Big Think Interview With Calvin Trillin

A conversation with the author and journalist.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Question: How has journalism changed since you started?

Calvin Trillin: Well, when I started it was not totally print. I mean I guess you’d tell there was television as well, but around the time I started was a transition time for the big the magazines – Look, Life, Saturday Evening Post, Colliers; all of which eventually went out of business presumably because television could bring those sort of images to people faster and better more immediately than they could, although I sort of miss Life. I liked the idea that at the end of the week whatever sort of grainy picture you saw in the newspaper or maybe one you hadn’t seen in the newspaper would be a full page in Life, and you could actually see what happened. The one I saw closest up was Life because I was working for Time then in the Atlanta bureau mainly, and they sort of flailed around trying to find various ways to avoid what was really I think a foregone conclusion. One of the things that I found I did a book of some years ago on a college classmate of mine who was a sort of golden boy who we all expected to be president, and Life had covered his graduation, and Alfred Eisenstaedt had photographed his graduation. And when I went back to look at that issue of Life, I was surprised because I hadn’t remembered how many just consumer ads there were, almost supermarket ads, for Ketchup and Jello and things like that, so that whole business has changed, and it’s changing again obviously.

It doesn’t seem that long ago when papers were thought of as sort of cash cows. I can’t remember the wonderful euphemism they had for the legislation that made it possible essentially to have a monopoly in a city. It was something like failing newspaper act or something like that. It gave people just sort of a license to print money, and even when they started to get in trouble, they got in trouble even though they were making profits, but Wall Street said they weren’t enough, and then unfortunately, many of them decided that the way to save themselves was to cut down on the service that they had. So they cut people who were doing news stories, cut particularly people who were doing stories that took some time, and I think that’s the part that’s not gonna be replaced, I mean I think that’s the really dangerous part. Even though there’s a sort of inside blogosphere kind of culture that leaks stories and has whistleblowers and everything; the reporter spending weeks or months on a story finding out something I think is soon going to be a thing of the past. And I mean the statistics you read some paper I don’t know I think it was the Philadelphia Inquirer used to have this many people covering City Hall; now they have that many, a tiny fraction of that, so their stories are gonna escape those few people that can’t possibly do them, and they can’t spare those people to work weeks or months on a story. So I think that part’s gonna change, and I don’t think it’s a good change.

Question: How can journalism be profitable down the road?

Calvin Trillin: The last person to ask about that is a reporter. Anybody on the editorial side of journalism is usually the last to know about anything. I suspect that the people when Gourmet folded who were the last people to know were the people working there. The day it folded I had a beautifully engraved thick invitation to a party celebrating the editor’s 10th year as the editor. It’s always done sort of surprisingly. I don’t know. I guess somebody’s gonna figure out how to make out of the Internet and maybe niche magazines. I think the people are in trouble are often say for instance the news magazines which I mean it’s hard to remember the Time was founded; it was an invention really Time like the Reader’s Digest; it was an invention, and the idea was to compartmentalize the news so that these busy executives could read it fast. In the beginning, they didn’t even have reporters. I mean they just took from what they got from newspapers and the AP wire and all that; put in a easy to read fast format and invented actually some coverage that otherwise wasn’t really being done right – religion, medicine; things like that, the press. And maybe 20 years ago Time briefly had a motto or a advertising slogan make time for Time. In other words the opposite of the original intention of the magazine because Time was then considered then a long read. It’s like sort of it became like make room for Proost or something like that, and you know you can actually somebody, somewhere, probably at some journalism school keeps track of the sound bites of speeches run on television, and they’ve shrunk over the years. So these magazines that were really invented to save people time now are considered sort of a burden to read, so then they have to reinvent themselves some way or go under.

Question: How do you feel about editorial and sales being integrated?

Calvin Trillin: I don’t feel good about it. At Time it used to be called church and state that you didn’t cross the line between church and state; although in fact you might argue that they did sometimes cross the line. At The New Yorker one of the Fleishman’s, Peter Fleishman, I think was then the owner of The New Yorker or the family that owned The New Yorker always said that when he saw the editor in the elevator or in the hall or ran into him somewhere he never complimented him on a piece because that would imply that there were pieces he didn’t like or he did like, and he thought that was none of his business that if he didn’t like what the editor was doing he could hire another editor. And in those days for instance The New Yorker never had a party. There was an annual anniversary party that we were told was the business department’s party and we were invited to it, but it wasn’t our party. We didn’t even a Christmas party ‘til the office boys finally started throwing a party themselves which we were invited to, and maybe the management finally gave in and sent the office boys some scotch or something for their party, but basically, we didn’t have parties.

