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)
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.
Recorded on: October 8, 2009