The Author’s Test

During my childhood I was not exposed to the delightful children’s books penned by Canadian author Dennis Lee. By the time he turned his attention to writing poems for children instead of adults I was almost finished high school.61E0QMPBXGL__SX366_BO1,204,203,200_

I do appreciate his work though – he has a splendid imagination and never fails to entertain. I find him less preachy than his more celebrated peer, Robert Munsch.

More than for his classic works such as Alligator Pie or Garbage Delight, I like Dennis Lee because he successfully navigated my sound check when I did a radio interview with him a little more than a decade ago.

My sense of humour is an acquired taste. Most people never acquire it, and wouldn’t want to. But I like it just fine thank you.

When I worked for CHRI-FM I did a lot of author interviews, possibly because I was the only one at the radio station who knew how to read. (There’s that sense of humor creeping in again. That really wasn’t funny, was it?) I interviewed novelists and journalists, philosophers and cooks – anyone who was coming through town with a book to flog.

At the start of each interview I needed to establish sound levels on the equipment so that our voices would be properly balanced. I knew what level I needed to have the mic at for my voice, but each guest was different.

Most people are a little microphone shy, and freeze up when one is stuck in their face. To make the guest comfortable the usual routine is to try and engage your him or her in small talk while setting the levels. My approach was different.

“Before we get started,” I’d say,” I need to check your voice level. Since you are a man/woman of letters, why don’t we do it simply? Can you please recite the alphabet…… backwards.”

Inevitably I would get a smile when I asked for the alphabet, followed by a look or horror when the word “backwards” sunk in. Think it’s easy? Okay then, try it, right now. I’ll bet you get confused and missed a letter or two. Unless you take your time and stretch it out, slowly, one painful letter at a time. Invariably every author I interviewed floundered when given this test. Some were too flummoxed to try. (Usually after a minute I did manage to coax the few words necessary to check sound levels out of those ones.) Until Dennis Lee came to town.

He wasn’t the slightest bit confused. He rhymed the 26 letters off in rapid-fire succession. He was almost as fast at it as I am. (My mother taught the backwards alphabet to me when I was very young. I don’t know why. It’s not as if it is a useful skill.)

I interviewed dozens of authors over the years. Dennis Lee was the only one who knew the alphabet backwards. I wonder if his mother taught him?

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