Well, now you have I don’t mean at The New Yorker but in general you have these people sponsoring things, having events that are really promotional. I mean there’s been in the last 15 or 20 years a lot of blurring. I mean there was a piece in Columbia Journalism Review about 20, 15 years ago probably showing how the covers of Vanity Fair matched the advertising of the fashion industry, and this obviously is not a good change I mean from the point of view of people like me.

Question: How has the role of alcohol in journalism changed over your career?

Calvin Trillin: Well, part of that is simply the way that the role of alcohol has changed in our society. You know if you look at Mad Men, the series about advertising in the early ‘60s, that is indeed how people used to drink, and they weren’t just reporters who drank that way. Everybody drank that way. We were talking about it the other day. I knew somebody from the army; he was my commanding colonel in the army who’d become a PR guy, and he had some story. He just needed to hand me a press release really. We went to lunch and had I don’t know three or four martinis in order to do this, in order to make this handoff. That was quite common, but that was true in the advertising business. It was true certainly in New York, and Jimmy Carter famously railed against the two martini lunch or three martini lunch; I can’t remember ‘cause it’s all on the expense accounts but that was very common. And I think on the other hand I would agree with Gay that there was a connection between reporters and alcohol. It’s hard to remember, but being a reporter is only lately a respectable occupation, and it certainly and when I was a boy I think a newspaper reporter maybe there were a few exceptions like the White House or the Washington columnist for The New York Times or something, but basically it was thought of as a bunch of people in sort of greasy suits with a folded up paper with these thick pencils and a bottle in the lower left hand drawer. And I remember a friend of mine saying once in Washington; this was early on in my career as a reporter. He had just spent a lot of time calling somebody’s secretary trying to find out what happened at some meeting that didn’t make a lot of difference, and he knew the secretary was lying to him, and he knew when he finally got the guy on the phone he would lie to him and he would know that he was lying to him, and he would know that he would know that he was lying to him. And he said this is a guy who had a masters degree from Berkley and a Bachelor’s degree from Yale and all that, and he said is this a job for a college graduate, and the answer really was not exactly. This is only lately in the last say 30 years or so that I think that it’s been thought of as respectable occupation.

And there was a lot of drinking. I think there’s less now simply because people drink less, or they drink different things that don’t seem to be as potent as the three martinis or the bottle in the drawer, but I think that’s partly a societal change. I don’t think it’s just journalism. However, I do agree that the people who go into journalism now – I think there was a piece by Maureen Dowd, since she wrote it with someone else I can’t remember who, several years ago called The Nerds on the Bus or something like that. It was a reference to a famous book among journalists called The Boys on The Bus by Tim Krauss which follow the people followed the presidential campaign, and this piece was basically about these are different guys now. These guys have been to Harvard, and they have little machines to do things that the old guys on the bus never thought of, and they have families at home and they tend to stay married to them for a while. So they’re a different group of people than used to be on the bus or covering things, and I think probably tend to drink less partly because of their era and partly because of who they are.

Question: What are your most memorable moments as a journalist?

Calvin Trillin: Some of the most dramatic were very early on when I spent a year in the south, and I was on the bus, the Freedom Ride bus, the first bus that went into Jackson, and I happen to be in the south in a very busy time. The segregation or integration story worked on plateaus because there was no real pressure from Washington, so not had much had happened in the six months before I got there, but a lot happened in the year I was there. And there were two people for Time in the southern bureau. I replaced a guy who I think had left six or eight months before. There just hadn’t been anybody, and the bureau chief was married and had a few children and to my astonishment actually preferred to stay home rather than get chased by people with clubs in terrible places. I was delighted that he would let me do that, but I couldn’t imagine why anybody would do that. I later learned that it was a more sensible way to lead your life, so I guess when I think of sort of dramatic moments I think of the south.

Question: Were you surprised by Gourmet magazine closing?

