The great eater, writer, and humorist Calvin Trillin remembers when journalism wasn’t so respectable.
Photograph courtesy of Richard Stamelman
In 2013, Calvin Trillin will celebrate half a century at The New Yorker. For years, he filed a piece every three weeks, a remarkable feat if you consider how much reporting went into each of those works. His humor columns and poems ran for three decades in The Nation. Oh, right, and he has published nearly thirty books, the most recent of which is Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny (Random House, 2011), and has another in the works.
The scope and volume of Trillin’s work is dizzying, yet Trillin has always made it look effortless, delighting readers with his sense of humor, reporting, cultural insights, and musings about himself and his family.
In early January of this year, I interviewed Trillin at his Greenwich Village home. A sort of retrospective, our conversation ran the gamut from “backing into journalism” to why, despite all sorts of evidence, he doesn’t consider himself a food writer.
Over an hour and a half of conversation, what shone through most clearly was how in love with his work Trillin is, and has always been. At seventy-six, Trillin has a whirring mind that won’t quit. And yet, somehow, it’s evident that his life revolved around family. “I realized I didn’t need to have a piece in every magazine at the barbershop,” he told me. And he once wrote that his and Alice’s philosophy on parenting could be reduced to this: “Your children are either the center of your life, or they’re not, and the rest is commentary.” When I wrapped up our conversation by asking him about retirement, he balked, responding that he wouldn’t know what to do with himself if he wasn’t writing. “I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop,” he said. “I don’t have any hobbies, for one thing… I just write.”
—Sara B. Franklin for Guernica
Guernica: So, you’ve been writing a long, long time now and you’ve lived a good number of years as well. When did this idea of writing first start to nag away at you? Did you read a lot as a kid?
Calvin Trillin: I don’t think I read a lot. When I read interviews with people about how they lived in the library, I wasn’t that way at all. My father was a reader, but he read sort of indiscriminately. He read good books and bad books. I was the first person in my family to graduate college, so I didn’t have one of those childhoods where I was given these great children’s books. I had an uncle who was a librarian who was a children’s literature specialist, but he lived in Salina, which was a couple hundred miles away.
Guernica: When did you begin writing?
Calvin Trillin: I think I wrote some in high school. And then in college, I took a course that has been taught for eight hundred years or something at Yale called “Daily Themes” where you have to write a little vignette every day. I was on the newspaper in college. I think I went to the newspaper—I was just talking about this because of a classmate of mine—we had gone to the humor magazine, and my recollection is we found it what we would have called “a little too shoe”—shoe was a word that was derived from “white shoe,” back when there was white shoe, brown shoe, and black shoe, and it meant sort of preppy and boarding school. And so we went over to the newspaper, I remember just wandering in, and then if you look back that’s how I got into journalism.
Guernica: Did you write any articles at Yale that stand out for you as formative pieces in terms of reporting or journalism in general?
Calvin Trillin: No. I remember in London, after I had graduated, a guy who I had a drink with who had been on The News. He asked me if I thought being chairman of The News—we were too pretentious to call it editor in chief, so we called it the chairman—was good experience. And I said, “Well, I can’t think of anything that I did or wrote that I wouldn’t have done differently now, and it’s only been about six months or a year.” So, in that way, I guess I can say it’s been a good experience.
I wrote a profile of Johnny Apple of the New York Times for The New Yorker four or five years ago, he was the chairman of The Princetonian the same year I was the chairman of The News, that’s when we met. And I mentioned that he wanted to write for the New York Times from the time he was in high school—he couldn’t find sports information in the Akron Beacon that was up to his level of interest. But I’d say most people of our era kind of wandered into journalism, because we couldn’t make up our minds, and we knew we weren’t good with numbers or weren’t interested in business or going to law school, or we happened to be working at a paper at the time when we realized we couldn’t make a decision.
Or there’d be people whose novels didn’t seem to get finished and who went into journalism. But I don’t think there were many people who woke up when they were little boys and said, “I want to be a journalist.” I don’t think that happened until after Watergate. You have to remember that journalism in my era was still faintly déclassé. Except for William F. Buckley Jr., who was sort of a special case, I think I was the first chairman of The News to go into journalism.
Calvin Trillin: Yeah. Even until I began, the aura of the kind of guy in a greasy suit with a bottle of bourbon in the bottom right hand drawer, that hadn’t faded much. I don’t think journalism was considered a totally respectable thing to do. Maybe it’s exaggerated to say that, but I think most of the people my age who got into it sort of backed into it.
Guernica: Your first full-time gig was at Time, right?
