Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Shining Our Book-Signal Up Into the Sky

Nashville Public Television revives A Word on Words with new hosts J.T. Ellison and Mary Laura Philpott

For forty-two years, journalist and civil-rights advocate John Seigenthaler interviewed novelists, journalists, and historians, exploring the craft of writing on Nashville Public Television’s A Word on Words. Seigenthaler passed away in 2014, but to honor his legacy NPT has re-launched the program—with some twists.

“After we aired our last program with Mr. Seigenthaler, people still contacted us about book events,” says NPT producer Linda Wei. “There continued to be a large following for this show, which is why we still air older episodes on our second channel, NPT2. But we knew that wasn’t enough and we didn’t want such a longtime part of NPT’s programming landscape to go away.”

The new iteration is hosted by Nashville authors J.T. Ellison and Mary Laura Philpott, who head to local destinations to interview writers and book-lovers. Both authors are enthusiastic about the project. “You know that feeling, when you find somebody at a party who likes to talk about the same stuff you like to talk about, and suddenly the party is ten times more fun? That’s what this show is,” Philpott says. “It’s a little corner where folks are chatting about books and writing and stories and all the things that readers get jazzed up about.”

At just three minutes each, the interviews will be aired on both NPT and social media. Wei says that the format will allow the episodes to air more frequently, reaching a wider and younger audience. Extended interviews will be available online. According to Ellison, millennials are already engaged with literature and have a lot to bring to the table. “They’re huge readers,” says Ellison. “They’re a natural audience for A Word on Words because of it. And instead of relying on them catching the show on television, we have a great online presence, so everyone, no matter their age, can watch the show at will.”

A Word on Words will seek out established authors and emerging writers, along with other book-world people, and meet in spots around Nashville that have relevance to their guests. Already the program has featured New York Times-bestselling author Patti Callahan Henry at Sawtooth Print Shop, young-adult novelists David Arnold and Adam Silvera at Climb Nashville, and librarian Emily Waltenbaugh at—you guessed it!—the library. Coming up: interviews with other bestselling authors like Geraldine Brooks, William Finnegan, Lauren Groff, Greg Iles, Paul Theroux, and many others. Each episode ends with book recommendations from the guests.

Ellison and Philpott “bring a fun and quirky energy to the show and an interesting point of view as authors themselves,” says Wei. Both ask thoughtful questions that light up the eyes of their guests, and they bring an infectious enthusiasm for reading. “Whether we’re talking about literary fiction or genre fiction or memoir or YA or whatever,” Philpott says, “we’re shining our book-signal up into the sky, so that book-lovers of all ages can join the conversation. Young, old, millennials, everybody—book-love transcends age.”

In his day, John Seigenthaler hosted literary luminaries like Edwidge Danticat, Margaret Atwood, and Walter Mosley, including J.T. Ellison herself. She says, “The most important thing to me is being able to carry on John’s legacy. He cared so much about books and authors and loved showing people why reading was important—as education and as entertainment. He lifted the veil between book, author, and reader. I can only hope to do it a quarter as well as he did.” Seigenthaler always ended his Sunday morning program with the words, “Keep reading.” That advice will be the official tagline and hashtag of A Word on Words.

Although book-reading sometimes seems at odds with the click bait that dominates our web-browsing experience, Philpott sees room for all of it as readers wrestle with the human condition: “Social media can help us talk about literature, which helps us talk about everything: life, death, love, war, family, every topic under the sun. It’s all in books. Inasmuch as A Word on Words stokes bookish conversation in any form or forum, it’s doing something vital. Keep reading, keep watching, keep tweeting—all of it.”