Calvin Trillin: I was totally surprised by its closing, and although I’ve written for Gourmet I wasn’t ever a reader of Gourmet or of any other food magazine. I’m really not that interested in the subject or actually not interested at all in the subject of food and cooking, and I don’t cook so the recipes were not of any use to me, but as people have been saying since the announcement was made, it really was sort of an icon Gourmet, and I ran into a chef I know in my neighborhood yesterday. And he just said he was heartbroken by it. It was what they looked up to. I only know what I read in the papers that the theory was that Bon Appetit owned by Conde Nast as well was a sort of middle brow version, and that the decision was essentially Gourmet is for the elite and this is for the middle class, and we’ll go with these sort of people who like certain kind of meat and potatoes recipes and need to cook at home and want to know about various things and save money and things, and so you know again it’s one of those financial decisions for people who are actually doing the writing are always totally puzzling.

Question: What is your writing process?

Calvin Trillin: Well, it’s changed since the advent of the computer. I used to do some very specific drafts starting out with sort of a pre-draft that was unfortunately referred to around the house as the vomit out. When I got home from the reporting, I would write a version of a piece without even looking at my notes. I think when I try to figure out what the purpose of the vomit out was I think it was to see what kind of inventory what was in my mind and also see what wouldn’t work; I mean which direction the piece had to go in or couldn’t go in, and it started out as more or less English but sort of disintegrated as I went, so I was always afraid when I wrote more at The New Yorker instead of at home I was always afraid that some cleaning woman would find one of the vomit outs and entertain the other cleaning women by reading it. She’d said oh he calls himself a writer, and then they would slap their brooms against the desk like hockey players. I actually often didn’t even look at it after I did it. For 15 years I did a piece around the country every three weeks for The New Yorker, and there was a day for each one of these drafts, and half of the rough draft the next day and half and then something called yellow draft that was a different kind of paper and then typing up. When I first started with computer, I started more or less the same way. I used it as a fast typewriter. I would just print out a draft and then start actually typing it over again. Over the years I finally got weaned from that, and now I guess what the people who know about computers would say is that I compose on the computer more than I did before, so I don’t have any particular ritual or anything like that. I’m very sorry I don’t have a complicated ritual. I always said no writer ever lost money taking himself too seriously, so I wish I could tell you that I stood on my head or something but I don’t. I just write whatever I have to write.

Question: Do computers make writers less disciplined than typewriters?

Calvin Trillin: Now you can erase with a typewriter; I used to just take [the draft] out of the typewriter and rip the page and staple it on and then staple the next place. I’m not so sure. I used to think that writing on a computer encouraged editing because you could sort of move whole sections instead of retyping them, but I think by now everybody’s so accustomed to computers. And my thought process was pretty much tied to the typewriter ‘cause I grew up in Kansas City and you now occasionally read about cities running out of money and closing the schools. But Kansas City was way in the lead on this. It ran out of money when I was about in eighth grade and closed the school, and my father thought that kids shouldn’t be on the street in April or whatever it was, so he sent my sister and me to Sarshawn Hoolie Secretarial School. My sister was liberated then which I’ve never understood that ‘cause usually in that era girls it was thought that, that was one of the skills that would allow them to get work, but I was made to type every day. So consequently my thoughts have always been sort of connected to typing, and there was a time when if I had to write something like a thank you note in long hand I’d have to type it out first and then copy it, but I mean that isn’t true of a lot of people. And now everybody types; even business people type. I think it was Fran Lebowitz said about men isn’t it amazing how fast they learn to type. They used to say before computers that you know their big fingers wouldn’t work and all that; then they suddenly learned to type.

Question: What keeps you up at night?

Calvin Trillin: Oh, small matters like whether the boiler guy is gonna come and when [I’m] supposed to get things. I usually go to sleep and wake up and I’m thinking of these things. I’m not sure they wake me up. I once gave a talk not long after 9/11 to some library people in Brooklyn; I mean friends of the library in Brooklyn or something like that, and someone said are you concerned about flying after 9/11; you fly a lot, and I said yeah what concerns me is that you have to show your I.D. so much. I’m afraid I’ll lose my driver’s license, and you might say I’m more afraid of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles than I am of Arab terrorists, and a week or two later I got a letter from somebody in the audience who said she knew of a very good psychiatrist who specialized in people who were worried about small matters such as that, and I said well that actually was a joke, but sometimes I think I could use that guy.

Recorded on:  October 8, 2009