Calvin Trillin: Yeah, I had a kind of temporary job through a complicated and very boring series of accidents while I was waiting to go into the army, and then I was in the army for a while, on Governor’s Island. And then when I got out of the army I went to the Time bureau in Atlanta. I was the junior guy in their two-man bureau. I happened to be there in a very busy year—the integration of the University of Georgia and Atlanta public schools and New Orleans public schools, the Freedom Rides —a lot of things happened —sit-in movements in Nashville and Atlanta. I have always wondered whether I would have stayed doing this if I had been there for one of those plateau years when nothing happened, but I found it very exciting. I reported about almost nothing but race for a year, and I got so that I thought I knew something about it. And I could pull out examples from other stories. It takes a kind of a leap of confidence to write anything down. You have to assume that somebody wants to read it.
Guernica: But you were still prolific.
Calvin Trillin: It’s still a lot of books. Well, for fifteen years I did a piece every three weeks around the country for The New Yorker, and I loved doing that. Magazine writers always said, “My god, how do you keep up the pace?” And newspaper writers always said, “What else do you do?” I liked it because it was a whole new thing every three weeks. The only part I didn’t like —there wasn’t any easy way for me to find the stories. And it was of course before the Internet, and even before something like USA Today having little snippets of what was going on in each state. I used to go to the out-of-town newsstand on 42nd Street and buy a bunch of papers. They were mostly useless, AP stories from Washington.
Guernica: How do you find your stories now?
Calvin Trillin: The Internet helps. What’s in the papers, sometimes people write me or tell me about stories.
Guernica: What’s your signal that a story’s got legs?
Calvin Trillin: Well, I think it depends on the kind of story. Some situations are kind of funny and some stories obviously have a kind of narrative movement, a little engine, what Hitchcock called “the MacGuffin” to move them along. And then often, I look for something that reflects the place. I did a story a year or two ago on a shooting in Dodge City, Kansas. And part of the interest for me was the guy who shot the other guy was a Mexican immigrant, the other guy was just this bully.
Dodge City, Kansas, which people mainly connect with Westerns, is now about 50 percent Latino. It’s a different place. How the Latino community has sort of rubbed up against the other community was interesting beyond the shooting. Sometimes it’s just a situation that I think is funny or interesting. I did a piece last year on buying gold for cash in Toronto. In that case a friend in Toronto told me about it. The characters just seemed interesting.
Guernica: How much have reviews shaped your work?
Calvin Trillin: I don’t think they’ve shaped it at all. I’ve always been astounded at people who say they don’t read their reviews. I’m sure there are people like that or they’re liars, one or the other. But I read reviews of my books. I’m not sure it’s ever influenced me. I occasionally sympathize with the review.
Guernica: For example?
Calvin Trillin: I did a novel called Tepper Isn’t Going Out. Not to boast, but it was the first parking novel ever written. And some reviewer said, “This little framework doesn’t support the story.” And I thought, yeah, that’s not unreasonable. I guess I have had some reviews where the guy says, “This is just worthless crap and the author is worthless crap.”
Guernica: Any particularly obnoxious language that stands out in your memory?
Calvin Trillin: Oh yeah, I have a couple on my bulletin board. One of them is from the Kansas City Star, my hometown paper. I thought it was very funny until I thought, “Oh my god, my mother’s going to see this!” I think it’s “Labor Jokes Drain Satire of its Bite.” And one of them was something like —whatever food book it was, think it was Alice Let’s Eat —“Alice Let’s Eat requires gourmet knowledge to read.” The worst is, even in good reviews where they show a line that’s supposed to show how funny the book is and it’s not funny at all. You know, they leave the lead-up out or the punch line is off or something like that. That bothers me much more than “This book isn’t funny.” Certainly, with humor, you can’t argue if someone doesn’t think it’s funny.
Guernica: Were you always funny? Did you always have a sense that there was something to be capitalized upon there?
Calvin Trillin: The first time I realized it was something to be capitalized on… It’s odd that I know the answer to this question. It was in Sunday school, and we were studying the psalms. And I was a pretty shy little boy. I was ten or eleven and we were studying the line, “If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” And suddenly I found myself standing up, saying, “If I forget thee, Oh Jeruthalem, may my, wight hand lothe its cunning and my tong cleath to the rooth of my mouf.” And everybody broke up, except for the teacher, who ordered me out, probably accusing me of self-hatred on the way out.
Guernica: Do you think your sense of humor translates accurately onto the page?
Calvin Trillin: I had trouble figuring out how to get the lines in, how to do the structure of the story. There’s always a question of how to get this stuff on paper. And there are a lot of funny people—we all know funny people who can’t get it down on paper. But, yeah, I think the way I talk and the way I write are quite close.
