it seems like U has the least amount of two-letter words.

SM: That sounds right, but I haven’t counted that out.

J7: I’m thinking it has even less than Y for two-letter words.

SM: That may be true. There are very few two-letter words that end in U.

J7: And begin, too. “Um,” I guess. “Us.”

SM: Yes. There’s “Uh.” “Un.” “Up.” “Uf.”

J7: I think you just named all the ones in your book, proof your rhymes do help. That was like a test.

SM: Of course I have them memorized! I’m on a book tour! The important part is that I have them memorized a year from now, if I can still rattle them off. But now that you’ve asked me about the word counts, I’m going to actually look that up and see what the relative frequencies are. I’m curious.

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