Calvin Trillin is a journalist, humorist and novelist. Best known for his humorous writing about food and eating, he is also the author of several books of fiction, nonfiction essays, comic verse and plenty of more serious journalism.
Trillin was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1935. He received his BA from Yale University, where he was chair of the Yale Daily News, in 1957. In 1963, after a serving in the U.S. Army and then working at Time magazine for a short time, Trillin joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, where his reporting on racial integration at the University of Georgia eventually developed into his first book, An Education in Georgia: Charlayne Hunter, Hamilton Holmes and the Integration of the University of Georgia. Trillin's 1967-1982 column "U.S. Journal" for The New Yorker documented events throughout the nation, both funny and serious; since 1984, he has written a series of longer, narrative pieces under the title "American Chronicles."
Trillin is also a longtime contributor to The Nation magazine - is, in fact, the single most prolific contributor to that magazine to date. From 1978-1980 he penned a column called "Variation"; from 1984-1990 another called "Uncivil Liberties"; and from 1990 to the present a weekly one called "Deadline Poem" consisting of humorous poems about current events.
Calvin Trillin's most recent novel is Deciding the Next Decider: The 2008 Presidential Race in Rhyme (Nov. 2008)
Calvin Trillin: Not really. I definitely wasn’t the sensitive lad hanging off to the side composing things while the other boys frolicked. I don’t . . . I think I could have gone to law school or something. I knew that I wasn’t going to . . . I think most of the people my age who were in roughly journalism or whatever that is sort of backed in. I don’t think many of us . . . You have to remember that in those days, journalists, so called – except for one or two people in Washington like Walter Lippmann or somebody like that – were sort of a scruffy lot. I mean they were thought of as this guy with a kind of greasy suit and a bottle of bourbon in the lower right-hand drawer. And it wasn’t a very respectable profession, or trade, or whatever it is. And I think most of the people my age who ended up in it sort of backed in. I wrote about this not long ago when I wrote a piece about Johnny Apple – R.W. Apple, Jr. of the New York Times. I wrote a profile of him in The New Yorker. We had met in college. We were college . . . He was the editor of the paper at Princeton the year I was the editor at Yale. And he always knew he wanted to work for the New York Times since about the age of 12. I think it’s really rare of people my age. I think most of us couldn’t make up our minds about what to do, and happened to be working at a magazine or a paper when we realized we couldn’t make up our minds. Or we sort of backed into it, or the novel didn’t work out or something; but I don’t think there are many people . . . I didn’t think of it exactly as being a writer. I think I thought of it as being a reporter.
Question: How has journalism changed?
Calvin Trillin: Well for one thing people go into it on purpose. I think Watergate had a lot to do with that, or maybe the movie. Or I suppose it did. I think more educated people are going . . . have gone into journalism. Maybe not in the past couple of decades, but in the past probably three or four decades. I remember once when a friend of mine – who is now on the New York Times who was then working for another paper in Washington – who had gone to boarding school, and gone to Yale, and gone . . . gotten a masters at Berkeley in history or something . . . he was talking about coming back from a hearing and trying to find somebody’s secretary so she could lie to him about whether the guy was in. And then he was gonna have to call somebody else. And he looked around the newsroom at the paper and he saw other guys doing the same sort of thing. And he said, “I started to think, is this a job for a college graduate?” And the answer always was “no” really until recent decades. Not as recent as two, but recent decades. The answer was really no. So I think more people with education, and intelligence, and language ability and that sort of thing have gone into journalism compared to the people who . . . I don’t mean that when I went to The New Yorker it was a bunch of yahoos. I mean they were fairly sophisticated people. But I mean in general, particularly __________ out on the country, it wasn’t true. And I think . . . I think people also had different expectations of it. I mean some . . . Some reporters have gotten rich. Nobody ever thought there would be a rich reporter. And I mean not from journalism you see, but certainly the ones on television have gotten rich from journalism. And a lot of it’s become more bottom-line show business; particularly, of course, television which is . . . I mean when you think about the arguments about . . . or the analysis of who’s the anchor on a . . . on a show . . . And I don’t blame most people. Most of them are good people who have worked hard to get there. But when you think about, say, their salaries and what the set costs, or what the improvements to the set costs, and what the remodeling improvements . . . and you’re talking about an organization that has closed bureaus all over the world, so it’s getting . . . And the same is true of newspapers although they don’t have the anchor people. But the . . . So in some ways it’s journalism has more educated people in it, and it’s also shrinking. And one of the ways it’s changed is that if you go to Philadelphia, or you go to Baltimore, and you look at how many reporters are covering the city government, there . . . I don’t know. I recently read, I think it was in Philadelphia, it’s something like a quarter of what they used to be. So it’s . . . In some ways it’s not doing its job.