I don’t think any serious food writer would claim to model themselves on someone who knows as little as me.
Guernica: You’ve been writing quite a lot of —I’m going to use the word “memoir” for the moment —in the last couple of decades. In your most recent book, Quite Enough, you said, “Memoir in America is an atrocity arms race.” Tell me about that.
Calvin Trillin: Most memoirs now have to reveal some hideous secret in their childhood. I think I say in that piece, “incest or bestiality or incestuous bestiality” or something awful, and I had the disadvantage of having a happy childhood.
When Denny Hanson died, it just seemed obvious that I should write about that because it was sort of a prototypical story of my era. And then I talked about my father because, in Yale terms, Denny and I came from similar backgrounds—grandparents who had immigrated, public high school out in the country somewhere.
The book about my wife really came about because David Remnick said, “Did you ever think about writing about Alice?” I hadn’t, but there’s a sort of an easy—I mean, writers write. It sounds obvious, but that’s what you do. That’s how you deal with things. So I guess I would have eventually, but I didn’t have any specific plans to. But the fact that he was open to that made me think, maybe I’ll try it. So memoir came almost by accident. But a lot of things I’ve written have come by accident—I’ve never had a plan, it just comes along.
Guernica: And have you enjoyed it as a form?
Calvin Trillin: Memoir? I’m not sure enjoy is the right word. I didn’t have as much trouble with the structure as I thought I would. I can’t explain exactly why some pieces are difficult to write in the structure. You can always write each sentence as well as you can write it. It sounds like a truism, but if you work on it enough, you can write it as well as you can write it. You may not write it as well as John Updike can write it, or could write it, but the structure is the hard part. And some pieces, it just seems like going through the forest cutting trails, and some pieces there’s a snarl in front of you at all times, I don’t know why.
Guernica: Changing tracks a bit, when did you begin to realize you loved to eat and that could be leveraged into material?
Calvin Trillin: Well, I liked to eat, but I wasn’t thinking of it as leverage, I was thinking of it as sort of comic relief when I was doing these pieces every three weeks. I had done one or two pieces before that on eating, there was some television series about Sophia Loren’s gourmet tour of Rome or something, and I wrote a piece for Playboy. This was when we were fixing up this house, and we were out of the house, and I had a saying I credited to Voltaire above my typewriter that said “Words is Money,” and I was typing like crazy.
I wrote a piece for Playboy that was supposed to be called “A Gourmet Tour of Kansas City” that was making fun of that sort of writing. They changed the title because there was a food writer then named Roy Andries De Groot who was a Belgian count, and they had a piece by him that said, “Have I found the Greatest Restaurant in the World?” It was one of the restaurants in France, and they wanted to call my piece, “No,” because my piece started, “The greatest restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City. Not all of them, only the top four or five.”
In Life magazine, one of its death throes had a section up front of reviews, and I wrote something about Winstead’s hamburger place in Kansas City. But that’s all I had done on food. Then, at some point, and I can’t remember whether it was the crawfish festival in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana or a piece about Cincinnati Chili, I realized I could write about the country in a lighter way by writing about eating and give myself a sort of relief from getting to a place and just going full-out the whole time finding documents and arguing with people’s secretaries.
Also, it was partly because I was in a strange city every three weeks and I was either going to eat what the boosters suggested, which I called “La Maison de la Casa House Continental Cuisine,” or find some place that had the local stuff. I was always interested more in what I guess you’d call vernacular food. When I started doing this, almost all food writing was about fine dining, but I found that when I was with Kansas City people, we didn’t talk about “La Maison de la Casa House,” which Kansas City has the same as everybody else. We’d talk about Bryant’s BBQ and what we missed, and those were the foods people really ate.
But I’ve never known anything about [food]. I’ve never had any scholarly knowledge or culinary knowledge or kitchen knowledge. I can’t cook, I’ve never reviewed a restaurant —I don’t have the credentials or the interest in doing that.
I get these questions like, “What’s your favorite food book?” I’ve never read a food book! Literally we’d get calls from strangers saying, “I’m in Chicago, where’s the best French restaurant?” And I don’t care! I always said about my so-called food writing that it was a lesson in how easy it was to be considered an expert in this country. I’d keep telling people, you know, I don’t really know anything about this, and I’m never exactly writing about the food, it’s a way of writing about other things. I think the previous food issue piece was about poutine in Canada, and to me it was a piece about Canadianness, what’s Canadian and what isn’t. It turns out that more people in Canada have eaten poutine than have been in a canoe or seen a moose.
Guernica: Isn’t that always what vernacular food is about?
Calvin Trillin: Yes. The other thing about vernacular food is that it’s connected to place. To write about a big expensive fine dining place in Houston is the same as writing about it in Indianapolis. But I think vernacular food is, by definition, food that’s tied to the people around there. And that’s the part that interested me, rather than whether somebody is serving an authentic boeuf bourguignon. In the first place, I don’t know, and in the second place, I don’t care.
Guernica: Do you have a favorite place to eat?
Calvin Trillin: When my wife surprised me with a surprise party, she said, “Your birthday gift is we’re going to New Orleans and I’ve made all the arrangements.” Then there were all these people who showed up in New Orleans, although, I mean, as I told Johnny Apple, I did another piece for Gourmet on his birthday party which was in Paris, and he said, “Look at all the people who are coming to Paris!” and I said, “Well, it’s a great tribute, Johnny, unless you want to test their loyalty by having it next year in your hometown of Akron and see how many of them show up there.”
Guernica: He should have tested that theory!
Calvin Trillin: Yeah, that would have been what they call the control group, right? But so anyway, everybody wanted to go to New Orleans, and that was at Mosca’s, and I guess Mosca’s is one of my favorites certainly. I’m very fond of them. And I think I’d want some Kansas City barbecue. And there’s a place in Nice whose name I’ve just forgotten, tiny little restaurant. They had that kind of food that I love, Mediterranean sardines stuffed with Swiss chard and those little ravioli they make in Nice… I’ll think of it, probably tomorrow or the next day.
Guernica: Has it surprised you that some of the best food writers attribute the form to you? I mean, Adam Gopnick dedicated his most recent book, The Table Comes First, to you.
Calvin Trillin: That surprised me. But Adam, I think, would think of himself in the tradition of A.J. Liebling, who used to write about food and also didn’t consider himself an expert in food writing. It’s sort of odd, but I don’t think any serious food writer would claim to model themselves on someone who knows as little as me.
For people who are graduating from MFA programs… the only subject that seemed appropriate was rejection.
Guernica: Would you consider yourself a through-and-through New Yorker?
Calvin Trillin: I’m a resident out-of-towner.
Guernica: So you still hold on to the Kansas City identity?
Calvin Trillin: Very hard.
Calvin Trillin: Well, part of it is I think there’s a strong Midwestern prohibition of, as they say, forgetting where you came from. That’s a big crime in the Midwest, akin to being too big for your britches, another big crime.
When I wrote the book about my father, I wrote, when you hear people talk about their childhoods, you can usually sum it up in a sentence, a theme like, “We come from a noble family, we must never do anything to besmirch its name,” or “Your father deserted us, it was miserable.” I was talking about what I would have liked the theme of my children’s lives, they grew up in Greenwich Village, to be and it was, “Despite all the evidence to the contrary, you’re being raised in Kansas City.”
I think my wife would have, or I know she would have, gone along with that. I think we both valued—she was from Westchester County, but in sort of an odd way, her father was always on the brink of going under, a farm boy from North Carolina—I think we both valued having sort of square childhoods, and I think what we worried about, as far as raising children in New York, was oversophistication. You hear about a kid you know, who’s ten years old and he’s got his own radio station, his own thing…
Guernica: Especially these days.
Calvin Trillin: Well, these days he wouldn’t have a radio station, he’d have a podcast. He’s the Obama representative in his neighborhood. We didn’t want that for our kids. I think we both guarded the squareness of where we came from. I didn’t want anybody stopping my mother in the supermarket and saying, “God, he’s got too big for his britches!” That would be terrible.
Guernica: Did you ever consider leaving New York to go back, either to raise your kids or for other reasons?
Calvin Trillin: We never thought of it, really, and my wife would have said, “That’s your Kansas City act, once you got there you’d hate it.” You know I love living in New York. Partly, you can’t see the horizons. You’d never meet all the interesting people or see all this, or go to all the restaurants. It’s a wonderful place, stimulating for kids, a wonderful place to be raised. But there are times when something happens, particularly in the magazine business, and I think to myself, what would’ve really been wrong with going back to Kansas City and working for the Kansas City Star?
I don’t think my wife would have ever said, “Yeah, let’s move back to Kansas City.” I mean, the fact that she never answered when I’d say, “We could move back to Kansas City and I would buy you a house overlooking the brown waters of Lake Lotawana.” The fact that she never answered, I think, was a pretty good indication.
Guernica: Well, it’s a very romantic offer.
Calvin Trillin: [laughs] I thought it was pretty romantic! But no, I don’t think we ever thought seriously about it. Also, when I was starting out, if you wanted to work for magazines—and I always thought I wanted to work for magazines rather than newspapers—you had to be in New York. All the city magazines didn’t exist, the alternative press didn’t exist. If you went to Kansas City, you wrote for the Kansas City Star or you wrote Hallmark greeting cards.
Guernica: Do you think that’s changed now that there’s been this tremendous growth of MFA and journalism degrees? There’s the sense you can be anywhere to do it?
Calvin Trillin: Well, the proliferation of MFA programs, I hate to say, but I think it’s a financial thing. They’re a real profit center for universities. They don’t cost much money. There are no labs involved. They hire adjuncts so they don’t have to give them benefits. That’s kind of cynical.
I gave the baby commencement to the MFAs at Columbia one year and I was thinking of the appropriate subject for people who are graduating from MFA programs and going into documentary films and short story writing, and the only subject that seemed appropriate was rejection.
I don’t know where all these people go after that. I tend to think that they go into some other business. There are an awful lot of outlets for people who write, but not a lot of them pay the rent. You can blog your heart out, but unless you’re—what do they call those kids in Williamsburg? Trustafarians? And you don’t have to pay the rent or your daddy will pay the rent, then I guess you can do that—but there seem to be fewer magazines, certainly fewer newspapers. So I don’t know where they all go. They live in Brooklyn, I know that!
It’s obvious that God did not intend for people to make a living as writers.
Guernica: Tracy Kidder said you have to be crazy if you don’t admit that writing for a living is a real stroke of luck.
Calvin Trillin: Oh, that’s absolutely true. I mean, it’s obvious that God did not intend for people to make a living as writers. And, you know, if you look back on, “Well, how did you do this?” As I say, my move from Time to The New Yorker was just a matter of alignment, and three or four things happened in a week or so. I could have been in Atlanta when nothing happened for a year and just ended up with my head bored off, and ended up in law school or something.
Tracy Kidder’s very good at it. And some people get mad when you say it’s luck, they think it’s false modesty or something. But yeah, a lot of it’s luck. And you think, “God, if you had just been there one week earlier or one week later,” but eventually, you do have to write. A writer has to put the stuff out there, and everybody gets an opinion. I think it’s luck, and I think a certain amount of it had to do with privilege.
When I was at Yale, I thought, I’m really grateful for [my father’s] aspirations for me. Basically he wanted me to go to Yale because he thought that’s where the industrialists and their sons went, and once I graduated from Yale, I would have one step on the escalator going up.
I remember when we were in our thirties, we were at a birthday party. There were about twenty people and, I don’t know how this came up in the conversation, but the name of one of John F. Kennedy’s girlfriends came up, who was at Radcliffe at the time, it turned out that eight out of ten people at the table knew her! I knew her because she married a guy who was a class behind me at Yale, and I looked around at the twenty people at the party and I would say sixteen or seventeen of them, I’m guessing, went to places like Yale. And then I thought, “Boy, what my father said.”
But writers do have to write, I mean, they have to put this stuff out there for people to see, but how did I get to The New Yorker? I got there from Time, and how did I get to Time? Because the guy who had been chairman of The News before me came in after I was elected and said, “Do you want to work at Time this summer, because that can be easily arranged.” And I thought, “Jesus Christ, my father was right!” Certainly not everybody in the trade is like that, but that helps!
Guernica: You say you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if you weren’t writing. Does that make you nervous about slowing down, or do you feel like you’re not slowing down or won’t ever completely stop?
Calvin Trillin: I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop. I don’t have any hobbies, for one thing. I mean, I can’t build birdhouses or something. Sometimes I read about these guys who are experts on the Civil War and they build their own musical instruments and they speak two languages and they’ve started a fantasy baseball league, and I don’t do any of that stuff. I just write. It’s always been hard to separate it from my life.
I don’t think writers ever exactly retire… I realized at some point that I didn’t have to have a piece in every magazine at the barbershop. I wanted to be here when my girls got home from school and go for a walk, or go to Nova Scotia in the summer, though I write in Nova Scotia.
Guernica: So what’s next?
Calvin Trillin: Well, I don’t know. Well, I do know, now that I think about it. I wrote a little children’s book. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it; I’ve never published a children’s book. And I’m going to do another book-length narrative poem on the presidential race—I did one in 2008, and I’m going to do another. I had Lyme’s disease, so I had some stuff that flowed from that. Just in the last week or so, I feel well enough to go look for stories. So I’m starting to do the same thing that I’ve always done, in a way.